The day we’d been anxiously awaiting had finally arrived, and Eric & I made it to Lance’s at 8:00 sharp, just as we had planned. I’d thrown our name in the lottery way back in January at the first day possible to best assure we’d get the entry point and date we wanted. It was Saturday morning, and we had a Sunday launch waiting for us at the Magnetic Lake entry point. Although we only had a 5 hour drive ahead of us to the Way of the Wilderness where we had reserved a chalet bunkhouse, we figured we could take our time and enjoy the trip up. There was a kayak festival in Two Harbors that we stopped at briefly for a bit of a leg-stretch, and some kind of community festival in Grand Marais, where we caught a couple of songs from a folk singer at the harbor beach and a few bluegrass tunes from a band down the street. We picked up our Minnesota fishing licenses at the sport shop, and our permit at the Ranger Station. The ranger there mentioned a small fire had broken out, he thought somewhere around 3 Mile Island on Sea Gull. No big deal, we should just make sure we were aware of the potential fire danger; there had been no measurable rain for three weeks.
Halfway up the Gunflint Trail, we stopped for a road construction flagger, who came up to the vehicle to let us know she’d already sent 5 fire trucks up the road, and had heard the fire had already jumped into Canada. She asked us if we really thought we wanted to head that way, and we just kinda blew it off and headed up the road when she turned the sign from ‘stop’ to ‘slow’. Not too far up the road, we saw the smoke billowing up in the clear August sky, and shortly afterward we were following a couple of fire trucks up towards Trail’s End. When we checked in at Way of the Wilderness, the sprinklers were on, and I asked Bud where exactly the fire was (since we had already heard a couple of stories that didn’t match). Bud was kinda short at first, not realizing we’d been told a couple of conflicting stories already, and a bit nervous at being downwind of a growing forest fire. He replied “Look over there, can’t you see where it is?” I was looking for a bit more specific info, and explained that to him, and he filled us in that it was currently between Grandpa and Red Rock.
The planes were buzzing right overhead as part of their pattern of dousing the fire. Bud warmed up a bit after awhile, but you could tell he was pretty nervous about the whole situation. The accommodations were great, and we unloaded what we needed for the evening, and headed down to Trail Center for one last steak before we traded amenities for camaraderie and relaxation for the next 6 days.
We wanted an early start, so we had all our gear ready to go at the Gunflint Lake landing, and I was back at Way of the Wilderness for a shuttle shortly after 8:00, when Bud said he typically starts running the shuttle. On the shuttle Bud told me the fire was about 200 acres, according to the officials, as we made our way from Trail’s End to Gunflint Lake. We were on the lake shortly after 9:00, Eric & I in our Perception Carolina 14.5’s, and Lance in his 17’ Necky Looksha IV. We made great time across Gunflint and Magnetic Lakes in our kayaks, and ran the
little chute out of Magnetic Lake with no trouble in our loaded down boats. The portage around Little Rock Falls was short, and we had no trouble double-carrying our boats fully loaded and quickly made it through the portage. It was shortly afterward where we made our first, and only major mistake of the trip. We missed the 35 rod Wood Horse/Blueberry portage, and went around the bend through some riffles only to find a steep, un-navigable chute. We ended up making that portage at least half again as long, and all of it just as rugged as the marked portage. A guy from Iowa with his daughter and a couple of her friends passed us on this portage, with him carrying both canoes and the girls carrying the freight. They were planning to go the same route as us; Granite River north, west through Big Sag, south through Red Rock and Alpine, and out through Sea Gull, with a planned Thursday exit. I broke out my Knu-Pac and yoked my boat through the rugged trail while Eric and Lance worked together on theirs. We stopped and had a bite after getting our gear over the portage, to give the Iowans some space, knowing that the 110 rod Pine Portage was just a quick paddle down river. When we made Pine Portage, they still had a canoe sitting on the upstream side. They had taken a break too, and were just finishing up the portage as we started. We pulled in and began unloading as the guy from Iowa grabbed the canoe and headed out. Once again, I threw what I thought I could carry in excess of the boat in the bag on the back of my Knu-Pac, and yoke-portaged my boat while Eric and Lance worked together on their boats and gear. I began to like the Knu-Pac, for the most part. As we paddled Clove Lake, we began to get a whiff of smoke every now and then, reminding us that there were other things going on up here besides our team struggles as we worked our way down river. We were beginning to tire, and lined our boats through the Devil’s Elbow rapids coming out of Clove Lake. Good move; it was an easy line, and we were through pretty fast. The last portage of the day for us was the 72 rod Swamp Portage, and we were tiring out, and burning daylight. Lance slipped and fell in the mucky entry to the portage, and with the 90 degree plus heat, attracted a few more bug bites than the rest of us. We still had a ways to go to find a campsite, so I pushed it and yoke carried both Eric’s and my boats across the portage along with a bag of gear each time, while Eric and Lance carried the rest of the gear and Lance’s boat. We made pretty good time, but we were gassed! We ran the following two sets of rapids on our way to Devil’s Elbow, with no problem, as we’d spent a bit of time earlier in the summer running fast water in the Namekagon, Chippewa, and Brule Rivers in northern Wisconsin, and felt pretty comfortable with it all. As we made our way up Devil’s Elbow Lake looking for a site that wasn’t taken, we were welcomed by the man from Iowa, and found a site on a point just up the lake a bit. It was about 7pm., and we rushed to set up camp, make supper, and ended up hanging the bear-bags in the dark. Just before retiring for the night, we decided that Monday would be a good time to have a base-camp day, as we’d already completed our most difficult day of portaging; the day we were loaded the heaviest with gear. We had 5 more days and a lot of open water to go.
I’m an early riser, and sat on the big chunk of granite at the water’s edge to read and take photos at sunrise, enjoying the peaceful time before the planes started flying to the west of us. I made coffee when Lance got up, and we relaxed and drank a couple pots. There were plenty of blueberries very near the campsite, and Eric quickly gathered enough for our pancake and bacon breakfast in the morning. I’d been waiting for blueberry pancakes since last year up here! After cleaning up the breakfast dishes, we went out fishing for a while. It was another scorcher of a day, and although the fish weren’t biting all that well we caught a couple bass and a northern, and released them all. Back for lunch, and we spent the rest of the day putzing around camp, and setting up a tarp to make shade around the fire grate, not that we planned on having a fire any time soon. We swam, and fished a bit off the big chunk of granite that was our beach, and ducked for shade from time to time. The fire had seemed to pick up a bit, and late afternoon we could see smoke at tree level just down the shoreline from us, and were often breathing a bit of smoke right in camp. A couple of guys from St. Cloud paddled by, helped Lance get his jig off a rock, and filled us in on the fire situation. They had just come in today, and said that the fire had jumped the line, and they were fighting it full force again. There was a noticeable line of clouds corresponding to the smoke from the fire, forming as the water being dumped evaporated and rose into the sky. We had packed in a couple 3L bags of red wine, and Lance & I had a few glasses. We had our dinner late that night, since we didn’t want to cook in the heat of the day.
Tuesday morning I awoke at 5:10 to raindrops on the tent, and this was definitely a travel day. I crawled out of the sack in a hurry, grabbed the few things left hanging on the line overnight, and corralled anything else that we didn’t want to get wet. Lance heard me rustling around, and got up to help, and it wasn’t long before we rousted Eric as well. We took time to make coffee, packed GORP, pretzel mix, and jerky for a mobile lunch, and we were all packed up and in our boats by about 8:00. It was raining lightly as we headed up through Maraboef Lake, and paddling was great. It was calm water, and it was cool for a change. There was a substantial smell of smoke in the air, but we made great time, and double-carried our boats mostly loaded at Horse-Tail Rapids, just far enough to put the in the shallow run on the east side and line them the rest of the way. At Sag Falls, we once again double carried our loaded boats, and we were in Big Sag. It wasn’t even noon yet when we once again ran into the Iowans, who were base camped on Conner’s Island. They had run into a stiff west wind on Big Sag, turned around and made base camp. He said they had changed the plan, and would run up Sea Gull River to Trails End rather than going the long way around. Big Sag was fairly calm on Tuesday, and we made good time. It had been 11:45 when we talked with the guy from Iowa, and we were over at Long Island shortly after 1:00, with a quick stop along the way.
After checking out Gold and Englishman’s Island, we settled in on a great campsite on Long Island. After setting up camp, we went fishing again, to no avail this time. This was a great day, with easy traveling although we covered a lot of water, and plenty of time to relax afterward. The fire was to the southeast of us now, and although we could hear the planes, there was no more smoke to breath. Eric finally got his chance to play some cribbage and Lance & I killed the wine, we didn’t want to haul it over any more portages, and besides, we still had Windsor and Schnapps to sip on. It had cooled off, and we stayed up and enjoyed a campfire until about 11:00.
As usual, I was up at dawn for some quiet time of reading and photography. Sag was still, the sky was clear, and the air was comfortably cool. Once Lance and Eric got up, we had a quick breakfast of bagels and PB&J, with coffee and Tang. We were in the water by 8:30, heading down Red Rock Bay for Red Rock Lake and ultimately Alpine Lake. We had already decided that we would try to set up camp in Alpine for the last 2 days, where we would spend more time fishing. We walked our boats fully loaded through the shallow channel into Red Rock Lake, alternating trips with a group going north into Red Rock Bay.
As we made our way down the lake, we could see smoke in the trees very close to the east shoreline. I stopped to talk to a group that was breaking camp just north of the Alpine Lake portage for an update. They let us know that all campsites on the east side were closed, as well both direct portages from Alpine into Sea Gull, and the only route out was through Rog. The report they got from the rangers the day before put the burn at about 500 acres. Our plan had been to either run or line the river into Sea Gull, but the fire was very close to that area, so we would have a couple more portages to deal with after all. The portage into Alpine was busy already, with groups heading both ways. I talked to a group of 4 guys that just came off the portage heading north, finding out that they had just left a nice campsite in the southwest corner of Alpine. There was a group of ladies from Duluth that were double-portaging as we were, and we helped each other by carrying gear on our normally empty trips back. I yoked carried Eric’s boat as well as my own once again, along with gear, and Eric and Lance double carried the third boat partially loaded. The portage went pretty smooth, and we were in Alpine in no time, scoping out the campsites on the west side. We made good time on the lake, going towards the campsite in the southwest corner that had just been vacated. It was a nice site, and we pulled in about noon. We set up camp, had lunch, and kicked back awhile.
Our view was to the east, looking right into the fire zone, and there were planes everywhere. It was anything but quiet, and I couldn’t help wondering if all this activity wouldn’t somehow affect the fishing as well. At about 3:00 we were out fishing, determined to eat fresh fish for dinner. Shortly after we had pushed out to begin fishing, we were approached by a couple of USFS Rangers in a canoe, and we rafted our boats with theirs so they could inform us of the fire situation. They pulled out the map, and showed us where the fire had burned, and let us know that there was also some control burning going on, which was part of the reason for the “air-show” we were witnessing. The fire was at 960 acres as of the morning report, and climbing. After they went their way, we went back to fishing, and I caught 4 smallmouth bass for supper. Eric beat me at cribbage before supper, and we had a great fried fish dinner accompanied with stuffing. After dinner, we sat around the fire enjoying the peace and quiet; the planes had left about 6pm, and the loons were very active.
At about 3:30am, the loons were making so much noise that it awoke both Lance and I out of a dead sleep. It was the noisiest loon sequence I had ever heard in my life, and it continued on for quite some time. Finally getting back to sleep, we rolled out of bed at about 6am for coffee, lounging around and making breakfast at a snail’s pace, enjoying a cool quiet sunrise before the planes started buzzing us again. I enjoy the paddling, but the camp days are very relaxing.
I took a few pictures of the sunrise as an otter swam by the camp, and the loons got looney again, eventually gathering in a group of 10 to the south of us. I took some video of the loons with my digital camcorder, mostly for the audio. We also saw an eagle on the shoreline across the bay. We were out fishing at the crack of 9:00, and headed down to where the river comes in from Jasper, which is also the portage. Lance was the fisherman of the morning, hauling in a northern and a smallmouth in between the mass of portaging activity. It was so busy that we high-tailed it out of there, and lounged around camp some more. Just after lunch we were visited by a couple rangers, as Eric and Lance were playing cribbage. One of them checked our permit while the other dug out a map to fill us in on the latest.
The fire was now at 1460 a. they said, and the air-show would continue as they would again be doing some control burning in the area. No change in the portage closing situation, and the chances there would be a change before morning were somewhere between slim and none, with a heavy lean towards the "none" side of it. After they left, I headed back to the inlet from Jasper to fish, as it was 2:30 and the portage activity would be pretty much done for the day. I caught a walleye about 15-16 inches to go with the northern and smallmouth we already had, and we would have a BWCAW trifecta for dinner tonight! We cooked over the fire just to make sure we had gas left for coffee in the morning, played a couple more games of cribbage, and we were nestled in early on our last night.
I was up at 5:30 on Friday morning to enjoy one last sunrise, and I put on the coffee when I heard Lance rustling in his tent. We got Eric moving about 6, and had camp broke down and were in the boats shortly after 8:00. Coming up on the portage into Rog, we noticed a couple of guys in a canoe paddling around the bay, as we deduced that the location of the campsite and the portage were one in the same. The pair of campers at the campsite was already tearing down camp when we pulled in, and shortly afterward the wandering canoe pulled up as well; they had been looking for the portage. They made it through the portage ahead of us, as I once again carried the two Perceptions while Lance and Eric carried the Necky. At the Sea Gull end of the next and last portage, the 2 canoers were assembling a sail for their boat, as we had a strong tailwind on Sea Gull for the way out. They pushed out ahead of us with the wind in their sail, and we passed them by the time we made Three Mile Island. It was rough enough water that both Lance and I took on a few splashes in our cockpits as we paddled. We followed the north side of Three Mile using the small islands to the north for cover as I looked for the island we had found an abundant crop of blueberries on the year before. The blueberries were past their prime, but we found several small patches where we could sit and pick for the next hour or so, and brought back a half gallon or so between the three of us. We were at Trail’s End just before noon, where we once again ran into the ladies from Duluth who had paddled the Sea Gull River and portaged through the loop on the road. As we were loading up the gear in the truck, a young man pulled in to pick up some canoes left at the landing, and we chatted about our trip for a bit. Turns out I had met him the year before on our trip, and we talked about other possibilities for kayak trips in the area. He made a suggestion for a trip into the Crown Land, and we bought it hook line and sinker. Big water, seclusion, and only a couple of short portages, both on the way out when our boats would be lighter. We hashed it over on the way down the road for a “Cheeseburger in Paradise” at Trail Center.
Back in Grand Marais, we had arranged to stay the night at the Harbor View Motel, and wandered around town a bit, and once again ran into the ladies from Duluth at the Lake Superior Trading Post. We had cleaned up already, so they didn’t recognize us at first, and we spent a few minutes comparing notes on our journeys. Lance and Eric had to tear me away from the map section as I checked out the route we were looking at for next year. We had a steak dinner at Birch Terrace that evening, and settled in to comfortable mattresses. I tried to watch the news, but didn’t last past the first commercial, and Eric had to wake me up long enough to take my hiking boots off.
Looking back on the trip, I can make a few observations that may help others considering kayak trips in the BWCAW. First of all, kayaks are indeed much more difficult to portage than canoes. Most of the canoe groups we saw at the portages double portaged, and if you are planning to kayak you should plan to be able to do the same at a minimum. In order to do that, if you are double carrying your boats through the portages, you will need to be able to carry the gear from each boat at the same time you carry the boat. I would recommend the Knu-Pac or some other kayak system which allows you to yoke-portage a boat and carry gear in the bag on the frame at the same time. Good gear planning and physical conditioning may allow you to single portage with this system. Make sure the yoke fits your kayak ahead of time, however, as we were not able to fit the yoke to the Necky Looksha IV’s narrow cockpit (although if we took more time to look into it really closely, we may have been able to rig something up). I would recommend planning your trip so that the big portage days are at the end of the trip if at all possible, when you are carrying less weight; not the way we did it with the biggest portage day at the beginning when we were loaded down with food and wine. Slings work okay for portaging on well worn paths on even ground, and we had packed some along after testing them at home first, but the bottom line on this is that they don’t work as well on the rugged portage trails common in the BWCAW. Plan for big water adventures as much as possible, where you can still find seclusion and the kayaks actually out-perform canoes, particularly on windy days.
We had a great trip, and starting out with the roughest day of portages on the hottest day of the trip made each day progressively better than the last, leaving us feeling real good about the trip and anxious for the next one, where we could use what we had learned to make it even better. Hopefully next time, there won’t be any forest fires in the area and we’ll be able to experience the quiet and solitude that a wilderness trip like this typically offers.