Three Tries and Ten Days to Frost-EP 50 to 51
This year we decided to try to reach Frost once more, this time from the Gunflint Trail. We planned an7-8 day trip starting at Ham Lake, going through Frost and ending at Round Lake just a few tenths of a mile from our entry point. We arrived in Grand Marais after an eighteen hour drive from Ohio on June 24. First stop was lunch at the Fish Market on the south end of town for some delicious walleye for me and lake trout for the husband along with cheese curds to share. We spend the afternoon looking around the area before checking into the Best Western for the night. It was a nice place, but all in all, we prefer the Cliff Dwellers in Tofte. Dinner was Sven and Ollie’s Pizza. Awesome pizza and loved the Nut Brown ale.
June 25 we arrived at Tuscarora Outfitters where we would spend the night before heading out. Our bunkhouse was outfitted with three single person beds and one two-level bunk—a bed for each of us and plenty of room to organize and make last minute adjustments to the gear. We spent the day exploring the Gunflint area—a nice hike to Magnetic Rock and some great sandwiches at Trail’s End were the highlights.
Launch day began with homemade French toast served in the Tuscarora dining room. I was up first and headed over hoping for some hot coffee. I wasn’t disappointed. After I’d enjoyed a cup, my sleepy head husband appeared and joined me. The breakfast was awesome and the service was great. By 7:45, we had all the gear in the truck and headed to our entry point. With an early start, we thought we might even make it all the way to Frost in one day, but Karl Lake was our target destination.
By 11:30, we were finally ready to launch. How did we spend four hours fiddling around at the entry point? It’s a long story. Let’s just say I wasn’t happy and move ahead with the trip.
As we headed out, the skies were about to open up. Halfway across the tiny lake it began to pour down and we spent about twenty minutes at the portage standing in the rain in our ponchos waiting for the lightning storm to pass. We met a couple on the next portage who told us all the campsites on Ham were free and recommended the second one. We made a mad dash across Ham as more thunderstorms approached. We made it just as the lightning started to get really close.
Since Ham Lake isn’t even technically in the BWCA, we weren’t off to a great start and the prospects for reaching Frost and completing our planned route had dwindled already. But, the campsite was a good one with a nice, well-drained tent pad and some rocks on a windy point overlooking the lake that were perfect for drying wet gear. It also came equipped with a resident chipmunk and two loons that put on quite a show for us. I managed to lose a favorite Rooster Tail but didn’t catch anything.
Day two began dry enough but it was clear that rain was in the forecast again. We got off to another slow start, but were in the canoe again by 11:30. Three hours later the winds had kicked up and a storm was heading in, so we decided to take the campsite on Rib Lake. It was another nice campsite with good drainage, but it lacked the magnificent views of our camp on Ham. The storm passed quickly and I did a little casting from shore. I caught a four inch small mouth which my husband insisted on taking a picture of—to shame me, I suppose.
Day three proved too stormy for travel, so we spent a second night on Rib.
On day four we left our Rib campsite behind and headed onward. Surely, we would reach Frost Lake today. Not so much. We didn’t find the creek into Gordon and ended up much further down Long Island than we needed to be. The wind was at our backs, so the paddling was easy and the scenery was awesome, so we kept going long after we knew we’d missed our turn. At this point, it was early afternoon. Heading back to the Gordon portage wasn’t very appealing; the wind would be squarely in our faces and the paddling would be tough. So, Frost would have to wait another day. We found a beautiful island campsite near the portage to Muskeg and set up for the night. This time I managed to hook a decent size Northern, but failed to get it ashore. No matter. We had hash browns, bacon, and eggs to make up for the lack of fish.
On day five, we managed to get on the water fairly early by our standards. We paddled back the way we’d come and easily located the tiny creek that led to our portage into Gordon. The 140 rod portage from Gordon to Unload seemed longer than advertised, even though I can’t cite any aspect that was particularly challenging. A canoe carrying a scouting party for a larger group had over taken us and decided to try paddling through to Frost to avoid the remaining forty rod portage. They made it, but with considerable effort. The good news was Frost was unoccupied. Since we had gear, we decided just to take the portage. The forty rods again seemed longer than advertised, but not particularly hard otherwise.
We’d finally made it to Frost Lake and it proved worth the effort. The scouting party had claimed the east shore campsite with the sandy beach which worked well since we had our eyes on the northern most campsite. It also had a sandy beach and was close to an area that had to be ideal for moose. Although we had taken five days rather than two to get here, we decided we would spend at least two nights on Frost. The campsite was great—sandy beach, nice tent pad, plenty of firewood, and lots of wildlife.
Our second morning on Frost, day seven, began for me when my husband poked me in the ribs about 6:30 and quietly said, “Moose.” I sat up and looked out the front screen of our tent (aka moose blind) and there she was. A cow moose had walked up the shoreline and was standing in front of our site. I grabbed my camera and took some video as the moose pondered the tent. Apparently, it decided there was no threat and took time for a quick munch on some pine needles before walking slowly up into the woods behind our campsite. Soon after, the seagull that my husband thought he saw from across the lake appeared—except that it had transformed into a beautiful swan. I thought it was awfully big for a seagull, but it wasn’t until it was in front of the campsite that we got a good view of it. Our persistence had paid off in a close encounter with a moose. My husband’s lens fogged up so badly, though, that my video is the only good evidence. So much for his more expensive, fancy camera. (moose video at http://www.screencast.com/t/r6jyZQ0DijCY)
Day eight began early. Hoping our moose made a regular circuit, we were on watch, but had no luck. We packed up and headed off toward Bologna Lake, where we hoped to spend the next night. Taking stock of our remaining food, we found we were a little on the short side. Looking at the map and accounting for the “old people” factor, we decided it would take us at least three days, probably four days, and maybe even five days to reach our exit point. Better get moving. We’d heard and read a lot about the Frost River. It wasn’t going to be an easy sprint home. In retrospect, the leg from Frost to Bologna was the hardest. The beaver damns along this leg weren’t too bad. We mostly pushed or floated over them without getting out of the canoe. The portages, on the other hand, lived up to their reputations for being tough.
The campsite at Bologna Lake was open but isn’t much to talk about. It has the appearance of receiving little use and finding a level tent pad proved difficult, but it was a good way to break up the tough trip down Frost. It was also a little difficult to spot—maybe a little deeper into the cove than indicated. Since we were low on food, fishing suddenly became more important. It was already past five when we finished setting up camp, so we quickly hopped back into the canoe and looked for some good fishing spots. While I’m sure Bologna isn’t noted for its fishing, I was able to hook into a small Northern pretty quickly. There’s nothing better than freshly caught fish and it helped us stretch our dwindling food supply for another day.
The next morning (day nine), we packed up and headed back across the portage out of Bologna into Chase to resume our journey down the Frost River. The portages were as tough as advertised, but the beaver damns weren’t so bad. There were a lot of them and several that we had to do some pulling to get over, but none that required portaging around or unloading the canoe. This leg also had some rocky spots that created some little rapids that we managed to line the canoe through; we really enjoyed this section. I think the husband had the best of it since he remained in the canoe a lot of the time while I pulled us through.
We hoped to reach Mora that night, but ended up taking the site on Whipped Lake. While it might not be an ideal site much of the time, on this night, it was great. There was enough breeze to keep the mosquitoes at bay and we spend a pleasant evening there. It has a nice seating area in a little grove where we enjoyed a good rest after a long day of portaging. I thought I’d make a fire, but a storm started coming up, and we retreated to our tent for a dinner of peanut butter, bacon jerky, and banana chip tortillas. They were actually pretty good. I’d eat them again.
Having spent the night on Whipped, we had to reach Tuscarora today. We’d been out ten days and splitting the remaining food over two more days wasn’t appealing. Fortunately, the winds were cooperative. The breeze that had kept the mosquitoes away the night before had gotten stronger overnight rather than subsiding, but it was going to be at our backs most of the day. The wind was with us through Mora, Terry, Crooked, and Owl. We met a party of two canoes at one of the portages—I don’t remember which, but it is really rocky. We felt really sorry for them. The wind was straight into their faces with gusts of maybe 20-25 mph and they had to dig for every inch of progress. The wind caused a few problems for us, too, beating our Souris River Quetico 17 into the rocks as we struggled to get our packs out and onto the rocky shore line. We bought our canoe used last year from Canoe Country Outfitters in Ely. It’s proving to be a good canoe for us, but is definitely going to need a little TLC after this trip.
After portaging into Tuscarora Lake, we knew we were in good shape as long as a campsite was free. Since the wind was still at our backs, we decided to head to the far side of the lake closest to our next portage, a 424 rod behemoth that we had no intention of tackling that day. As it turns out, we really didn’t have a choice because the first two campsites we saw were occupied. About the time we reached the first campsite, the wind decided to shift and was now coming from our port side. Just about the time I decided to comment that there were at least no white caps yet, white caps appeared, but by then we were close enough to see the third campsite. We couldn’t tell if it was open yet, but we soon could relax and enjoy paddling in the swells. While the waves were getting pretty high, the water was warm and, should we capsize, we, our canoe, and our gear would wash up right at our intended campsite. We didn’t capsize and the campsite was open. We quickly set up camp as some thunder rolled in the distance. It looked like we were in for a good storm so we put up a couple of tarps to better protect the tent from the wind and rain. Once camp was set up, we used the camp stove to whip up some Thai Peanut Noodles and Chicken Ramen with freeze-dried egg (I call it BWCA egg drop) for our last dinner and stood on the shoreline admiring the lake. It kept threatening and we had a few sprinkles, but the storm mostly skirted around us.
We had only two short paddles and two long portages between us and our exit, so we took our time on the morning of day eleven--until a couple of rangers arrived. They told us there were strong storms expected in the afternoon, so we needed to kick into high gear and get going. We arrived at the start of the first portage in no time. 424 rods into Missing Link Lake. In addition to being long, this portage features some good climbs and a fair number of swampy areas. On this day, it would also feature a downpour and the resulting puddles. We were about half way across the portage when it began to rain. The rain actually was a welcome relief from the heat. As long as it didn’t storm, no problem, but it was clearly going to storm.
We encountered the rangers again at the end of the portage. Like us, they were racing to beat the weather. We saw them disappear around the point toward the portage on the other side of little Missing Link Lake and we, too, hustled to cross the little lake before the storm hit. We didn’t make it. We’d barely left the portage when the skies opened up, the winds kicked up, and the lightning began. Although small, Missing Link has three campsites, so we thought we might be able to pull up at one to wait out the storm. The first two were occupied and the storm was getting worse. Being on the water in a lightning storm is dangerous so we pulled up on a little point across from the final campsite (also occupied) to wait for the light show to subside. We spent about an hour waiting for several waves of storm to pass. Every time there was a break and we were about to set out, another streak of lightning would appear in the sky.
Finally, the storm subsided and we made it to the start of our final portage into Round Lake. It was a mud pit. Fortunately, we were already as wet and dirty as it is possible to get, so we slogged through with no thought of trying to dodge the puddles. I saw at least a half dozen frogs just sitting along the trail as I walked by. I also heard something large behind me at one point and turned expecting to see my husband. When he didn’t appear, I walked on, thinking the sound was made by some animal crossing the trail behind me. Then I heard the same sound and turned again, but didn’t see anything. I thought this was strange; I started to wonder if I was being stalked by something. I’d seen some large, wolf-looking tracks that I thought probably belonged to someone’s dog. About that time, I heard the same rustle and turned this time to see the haunches of a deer disappearing into the brush. I guess it had been following the trail behind me looking for somewhere to get off.
It was about five o’clock when we reached the dock at Tuscarora Outfitters. We were greeted by some of the crew who were out cleaning up debris and asked if we’d been caught in the storm. We told them about waiting it out on the shore and they told us about all the downed trees and branches they'd been cleaning up. One big tree nearby had been struck by lightning.
Since it was already evening and we were wet and cold, we arranged to stay in a bunkhouse for the night rather than heading into Grand Marais to look for a hotel. (Note: This one was better suited for a troop of scouts. It had three bunks with three tiers each and two small benches along the wall. The bunks were too closely spaced to sit on comfortably, so the choices were stand or lay, but it was warm and dry and hot showers were just a short walk away.) We drove into Grand Marais for another round of pizza and Nut Brown ale.
Our ten night, eleven day trip was over. We’d finally made it to Frost Lake.