First time to BWCA Seagull Lake - Alpine Lake - Jasper Lake
It didn’t take long before we headed down the road to Gunflint Lodge where we sat outside on the patio next to Gunflint Lake. Across the lake we could see part of the area impacted by the Ham Lake fire of 2007. The fantastic warm evening weather paired perfectly with our tasty food while we double checked our equipment lists and made sure we were bringing along everything we needed for the trip. Once back at the bunkhouse, Dave was asleep within minutes while Jess and I spent some last-minute quality time reassuring our ipad and iphones that we would, in fact, be back for them and would not be leaving them alone forever :)
Friday, August 15th, 2014 TUSCARORA LODGE - - > SEAGULL LAKE - - > ALPINE LAKE We all woke up before our alarms went off, which were set to go off at 6:15am. We had our bags and equipment staged outside the bunkhouse and headed towards the dining hall by 7am. Our partial outfitting package included all-we-could-eat French toast, which I had been looking forward to for at least a week or two. The breakfast did not disappoint as that quite possibly could have been the best French Toast I have ever had. The multigrain bread was thick and the egg batter was thin and didn’t make the bread soggy at all. Fresh strawberries on top made it awesome and yes, I went back for more. It was so good that even Jess ate a couple pieces – and she doesn’t like to eat anything with eggs… or anything even touching eggs, so it was a great start to the day.
By the time we were dropped off at Entry Point # 54 on Seagull Lake, it was close to 8am and we noticed it was fairly breezy – something we were NOT looking forward to since the first trek of our journey has us paddling just over 6 miles across Seagull Lake to our first portage. So far, we were right about the canoe – it did feel much lighter this morning… but that was only because we hadn’t tried picking it up yet… We were finally about to enter the great BWCA Wilderness!
The East half of Seagull Lake had been burned over from the 2007 Ham Lake Fire whereas the West half had been burned over from the 2006 Cavity Lake Fire. We found ourselves wishing we could have seen the area before the burns, but appreciated the substantial growth that had already taken place in the few years since that devastation had occurred.
After a few hours of paddling, we decided to stop at a campground (#444) for a quick break to stretch our legs. This campsite was nice, secluded and overlooked a couple small bays. There weren’t any bugs but it was the middle of the day, sunny and hot. The landing was decent and there were two suitable tend pads. Jess found our first wild raspberries of the trip and they were delicious! We ate handfuls of these fresh deliciousnesses before deciding to continue our journey to the portage.
I soon realized that from a distance, and when looking from water level, differentiating an island from the mainland can be a bit tricky. Because of this, I ‘chose’ to enjoy a slightly longer, more scenic route towards the portage ? However, with the continued headwinds already making this a longer than desired paddling session, the natives towards the front of the boat began to get restless and I could feel Jess and Dave’s ‘dirt-eyes’ staring at me from the backs of their heads. This was our first time on Seagull Lake and although I did have a compass, I hadn’t been using it and was trying to go by the map alone (lesson learned). Eventually, Dave pulled out his cell and looked at the topo maps he had pre-downloaded. Even though his phone was in airplane mode, the internal gps was still able to show us where we were at. So Dave got us headed in the right direction, saving a few more paddling hours and prevented any further unnecessary ‘scenic tours’.
At the portage there were a couple other groups working their way out, so there was a bit of a wait. We helped a few folks ‘dismount’ their canoes from their shoulders and finally it was our turn to conquer the 101 Rod – 1,667 foot portage. Since Dave was the youngest in the group, he ‘volunteered’ to carry the canoe. This portage had been described online as one of the more travelled, wider portages that existed in the BWCA so I had pre-described it to Jess and Dave as a well worn highway of a path. Dave was quick to point out it was nothing like a flat, freshly paved highway he envisioned and was a bit dismayed when he realized steps AND and incline were involved… Jess and I loaded Dave with a couple of the lighter packs + the canoe and he was off. Jess and I took the remaining bags and gear and quickly followed behind. The path really wasn’t too bad (says the folks not carrying the canoe). There were several places where you could get out of the way of oncoming traffic and one guy warned us about some upcoming mud pits we would need to pass through. He said his son, who was carrying a few packs had slipped on a rock, landed in the mud and got stuck like a turtle on its back! Luckily we made it through without doing any turtle-crawling ? After reaching the other end of the portage, we finally made it to Alpine Lake. We were happy to take a break, hydrate and Jess even found some more raspberries for us to munch on. When initially planning our route, we had discussed a much farther destination but since we only had three nights, we decided to just play it by ear and stop where we found a good campsite in order to maximize our fishing and relaxing time. We could immediately see that our first campsite choice was taken, so we paddled over to Alpine campsite #347 and were pleased to find it was available. After cruising around another hour or so looking at other sites, we decided to stick with site #347 and make it our home for the next couple of days. This site has an awesome landing and several different points from which we could fish from. There were a few trees for shade but it was also open which allowed the breeze to keep away most of the bugs. Jess found several raspberry and blueberry patches- what a great time of year to be camping, these are delicious!
We quickly got the tents and tarp setup and got back in the water to get to the fishing. It takes a bit of practice to get used to paddling a canoe into a headwind with a few fishing poles. It was still sunny, clear and hot, which I don’t think the fish appreciated very much because we didn’t have much luck that first evening while fishing from the canoe. Dave and I made it back to camp where Jess had chicken fajitas ready to rock with some fantastic St. Paul Flatbread Co. flatbread and garlic sauce. It was a delicious feast and our bellies were quite full. Not long afterwards we smartly thought we should get a fire going and put some water in pots over the fire to boil so we could have a bunch of drinking water. Soon after we got a fire started, we felt the first few drops of rain. Whatever was in the air, those raindrops really liked because they reproduced like mad and pretty soon we ran off into our tents and enjoyed the huge raindrops and torrential downpour from this intense lightning and thunderstorm, leaving the pots of water over the fire. It was a powerful storm with very strong winds but we had done a good job setting up the camp and nothing blew away and we all stayed dry. It was hot in the tents and sleeping bags weren’t needed, except as padding to protect from the rocky surface we were laying on.
Saturday, August 16th, 2014 ALPINE LAKE The following morning we all woke up a bit stiff from Fridays paddling extravaganza so Dave and I did some fishing from shore around the campsite. We started to get a bit thirsty and thought no problem, we have all this water that was boiled… Well apparently, leaving pots of water sitting over a steamy campfire extinguished by a thunderstorm actually produces water that tastes like liquid smoke! This put quite a damper on our Crystal Light flavor packets - even two packets couldn’t cut out the smoke taste (bleh). Throughout the day we fished from shore and from the canoe all around Alpine Lake, catching mainly smallmouth bass with a few smaller northerns in the mix. Several bald eagles and even a few eagles nests were spotted throughout the lake. That day, Dave caught the most fish and two were really nice bass that were big enough to feed us all. We held on to them for a while but ended up releasing them back into the wild later on, thinking “we’ll catch more” lol. Lunch consisted of turkey sloppy joes and once again, our bellies were stuffed. We certainly weren’t going to starve on this trip!
Dave and I did a real good job at keeping out lures at the bottom, which is code for: we snagged a bunch of times. In fact, I think Dave and I may have retrieved our own lures more than the fish! Oh well, the water felt great and we were able to successfully get most of the lures back.
All three of us took a day trip around the Northeast side of Alpine Lake, to check out the ‘other’ portage back to Seagull Lake. It was a great trip, aside from the fact that my flip flop broke at the far end of the portage hike and I had to tip-toe the return hike. Dave put Jess on the fish and we saw a great sunset. We just hiked the portage to check it out, but there’s no way we could have made it with the canoe on our shoulders as it’s very overgrown. It was great for a fun hike to see some new scenery!
As the sun began to set and the sky grew darker, we realized there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. Even better was that the largest moon of the year was nowhere to be found. This meant it was a star-gazing extravaganza and the views were amazing. The Milky Way lit up the entire sky above our heads and we watched for hours as it slowly passed overhead, interrupted by the frequent loon calls and occasional shooting stars. In-depth discussions around The Truman Show ran wild, including speculations that we could be unknowing participants as well!
At one point, Dave called Jess and I over to a bluff where he had been intensely staring at something. Very far away on the southwest horizon, amongst a billion stationary stars, Dave pointed out one particular light. We saw it immediately, as it was the only moving object in that part of the sky… except that moving doesn’t really describe what we were seeing. A more accurate description would be an erratic, speedy shift to the left, a pause, then right, another pause, now down, now up, pause, continue… We weren’t really sure what we were seeing but confirmed each of us was really seeing the same thing. After nearly two minutes of this erratic movement, the light just disappeared. We named it ‘Dave’s Mothership’. As odd as that seemed, it was nowhere near as bizarre as what we were about to see… Less than five minutes later, we suddenly noticed a more reddish-than-orange steady light appear near that same area where Dave’s Mothership disappeared. This new light was somewhat similar to the color of Mars, but was certainly not a planet. It moved faster than an airplane (it wasn’t flashing) but slower than a satellite. The movement was not erratic like the previous (whatever-it-was). For several minutes it slowly moved from the southwest corner of our view, eastward on a perfectly horizontal plane, until it stopped almost exactly in the middle of our horizon view to the south. After a few seconds this new light began moving back to the right, and up (northwest?) forming what appeared to be an exact 45 degree angle of travel. Once again we confirmed each of us were seeing the same thing. This light travelled back to what seemed like a position directly north from where it first started, forming an isosceles triangle shape minus the base. At this point the light stopped moving, there was a small flash around the light, and then it was gone!!! I’m sure there will be people who think we are making this all up, but we really have nothing to gain by doing so and no reason to make any of this up. We certainly don’t know exactly what we saw but I doubt we’ll ever forget it.
Sunday, August 17th, 2014 ALPINE LAKE - - > JASPER LAKE - - > ALPINE LAKE Sunday morning was overcast and a little cooler than the previous two days. Dave and I took the canoe out and fished around Alpine, catching the occasional smallmouth and northern – we still couldn’t pull out any walleyes. Next time we’ll be bringing a fish/depth finder for sure… before heading back to the campsite I was able to pull in a fairly large smallmouth bass, one large enough for us to eat so we decided to keep it. At the campsite, we had fantastic breakfast burritos consisting of eggs, crispy hashbrowns, ground turkey meat topped with cheese and wrapped in the flatbread. All of the time and effort preparing most of these meals ahead of time was well worth it as we continued to fill our bellies with great food each day. Today was the day we decided to take a ‘road trip’ and explore the neighboring Jasper Lake which sat a single portage away, to the South-West. We were a little discouraged by the headwinds we would be facing while travelling there but figured the bright side would be a faster return trip since that same nasty headwind would be a fantastic tailwind on the way back… ha! Before getting to the portage we agreed the bass I caught earlier should be our lunch later that afternoon so we stopped at a small, empty island and I began to filet it up. Within a few minutes, a seagull began sounding its food-alarm which then alerted not one, but two bald eagles which landed nearby and intently watched my filet process. When I finished, we figured we should leave the carcass there on the rocks for the eagles. We paddled a short distance away from the rock and watched the events unfold. Eagle 1 quickly flew to the top of the tree directly above where the fish was laying. A few seconds later Eagle 2 flew to a lower branch of that same tree, not too far below Eagle 1. All of a sudden Eagle 1 swooped down and grabbed the carcass and flew off in the other direction. Eagle 2 immediately gave chase and we were all surprised when Eagle 2 suddenly attacked Eagle 1 mid-air and cause the fish carcass to fall to the lake… where the seagull swiped it and flew off before either Eagle realized what had happened! It was amazing to see these giant birds so closely - it felt like we had just taken part in a nature documentary.
The portage to Jasper wasn’t too bad. I carried the canoe while Jess and Dave carried the fishing gear, food bag and campstove.
We passed through that same area a few more times but weren’t able to hook into any more eyes, so we tried for some laker trout, but didn’t find any of them either. What we did find, was that we were tired of the wind and we were getting hungry, so we headed back toward the portage, stopped at an empty campsite and made piles of fresh crispy, crunchy battered bass and walleye fingers, which tasted amazing – we could barely eat them all.
The portage and trip back home were uneventful which probably is a good thing, as we were getting pretty tired from constantly battling the wind for the past six or so hours. Oh, and remember that payoff of putting up with the headwind on the way there because it would be a tailwind on the way back? Yep… that stupid wind changed directions. I still haven’t figured out how it works that way, but we pretty much had a constant headwind no matter which direction we were facing. Now, I wish we would have turned in our seats to face the opposite direction and paddled backwards, just to mess with the wind and see what it would do. Still full from our earlier meal, we decided to skip dinner and enjoy a small fire while indulging in the all time classic camping dessert: S’mores! Delicious!
Before going to sleep, we noticed that Sirlips (from bwca.com) had arrived at the campsite directly across the lake from us. We figured we had done enough paddling for the day so we figured we’d head over in the morning to say hello before heading back to Tuscarora. Monday, August 18th, 2014 ALPINE LAKE - - > TUSCARORA - - > BLACK BEAR CASINO - - > HOME Having gone to bed somewhat early the night before, we all woke up early and mostly refreshed but we were dreading the long return paddle across Seagull Lake. The skies were cloudy, it was misting heavily and storms were brewing for later that night so we made some coffee and got most of our stuff packed up while Jess did her best to make breakfast using up the remaining food. Breakfast today consisted of turkey hot dogs wrapped in croissant rolls and an extra large pot of turkey chili – a perfect way to get our day started!
Jess volunteered to do the dishes so Dave and I could head across the lake to meet up with Sirlips. We paddled over, met his crew and gave them our remaining leeches and crawlers which we had managed to keep in pretty good shape all this time. We wished we had just one more day in the BWCA so we could have hung out and enjoyed the company a bit longer. It would also have been nice to learn what we needed to do differently, to dig up more walleye. The truth is that when Dave and I paddled up to their campsite, Sirlips & Co. were so busy reeling in monster sized fish that we really didn’t have much time to talk (told ya I’d tell everyone!)
All packed up with our packs a bit lighter, we took on the long portage from Alpine to Seagull. Dave volunteered to carry the canoe and no one else tried to talk him out of it. By this time we were experts at packing our stuff and it all went smoothly. Once on Seagull, we were again accompanied by our friend Mr. Headwind. Jess and I seriously prayed for a tailwind, or any wind, that would keep us from being downwind from Dave! It continued to drizzle on our way back and we were really hoping it wouldn’t start pouring rain on us, which is what looked like could happen at any moment. Although the wind wasn’t nearly as bad as the day before it still took us about 3-1/2 hrs to get to the entry point, where we were picked up and brought back to Tuscarora Lodge to separate our gear, pack the car and head out.
As we headed back down Gunflint Road, it began to rain hard and we were grateful we weren’t still out on the water. Since we were on the road earlier than expected, we decided to not stay in Grand Marais and instead head closer to home and see where we end up, which ended up being Black Bear Casino, south of Duluth. You really can’t beat a $60 hotel room which includes a hot tub, heated indoor pool and multiple food + fun options… but best of all there was water that came out of a faucet (no pumping through a filter required), and there was a shower! Which we all needed very badly! We enjoyed ourselves that night and made it home the next day before noon. Considering this was my first time in the BWCA, I’d consider it a complete success. There were many lessons learned and on the drive home we talked about what we would and wouldn’t take next time and we all had good suggestions for how we can do things better. I know we are all looking forward to returning. Next time, we will go deeper into the BWCA and see beyond the fire-burned areas. I’ll miss the tranquility of being off the grid, the regular loon calls, the fresh tasty berries. The feeling of sharing such an amazing experience with such awesome people will be a hard one to beat!