Boundary Waters, Trip Reports, BWCA, Stories

Where The Loons Never Left Us: Saganaga to Seagull June 2013
by SaganagaJoe

Trip Type: Paddling Canoe
Entry Date: 06/26/2013
Entry Point: Saganaga Lake (EP 55)
Exit Point: Seagull Lake (EP 54)  
Number of Days: 5
Group Size: 9
Trip Introduction:
This is not a typical trip report; although you will get a flavor of the canoe country on the Sag to Seagull loop, the value of this story is in the story of emotions and relationships it presents. Some may relate. The actual length of the trip is five days, but I had to divide the report up in parts to include everything. This was my first BWCA trip. I also want to emphasize that the difficulties we experienced were ultimately NOT caused by our route NOR by our outfitters. Seagull Outfitters treated us like kings and I highly recommend them. I would also do this loop again in a heartbeat. Don't let this report scare you away from canoe country, just be aware of what you could experience and then find joy as you experience it.
Part 1 of 15
The Vision Comes

It was a normal day, one of those days where nothing was going wrong. The sun was shining, which in Washington state is always a welcome sight. I was making progress on my school work and was headed downstairs to the library. I don’t remember what I was going to get. I am Joseph Pates, and I live in Steilacoom, a small town south of Tacoma, Washington, with my family. I descended the stairs to the basement and was headed to the book case when all of a sudden, out of the blue, a thought struck my mind. “Why don’t you take a canoe trip to the Boundary Waters?” For that thought to make sense, I need to explain a couple of things.

Both of my parents were born and raised in Minneapolis, Minnesota, where my grandparents and most of my family still lived. At the time of this event, my mother’s dad had been retired from his job as a school teacher for about twelve years. Back in the 1970s when he was just starting his career, a colleague of his had the bright idea of starting a summer school course called “Growing Inside, Outside.” This course involved taking a group of students up to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area in the northeastern corner of Minnesota. Just in case you haven’t heard of it, the Boundary Waters Canoe Area (BWCA) is located in northeast Minnesota and consists of a million acres of lakes and virgin forest. In days gone by, the fur trapping industry used portions of the Boundary Waters to bring their precious cargoes of fur to trading posts. After fires and logging had taken their toll on some areas, and industrialization began to threaten the wilderness, some faithful conservationists succeeded in convincing the federal government to designate the Boundary Waters a nationally recognized wilderness. Today, people from all over the world come to paddle the Boundary Waters. Many of the lakes are connected to each other by rough trails through the forest called portages. Most of these lakes are paddle only, with no motorboat access. Paddling is most often the only way to reach these secluded lakes.

My grandpa helped teach this summer school course for five years. This involved taking two groups of students to the Boundary Waters each summer. A three week training period would precede the trip where the students would learn wilderness skills and build up their physical strength and stamina with exercise. Then, the group would drive about six hours north from Minneapolis to the BWCA, which is right up on the Minnesota-Canada border. Once they had received their supplies from their outfitter, each group would spend five days traveling from lake to lake, carrying all their equipment, and learning basic wilderness skills and teamwork. Years after his time teaching in this role, Grandpa also took two trips with my mother and uncle and friends.

Eventually, Grandpa retired from a thirty-four year teaching career, and in his retirement began writing books that told the story of his life. The second book he wrote was called Growing Inside Outside, and was about his years of canoeing in the wilderness as he taught the summer school course of the same name. He took experiences and students from over the five years and, with the help of a friend, wove them all together into a story of adventure that I had read and enjoyed since I was a little boy. My grandpa is one of my closest friends. He and I share a common love of the outdoors. For many years, we had talked about potentially going on a canoe trip, but no one had ever seriously pursued the vision.

All of this to set up for the day the big question popped into my mind. “Why don’t you take a canoe trip to the Boundary Waters?” My first thought was Grandpa. He had just turned seventy-one years old and, although in excellent health and good physical shape, had survived a stroke and a bout of colon cancer. He is not the spring chicken he used to be, although his positive attitude more than makes up for his white hair. For this reason, I responded to myself, “No, I don’t know if Grandpa could do it. What about his health?” My mind surprised me with the answer. “Yes, he can do it. He’s in great shape! Come on, man. Don’t you really want to go and experience it with him now, while he’s still healthy?”

My wheels were working now. Suddenly, all of my mental resistance broke down. I almost cannot explain how it happened. I went from my years of saying “no way” to wanting this trip almost more than I had ever wanted anything. I was no longer satisfied with reading about it. I wanted to experience it! I returned to my work and my life, but the thought kept popping into my head. It just wouldn’t leave. As I processed it more, I realized that the trip would be a meaningful gift that Grandpa could give to me, perhaps to commemorate my eighteenth birthday or high school graduation. But was this still a good idea?

Sharing the Vision

I kept my vision to myself for a few weeks before sharing it with my mother, who along with my father is the springboard for my most important ideas. I wanted to share the idea with several other people before bringing it to Grandpa. Dad was on call, and I was keeping Mom company while she worked at her desk. “Mom, I need you to hear me out on an idea that’s been mulling around in my mind for a while,” I began leaning back in my chair. She looked at me and nodded. “A really interesting idea struck my head the other day. I’m thinking about taking a trip to the Boundary Waters with Grandpa next summer.” “Really?” “Yes. When the thought came to my mind, my first thought was Grandpa’s health. However, I know he could still do it.” “Totally.” “Besides that, I realized that God is sovereign, and that He has foreordained all of Grandpa’s days.” “Absolutely correct. Besides, if he did die, could the Lord pick a better place for the man to die?” Mom exclaimed. “I thought we could take along some other people and do the same route that Grandpa wrote about in Growing Inside Outside. I’m doing this because I really want to experience the Boundary Waters with Grandpa before his age doesn’t allow him to come along. I think it would be a meaningful gift that Grandpa could give to me, and I feel like this trip would be a real blessing for him. Do you think I should go for it?” I asked. “Absolutely!” she said. “Go for it!” Mom had been to the Boundary Waters with Grandpa and knew the challenges we’d face. We talked for a while longer about various matters of the trip, including who would go along and how I would go about presenting the idea to other people. Shortly after that, I consulted my father. He was honest with me. “I didn’t have a good time when I went to the Boundary Waters,” he cautioned me. “It rained all the time and was really hard work.” “I’m ready for that,” I stated confidently. “If that’s what you want to do, then you can do it,” he replied. I respect my dad very much. Although he doesn’t feel the same way about the outdoors as I do, my dad loves me and is very generous with me.

Several weeks later, I was in my hotel in Las Vegas, on a business trip with my dad. Dad was down at his conference, and I was up in the hotel room. It was a Sunday morning, and I didn’t have much to do. I gave my cousin Ryan a call on my cell phone. As I talked to him, I looked out the window towards the Las Vegas airport and the Nevada mountains beyond the airfield. “What’s up, man?” I asked him. “Not much. I had another crazy night out working with the television crew. No one would do their jobs. I had to holler a little,” he chuckled. “I had this idea the other day and I wanted to hear your opinion on it. You got a few minutes?” “Shoot, man.” We talked for a long time that day about my vision, and the long and short of it is that Ryan was skeptical about the idea. “I don’t know. What about Grandpa? We don’t want him to have a heart attack or something,” Ryan stated. “That was my initial thought too! However, as I thought about it, I realized that Grandpa’s in excellent shape and should be just fine,” I responded. “Isn’t that route a little long?” “Grandpa did it, didn’t he? Ryan, this is a lot more about Grandpa than it is about me. Think about how much a trip like that would bless him.” We talked for a long time about the trip, going over some potential plans. He was unsure if we could pull it off, but agreed that the upcoming summer was the time to take the trip. I told him to talk to his parents about it and that I’d be in touch with him.

Back in Washington, I talked to Aunt Becky, Ryan’s mom, about the trip when she called me on my birthday. She was a bit more receptive than Ryan was but still spoke of the need for further planning, and the need for some other adults besides Grandpa to come along. I agreed. As we finished our conversation, I told her to ask Uncle Mike, Ryan’s dad and Mom’s brother, about the trip and to get back to me. I didn’t hear back from them for several weeks. In the meantime, Grandpa and Grandma Hall came for a long visit over Christmas. The day after they arrived at our house, I went down to the guestroom where Grandma was sitting in her chair. “Grandma, do you have a minute?” I asked as I sat down. “Sure, Joe," she replied, staring at me over the rims of her glasses. “I was thinking a couple of months ago about a meaningful 18th birthday present that you and Grandpa could give me. I thought Grandpa could take me to the Boundary Waters and we could do the same route that Grandpa did in Growing Inside Outside.” “You think that, huh?” The fact that I didn’t get a flat no was a good sign. I had originally thought that if anyone would say no, it would be Grandma. That’s why I wanted to ask her before I talked to Grandpa. I didn’t want Grandpa to be bummed out if we couldn’t go. “Yeah, I really think he could do it.” “Oh, there’s no question that he could do it.” My heart raced. “Is that a yes then?” I asked excitedly. “I guess.” I was overjoyed, and wasted no time hurrying to tell Grandpa, who was sitting in the other room doing his devotions.

“Grandpa, an idea came to mind a while ago that I want to share with you.” I said sitting down on the couch next to him. “What is it, Joe?” “You’ve been telling me about the Boundary Waters for a long time. I decided a few months ago that I want to see it for myself.” “You’re kidding!” “No, I’m serious! The idea just came to mind one afternoon. All of my resistance and worry about your health and bears and everything just broke down.” “Do you think it was the Holy Spirit?” Grandpa asked. “I don’t know. Maybe. I was thinking that this would be a meaningful birthday present that you could give me. I’ve shared the idea with Ryan too. I was thinking we could take the route that you took with your students in Growing Inside Outside.” “The Boundary Waters is beautiful, and the trip can be fun at times, but it’s no picnic,” Grandpa stated seriously. “Yes, I know. Your book told me that much. I’m prepared for that, though.” “Well, Joe, you have a great vision. Let’s commit the idea to prayer for a few weeks and see what happens.” I agreed to do this. The idea then took a back seat over the Christmas holiday.

However, all of a sudden, the idea came back to the front of the line again and started to become a reality. “You know, if you’re going to go to the Boundary Waters next summer, you need to make reservations right now,” Grandma told us. “Those permits fill up fast.” “Okay, Grandma, we’ll do that,” I said excitedly. A couple of phone calls went back and forth with Mike and Becky. We finally heard from them, and they tentatively agreed to the idea only on the condition that Grandpa and I would plan it and sort out all the details. This we agreed to do.


Grandpa and I sat down at the computer in my parents’ bedroom to start researching outfitters for our trip. I asked Grandpa to pray before we began. “Father, we thank you for this idea and we pray that you would help us as we plan this trip. If you open the doors for us to go there, we will praise You and bring You glory. Help us sort out all the details.” Grandpa prayed. “Amen!” I echoed as I pulled up the Internet and typed “BWCA Outfitters” in the search box. A list of names came up. Grandpa and I looked through them and found one called “Seagull Outfitters.” We looked at their website. They were located on Seagull Lake on the Gunflint Trail side of the Boundary Waters, which was the general area we were planning to camp in. After examining some of our other options, we decided to write an e-mail and ask Seagull Outfitters some questions. I sent them an e-mail outlining our route and asking them about their rates.

We promptly heard back from Deb Marks, the owner and operator of Seagull Outfitters. She told us our route was a good one. However, we would be on the move every day. “What do you think, Grandpa?” I asked. “The way I see it, you have to keep moving every day to fully appreciate the Boundary Waters,” he replied. “Part of what brings the team together is the setting up and taking down of camp each day.” “Let’s do that, then,” I said, looking back at the note, “It says right here that Seagull Outfitters offers a complete outfitting service. She has included a list of what’s involved in the full outfitting.” “If we were able to buy or borrow some of the equipment, we could save a little money,” Grandpa acknowledged. “I still think we should get a complete outfitting, though. What we’re paying for is the convenience factor. We don’t want to have to deal with anything other than our clothes and fishing gear.” We decided to go with Seagull Outfitters and a few days later called them up. Grandpa was on the phone, and Mom and I were listening in to help him out if he needed it. Deb and Grandpa small talked for a while before getting down to business. Of course, Grandpa told her about Growing Inside Outside.

Deb suggested that we reserve slots for five people since we were not yet sure about the final size of our party. This involved making a five hundred dollar deposit. We could sort out any balances later on. When we hung up the phone that day, we had a five day trip scheduled from June 26 to 30. Our package would include a night in their bunkhouse the day before we began, food, sleeping bags, tents, sleeping pads, Duluth style packs, canoes, paddles, life vests, stoves and fuel, and all of the other equipment we would need. Seagull Outfitters would also take care of the necessary permits. Grandpa and I were both so excited. Over the next couple of days, we arranged some further details with Seagull. They sent us a menu form, which we filled out. Shortly after we arranged these final details, Grandpa returned to his home Minneapolis.

We had tentatively decided on a route that covered a lot of ground and took us through some of the most scenic and picturesque country in the Boundary Waters. Some large fires had affected portions of our route, so by traveling deeper into the wilderness we would escape the places where the flames had left their mark. Our route began at the end of the channel on Saganaga Lake, where our outfitter would start us, and wove through the islands. We would camp the first day at American Point, where Grandpa and his students had always camped. On the second day, we would paddle down through Saganaga Lake’s three bays and, after a short lift-over portage, through a small lake called Swamp Lake. We would then take a portage called Monument Portage which ran directly on the Minnesota-Canada border. After a short paddle through Ottertrack Lake (once called Cypress Lake), we would take a second portage to Ester Lake, where we would camp on the second night. On the third day, our group would paddle through a small channel at the far end of Ester Lake into Hanson Lake, and then portage from Hanson Lake to the south arm of Knife Lake. From Knife Lake we would tackle four portages and three small lakes (Eddy, Jenny, and Annie Lakes) before arriving at Ogishkemuncie Lake, where we would camp on the third night. On the fourth day, we would take two portages and camp on Jasper Lake, which was one of Grandpa’s favorite places in the Boundary Waters. Finally, on the fifth day we would portage into Alpine Lake, and from there to Seagull Lake. After paddling the full length of Seagull Lake, we would enter a small channel and end right at the outfitters’ dock. This was essentially the same route that is described in Grandpa’s book. Early on, we were not sure of exactly who was coming with us. Regulations stated that only nine people per group were allowed into the park. I had originally envisioned the trip as an all-guy trip including myself, Grandpa, my uncle Mike, my cousin Ryan, and a couple of Grandpa’s brothers and friends. Back in Minnesota, Grandpa started asking around. Chris Erickson agreed to come, but didn’t end up coming because we ran out of slots, as will soon be described. Chris was one of Grandpa’s former students who went on the original Boundary Waters trips with Grandpa. These trips sparked a friendship between Grandpa and Chris that has lasted ever since. Grandpa’s brothers Steve and Jon weren’t able to join us either.

Jared Johnson, Grandpa’s good friend and “nephew-in-law” enthusiastically agreed to come with us. For many years, Jared had read Grandpa’s books to his elementary school students. He was excited about the trip and was looking forward to the good time we were planning on having.

One evening some time later, I walked into Mom and Dad’s room to say good night to Mom. My dad was working that night, which gave me an opportunity to sit and talk with my mom late into the night. God has used these late night talks to sanctify me and help me clarify my vision. “You know, Joseph, I’m thinking that Jesse should go to the Boundary Waters with you and Grandpa,” Mom began. Jesse was my little nine year old brother. A year earlier, I had decided to move him into my room so that I could give him some manly character instruction and begin the process of helping him overcome his immaturity. Jesse had a good heart, but was impulsive and did not always think before speaking. He was also a ball of energy and never seemed to stop moving unless he was sleeping. He reminds me so much of Grandpa. “I’m not sure that would be a good idea. If anything happened to him, Dad would kill me!” I responded. Dad really loves Jesse. They have a very special relationship. Mom laughed, seeing the element of truth in my statement. “Oh, he’ll be just fine. I’m sure he’ll behave himself, and it will be good for him to be with all of you praising the Lord up there.” I wasn’t so sure, but Mom finally convinced me that it was a good idea. She is very discerning and wise. "Bringing Jesse with you will knit your hearts together," Mom said, looking deep into my eyes and my soul. "You will treasure the memories you make with Grandpa Hall and reminiscing with Jesse will allow you to relive the experience when Grandpa is in heaven." I had always wanted to be a good big brother, but I often got frustrated with Jesse and was hard on him because I saw so much potential in him. Here was an opportunity to bless him in a big way. Mom was right. I had to take Jesse. How could I deprive him of these precious times with Grandpa? This trip had the potential to make a lifelong impact on him, and mold him into a man just like his grandpa, who was a godly man and loved Jesus from his toes. “All right, you convinced me, but I need to see some impressive character growth on his part if I’m going to take him.” I stated emphatically. “All right. We’ll tell him he can go this summer if he matures.” Mom finished. Jesse was extremely excited when he heard that he was going to come to the Boundary Waters with me. Just the fact that Jesse knew his brother was willing to take him on a trip worked wonders for his maturity. Over the next few months, I did see some impressive character growth in him. I was glad he was coming with me. Little did I know how much the whole team would appreciate having Jesse along. He was more mature than I knew.

I still could not get a straight answer from Mike and Becky. They had agreed to the idea but were taking a long time to make a decision about the trip. Mike had to figure out if he could get the vacation time, and I was still not sure if he wanted to come along in the first place. In March, we finally heard that Mike had decided to come along, and that he wanted to bring not only Ryan but Becky, Rachel, and Amy as well. (Rachel and Amy were Ryan’s sisters.)

Grandpa and I called our outfitter and made the necessary reservations. We had already received our entry permit. Our group then would consist of Grandpa, Jesse, Mike, Becky, Ryan, Rachel, Amy, Jared, and me. As time went on, I continued to make most of the contact with Deb, sending frequent e-mails with questions and information as I sorted out the details. I bought a book about canoe camping and a Boundary Waters map, studying both to gather information. I reserved three four-person tents (so everyone would have plenty of room) and one two-person tent. We decided to take aluminum canoes for the added stability, and I reserved three two-seater canoes and one three-seater. I also scheduled several phone conversations with Deb and, in the course of those conversations, ensured that we had everything we needed. I called Grandpa and Becky often, answering their questions and keeping them updated. I’m describing in these few paragraphs what actually took about six months. I didn’t mind the responsibility and did my best to make sure I didn’t leave any stones unturned.

Of course, I continued to do my school work, although I still don’t know how I managed to do it. The trip we were going to take was constantly on my mind. Spring came and I began my work of caring for my neighbors’ lawns, earning the necessary funds for purchases I had to make. As spring went on, I began to prepare for the trip. I collected a lot of old clothes from around our house (for myself and Jesse). I purchased two collapsible cups, a good knife, and a very nice lensatic compass, mailing them ahead of me to Grandma’s house. I also bought a small banjo that I could bring with me on the trip, and my sisters and Grandma made a waterproof case for it. I somehow indicated to my long shore men neighbors that I needed a new pair of rubber boots, and one afternoon they stopped in front of my driveway, called my name, threw a box out of their car window, and tore off to their house. It contained a brand new pair of steel toe rubber boots. I was ecstatic. I also continued to cover the trip in prayer. I wanted our experience to be a time of fellowship, joy, and blessing for all of us, but especially for Grandpa, who was generous enough to pay for the trip. He was probably the most excited of all of us, except for me.

In the meantime, back in Minnesota, Mike was able to obtain the necessary vacation time for the trip. He too started purchasing rain gear and other gadgets. He sat down with Grandpa and went over our route on the computer with him, describing the altitude changes and distances on the route we had picked, which he thought was too challenging. Time would tell how wise Mike’s advice actually was. Grandpa made the decision to stick to our original plan, but did agree to camp closer to the outfitters to allow for a shorter paddle on the last day. We wouldn’t get to camp on Jasper Lake, which Grandpa was a little bummed out about, but that was all right.

The excitement of what lay ahead was thrilling my soul with joy. I realized as I was thinking about the trip that we would be taking the trip exactly forty years, almost to the day, after Grandpa had taken his first Boundary Waters trip with his students. I endured the wait with a bad case of the wilderness bug.

Time flew by and soon it was time to leave. I packed my suitcases. My mother drove my brother Jesse and I up Interstate 5 to Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. Two hours later we were on our flight to Minneapolis. Our adventure was just beginning. Jesse and I would never be the same. Mom walked us in and watched us while we went through security. Jesse did everything I did in perfect rhythm. When I took my shoes off, he took off his, and when I put my bags on the belt, Jesse followed suit. We walked slowly through the security gate, turning around to wave at Mom. I noticed tears in her eyes. I think she knew she was sending her little boy home, and he was going to return a little man. She didn't know that she was sending home a young man who would come home with his life and character changed as well.