Boundary Waters, Trip Reports, BWCA, Stories

South to Kawnipi
by Thwarted

Trip Type: Paddling Canoe
Entry Date: 06/06/2014
Entry & Exit Point: Quetico
Number of Days: 8
Group Size: 4
Trip Introduction:
If you read my trip report from last year you will know that I planned to go with a group to Kawnipi from Pickerel (Stanton Bay) and back, in early June. Because of high water at Split Rock falls we turned back after spending two days on Chatterton. It was a fun trip but the fishing was so so and we still had a driving desire to get to experience the walleye fishing for which Kawnipi is famous. We had high expectations as we planned the return trip for 2015
This time two new men would be joining my stalwart paddling partner Sam and me, “to the falls and beyond”! One of the new men Tom, is a friend from church and an avid outdoors man. When I approached him with the idea he was in immediately. Sam and I have established the practice of inviting one man and having that man invite another person he enjoys and who he thinks can handle and enjoy a wilderness canoe trip. The caveat is that the other person has to be approved by both Sam and me before he is “in”. Tom (in this case) then assumes responsibility for making sure the man he picks is committed and actually makes the trip. That is how Sam and I met Tom’s cousin Larry who turned out to be a trip all by himself. We met in a local family restaurant for an early dinner one evening in March. Afterward I told Sam I was not so sure this was a good idea. Larry is a retired navy mechanic who worked on heavy equipment for construction. He has been stationed all around the globe. He is a man with a lot of stories and he loves to tell them. I am thinking he might talk us to death. Sam thought he wpuld be great and he pointed out that Larry has had to deal with some challenges that predict he can handle adversity. I reluctantly agree and Larry is in.

The trip was schedule for May 22-June 1, but then delayed until June 5-15, due to the late spring. We did not want to deal with high water at Split Rock again. We all met at my house on the morning of the 31st for final assembly and packing. We cut new liners for the tent floors and packed gear. Sam and I decided to have everyone bring their own snacks this year. In the past we have provided them but guys like to sneak in their own anyway, because of fear of starvation I guess. Tom and Larry brought about thirty pounds of candy and snacks between them. After they cut that in half I took some of their discards and buried them in one of the food packs in case they ran out. Both Larry and Tom shared liberally during the week and still did not run out. Larry had the job of putting three cups of oatmeal in a zip lock, chopping walnuts and bagging some brown sugar. That would be half our breakfasts. I assembled our dinners and lunches from a variety of sources. Larry also told stories. We have every one bring their personal clothes, fishing gear and sleeping bags and have that all packed up and ready to go. We gave Tom and Larry a number 4 pack and they stuffed it full. We called it the pregnant cow and really gave them grief. We also had personal day packs. Sam made us all envious with a brand new Frost River, Isle Royal pack.

Far left..Sam and me (R) right...Larry (R) and Tom

On Thursday the 5th Tom and I met Sam at his house at 6 AM. Sam has lots of room for parking cars and we were taking his Suburban. I had gone there the night before to load my canoe and the rest of our gear that we packed on Saturday. We picked up Larry near his house on our way north out of Grand Rapids, Mi and we were off. As we crossed the Mackinaw bridge Larry and Tom told us stories about climbing on the Mackinaw bridge when they were kids. At that time you could access the bridge from underneath and one night they sneaked away from a campground and climbed all over the thing. Crazy!!! These are the risk takers we are bringing on a canoe trip?

Except for gas, the border and food we drive. We did make one side visit to Agawa Provincial Park to look at the pictographs there which are amazing. The area itself is amazing and I can understand why it elicited such awe in the past inhabitants.

We arrived safely in Thunder Bay and spend our first night in the Thunder Bay Inn, which is OK but breakfast was not available when we left at six the next morning. If you use them I suggest you request a room in back where there is a stand of pine and very quiet even though there is a Wal Mart or something next door and the road in front is fairly busy

Friday the 6th we arrive at the French Lake station to pick up our permit just after they open. Then we went to Moose Camp to get a second canoe. The canoe was an old Souris River but serviceable and I had brought extra paddles from home including my wife’s brand new Whiskey Jill that we planned to use as a spare. We like taking our own paddles because most outfitters don’t care about such details but they are significant to us. We want the people we bring along to have a quality experience, and that requires good equipment.

This is the first time we have used Moose and I am stunned to discover that he does not accept credits cards. Between the canoe rental and his shuttle services he will drain us of cash. I am embarrassed to have to ask the guys for their cash but they are good sports and we are on our way soon enough. Good thing I paid for our permit with a credit card. By noon we are on the water and headed toward Dore. Sam and I have been this way the year before so it is familiar and we are glad to be going back. I am paddling with Larry and he talks non-stop. He does not seem to be able to handle silence and I am beginning to be concerned. At one point he is so engrossed in his story he put down his paddle and I had to remind him to keep paddling. We arrive on Dore around four o’clock and found the nice site (17T) on the east side point. Steaks, asparagus, and potatoes for dinner.

Resting after dinner on Dore

Saturday the 7th we are up early and on our way to Keats. We have to paddle the Deaux Riveres and I am hopeful of seeing Moose so I suggest to Larry that we keep quiet for that stretch. He does real well so that by the time we get to Sturgeon I am OK with a story or two. It helps that his stories are punctuated with appreciation of his surroundings and that we have some things in common. About half way down Sturgeon he put down his paddle to talk and I had enough stories. I asked him (gently) to just be quiet for a while and paddle and he did. So I learned that he could shut it off. After that we did just fine and very soon I really came to enjoy and respect him. In ten days I never heard the same story twice.

Where the Sturgeon Narrows flows from western Sturgeon Lake we ran into a solo who had been to Kawnipi the week before. He told us what I hate to hear about any lake I am going to. “The fishing was fantastic last week. Caught five “eyes” just looking for a camp site.”

The Russell River was pretty high, which was a source of concern, but not as high as last year which was a source of hope. Sam and Tom opted right away to head to the right to go around the island that sits where the river flows out into the Narrows. Just to see if we could do it I decided to try to go left of the island which is the shortest route but right into the current. No dice. I wasted a good bit of Larry’s and my energy with that stunt and got us into a bit of a pickle. As we progressed up the river, whirlpools kept pushing us to our left and toward the strongest current near the far bank. Meanwhile we were running out of paddling gas and stalled upstream from and facing away from a big snag. Sam said later that he could see us inching back toward the snag even though we were paddling hard and I could feel the matter getting out of hand. I told Larry to reach as far to his right as was safe and pull hard. As soon as he pulled I swept hard on the left. The current grabbed the boat and spat us back out past the snag and into the narrows where I swallowed my pride and followed Sam and Tom around the island. It was still a challenge to paddle up river to the take out on the right but we made it, OK. I don’t remember Larry having much to say after that so we had relative quiet all the way to our camp below Split Rock. Ha, ha. I wanted to get to the 5 star site on Keats but Sam likes it below the falls so we stayed there. Sam and I get along so well that it matters not who comes up with an idea. We just do it. Lasagna and zucchini for dinner at site 1B1.

Chatterton Falls outflow. YIPES!
Tom, me, Sam (L to R)

Sunday was supposed to be a day of rest. I think we had a time of devotions but most of the day was, in reality, a challenge. Unlike last year the water was low enough to get away from above Split Rock without fear for life or limb. It was still challenging enough that I took out my camera for a record of Tom and Sam for possible insurance purposes.

Packed and ready to leave Split Rock

The water falls flowing into Keats from Shelly are very pretty. The overall width and the uniform drop of the middle falls is interesting.

Smoke em if you got em at the portage. We took the route through Shelly and Montgomery then the port to Kaw. The port to Kaw has been described as the easy way to get there vs. up the river but that is not an easy portage. We were ready for a break when we got to Kaw and we still had a long way to go to reach our target of McKenzie Bay. The portage end at Kaw is not user friendly in ordinary circumstances but this day there was something dead and rotting nearby so we scooted along. Even after a stop for lunch Larry was very quiet in the bow. I was surprised to find a bit of a current flowing against us when we approached a couple of pinch points where there were islands. Twice in our paddle down Kawnipi, we needed to pull over for a rest. I had to deceive Larry about the distance we had left to travel for fear of mutiny. His shoulder was starting to give him problems. I think it was the left shoulder that he was scheduled to have surgery on in the fall. He had not told us about that until we well into the trip so I did not feel very sorry for him. What I did not know, that I would have felt badly about, is that Tom had been suffering from a migraine since morning.

After we cleared the main body of water along Rose Island we pulled up to a camp site (4gtp), on a point that I had told Larry was the place to stop. I had it marked on my map as being a nice site but once I saw it I knew we were going to keep moving. That was confirmed by Sam’s face when he stepped into the fire pit area. Larry announced to Tom that we were planning to stay for the night. Larry and Tom were both exhausted but Sam and I were not interested. We promised them that the next site was only 20 minutes further and that it would be better. In reality it was 20 minutes before we could see the next site (1RA). When I put my binos on it there was no one there. In fact we would not see any other boats for three days. Everybody loved this site and was grateful that we had kept moving. Our procedure when we set up is that Sam sets up our tent including the pads, bags and clothes or gets things drying or airing out as necessary. We have the newbies work together on their tent, etc and I start dinner. Then the newbies go for water and Sam goes for firewood as needed. It is very efficient as we are usually eating within 45 minutes and on this day we needed calories and rest. We traveled 15 miles that day and were about 8 hours on the water. Larry and Tom struggled. Sam and I were thrilled to be finally on Kawnipi and looking forward to the excellent fishing. After dinner we rested and spent time hanging around the firepit taking in the beauty.

Monday, Tom and Larry were up and fishing early and apparently no worse for wear. I took some pics of them going out and made coffee that Sam and I enjoyed as the sun came up and we cooked breakfast. After breakfast we all headed out to fish and explore the area around camp. We caught a few smallmouth and small pike but no eyes which did not surprise us because of our tardiness. In the afternoon the wind picked up and we ate dinner under the tarp to avoid a very windy rain squall. Things settled down nicely for the evening so we went back out fishing right up past dark but no walleyes again.

Tuesday we were up and fishing early; but again no walleyes. We are not good fisherman but I would think trolling a black and gold jointed Rapala would get something other than small northerns. Nuts. I thought there was consensus among the fishermen on this site that said lure can’t miss. Liars! It was breezy again and Sam and I drifted and jigged our way into a sheltered bay where we got to see a youngish eagle up close and personal so that was a grin. Tom and Larry had fun with the northerns and got excited about a big one that followed a lure up to the boat. Even the bass were fussy. Nice day though.

Wed we said a frustrated good bye to Kawnipi one day early and headed to Russell. It was a nice morning to travel as they all had been. Kawnipi is a huge lake and it took us all morning to move from Mckenzie Bay to the portage to Montgomery. Once on Montgomery we decided to stop for lunch but had a hard time deciding where. I knew there was a good camp on Montgomery but it was not where I had anticipated so we went through to Shelly and stopped there. It was surprisingly warm in the afternoon which was a new experience for this week. We were all kind of tired and enjoyed the rest. Once on Keats, I realized I was missing my wife’s new Whiskey Jill paddle and we had a decision to make. Where did we leave it and should we invest the time and energy to go back for it. Nobody wanted to go back so when someone suggested that we all split the replacement cost we went fishing on Keats.

We fished below the waterfalls, we fished out on the lake away from the falls, we fished close to the other falls, we fished in a couple of bays. Nothing. Skunked on Keats. Quetico was trying to spit us out without fish. We did have some success below Split Rock but then the weather turned a bit toward threatening and we resumed travel toward Russell. We took the site 12A on the point just before entering the Russell river and set up in a drizzle. This was our longest day of travel at just about 12 hours and 17.8 miles. Of course we did a bit of fishing along the way.

Montgomery lake
Have a smoke (or drink) portage
Fishing Keats near "have a smoke" portage.
Larry and Sam reflecting on Keats.
Russell Lake drizzle

This camp is very nice with multiple tent sites and plenty of firewood near by. It looks to the south and west and would get lots of sun in clear conditions. We had clouds and drizzle so we set up the tarp and cooked dinner and ate under it. Not sure what we had for dinner. I was whipped. The drizzle had stopped so I left my damp pants out to dry as much as possible overnight. It rained…duh!

Thursday started out cloudy with a hint of clearing and a slight breeze from the north. We debated a bit but decided to move on to Pickerel and stay there a couple of days before we had to leave. We packed up after breakfast and headed north. The Russell River went quick and then we were on the west lobe of Sturgeon entering from the south. That is a very cool area with the high sandstone cliffs and the history of being a major intersection for water travel in years gone by. I love that part of Sturgeon. I was surprised to find the wind getting stronger from the north. Sam and Larry were tandem out front and already out into the lake so we followed. It was hard paddling into the wind but doable. We used Blueberry Island for a break from the wind and waves and then stopped for a break in the lee of the islands just before the narrows into the north part of the lake. We were already a bit tired so the break was welcome.

It must have been around 12:00 when we set out again. The wind had seemed to pick up even more so we opted to go around the island to the west and take advantage of the land mass to our north before the narrows. As we rounded the island I looked toward the narrows and the rain and wind were driving horizontally out of the narrows. Incidentally there was a tandem coming from the east and turning north into the narrows in front of us. Tom and I were in front of Sam and Larry at that point and I made a fateful decision to go for it, following the other boat. My reasoning was that there really were not big waves and that the narrows was amplifying the wind like a tunnel. When we get past the narrows all will be well and then we will be in the Deaux Riveras and home free. Right? Very wrong. We got blasted and could hardly make progress. The other boat, not in our party, had been fishing and was empty and they could barely make progress. We would find out later that many parties got into serious trouble during the storm we were in and that was still building. But drive blindly on we did. We paddled away from some pretty nice campsites that would have been sheltered from the brunt of the storm. Not a good decision by me.

As we cleared the narrows I could hear some commotion behind us but in the wind it was hard to hear. I turned slightly in my seat and there were Larry and Sam pulling up on us and singing a Navy song that Larry had been teaching Sam. Tom was as shocked as I to see them gaining and did not want to be passed by an old Navy guy with a bum shoulder so the race was on! It was a strange site I am sure, with two canoes racing each other but hardly moving, and one canoe singing into the wind and cursing Davey Jones.

By the time we made the river we were very tired but still could not stop because the mouth of the river is wide open to the wind. Once we were well up the river we got protection from some trees and had a chance to take a break. We were exhausted, wet from sweat and water driving into our rain gear, and far from our destination which was no longer an option. At one point we came to a bend in the river just before Twin Lakes where there were a couple of swans tucked along the shore in our way. I told Tom that we would go around them but as we swung to the north the wind was so strong it drove us backward. We waited around the corner for the wind to abate a bit before continuing. The Twin lakes were almost impossible to deal with but we pushed across to the portage to Dore. We hoped to get the site right by the portage on the Dore side.

There were some packs at the landing but we could not tell if that party was coming or going. After we unloaded, Sam got out some food and we had tuna on pitas for lunch. Not the best ever, but much appreciated under the circumstances. We were whipped and ready to make camp. The wind was roaring through the trees and we would have stayed on Twin but the available sites were very poor. In the meanwhile the party who owned the packs came across and they were heading in the same direction as us. We asked about the campsites on the other side but they did not have good intel. Sam picked up his boat and followed them up the trail which is 150 rods. Larry followed Sam and after squaring up the landing, Tom and I followed. At the 100 rod or so point I met Larry on his return and he told me there was no way we were going to go onto Dore. It was kickin. This was very discouraging because the places available on Twin were lousy but that was where we went back (with all our gear) to stay. Altogether a very tough day but the guys were terrific about the conditions. I never heard a single complaint and today that experience is a shared memory that we all enjoy.

We did set up on Twin and we all got in our tents while the wind continued to roar through the trees. There was a hill protecting us from the north and we were dry and warm. It must have been around five in the PM but we slept until just before dark, then got out for about a half hour before going to bed for the night. No dinner…the tuna was not sitting well.

Hang on guys!
Morning after the storm.

Friday morning was sunny and pretty. We soon had our coffee and oatmeal and were on our way. Once landed on Pickeral, we took out all our gear for drying and made a nice pot of chili with venison for lunch. That was when Larry started feeling refreshed and he told us the following story:

When Larry was in the Navy he was part of a construction battalion that was hand-picked by the State Department to go do some work for the civilian benefit of Palau, an island about one thousand miles south of Guam. Larry was unsure what he had done to merit such a high honor but he accepted it with grace. The island was dead quiet all the time so there was plenty of opportunity to search for entertainment.

Palau is tropical but lacking in the monkey department except for one Macau on the Naval encampment of unknown age whose name was Lt. Jack. He was about three feet tall and could reach to your head with his hand while standing on the ground next to you. The men generally liked him and would approach him with dog biscuits and other treats that he would dig out of their pockets. Lt. Jack was a pet and a curiosity to the civilian population but could not be trusted to be loose because he would start the kind of business that only a monkey can start. Lt. Jack was, therefore, tied up like a dog but with his house built in a tree, well off the ground. There was a wire running from his house to another small building and Lt. Jack’s chain was attached on one end to this wire and on the other end to his leather collar. Lt. Jack had ample room to roam.

Larry was capable of the kind of business only a young Navy man can start and he decided that his business was to have some fun at Lt. Jack’s expense. He had brought along to the island a long surf fishing rod and a toy bat. Not the “hitting a ball” type but a “flying at night” type. Larry decide to make his bat fly during the day and right over Lt. Jack’s peaceful little world. Larry hid himself from view and introduced Lt. Jack very suddenly to the little plastic bat. Lt. Jack nearly had a heart attack, let out a scream and scrambled for the safety of his elevated house where he let the entire Navy know of his displeasure. That was a very satisfactory response where Larry was concerned and soon the intermittent torture of poor Lt. Jack became a sort of sport. Lt. Jack could never know when his revelry might be rudely interrupted by the plastic menace he so loathed and feared. It was all great fun until Lt. Jack initiated monkey retribution.

The day came when Lt Jack’s leather collar had withstood all of the heat and humidity of the tropics it could handle and Lt. Jack broke free to search and destroy. This was not the first time Lt. Jack had escaped so the usual live trap, baited with a can of beer, was set out to recapture him. But Lt. Jack was not in a drinking mood. At first he was content to just get into things in general and the proud men of the Navy ignored him for several days as they carried on their mission. Then one day Lt. Jack, who was most likely bored, decide to investigate a sleeping hut and left a nice pile of monkey poo on his dear friend Larry’s bunk. That was his undoing. From that moment on, whenever Larry heard of a Lt. Jack sighting he turned his back on the U. S. Department of State, and went after Jack.

When he heard Lt. Jack was on a rooftop, Larry and a buddy snuck up on him with a fire hose and blasted Lt. Jack clear off the roof. Furious, the now soaked Lt. ran up a power pole and stood on a wire screaming at Larry and friend and baring his teeth. Undaunted, Larry picked up a rock and with uncharacteristic accuracy hit Lt. Jack square in the chest, causing him to lose his balance just enough to raise his arm and touch the wire above him. The result was electrifying and poor Lt. Jack fell to the ground stunned and smoking but still clinging to life. This tragic result was not at all the intent of the intrepid sailors so they scooped up Lt. Jack and rushed him to the camp Corpsman for medical attention. The Corpsman was insulted at the prospect of ministering to a Macau and refused treatment except for a painkiller.

Lt. Jack succumbed to his injuries shortly thereafter which caused Larry and the entire camp a great deal of remorse.

The above story was told with enthusiasm, monkey gesturing and sound effects. This alleged event occurred in 1982 which was also the year of Peter Gabriel’s hit song….Shock The Monkey. You be the judge.

Larry (center) on Pickerel.
Drying out on Pickerel
Canoe at rest on Pick.
Comfortable camp.

The balance of this last day was awesome. We dined on lake trout and then fished again until dark. The water was perfectly calm and the moon rose full. Sam and I sat in our canoe somewhere on Pickeral and watched the moon rise above the trees. Back at camp I went to bed while the guys stayed up to enjoy a final night around the fire. I’m pretty sure there was another story or two.

Our final morning was surprisingly rough. The wind had come up during the night from the east, southeast and was blowing hard by the time we broke camp. When we hit open water the waves were up a bit beyond my comfort level but this time Sam and Larry were in the lead and out in the main east- west body of the lake. Tom and I had to keep focused and tack our way across the lake. When we finally entered the channel to Stanton Bay we were relieved. I thought the conditions on this day were more dangerous than what we had faced two days ago in the big blow. But we made it. I was surprised to find several crews at the landing in front of us and one party going out. What do I know about rough condtions?

Coasting in the shelter of Stanton Bay