We put in to Brule around 10:30 am on Sept 10 and headed east toward the portage to Vernon Lake. We thought we would be able to see the Brule River waterfall going into Vernon Lake by just walking the portage…nope… we could hear water falling, but could not find a proper falls without more bushwhacking. This is the first time into the BWCA for all of us, so we erred on the side of caution and returned to the canoes on Brule. We had been warned that Brule can get windy in the afternoon, but we did not expect it so soon.
Our paddling skills were put to the test as we worked into the wind on our way to the portage to South Cone Lake. Along the way we worked out a system to paddle into the lee side of an island, pull up, catch our breath, then paddle to the next island and pull up to rest with the island sheltering us from the wind. We reached the portage to the Cone lakes and had no problem moving on to South Cone Lake. Our original plan was to get to all the way up to Winchell Lake on Day one, but the distance and the wind combined to have us seeking the campsite on South Cone for our first night. This site is on the south side of the island, but some maps show it on the north side. This site provided a good landing for the canoes and plenty of tent pads. Setting up camp proved to be a learning experience for us as we had to do the typical day one “I’ll set my tent here, you OK with that?” negotiations. We finally got settled and set to making our group dinner. When we are backpacking, everyone usually brings their own breakfast and lunch food, with a group meal at the end of the day. We did the same for this trip. I packed each group meal in a separate zip top bag and identified it with “Monday dinner” in permanent black marker. Tonight’s meal was Mrs. Grass’ Beef and Noodles dry soup mix with a generous helping of dried shredded beef thrown in to make it more like beef stew. This did not last long after our experience with the winds of Brule Lake. Dishes were done as the sun set.
As the daylight faded, we scrambled to find suitable trees to hang our food and other smelly stuff. We chose trees close to the tent pads and got all 4 packs hanging above the camp area. The previous night was short on sleep as we only pulled aside and slept in the van (love that Honda Odyssey for these trips). This night found all of us asleep almost as soon as our heads hit our sleeping bags. The cool night provided us with good sleeping weather. Sometime in the early morning, one of us awoke to see a mouse running across the rope we had used to hang our packs! A quick glance showed the mice already knew most campers used the same trees! This one had been able to get into the first pack it came to and managed to get into the oatmeal and other snacks stored inside. (Take note: make sure your pack is not the first one a mouse will find).
We sorted through our packs, fixed breakfast and broke camp to head north toward Winchell. Middle and North Cone lakes were quiet and secluded, but something about Cliff Lake held our attention. The loons escorted us eastward but were forgotten when we saw a bald eagle take flight from the cliff on the north bank of the lake. We all wished for a campsite on this lake – one of our favorites. We portaged into Trap Lake, then on to Winchell. We had planned to paddle east to see the waterfall on the south side of Winchell, but we thought we should keep moving and not take sightseeing trips at this point. We moved on into Ogema Lake and then on to Kiskadinna.
As we reloaded the canoes in Kiskadinna, a light rain started to fall. We held a quick conference and decided to press on rather than take the time to put on our rain gear. Good decision, as the rain moved on. We took the second campsite on Kiskadinna, once we set up camp we felt like we were the only people for a hundred miles in each direction. We were a little disappointed in the availability of trees for hanging our food pack at this campsite. Looking back, we should have gone back away from the water as it seemed there were larger trees back by the latrine. We had no problems with any animals at this location. This site has a rocky landing, there appeared to be two more landings, one to the east and one to the west in a little cove, but we used the one closest to the fire grate. Dinner consisted of white chicken chili, made with a dry season packet and navy beans I had cooked and dried at home. I added a generous portion of grilled chicken breast (also cooked and dried at home). I also cooked cornbread bannock style from a pre-packaged envelope of cornbread mix.
The next day dawned cloudy and gray, but we pressed on to Muskeg Lake, seeing moose tracks in the mud of the portage. This 185 rod portage was particularly long and hard. I joking told one of the others that I halfway expected to find a canoe beside the trail with the skeleton of some hapless voyageur underneath it. It was here we finally figured out how to shorten our portage steps. (One person takes the canoe all the way to the next lake, the other person takes one pack about half of the distance and leaves it beside the trail, returning to the beginning of the portage to get the other pack and taking it the entire distance. The canoe carrier sets the canoe down by the next lake and returns for the pack left at the halfway point. This technique has each person walking the portage distance twice with only a half trip empty-handed). We stopped in the middle of Muskeg Lake to get water (two of us were using Steripens, and two were using filters – both worked well). As we continued on, we met two solo canoes. These guys told us they had just seen a moose with only one antler. Of Course - we were too late. We continued over the beaver dam on the west end of the lake and into the swampy channels of the western end of Muskeg Lake. Here we found floating Muskeg islands and a difficult rocky portage along a rocky creek. At the other end of this portage was Long Island Lake – a brisk wind cut through the landscape which is recovering from the forest fire so long ago. This wind moved the small trees near the portage, the roots of these trees made the ground move under our feet.
Long Island Lake was a disappointment compared to what we had already seen – the banks of the lake were doing their best to reforest themselves. We continued on across the length of the lake, taking time to stop beside an island (out of the wind) to eat our traveler’s cold lunches of protein bars, string cheese, jerky, slim jims and dried fruit. We paddled the length of breezy Long Island Lake and entered into the sheltered stream of the Long Island River. A low beaver dam near the lake delayed us, but we were soon paddling south, out of the wind. Continuing on, we passed through Gordon Lake, checking out the campsite on the North end. It seemed to be unsheltered from the wind, so we continued on to Cherokee. Once on Cherokee Lake we started looking for a campsite – after seeing 5 full campsites we finally found one on the west bank, about half of the length of the lake from the north. (On some maps, this site appears to be in the bay to the west, but it is on the main lake, almost due west of one of the island sites). We set up camp and almost immediately started fixing dinner of mashed potatoes and dried chicken and noodles. This was quite a day – we had paddled farther than we had planned, all the way from Kiskadinna, across Long Island Lake and almost half the length of Cherokee Lake.
The next day was set aside for some rest and relaxation. We noticed we had company in the form of a resident chipmunk but no mouse problems here. We all slept in, I hit the water for some fishing and the others decided they would try to find a way through the woods to the bay to our west and perhaps on to Ranger Lake. Neither of these endeavors proved to be very fruitful. The woods in this area was simply too thick for pleasant bushwhacking and my fishing efforts only yielded one skinny pike. We did take time to set up a shower area back in the woods, put our solar showers out in the sun and actually felt pretty civilized after getting cleaned up. We broke camp the next morning with our minds set on heading home to our families. We paddled south on Cherokee into the river (another of my favorite paddling areas) and portaged down to Skoop Lake, taking the high water path to Ada and the western route through the marsh to the unnamed lake north of Sawbill Lake. At the north end of Sawbill Lake, we came across two guys who were making their annual trip up to Frost Lake. They had reached the portage and pulled aside to “drink these two beers ‘someone’ left here.” They also told us they had seen a bear swimming across the north end of Sawbill Lake, not too far from the portage. First we missed the moose, now we missed seeing a bear – what next? We paddled the length of Sawbill Lake without incident; unloading at the outfitters and making that last canoe carry up the grade around 3 PM. A quick clean up and a change of clothes and we were on our way to Ohio. This trip fulfilled a dream I had been having since I was a sophomore in High School in 1978. I read about the Boundary Waters in an Outdoor Life magazine and decided I wanted to go there someday. This was a trip of a lifetime – a great experience where we all learned so much and now I know I need to return – I was making plans to return on the trip home.