Boundary Waters, Trip Reports, BWCA, Stories

Late September Phoebe Lake
by cooke350

Trip Type: Paddling Canoe
Entry Date: 09/18/2014
Entry & Exit Point: Sawbill Lake (EP 38)
Number of Days: 4
Group Size: 6
Trip Introduction:
After a couple of easy trips earlier this year (Perent Lake in June and Isabella in August), I couldn't wait to do something a little harder with more paddling and portages, more adventure. Since my BWCA trips since I started going 20 years ago have all been pretty easy, I was looking forward to see what else the BWCA had to offer.
In June, I went to Perent Lake with a friend of mine, along with my son Jesse and his friend Garett. That trip was pretty easy, but I think the paddle along Hog Creek is a neat BW experience. Then, in August, I went to Isabella with two of my brother-in-law's, Karl and John. We took my daughter Peytra and Karl's son Zach in on that one for their first BW trip. Yes, a very easy trip, but the kids were able to experience portaging, as well as a short trip to walk in a river and see some rapids. The river walk and rapids turned out to be the highlight of my daughter's trip. All-in-all, both trips were a lot of fun and I'm glad I did them, however, I was really looking forward to the end of September trip!

When we started planning the trip, there was going to be 8 of us... Me, my brother-in-laws John & Karl, John's brother Dave, Dave's friend Chris, Dave's son Hunter, my son Jesse, and Jesse's friend Garett. We were hoping to go to Alice, but when we finally narrowed down the dates, neither entry points 30 or 37 were available. We decided instead, to go in at Isabella and make our way to Phoebe Lake. As we got closer to the date, Chris and Karl had to back out, so we ended up with 6 guys, 3 canoes.

Being a planner, the fun for me starts well before the trip with the planning, packing, upgrading gear, etc. was such a helpful resource for just about everything, including time involved to get to our destination, campsite info, and fishing info, to name a few. Tnthekids posted a trip report about our exact route just a couple weeks before we left, which was perfect timing to learn about what to expect.

My big gear upgrades consisted of two canoe purchases. One was an older Sundowner 18 that needed some serious cleaning, a hole patched, a yoke upgrade, and yoke pads. The other was a Mohawk that just needed a cleaning and some yoke pads. I replaced the metal yoke bar on the Sundowner with a wooden yoke that I made using the Mohawk yoke as a template. I then made removable pads for both, added some new decals to the Sundowner, and voila, I was ready to take on whatever this trip had in store for me! So glad I got these canoes, as the aluminum ones we would have brought instead would've killed us on the portages, especially the 287 rod from Beth to Grace!

Sundowner 18 before and after:

My son's gear upgrade was a Gopro that he brought along to document the trip for a video project at school. I can't wait to see how the video turns out!

Night Before The Trip - We got together at my house to load the canoes and get the packs ready. After John & Dave left, Garett, Jesse, and I hung out in the garage far later than we should have, giving us just a few hours of sleep before having to get up :(

Day 1 - Thursday - Finally here! We met at my place in Proctor at 6am and were on the road at 6:30. A stop at McDonald's in Two Harbors for some breakfast, then to Holiday to top off the tanks. Next stop was Holiday in Tofte for bait, then up the Sawbill Trail to the entry point.

When we arrived at the entry point, another group was loading up, so we took our time to get organized, not wanting to make them to feel rushed. We were on the water at 10:30 paddling with the wind to the first portage. While paddling with the wind is nice, in this case we weren't too excited, knowing that Alton and Phoebe would be into the wind. Oh well, we enjoyed it while it lasted! The first portage into Alton is like a walk in the park, 28 rods, able to see light on the other side. We didn't pack as light as we should've, and a couple guys had to go back for a second trip. No biggie on this portage, but we knew this was going to be a bummer for the longer ones.

Alton was into the wind and the waves. My trial run of both the Sundowner and the Mohawk was on a small sort of river canal sheltered from wind. The only waves were from an occasional boat's wake when they happened to go by. So, this was the true test, how were they going to handle? Surprisingly well! John and I had the Sundowner and were able to cut the waves at a pretty swift pace, never once feeling too tippy. Jesse and Garett had the Mohawk, and although it didn't cut cut the waves like the Sundowner and was slower, it turned out to be extremely stable. Being a dad, I liked knowing that I wasn't going to have to worry about them tipping :)

On the next portage, 151 rod from Alton to Beth, we tried to do the same thing as the first, so that only a couple guys would have to go back for a 2nd trip. After this one, we decided that the rest of the portages, everyone should just plan on going for two trips, so we wouldn't kill ourselves trying to carry too much. Beth was a very pretty lake. The leaves had the most color out of all the lakes on the trip. I was pleasantly surprised at how different the lakes were, with the trees, water clarity, and shoreline structure. It was nice to not see the same sights on each lake.

Beth Lake, just after the portage from Alton:

Now came the biggie, the 287 rod portage from Beth to Grace. It's hard to put it into perspective as to how long this is until you compare it to other things you're familiar with. I believe it's about .9 miles, which is similar to the loop at our campground. I'd never willingly carry a canoe around our loop, and that's a flat, fairly straight hike! After taking two trips on the biggie, we were all getting a little worn down. It was about 3 now, so we decided to take a little break here. Dave filtered some water and John took out sandwich makings for a quick bite. Feeling refreshed, we filled our water bottles and headed out on Grace Lake.

Grace Lake, just after the portage from Beth:

John looking out on Grace Lake:

The paddle on Grace was pretty easy and we were looking forward to the river portages with the thought that we might be able to float the canoes down some of them. We tried it out on the first one, but it turned out to be a bit of a pain, as the water just wasn't high enough. Two of us had rubber boots, so we spent alot of time walking the canoes down, meandering them through the rocks. On the other river portages, we ended up doing a combination of floating and portaging. At the end of the river portages there is a sunken structure, logs built in a rectangle filled with rocks, maybe an old dock? Anyway, it was a pretty neat find.

Jesse pulling the Mohawk and Garett through the river:

Old dock structure in river on portages between Grace and Phoebe:

Last portage was the 85 rod into Phoebe. With the help of tnthekids, I got the location of the waterfall along this portage. Since we really just wanted to get to our campsite, we decided to wait until the way out to see it. We hit Phoebe and Garett caught a nice northern, just under 30" at the mouth of the lake. He set it on the bottom of the canoe and we all headed into the wind to find the campsite at the far south side of the lake. We arrived around 6pm, making it a pretty long day! We checked it out, saw it had 2 good tent sites, so we started making camp. The site had a nice area for the canoes on the east side, which was sheltered pretty well for winds from any direction. I was really impressed with the latrine location nestled among the pines. It's exactly how I'd picture a latrine in the enchanted forest! After setting up camp, since the steaks were still frozen, we ate meat, cheese, and crackers. It actually turned out to be a perfect meal. Pretty tired that night, we all went to bed pretty early.

Garett with a northern:

Day 2 - Friday - I think we were all a little slow getting going today. The weather wasn't the best, windy, overcast, and rainy, so no real hurry for anything. Dave made us some grog in his french press, which is now on my wish list for next year!

*Side note: On our June trip, I percolated some Highlander Grog, and Jesse and Garett fell in love with it. Now, they call all coffee "Grog" so that's what we all ended up calling the coffee, even though it really wasn't grog.*

John cooked up eggs, bacon, and hash browns, then we all went out fishing. The smallies are hot and heavy on Phoebe, too bad I'm not a fan of eating them! We caught enough walleye for a nice fish fry and kept a couple of northern to add to the mix. The steaks were thawed out, so we had a surf and turf feast! Stayed up kind of late laughing and telling stories around the campfire.

Jesse sitting at the fire:

Garett sitting at the fire:

Day 3 - Saturday - Another nasty day, cold, windy, rainy. Part of me wanted to just stay in the tent, but I knew that Dave had some grog going outside, and there's nothing better than hot grog on a cold morning, especially outside camping, especially in the B Dubs! John cooked up pancakes, then we headed out fishing once again.

John and Dave taking care of breakfast and the morning grog:

Another good day of fishing, John ended up catching a very nice walleye, about 24" long. Dave and Hunter pulled in some more walleyes, and Jesse and Garett brought in a stringer of northern and smallies. I never caught a walleye in the two days we fished, but caught some nice northerns and smallmouth that I threw back. They're still fun to catch, I love when the smallies launch out of the water! While out fishing, John & I paddled around and gathered some firewood. We also checked out some of the other campsites on the lake, as we had the lake to ourselves. On one site, the previous campers left a big skull (moose, maybe?) on a stick at the firepit, which was just a little creepy. Made me think of Lord of the Flies.

John's 24" walleye:

Jesse with one of the many smallies that were caught:

That evening was a nice mellow one. The wind died down and we ate some walleye, mac and cheese, as well as kielbasa fried with onions and peppers. We relaxed while sitting around the campfire listening to music. Knowing the next day was going to be a long one getting back out, we all went to bed pretty early.

Fried kielbasa, onions, and peppers

Rocks in the water that reminded me of Angry Birds:

Evening view of the lake from our site:

Day 4 - Sunday - At some point in the night, the wind came back, stronger than ever. I didn't sleep much, listening to the wind howling and waves crashing and branches breaking in the woods. Around 5:30AM, Jesse & I both woke to sounds of canoes being dragged across rocks. I shined my flashlight outside and went out to see John. Even though the canoes were pulled up and somewhat protected, the strong winds slid one of the canoes down and into the water. Luckily, John heard it slide down and retrieved it before it went too far. The sky was super clear and you could see all the stars. It was beautiful, but the wind was so strong and cold that we decided to go back to bed, hoping the skies would still be clear when we got up.

Well, we were disappointed! When we got up around 7, the clouds had moved in and it was nasty out. Huge rollers and whitecaps on the lake coming from the north. We're at the south side of the lake and the portage is, of course, at the north. Not a lot of motivation to get on the lake at this point. I'm almost positive that if any of us had a satellite phone, we would have phoned home to say we were staying another night.

Without that option, we started packing up, but let the boys sleep in a little longer. Breakfast was quick, bagels and breakfast bars. At 9AM, we were paddling with our bows pointed north into the wind and the waves. It wasn't too bad since we didn't have to cut sideways at all, but it was a lot more work than we really wanted to do! If one person stopped paddling, the canoe just stopped moving. By the time we reached the portage, the clouds started breaking up and we could see spots of clear skies. During the portage out, we took a few minutes to check out the waterfall. Again, thanks to tnthekids for the info!

Panoramic of waterfall on portage from Phoebe to Grace:

Waterfall on portage from Phoebe to Grace:

On the short river portages, we each would carry a pack over, then two of us would carry a canoe with the rest of the stuff in it. Worked much better and I'm sure it was quicker than the way in.

Jesse and Garett paddling the river:

Another view of the mysterious dock structure:

Along one of the river portages between Phoebe & Grace:

View along river between Phoebe & Grace:

Grace was a fairly easy paddle. At the portage to Beth, we met up with the group we had met at the entry point going in. While waiting for them in our canoes, we chatted for a few minutes about the weekend. Turns out they were from Minnetonka and their children went to school in Hopkins, where my son is currently living. Always nice to have something in common when meeting strangers.

My knee had been bothering me since portaging on the way in, so I decided to wrap it with an ace bandage before tackling the long 287 rod back to Beth. I made a mental note to add a compression knee brace to my master BWCA list. Also decided to make sure to pack lighter (one trip light) on future trips.

Skipping rocks on Beth Lake after portage from Grace:

On our way in, the fall colors on Beth Lake were beautiful, but I never had a chance to take a picture, so I made sure to snap a few on the way out. Unfortunately, the pictures don't do it justice. The way the sun was shining down on the trees made it look like they were glowing. So vivid. The paddle on Beth was really nice. The sun was shining, most of the wind was blocked, the scenery was amazing, and most of all, the long portage was behind us!

Entering Beth Lake after portage from Grace:

John checking out the fall colors on Beth Lake:

Fall colors on Beth Lake:

The portage from Beth to Alton, although still 151 rods, didn't seem too bad after the 287! The day kept getting nicer and by the time we hit Alton, there wasn't a cloud in the sky. It was just after 1PM now, making better time than on the way in. I'm sure the excitement of hitting the Trestle Inn on the way home had something to do with it! The waves were rolling big from the north on Alton, but we were able to hug the left (western) shoreline most of the way up, keeping pretty sheltered. We spent some time looking at the campsites we passed on Alton and really admired one that had a nice sandy beach.

Alton Lake after portage from Beth:

When it came time to cut east across the lake toward the portage, we did so slowly at an angle so we could keep our bow to the wind. The way the wind was blowing, there was no way around taking some waves to the side, so once we were parallel with the portage, we cut east and went for it. Once again, I was very pleased with how the Sundowner and the Mohawk handled the waves. John got splashed up front a couple of times from some pretty big waves when going forward, but nothing that scared us. We joked about how some of the rollers reminded us of the waves in "The Perfect Storm" movie!

One more portage, then wind at our backs! We were all happy to see Sawbill Lake through the trees. Nothing like finishing with a nice, easy portage on such a beautiful day. We were also thankful that we'd have the wind at our backs for the rest of the trip.

When we arrived at the dock at Sawbill, we spent a few minutes talking to a man and woman who were just loading their canoe for a 5 day trip. The lady said she was from Bulgaria and came to the U.S. just to go into the BWCA! I think it's amazing that people come from all over the world to experience what we have right in our backyard!

After loading the vehicles for the trek back, we spent some time in Sawbill Outfitters. I joked around about buying one of the Wenonah Kevlars they had for sale, but decided that will have to wait until next year.

The crew - Pat (me), John, Garett, Hunter, Dave, Jesse:

On the way back home, we made our much anticipated stop at the Trestle Inn. Once our bellies were filled with greased greatness, we started planning next year's trip :)

Jesse's Trainwreck (With Casualties) at the Trestle Inn:

My Trainwreck (With Casualties) at the Trestle Inn:

Sawbill Lake, Alton Lake, Beth Lake, Grace Lake, Phoebe Lake

Lakes Traveled:   Sawbill Lake, Alton Lake, Beth Lake, Grace Lake, Phoebe Lake,