Saganagons base camp
We took turns behind the wheel as we drove through the night. When we stopped for fuel and food, we noticed the air was cooler. Hot temperatures with high humidity had been left behind, and the cool, drier air began to excite us. The further north we drove, the more I thought about past trips, and I wondered how this one was going to compare.
The sun finally brightened the sky between Minneapolis and Duluth. It illuminated the northern terrain covered with evergreens and birch trees. At Duluth, the huge lift bridge was like looking through a gateway to the North Shore Drive and even though my body was tired, the sight of it filled my mind with renewed energy. I've traveled the road from my home to the end of the Gun- flint Trail eleven times, and each visit fills me with the excitement I experienced on the very first trip.
Along the North Shore Drive, the small towns of Two Harbors, Castle Danger and Silver Bay come and go. Little Marais, Schroeder and Tofte are soon in our rear view mirror. We finally arrived at Grand Marais, and stopped the van at the Blue Water Café for a long awaited breakfast. The seagulls perched on the rooftop across the street, shrieked at the world as we entered the quaint cafe. Ahhh… it’s good to be back. After breakfast, we did our final shopping at the grocery store, and headed up the Gun-flint Trail.
Arriving at Seagull Outfitters, the scene was a familiar one. Canoes were being washed and stacked on top of the carriers for the next day. Customers were milling around in anticipation of their trip, or from one they just completed. Dave was on the deck giving instructions to an employee, and as I entered the store, I was greeted by a big smile from Deb. It was great to see her again. Deb never seems to change. She always looks great.
We settled into our room in the bunkhouse, and after cleaning up, had a great tasting dinner down the road at the Gun-flint Lodge. We’d been told that the smallmouth were just finishing their spawn, so because of that and the colder water temps, I had fingers and toes crossed that it would be the best fishing experience yet. Though I was tired, I had a difficult time sleeping that night. Our tow boat left at 7:00 the next morning. The water was calm and the sky was the color of a Blue Raspberry Jolly Rancher. The spray from the tow boat chilled us, but we didn't mind; we were having an adventure.
After we were dropped off at Hook Island, we loaded our canoes, took a few pictures, and began the two mile paddle to the Ranger’s station. The windless morning allowed us to glide to the island in record time. As we tied our canoes to the dock, we talked with two rangers who were just leaving on a mission to clear trails. Their provisions were light, with the exception of fuel and a chainsaw. Janice welcomed us into her office, and after paying our camping fees, we said our goodbyes and paddled toward our first portage…Silver Falls.
At Silver Falls, we unloaded our canoes, sat them out of the way across two downed trees, and rested for a few minutes. Two other canoes were at the landing, but not pulled up onto the shore, neither were they tethered. As they bobbed in the water, I knew that a gust of wind could possibly push them out into the current. I was about to pull them further onto shore when four teenage boys appeared from the trail. I surprised myself that I lightly scolded them for their carelessness. I hope it caused them to realize that their canoes always need to be tied when not attended. Lots of paddlers have been stranded because of a sudden gust of wind. One of the boys just said, “Yeah, I thought about that down the trail.” I hope he thought about it for the rest of the trip. Hey, I’m 53. I’m allowed to begin giving unsolicited advice at my age…right? We took a few pictures of the falls, caught our breath, and began the half mile portage to the other end of the trail. Even though we’d all been on the trail before and knew what to expect, it’s a tough portage. And I don’t think it has anything to do with our age either. Both young and old huff and puff at the end. Before reloading our canoes, we filled our water bottles and had a snack. This is also the time when I can’t wait any longer, so I put together one of my rods and rigged up. In the past, we've pulled out several large walleyes around the Silver Falls outflow, and I could hardly wait to drag a crankbait behind the canoe. Even though we still had one more portage to make before camp, I just couldn't wait any longer to fish.
As soon as we paddled across the outflow, I told my canoe partner, Kim, to cast out. Within minutes, he hooked something big and after a struggle, pulled in our first catch of the trip. He measured the walleye, and it was almost 30 inches in length. He’d never caught a fish that size in his life and at that moment, I knew our trip was going to be a great one. We hung around the current and caught a couple more walleye and some smallmouth, and then we moved on toward Dead Man’s portage.
No one seems to know why it’s called Dead Man’s portage, so I guess you can let your imagination run wild. The portage is not tough at all, with the exception of a slanted rock face you have to traverse. Your feet can slip out from under you if you’re not careful while carrying a pack or a canoe. This year, however, a tree had fallen across the rock and an alternate path around it had been created. It wasn't much better, but it was not a problem.
After loading our canoes once again, we paddled toward our campsite on Saganagons. Our Island campsite was to the east of the portage and on the west end of the island. It is a little off the route to the Falls Chain, so we rarely see anyone from that site. In fact, it’s not even shown as a campsite on the maps I have. As we drew near, I saw that it wasn't occupied, and within a couple of hours, our home away from home was all assembled and I was ready to prepare dinner.
Some people may not think the way I do, but I've always felt that the food you bring is just as important as any other element of the trip. Some people I know bring dehydrated food packages, Ramen noodles, and simple meals. There’s nothing wrong with that, but I enjoy creating meals that are a little surprising. Now, the unfortunate thing about creative cooking is that the meal elements are heavier than dehydrated foods; however, since we base camp rather than move camp every day, I don’t mind the extra weight.
For dinner our first night, we ate three cheese tortellini with sun dried tomato pesto sauce, sautéed zucchini and butternut squash, garlic toasted bread rounds and cream cheese pound cake for dessert. (No, I didn’t bring along the checkered tablecloth.) Even though I baked the pound cake, we saved it to eat with coffee the next morning. It turned out to be an appetizer for breakfast. One thing that’s nice about base camping, (and here again, this is something heavy) I bring along a folding aluminum table that Cabelas sells. In fact, I borrowed a second one and we duct taped them together. They added weight to the packs for sure, but worth it at the campsite. I know I’d feel different about the tables if I had to portage them all over Quetico.
With our bellies full, we sat around the campsite and did what guys do when their wives aren’t around. (No, we didn’t sing show tunes) We listened to the loons call to each other, talked about our hopes for fishing success, the lures we brought, scratched, belched, and…you know… other guy stuff. Later in our tents, we were serenaded to sleep by the sound of a bird I’ve never heard in Quetico before. We have them here in the south, but we were surprised to hear two whippoorwills calling to each other; one on our island, and one across the channel. They continued for about 30 minutes or more before becoming quiet and allowing us to fall asleep listening to the buzz of mosquitoes all around us.
The next morning, I got a pot of coffee brewing before the others crawled out of their tents. By the time it was ready, everyone was up and beginning to perk also. We had a hearty breakfast of sweet potato hash browns, made with butter, brown sugar and cinnamon; scrambled eggs with cheese, and English muffins with honey. After doing the dishes and cleaning up camp, we were off for our first day of fishing. There was no breeze and the water was smooth as glass.
I always take two rods with me so I can have two different lures ready to use depending on the location. On our first morning as we paddled away from the shoreline, I had a crankbait on one line, and a topwater chugger tied to the other. We decided to use our deep diving crank baits and began trolling. My partner and I decided to troll the shore east, staying just at the edge of the drop-off. Within minutes, I had my first fish; a walleye. A few minutes later I had a second walleye, and about ten minutes later, a third. My buddy was catching walleye also. I’d never caught walleye that fast and easy before. We had decided to eat fish for dinner that night, and since walleye was on the menu, three of them went on the stringer. I really didn’t want to drag them around the lake all day long, but I was afraid we wouldn’t catch any more. Since the stringer was long, they were able to stay down deep under the canoe so I felt better about keeping them. By the way, I probably could have released them at the end of the day because they were still full of life and action. We continued to catch walleye like crazy in the channel between our island and the main land. There was current there, so I guess that was holding the walleye. Most of the ones we caught were in the 22 to 25 inch range, with a few around 28 inches. It was the most incredible day of catching fish I’d ever had up there. My partner and I, plus the other two with us were catching walleye and huge smallmouth for the next few hours.
It was around noon when we paddled through a very narrow channel and could see visible current and swirls. With the first pass, neither of us hooked a fish, so we decided to float back through and let the current drift us. We were about out of the channel when my crankbait was nailed. I fought what I thought was another large walleye, but it turned out to be a big lake trout. This was only the second lake trout I’d ever caught up there, the first being a very small one back in 1998. I had already caught walleye, smallmouth and pike that morning, so right off the bat; I had my first grand slam. I was one excited guy to say the least. I don’t have an exact measurement, but it looked to be around 24 inches. It was a beauty. We photographed it and I released it. For the rest of the day, we caught walleye and smallies on crank baits, and quite a few smallies on topwater chuggers around downed trees in the water. I love to watch smallies attack topwater lures. And speaking of smallies, we didn’t catch any little ones this year. As one friend put it, “They looked like footballs.” I’ve caught more in a day before, but I’ll take 30 smallies the size we caught, over 60 small ones any day. It was an incredible day of pole bending.
That night, we mixed the beer batter I brought, (complete with a plastic bottle of beer) and fried the walleye. Along with it, we had cornbread and boiled new potatoes. Wow, was it ever awesome. I had been dreaming of fried walleye since my last trip in August of last year. For dessert, I had planned to make the cherry cheesecake I brought, but we were all stuffed from dinner, so we decided to pass on the sweets that night. After dishes were washed and everything put away, my partner and I decided to try a little evening fishing. The fish didn’t cooperate. I guess their feelings were hurt because of the way we treated them during the day. We fell asleep again listening to the hungry bugs outside of our tents.
Tuesday morning, everyone awoke to the aroma of my coffee. The cool morning air along with sipping caffeine was a great stimulant. Everyone pitched in to help with breakfast, and I made my world famous meal of skillet-sized spiced pancakes, topped with banana slices, sautéed in butter, brown sugar and cinnamon. We added a few slices of pre-cooked bacon and dug in. We didn’t even need the maple syrup I brought along. (Note to self…leave the heavy syrup home next time.)
Once again, the water was calm as we paddled west toward the falls chain. Some of the pictures I took of the shoreline could be turned upside down and you’d never know it because the water was smooth as glass. I don’t know if the calm water had anything to do with it, but the fishing was slower for us than the day before. We caught fish, but it was tough. I threw almost everything I had in my tackle box, but probably only caught 10 or 15 fish that day…most being smallmouth. Since we weren’t having fish for dinner, I enjoyed soaking up the wilderness as much as possible. And since there was no pressure, I paid attention to every little detail of the area. Kim and I climbed to the top of a small island that was tall with a granite outcropping. We were able to get a great view of the area, and noticed piles of sun-bleached fish scales all over the island. I assumed it was either the home of an otter, or the favorite eating location for one. There were no bones, just piles of fish scales.
We returned to camp later in the afternoon and I prepared a large pot of “Darn Good Chili,” for dinner, with cheese and tortillas. Once again, we passed on dessert; Oreo cookie pie. After dinner, Kim and I tried our luck again with evening fishing. This time, we caught several on topwater lures. At one point, Kim’s lure was attacked, and as he tried to set the hook, his line went limp. “Blasted Pike,” he said as he lamented the fact that it was his most productive and only chugger he had. I said, “Since were fishing barbless, let’s wait and see if it bobs to the surface.” He laughed and said that he admired my optimism. He tied on another lure and we began fishing again. It wasn’t long before he spotted something white in the water at the edge of some weeds. Yup, you guessed it. The pike had shaken the lure loose and we were able to retrieve it. I ended up looking like a pretty smart guy, even though I really didn’t believe we would see his lure again…I was just trying to sound like a know it all. Don’t tell him that part, I want him to still think I’m a genius. (A side note is that he lost it again to a pike the next evening, and we weren’t as lucky the second time.) Once again in our tents that night, the mosquito serenade was at full throttle. Wednesday morning after our caffeine ritual, we had a breakfast of biscuits and sausage gravy, with hash browns. It was going to be another fish meal for dinner, so the pressure was on to catch walleye (hopefully) for the frying pan. Kim and I decided to head back east to our honey hole. The other two guys had told us that they had caught bunches of smallmouth on 6” lizards. (Soft plastic bait) I had tried them the day before but had not even gotten a bite. I found out later that the lizards I bought floated, and since I was using a bullet weight, the lizard was floating up off of the bottom. When I pinched a split shot onto the line to secure the bullet weight, the lizard stayed on the bottom, and the catching frenzy was off and running again. All day on Wednesday, Kim and I caught walleye and huge smallmouth on those 6” lizards. We had fish again for dinner with fried potatoes and onion, plus cheesy garlic bread. Once again we skipped desert because we were about to pop. I was going to bake a big white chocolate macadamia nut cookie, but got no takers. We didn’t hear the mosquitoes outside of the tent that night. Maybe the large hatch of dragonflies was making a difference.
Thursday morning was another breakfast of coffee, along with spiced pancakes, only this time, I fried fresh apple slices in butter, brown sugar and cinnamon. When poured onto a pancake, it made for another tasty breakfast. On this day, the wind was blowing and there was a good chop on the water. All four of us fished our hot area and had another incredible day of catching one fish right after another. A couple of times, Kim and I both had a walleye on the line at the same time. We caught quite a few smallmouth “footballs” and I even hooked something that stayed down at the bottom of the lake and was difficult to budge. After struggling with it for 20 seconds or so, my lure popped out of its mouth. I guess you always have to come home with a story about the big one that got away. That night for dinner, navy bean soup with summer sausage and cornbread was on the menu. Upon paddling the canoe to our parking garage at camp, I asked Kim if he thought a walleye would taste good in the soup. We shoved back out into the water and within 10 minutes, I had another walleye. It did indeed taste good in the soup. The last night of our trip, I always make triple chocolate brownie cake for desert. And you guessed it. Once again, everyone was so full that they passed on the cake. I’ll probably make it when the four of us and our wives get together in a few weeks to review the slideshow of our trip.
Thursday evening after dinner, we saw storm clouds approaching, so we secured the camp and made a dive for our tents just as it hit. For 30 minutes, the wind howled and the rain fell in torrents. When it was over, the sky cleared and we watched as turtles invaded our island to lay their eggs. I suppose they knew that the rain had softened the hard dirt and it would be easier for them to dig a small hole. They certainly are tenacious creatures. It’s difficult to find a spot where a tent peg will penetrate without hitting a rock, but those turtles kept searching, and through trial and error, finally found enough dirt to lay their eggs. We tried our best to be careful and not disturb them, however, I finally had to pick one up as it was on its way to the water, and show the others how beautiful they were colored on their underneath.
Friday morning, everyone opted to skip breakfast, (not including coffee of course) and head out. We were scheduled to be picked up at Hook Island at 3:00 that afternoon. Even though we left our campsite at 8:00, we knew it would be a tough paddle back because the waves were already almost white capping. I wasn’t looking forward to the paddle across Cache Bay. We fought the wind through Saganagons and slowly made our way to Silver Falls. After making the portage, we realized there was no time to rest if we were to make Hook Island in time. At the end of the narrow passage from Silver falls, ahead we could see the water rolling and boiling in Cache Bay. We all looked at each other and made one of those big cartoon character gulps. The wind was blowing hard from the West and sometimes the Southwest, so we knew it was going to be tough. We gritted out teeth and headed into the churning water. We did our best to keep the canoe at a 45 degree angle to the wind and waves. We thought by paddling this way, the wind would push us over toward Cache Point where we could turn west and be blown to Hook Island. We slightly miscalculated the wind, and ended up close to the ranger station, so we took the opportunity to rest on the dock for a brief moment, and talk to Janice once more. She was excited to learn about us hearing the whippoorwills, and wrote down information we told her. She said some biologists were doing a study on the birds in the area. We were glad we could help. After buying a couple of t-shirts, we climbed back into our canoes and headed east. With the wind behind us, we made it to Hook Island very fast. We arrived ten minutes before 3:00 and the tow boat was already waiting for us. After a nice warm shower and phone calls home, we had dinner that night again at the Gunflint Lodge. We treated ourselves to steak that melted in our mouths and then took a relaxing walk along their dock. Our trip was over, and the only thing left was one more night of sleep in the bunkhouse.
Saturday morning, we left Seagull at 6:00, took pictures of a moose along the road, and had breakfast at the Blue Water Café in Grand Marais. It was foggy out over Lake Superior that morning and it was beautiful. After a few final pictures, we climbed into the van and headed back home. I already have plans for the next trip, and I know I shouldn’t do this, but I catch myself…wishing the year away.