Un-Falls Chain Trip (Saganagons)
My wife, Carol, and I decide on a two-week Falls Chain/Kawnipi trip to celebrate our 40th anniversary. It will be our third trip to Quetico together, and she is anxious for this trip after having knee replacements done each of the previous two years. This is my sixth trip to Quetico. This this will be our first trip entering Quetico Provincial Park from the south.
Since we will be entering the BWCA enroute to Quetico, this trip required a little more planning than usual. We needed:
1. Campsite reservation for the night before our entry - Trail's End Campground at the end of the Gunflint Trail
2. BWCA overnight paddle reservation for Entry Point 55 Saganaga Lake
3. Quetico reservation for Entry Point 73 Falls Chain (entering Quetico at Cache Bay)
4. Remote Area Border Crossing Permit (to enter Canada without going through Customs)
5. Ontario Outdoor Cards and Fishing Licenses
6. US Passports
The drive from our home in southern Wisconsin to the end of the Gunflint Trail is 530 miles. We camp the night before at Trail's End Campground. This works out well as we are within a mile of Seagull Outfitters and the Saganaga Lake entry point. While making camp, we are greeted with the song of a white-throated sparrow.
Days 1-3, July 1
On Day 1, we leave our car and keys in the very capable hands of Deb and her staff at Seagull Outfitters. Tyler gives us a good head start with a 6 mile tow across Saganaga to Hook Island. We have good conversation with Tyler during the 20 minute ride. He tells us that another couple is on the ultimate Quetico trip - 96 days long!
At the Cache Bay Ranger Station, Ranger Janice issues our Quetico Permit for 13 nights and provides valuable details on navigating the Falls Chain. Janice has been ranger-ing for 29 years! That's a heap of dedication! Janice notates our maps. She is the only person I've ever met that can write upside down! Janice also keeps the grounds around the ranger station in beautiful shape - her gardening skills are evident.
We paddle north from the ranger station. The wind picks up a bit, and we are fortunate to leave Cache Bay before we become wind-bound. Around 10:30 AM Carol and I are triple-portaging around scenic Silver Falls. It's hot and sticky, but bugs are not an issue. We take a few breaks, and manage to drink most of our water. We don't pass anyone on the trail.
While paddling away from the portage through the Silver Falls outflow, we get too close to the trees on the right bank. We almost collide with a sweeper (tree branch hanging over the water). Note to self: remember this spot, and stay closer to the middle of the channel when crossing the Silver Falls outflow.
We make camp before 3:00 PM at site 1YG (coords 48.253N 91.050W), which is on the south shore of Saganagons on a small point. The site is OK, with decent visibility, firepit, and a fair landing. Previous camper(s) did a lousy job burying their toilet paper in the woods, however.
We plan is to stay two nights at this campsite, but Mother Nature has other plans. On day 3, a continuous parade of thunderstorms bombards the area, with several episodes of heavy rain and moderate winds. On Day 14, we find out later from the outfitter that this storm dumped 4 inches of rain in a 24 hour period. We have no choice but to stay dry under the tarp and wait out the storms.
We fish for a few hours during this 3 day period. Fishing is really slow, but we manage a few lunkers. I catch a 6-7 pound lake trout at a mid-lake location, just north of the campsite. The laker is caught on a white plastic minnow jig in 65 feet of water. Carol lands a 26-inch walleye in 11 feet of water trolling a crank bait in the small bay adjacent to the campsite. I catch a 24 inch walleye trolling a perch-colored minnow crank bait along the south shore, just west of camp. We prefer to release the bigger gamefish, so these are photo'd and released. No fish dinners for us.
Days 4-5, July 19-20, 2013 Campsite ???
A little behind schedule now, we are rewarded with beautiful weather for the next two days. On Day 4, we break camp and paddle to Deadman's Portage. We follow Janice's notes from the map and and skirt the island around the west and north sides to find the portage. The portage is really muddy after yesterday's storms, and a large popple has fallen across the portage. I fall on my butt while carrying the canoe, but nothing is hurt except my pride. We have a good laugh over the mud on our clothes and take a few propaganda photos of the muddy portage. Carol spots a bear on a south shoreline near the Falls Chain entry point, but it vanishes before I can see it. It's getting late in the afternoon, so we select a cozy site on an island located just east of Bald Rock Falls (coords 48.298N 91.059W). While in our tent at dusk, we see and hear a nighthawk weaving through the pines near our tent, chasing an evening bug meal. Pretty cool!
On Day 5, we wake early as the fog is burning off the water. We break camp and paddle the short distance to the Bald Rock Falls portage. Without our gear, we hike the long, slick, muddy portage to the north end and view the churning rapids below Bald Rock Falls. The heavy rains from a couple days ago, funneling though the narrows of the Falls Chain, have filled these waters to spring-like levels. The current is very strong. We are concerned about high-water conditions for our planned return trip through the Falls Chain early next week, especially since we are not strong paddlers. We decide to change our route and spend the rest of our trip on Saganagons Lake and Cache Bay. I bow to the northwest. The Falls Chain and Kawnipi Lake will have to wait for another time.
A little disappointed, we head back up river to the Falls Chain exit. Carol spots a cow moose grazing near the water's edge. This is one of the critters we hoped to see on this trip. The moose sees us, and despite our attempts to be quiet and still, the moose slips through the brush, but not before we get a few photos.
We continue paddling southeast on the northern arm of Saganagons Lake aided by light winds. Instead of reversing our route via Deadman's portage, we paddle east on Saganagons. We hope to find a nice site closer to the east end, but the campsites near the big peninsula look too exposed and don't appeal to us. We continue around the point and paddle back to the south arm of Saganagons, heading west until we arrive at the group of islands just south of Deadman's portage. It's nearly 3:00 PM, so we pick site 1Z4 (coords 48.27N 91.04W). The site is decent, with a small tent area protected by a semi-circle of cedars. From one end of the site, a trail winds along a small bluff, offering a decent view of the sunset and opportunities to gather firewood. Another trail behind the site leads to a small bay, which offers opportunities for bathing and picking blueberries. We will spend the next several days at this site.
We fish only briefly during days 4 and 5. Fishing is very slow. We land only a few smallmouth bass and pike. No fish dinners for the first 5 days of our trip.
Days 6-11 July 21-26, 2013 Campsite 1Z4
Settled in at this nice campsite, we experience fair weather during this period, except for one stormy and windy night. During the storm, 3 trees, including 2 healthy spruces, are knocked down along the upper trail, within 100 yards of camp. Temps during this period are 65-75 during the day and in the low to mid 50's at night. The cool temps are putting a damper on the mosquitoes.
It's nice to slow down a bit and base-camp. We spend time gathering blueberries for breakfast, relaxing in camp, and enjoying our time together at the evening campfire.
The fishing picks up slightly with the more stable weather. I land a 26-inch walleye on the white/silver minnow jig in 19 feet of water. Carol catches a big 27-inch walleye off a point in the same bay. I catch enough 19-21 inch eater walleyes during this period to provide us with 5 walleye dinners. For some strange reason, Carol does better catching the bigger fish. Nearly all of the walleyes are caught while jigging in 20 feet of water off of points. The fish are grabbing the bait lightly, rather than slamming it. A few fish are caught while trolling cranks baits, such as Shad Raps and Flicker Shads.
Wildlife report: We spot and hear a pileated woodpecker while fishing around the islands east of the site. We also see bald eagles and an osprey.
While fishing one afternoon, we get a little too close to a loon feeding her young-un. The chick disappears suddenly, with the adult searching and calling frantically for it. After about 20 minutes, we see both re-united further up the bay. Whew !! Live and learn. Don't get too close to the wildlife...not worth upsetting them just to get a photo.
On Day 8, a huge otter swims laps around the island near our campsite, but it's too elusive for me to get decent photos. It looks like a man with little ears, floating on his back. Later, I see what looks like doggy doo on the trail 100 yards behind our site. Closer exam with a stick shows the doo is full of crunched-up crayfish parts. This is definitely a housewarming gift to us from our otter friend!
From this campsite, one can see most of the paddlers passing through Saganagons Lake entering or leaving the Falls Chain. Saganagons is definitely a beautiful lake, but we haven't seen any sandy beaches on this trip.
Days 12-14, July 27-29, 2013, Campsite 213
On Day 12 we begin our exit from Saganagons Lake and make our last campsite on Cache Bay. The weather is great on Day 12. We triple-portage around Silver Falls, where we meet 3 guys from Arkansas headed toward the Falls Chain for 6 days. They are heavily loaded with fishing gear, so we know they are serious! We lug a few items across the portage for them. We also move aside on the portage for a young couple who definitely are the model of efficiency while single-portaging: he is carrying the canoe and she is carrying the only large pack and the paddles!
The wind picks up halfway across Cache Bay, but we are lucky enough to have the wind at our backs, so we get a push to campsite 213. Fortunately, it is open so we grab it. Although the site is on a windblown point, the tent pad is sheltered from the north wind by a steep, rocky hill. The wind howls all night, but we cozy into our sleeping bags for one of our second-last night in Quetico.
On Day 13 we paddle a few miles to the pictograph site on Cache Bay. We have easy paddling, despite the north wind today, as the bay is relatively narrow and partly sheltered from the north.
We spend a few hours fishing after the wind calms down. Carol lands a 19-inch smallmouth while trolling. What a fighter! I catch a few smaller bass, as usual.
Using my depth finder, I note 130 foot depths and many echoes from lake trout in the main basin of Cache Bay. But unfortunately, time is running out, as we will be leaving this paradise early on Monday, Day 14.
I love the sunsets in Quetico, especially after storms.
On Day 14, we are up before dawn, packing quickly for our exit from Cache Bay and across big Saganaga Lake. Carol is apprehensive about this last leg of our journey, but the water is like glass. Soon she relaxes and enjoys the paddle through the myriad of islands on Big Sag. With clear skies and no wind, we paddle the 9 miles back to the Cook County boat landing, finishing our paddling journey about 9:00 AM. A Seagull Outfitter's employee just happens to be at the boat landing, dropping another client for a towboat ride, so he loads up our canoe and gear on the truck/trailer and drives us back to Seagull Outfitters. They graciously greet us with plush, thick towels and offer us access to their fine shower facilities. What a nice treat from Deb and her staff! Their hospitality and fine service are amazing! Thank you!
Refreshed, happy, and a little tired, we drive south on the Gunflint Trail, where we see a bear scampering across the road. We make a few stops on our trip back to Wisconsin, one of them a lunch break at Betty's Pies (near Two Harbors), and finally arrive home at dusk.
Although our plans changed on this journey, we are both thankful for this opportunity to visit our favorite paradise. Thank you God, for guiding us safely through this special place called Quetico.
“In wilderness I sense the miracle of life, and behind it our scientific accomplishments fade to trivia.”- Charles Lindberg