Off my Bucket List
Left home at 6:50a.m. Had to cover 500 miles today from Appleton to Tuscarora Outfitters at Round Lake on the Gunflint Trail. No matter how you cut it, that’s a long time to be driving all by yourself!
Stopped at the Hwy. Rest Stop on Hwy. 53 just south of Chetek, WI. This is where we often stop to connect up with others when we do our group canoe trips. What was different was that the whole place was deserted! I was the only one there, and it felt strange and weird. Gave quick phone calls to my wife, as well as one of my canoeing buddies: “Franz”. It felt good to connect up and have good conversations.
As I traveled closer to Chetek, I passed by Bear Paw Outfitters (one of these times I’m going to stop and check them out), …and Jack Link’s sausage’s famous Sasquatch Petting Zoo (ha!).
Stopped for lunch at our usual lunch spot, the McDonald’s in Superior, WI. Tried calling my canoeing buds: “Ole” and “Lars”, but no answer. “Ole” called me back later, wished me well and shared the good news that he was going to be a grandpa come April. Felt good to talk.
When I reached Grand Marais, I needed a break from driving, so I stopped and spent some time at the Lake Superior Trading Post. I always enjoy looking around in there. More looking than buying though.
Stopped for dinner at the Trail Center. Who did I meet up with but BWCA.COMers Spartan I and Spartan II and their granddaughter. Really nice people (as I anticipated they would be). When I shared what route I would be taking, Spartan 1 told me how much I would enjoy the portage from Adams to Beaver Lake.
I rolled into Tuscarora Outfitters around 6:00p.m. When I gathered all my things together to put them into my packs, I woefully discovered that I had left at home the disposable camera and, of all things, my toothbrush! I was alright with not having a camera along to take pictures (I often find it to be more of a hassle and obligation, ..and anyhow my memory does a better job recapturing scenes and experiences than photos do), ..BUT, I was definitely NOT going to go 14 days without brushing my teeth!, even if I was going to be all by myself. I had just decided that I’d get up extra early the next day and make the two hour round trip drive to Grand Marais to pick up what I needed, ..when Dave from Tuscarora stopped by with a toothbrush they sold through their store. I was now good to go, …or more correctly, to ”stay”. I crashed that night in one of their bunkhouses.
Wednesday, Aug. 29th:
I knew it was going to get hot today, so I made sure to get an early departure at 7:30a.m. Right off the bat, the portage out of Round Lake was a tricky one, being flooded over in several spots. I felt good about figuring out how I could paddle around some of these sections and not have to slog through the water and mud with heavy loads on my back.
Next came the real challenge. My pack must have weighed 80 lbs (remember, food for 14 days), and on the portage from Brant into Gotter Lake, even though I was being very careful, I somehow managed to roll and sprain my ankle! It swelled up and I tried soaking it in the water at both ends of the portage, but the water was not very cold so it really didn’t do much good . The location of the sprain was on the back side of the ankle bone which allowed me to be able to compensate for it and keep on portaging the heavy weight - - which, of course, I had no real option but to do. I willed it to happen. As long as I was very careful and made sure to keep that foot pointing straight ahead it was alright.
The next portage into Green Lake was even more challenging than it would have been if I hadn’t sprained my ankle. Along the way there were times when I had to resort to going hand over feet (sort of a modified crawl) in the extreme uphill sections. I triple portaged the final section of the trail. It’s been a long time since I can remember being this pushed and fatigued on a portage.
By 2:30 in the afternoon I was very pleased and ready to take the first campsite (#497) on the south shore of Bat Lake. Lucky for me it was very nice. I gave it a 4 star rating. I realized that I only saw 4 paddlers the whole day.
Thursday, Aug. 30th:
When I awoke this morning my left foot was black& blue, slightly swollen, stiff and hurting. On top of all this, it looked like a storm was brewing. I put up my tarp and resigned myself to having to do a layover day, ..but then the sky became clear and sunny. My ankle was actually beginning to loosen up and feel better the more I walked around on it. Taking a bunch of “vitamin I” helped also. I decided to push on and see how the ankle would hold up. I deliberately took my time in breaking down camp, not heading out until 10:30a.m. I was pleased that by the end of the day I had successfully made it all the way to West Fern Lake.
I was really getting the feel of using the kayak paddle. I notice that it moved me along quite a bit faster than with a traditional single bladed paddle, especially when I was heading into any kind of wind.
It was hot today! By noon I was tired and needed to get out of the sun and stop for some lunch. I was paddling down French Lake when all of a sudden, seemingly out of nowhere, this wonderfully idyllic piece of natural real estate appeared before me. It was a 16’ x 12’ flat rock shelf just above the water line with a cedar tree on one edge that was positioned perfectly to block the noon day sun. I sat there eating my lunch as the breeze blew and cooled me off. It was as if a little piece of heaven was dropped down just for me. It was hard to want to leave, -- but, of course, I did.
Though fire-scared, the lakes leading out of the north end of Gillis Lake (French, Powell, West Fern, and Virgin Lakes) had their own unique beauty and solitude. They had quite a wilderness feel to them, and it was obvious that not many people pass through this way.
I ended up staying at the campsite on the west end of West Fern Lake. It wasn’t much of a site (burned over, nowhere to hang a food pack, lots of bees buzzing around, only one tight space for my small tent, and a distant latrine that had an active hornets’ nest attached to the lower part of the lid!) but it was a welcomed “port in the storm” with threatening thunder sounding off in the north west.
I was proud of myself for having pushed through my initial hesitation and making it this far. I was rewarded with a beautiful and inspiring sun set. It got me to do some meaningful reflection on my life. Later I was gifted again, but this time it was a near full moon that was so bright that you could actually read by the light it gave off. Tomorrow night there is suppose to be a full “Blue Moon” so it should be even brighter then. I’m looking forward to experiencing that.
This campsite must certainly not get much use because there was a beaver who kept slapping its tail loudly at the disturbing sight of my tent. 22 times throughout the night, in fact! - - and then twice more to wake me up before dawn the next morning!!
Friday, Aug. 31st:
My injured ankle is getting some better. Not quite the active concern it was at first.
On the portage between Virgin and Little Sag I deliberately broke down the nasty 90 rods into manageable thirds – a 50 rods/25 rods/15 rods. Nice view of Little Sag from the high ground.
I stayed at a spacious and truly wonderful island campsite (#814) on the south side of Little Sag Lake. It was high up with a beautiful view of the water. I rated it 5 stars.
I was blessed that evening with the amazing spectacle of witnessing the brilliance of a “Blue Moon”, both in the sky and reflected off the water. It was quite a sight to see. So many lumens that it caused shadows to be cast! Very moving and memorable. In addition, the loons were in their glory, calling late into the night, echoing from bay to bay. It was almost surreal. This site is so wonderful that I’m thinking of maybe doing a layover day here tomorrow. We’ll see.
Saturday, Sept. 1st:
There was a broad, open view to the east, and I was able to take in a truly beautiful sunrise. The large expanse of water was smooth as glass which created a very calm and peaceful setting. I lingered at the water’s edge with my cup of coffee, and quietly watched an otter feed and cavort just 30 yards away from me. I found it fascinating to watch. A while later a sole Canada Goose came gliding in and landed on the water a short distance away. 5 minutes later a large eagle swooped in and chased it all the way across the lake. Here I had thought all this time that geese were “vegans” and no threat to the food supply of eagles. Guess I was wrong, eh?. Ha!
I realized that I would need my full strength to tackle the difficult journey to Boulder Lake tomorrow, so I decided that it would be a good idea to take today as a layover. It was sunny and breezy, so I decided to do my laundry. I also got to use my new Sea to Summit mini shower which worked really slick. It felt really good to shampoo my hair and get cleaned up. After my shower I went shirtless for the rest of the day! Insects were nonexistent. Sweet!
Sunday, Sept. 2nd:
Broke camp and was on the water by 8:30a.m. Due in part to some faulty information that someone had put on line regarding the location of the 19 rod portage out of Little Sag., I missed it and wasted some good time before I was able to find it. For the record, the portage is not semi-hidden by tall grass and a beaver dam. Rather the portage is just around the next little bend of the shore and its as open and obvious as can be.
I paddled and portaged for five hours today over some challenging terrain. Looking back now, I’m really glad that I had the good sense to stop and set up camp when I did. Nice little campsite on Fee Lake. I could tell that this site hasn’t been used much because there was an abundance of fire wood lying all over the place, …AND there was a “Wild Rose” plant growing up out of the latrine!! Had a wonderful campfire late into the evening. Very relaxing and enjoyable.
Monday, Sept. 3rd:
Another hot day in the 80’s. It was a day full of long, hard portaging. Several of the portages took all my acquired skill to figure out and negotiate while making sure I stayed hydrated. It felt good that my years of experience paid off in my making the right decisions.
It was a long, hard day. After meeting the challenge of the long, tricky portage from Ledge Lake, ..Boulder Lake was a wonderful sight to see! I knew this was a more remote area that saw little use, so I was somewhat shocked and disappointed that a party was already occupying the 5 star island campsite. No problem though. I back tracked a little, and took the 4 star campsite (#979) along the north shore. Very nice site complete with old growth white pines, many excellent places to hang the food bag, and pine duff carpeting everything. I set up my hammock right away, went for a swim, and then came back and took a deserved rest. As I lay there, two Spruce Grouse showed up and strutted like a roosters all around the campsite. Guess they must have been telling me, “Hey fella, we was here first!”.
Tuesday, Sept. 4th:
Woke up to a perfectly still lake with wispy “galloping horses” rolling along the surface, and the sound of a palliated woodpecker echoing in the background. With the scenic islands and all, I think Boulder may have become one of my new favorite lakes in the B’dub.
The portage from Boulder to Adams was tricky to negotiate. Again, don’t listen to the portage advice given by an online author. It is NOT one long portage now, but (at least at the current higher water level) you do go from pond to pond with stretches of portage path and beaver dams in between.
Once I made it to Adams Lake I stopped to check out the 5 star island campsite and have a mid-morning snack. I was entertained again, this time by 3 large otter eating and swimming 20 yards away from me.
It had been many years since I took the portage from Adams to Beaver. It was all (stone steps, along scenic cliffs) that I and Spartan 1 remembered it to be. Very scenic.
I stopped for lunch at one of my all time favorite campsites, #1967 on the south end of Beaver (Elbow) Lake. Did some meaningful reflecting and reminiscing of the times I had spend their years ago with good friends.
Due in part to my later start this morning, it was 2:30 in the afternoon before I reached River Lake. Guess I was back to civilization again because there were more people here than I had seen the whole trip. The two preferred campsites that I had circled on my map were already taken, so I went on a little farther east and found a suitable place to spend the evening. Site #1038. The nice thing about soloing is that you have lots of options and just about any campsite can be made to work for you.
It was a long, hot, and hard day, so I set up the hammock right away and imbibed some Everclear and lemonade for the first time on the trip. Very mellow and relaxing. Felt like I earned it today.
Close to dinner time it thundered and rained really hard for about an hour. It even hailed for a short while. After this the sun came out and created a beautiful rainbow.
At 1:47a.m. I was awaken by something coming out of the water and onto the campsite. The next thing I heard was the sound of something breathing over me outside the tent. It sounded like something large, so I’m guessing it was either a deer, a moose or a bear. Whatever it was it stealthfully moved on.
Wednesday, Sept. 5th:
I woke up to clouds and the threat of rain. Then it cleared up nicely by noon. Then it went back and forth the rest of the day. Now sunny& bright, ..now cloudy with light intermittent rain. Cooler too. The good news was that the wind was at my back all day, helping to push me along. I had made good time & distance so I stopped early at the primo campsite on Pan Lake (#1047). Did laundry and took a shower. Felt great. That night I built a fire and read by it until 9:30. Slept soundly the whole night.
Thursday, Sept. 6th:
Quite cool last night. It was the first night that I actually got in and zipped up my sleeping bag. Woke up to a thick fog. Made a morning fire to warm myself as I had my coffee.
Got an early departure at 8:15a.m. Planned to push it today to see how far I can get.
On Makwa (Ojibwe for “bear”) Lake I saw a bunch of eagles and turkey vultures flitting about near the shore, so I thought I’d paddle over to see what was going on. There lay the decomposing carcass of a black bear that the birds were picking over.
I was proud that I made it all the way across Little Sag, and across the scenic portage to Mora Lake in 5 ½ hours. It was cooler in the 70’s which made it a lot more comfortable traveling. I stayed at campsite #527 in the midst of a cool grove of cider trees. Got smart this time and set up the hammock under the tarp so I wouldn’t have to worry about the intermittent showers.
Something significant started happening to me today. Various music and songs began to spontaneously arise within me. This is always a good sign for me that I am peaceful, spiritually centered and in a good place. The grief I had been working through must have run its course. I’m feeling especially good and happy today. Thank you God!
Friday, Sept. 7th:
Mist slowly moving over the water this morning. In the background I hear honking geese as they fly over head. The sight and sound of this resonated in a deep place within me, and I knew that even though I had five days left in my initial “2 week” solo, I was now ready and wanting to head back home. The trip had worked its magic within me, and I felt drawn back home again to my loving wife, and adoring Australian Shepherd. I miss them a lot. I’ll push a little extra today. Maybe I can make it all the way back to Round Lake before it gets too late.
As I crossed Tarry Lake, I had my third otter sighting! I’ve never seen so many otters on one trip. Perhaps they’re more active and visible during this transition to autumn.
On the portage from Crooked to Owl Lakes I traversed an interesting stretch of trail that was perfectly flat and smooth. It looked like someone had come in and poured a 30 x 2 foot sidewalk! I also got to see up close a pine martin that was coming around the bend of the portage trail heading my way.
I found the Tuscarora to Missing Link Lake portage to be very grueling. Double portaging it took me a whole 2 hours and 12 minutes to complete it. I was spent, ..but I knew I only had a relatively short way to go to get back to my car parked at Tuscarora Lodge.
On, the very last campsite on the very last Lake (Missing Link) before I left the BWCA, I came across another BWCA.COMer : “Fish on/fish off” from Ohio. He was there with three buddies on a fishing adventure. They had to leave in the morning and make the long drive back to Ohio again. A very friendly and personable guy! Glad I had the chance to meet him. It was kind of like a bookend experience with Spartan 1&2 on my first day, …and then Fish on/Fish off on my final day. Remarkable!
Although I had brought my fishing rod, reel and lures, I actually chose not to do any fishing on the trip. I had brought plenty of food to eat, and I wanted to use that up instead of having to carry the weight along the way. For some reason I was very content with not doing any fishing this time around. However, since I didn’t have any fish meals for 9 days, I stopped at the Trail Center and had their all-you-can-eat fish dinner special. It was truly delicious. What a great way to end the trip!
Observations and learnings: + This time of the season is an awesome time to trip. Bugs are way down, the water temperature is still good for swimming, and there’s a lot more solitude. Many days I saw no one at all!
+ I could have taken less food and fewer items of clothing, helping to lower the weight of my pack.
+ By utilizing a customized drop-in seat and double bladed kayak paddle, wind was not the problem I had feared it might be. I got comfortable with the kayak paddle and used it 95% of the time. I found it to be much faster paddling. For me, it’s the way to go.
+ Solo tripping is extra hard on equipment, especially the canoe and large Pack.
+ For me personally, 9 days is the maximum time for me to spend alone. Also, any additional days add too much food weight to your pack.
+ Next time I would choose a less challenging and strenuous route (I lost 7 lbs. over 9 days). Perhaps I would then be more inclined to want to fish and take more layover days.
+ Deliberately leave my camera at home.
+ I very much liked soloing, and plan to do it again soon.