Ottertrack, Cherry, Hanson
Janella and I headed north early on Saturday so we could take our time and explore along the North Shore. We hiked around several waterfalls we had not been to before; our favorite of the day was Glen Avon Falls on the Beaver River. It's not a high waterfall - more of an extended rapids, but has its own unique beauty and solitude. After a brief stop for some wood-fired pizza in Grand Marais, we headed up the Gunflint Trail to Little Ollie Guest House, a quiet and secluded place to spend a night about halfway up the trail.
Glen Avon Falls, Beaver River
We woke early to our phone alarms - a little extra early as we were about to find out - and headed out in the cool morning air to make our way to Seagull Outfitters and our tow. When I started the van, the clock read one hour earlier than on our phones - although we didn't have any service up here, apparently Verizon had decided we were already in Canada! After a 45 minute trek to Seagull, we were ready for our tow and Deb was happy to accommodate us a little earlier than planned, so we headed out across Saganaga on a shuttle out to Honeymoon Island next to American Point where Lucas dropped us off. In the past I've been dropped off right on the rocks on American Point, but I actually prefer Seagull's drop-off on Honeymoon Island because the landing is much better.
We headed down the border through first, second, and third bays and then into Swamp Lake and across Monument portage. It was sunny and a little breezy, all-in-all a beautiful day for canoeing, especially across Ottertrack Lake, one of my favorite BWCA lakes. We had seen a lot of canoe traffic, so we took the first open site we found, just past the Gijikiki portage. It's a nice site overall, but there are not a lot of good tent pads. Our tent pad was nice and level but a little tight for the tent, which turned out to be perfect for the couple of cool and windy days we spent there. After setting up camp, the afternoon and evening were spent fishing and exploring the area. Nice walleyes and smallmouth were caught right along shore in 10-15 feet of water just before the Gijikiki portage.
The portage trail offered an opportunity to stretch our legs and enjoy the scenery while scouting the trail to see if we wanted to head that way later. The trail has a steep section, but overall would not be not too bad if it was dry. The heavy rains had left a healthy section of water and mud just over the crest of the hill. We took a look at Gijikiki from the shoreline and then headed back down the portage, taking a short detour at the crest of the hill to climb just a bit up and to the West to look out over Ottertrack, before heading back to camp.
Monday started with a brief storm, keeping us in camp most of the morning. Eventually it turned sunny and breezy again, so we headed out to explore and fish the west end of the lake and then did the small loop through Little Knife and back into Ottertrack once again. The day was uneventful, fishing was slow under the bright sun, and our campsite and a chilly swim were calling us. The highlight of the day occurred that evening as a family of loons with two youngsters took shelter from the wind in the little bay right at the edge of camp, teaching them to dive and fish. The "kids" happily ate the small fish that were offered to them, but when mom retrieved a prickly crayfish and offered it to one of the kids, it crawled out and plopped back into the water twice before mom had enough and fed it to the other. We retired to a sunset over the Canadian shoreline that mirrored the color of the flames from our warm campfire.
Sunset over Canada
Tuesday began cold and blustery and we broke camp, eager to see Cherry Lake and to warm ourselves with some paddling. Our exploration of the Gijikiki portage had convinced us to take the longer route through Amoeber and Topaz, so we set out to the South and West, arriving on Cherry Lake before 11 am only to find both campsites recently occupied - time to change the plan. The cliffs were awesome as advertised, but we needed to move on and find a campsite on Hanson Lake. This is a challenging portage that climbs steeply and descends steeply with just a short rest in the middle. The trail was muddy and slippery, adding to the challenge, but soon enough Hanson Lake came into view and our campsite was located in the northern section.
Camp was set, we ate and rested, then went out looking for some lakers. This was Janella's first time fishing for lakers and I was really hoping she would catch a few...it didn't take long. On our first trolling pass her pole bent, she set the hook and commenced her first fight with a laker coming up from about 40 feet below. After landing and untangling the 22" laker that had wrapped itself in slack line, it was released back to the cold depths. Circles through the same area repeated the same result every time - always a nice laker, and always on her line. The smallest fish went on the stringer for a baked lake trout dinner over the campfire. Unfortunately, the sky opened up on us off-and-on through the evening, including during filleting, firebuilding, and eating. As we headed into the tent for the evening, I discovered that the day of paddling, portaging and cutting up firewood while wearing raingear had not been followed-up with a swim to get clean, so it was time for a moonlight dip. Swimming in the dark, cold night over 30 feet of cold water was a bit eerie and not an experience I'd like to repeat often, but climbing into a warm sleeping bag for a comfortable night's sleep made it worthwhile.
First laker on
Wednesday morning was sunny and calm and we decided to take a day trip to The South Arm of Knife Lake and check out Eddy Falls. There were three large groups spread everywhere around the portage landing when we arrived at the South end of Hanson. Fortunately, they made room for us to pass through and we quickly left them behind. On the South Arm, two 4 pound smallmouth attacked our spoons as we cruised over a 40 foot deep submerged point; shortly after we picked up a laker and a walleye. Toe Lake was calling us to the South to escape the large, loud groups that had now caught up to us. Toe is small and somewhat weedy, but beautiful and has a remote feel that is surprising for one short portage from South Arm. The campsite is small and not often used, but made a pleasant lunch stop. We fished around the East end of Toe, catching pike, smallmouth, and largemouth bass before continuing out the South portage.
A stiff breeze from the West met us on South Arm and we had to abandon fishing in favor of paddling to reach Eddy Falls. The falls are beautiful, but during the early afternoon, with a crowd of raucous kids climbing in the falls and 'parents' carving their names into trees with their pocketknives then teaching their children to do the same, we couldn't really enjoy them. We headed back, quartering the waves to the shelter of the north shore where we found calmer water and a tailwind to push us back to the Hanson portage. A brief shower convinced us to land at a nice campsite that was loaded with juicy blueberries, which made a wonderful snack, and we were soon on our way again. Four nice lakers between 24 and 27 inches found my spoon as we cruised the steep shoreline.
South Arm laker
That evening was calm, a rarity on this trip, and Janella was eager to catch a few topwater smallmouth. They were hanging around the inlet from Link Lake and seemingly eager for some topwater action as well.
Ester Lake and a few more trout was our goal for the morning, and we didn't have to wait long. As we headed over a steep drop, Janella let her line down to about 40 feet and almost immediately gave a hard set. I stopped the canoe, conversed briefly about the weather with a passing canoe, and watched as her rod remained doubled over for several minutes before deciding this battle should be filmed. The battle also played out on my depthfinder as the trout was directly below us: she would lift-&-reel and gradually pull the beast upward, then he would dive all the way back to the bottom, straining her wrists and most of all the four precious feet of 8lb monofilament leader connecting the two. Ten minutes later when the battle was decided the breeze had us close to shore and a campsite, the perfect spot for a photo.
Her trophy lake trout
Ester and Rabbit Lakes both yielded a few anticlimactic fish, so we returned to Hanson for an early afternoon swim, some hot food, and rest before heading out for what would be our final fishing of the trip. An eagle in the tree above our tent caught our eye and tolerated our presence beneath, trying futilely for a good picture from a rocking canoe in the dull gray light and wind. The southern basin of Hanson rewarded us well that evening with loons that shadowed our movements, a gorgeous sunset, and more cooperative lakers. Altogether, Janella caught seven that day, with five over 25 inches long. As we lay in the tent, she commented that her forearms and wrists were sore and that seemed reasonable given that most of the day looked like this from where I was sitting.
The fight is on...again
Friday morning we planned to travel back toward our pick-up point so we could have a leisurely final morning and still meet our tow on time. The morning was cold, windy, and raining as we packed up camp under the tarp. The wind was gusting powerfully from the Northeast as we headed across Ester, making any progress challenging. We eventually made the muddy, steep, and slippery portage to Ottertrack, then Monument portage, and the liftover to Sag. The camp in 3rd bay was taken, the camp on Zephyr was taken, 2nd bay also taken. The wind and rain had continued all morning; we were tired, wet, cold, and getting worried as we came through the narrows and into 1st bay to see huge waves pushed by these strong winds the entire length of Sag and down the funnel to crash through the small opening of the bay. Campsite on the East shore...taken; campsite on the west shore...open! The rain and wind continued the remainder of the day, but with the tent set up behind a screen of trees, dry sleeping bags, and lots of warm food, we eventually fought off the shivers and settled in for a cool night.
The wind was still gusting but it had shifted and wasn't shaking our tent like before and we had a tow to catch, so we broke camp and headed out. The wind, now from the Northwest continued to build, but the waves were manageable and as we moved forward, we saw canoes and gear strewn along both shores pulled up anywhere people could take shelter the previous day to wait out the waves: canoes lay sideways and tarps were strung in the trees as windbreaks, tents were poorly erected among the brushy shorelines and a few weary-looking travelers were beginning to emerge. The waves out of Cache Bay were substantial, but we pressed on, arriving at Honeymoon Island an hour-and-a-half early for our tow. The waves were larger here - and still growing - so we were delighted to see a familiar-looking Seagull tow boat make a wide turn to the north of us and head our way. Lucas made the difficult landing in the wind and waves, loaded our gear, then took us on a bumpy ride back across Sag to where Seagull Outfitters had a warm ride and hot coffee waiting as they informed us that the temperature had not reached 50 degrees for the past two days...in late July! A hot shower back at Seagull felt like heaven; they are a wonderful outfitter with great facilities and great service.
Bodies weary and van loaded, we headed down the Gunflint, proud of the teamwork and cooperation that had seen us through the challenges of this trip and drawn even closer together after more than 20 years of marriage.
Evening calm on Hanson Lake