Taking Amber to Amber Lake
Excited to get up North, we got up early and were on the road by 5:45 am and drove to Northern Minnesota with stops only for gas and restroom breaks until stopping in Silver Bay for lunch at the Northwoods Family Grill where I got a pretty delicious half rack of ribs, fries and a salad. Amber got pancakes smothered in berry sauce and whipped cream with a piece of bacon, and Lorraine got a burger she declared "alright" with "cold fries."
After lunch, we headed to Sawtooth Outfitters to pick up our permit and a 17 ft Wenonah Boundary Waters canoe. The process at the outfitter went smoother and quicker than expected. The only surprise was that they talked me out of renting a carbon fiber bent shaft paddle. I've been coveted some of these and thought I would rent one to decide if I should buy my own, but I guess it will have to wait until another day...
After picking up the canoe, we headed up the Sawbill Trail hoping to get a site at the Kawishiwi Lake Campground. After a slow, bumpy trek, we arrived at the campground around 3:30 pm to see the first site available, so we grabbed it without checking for any better options, and it turns out that it was the only open site. About half and hour later, someone showed up looking for a site, so we likely lucked out during a narrow window. The site was small but nice with a lakefront "beach." Amber wanted to fish, so we filled out a day permit and paddled around Kawishiwi with a line in the water for about a half hour. we paddled near some loons that had no qualms with us, and they gave a nice display, but of course I didn't have the camera with us. I was really tired, so we went to bed around 8:00 without a fire.
Day 2, Sunday, August 16
I planned to get up around 5 am to get started early, but a light rain really put me out of the mood to jump out of the tent. Fortunately, despite the heat, Lorraine insisted we partially drape the fly over the tent, so our sleeping gear stayed dry. Finally around 5:45 I was talked into getting up to break camp. I was still tired and cranky, especially having to pack up a wet tent on our first day. It's kind of a mess to separate tripping gear and clothes from the stuff that stays in the car, and I was sure that we'd end up forgetting something, but we managed to separate our car camping and canoe camping gear. It was after 7 before we finally got on the water. The weather was overcast, breezy and drizzly, although not wet enough to don our rain gear. Our destination was Polly Lake, but we were concerned because numerous trip reports indicated Polly was sometimes full. We passed some groups coming out who, to our relief, indicated numerous open sites on Polly. We encountered only one other group also coming in-a group of Boy Scouts single portaging with huge packs and Aluminum canoes. One of the leaders was lamenting the absence of canoe rests, which he said were there on his last BW trip 20 years earlier, on the 189 rod portage. We gave them some space and last saw them on the portage out of Townline Lake as they headed towards Adams Lake.
By the time we got to Polly, the wind picked up a bit. Amber was interested in an island site, but the first one was taken. She begged us to just take a site, but the first one (#1078) checked wasn't great, so we headed up to the point and found that site (#1073) to be really nice. It ended being about a 5 hour, 8.9 mile journey for us. After my first chore of getting water, we set up camp and had tortilla pizza for lunch. Later, we had to Forest Service ranges show up to camp. This was our second BW trip and second time a ranger came to our camp on the first night. It wasn't necessarily a bad encounter (and I'm glad rangers are patrolling the BW), but the ranger had more of a cop tone to his visit than I prefer, like he was sure we were breaking some rule. We had Kraft mac 'n' cheese for supper. Lorraine had previously cooked and dehydrated the macaroni, and it turned out pretty good as food always tastes better in the wilderness. We were treated to a nice sunset, which was a pleasant surprise because it had been overcast most of the afternoon. Shortly after the sunset, I was ready for bed, still tired from the long week before. I talked Lorraine into letting me sleep in, which I came to regret after the long (for us) journey the following day.
Day 3, Monday, August 17
I slept until after 8:00, and once again, I got up to a wet tent fly. Did I mention that I hate packing away wet gear? We started the slow process of getting fed (bacon and oatmeal) and packed. By the time we were on the water, it was after 10 am. The three portages to Koma Lake were not bad but were a little tiring. I am so glad were weren't stuck doing those the first day. The trek down the Kawishiwi River was, in places, like paddling in a thick weed soup. The short portages were not all where stated on the map, and there are some beaver dams requiring portaging or lining. One of the beaver dams is a several foot drop-off, but I don't think it would be possible to accidentally paddle over it, at least not at the water levels we encountered. We got through Koma after barely dodging some submerged rocks. The portage into Malberg Lake is short with a rewarding view of a large rock and small rapids. My daughter said it was the most beautiful thing she ever saw and was glad we didn't stay on Polly like she had requested. We probably should have refueled while stopped for pictures but Lorraine didn't want to be on the water all day.
The paddle through Malberg was tiring as we had a good headwind and the sun was shining. The paddle on the River Lake side was supper muddy, so we took the extra side trail some people advised us to take to avoid thigh high mud. It wasn't much better with precarious footing, but I think it had something to do with being tired because the portage wasn't so bad on our way out. Although the island site on River Lake was tempting, we pushed on to Amber because we had a plan. The narrow passage to Amber was shallow and strewn with rocks, at least one of which we hit. All the hard wok payed off once we rounded the point to see the beach site on Amber was open.
It took us about 6 hours to cover the 9.6 miles to get there, but it was very rewarding that our planning came to fruition. We were a bit tired and cranky but went about getting camp ready and had beef stroganoff with peas and mushrooms. I seemed to be the only one who though it was great. We finished setting up camp, enjoyed a nice sunset and a small fire. Amber went to bed alone, then Lorraine and I stayed up to watch the stars come out and were treated to several shooting stars. It was probably 11:00 before we fell asleep, which means Lorraine must have been really enjoying herself to be up so late.
Day 4, Tuesday, August 18
I was ready to sleep in again and got up shortly after 8:00 when Lorraine came back to the tent to warm up on a cool morning. We had pancakes (with peanut butter and jelly or nutella) and bacon for breakfast. I journaled and charged the batteries while Amber played along the shoreline.
Although I planned to be the lazy day, ended up taking a day trip to Fishdance Lake to see the petroglyphs after a lunch of hashbrowns and bacon bits. it was a bit windy and overcast, but the paddle was pleasant enough. I guessed it to be 2-2.5 miles, but the round trip turned out to be 5.9 miles. We took the long portage from River to Fishdance because we didn't see the other portage. The landing of the Fishdance is quite muddy but we managed just fine by first putting the kiddo in the boat and pulling it to deeper water. I'm glad we took the trip, but the petroglyphs were a bit underwhelming to me. Also, they're marked in the wrong spot on the McKenzie maps. I've been thinking about a GoPro, so I decide to bring our damaged camera to mount to the boat to see if I would actually use it. We took quite a bit of video on the day trip, some of which is included in the video above. Once we got close to the cliff, Amber kinda freaked out about being too close, so we didn't spend much time there. On our way back, we saw people for the first time since arriving at Amber Lake. they apparently also didn't see the short, low-water portage, which we took on the way back to River Lake. We had snacks and took pictures near the rocky landing. We had an easier time navigating back to Amber and managed to avoid hitting any rocks in the shallow channel. Once back to camp, we decided on chicken gumbo with rice for dinner. The rain started shortly after dinner, so we all went to the tent a little early without a fire. Amber and I play a few rounds of Uno before falling asleep, and she wants everyone to know that she won all hands. The rain continued all night, leaving the site pretty damp.
Day 5, Wednesday, August 19
After coaxing a back rub from my wife, I finally got out of the tent to a wet, windy morning. All of our important gear stayed dry in the dry bags, and the tarp held through the night. A little water seeped through the tent, but we decided to use a liner (aka an "innie") in the tent, keeping the small amount of water between the innie and the tent floor. Amber slept until after 10:00, which was fine because it was pretty chilly and wet, and it was the first time of the trip that I felt cold. Not wanting to take out my last dry layers, I just put on my rain gear and socks. I warmed up and entertained myself by walking around taking pictures and videos of a woodpecker and playing truth or day with Amber. Since there's no video, you can't prove I did the chicken dance ;). We hung out the rest of the day at the site enjoying Amber Lake to ourselves. For lunch we had bean dish, which contains a variety of beans, ground beef, bacon, brown sugar and other delicious flavorings. The cool wind and rain continued, so I made a fire. Despite everything being wet, I was able to saw and split some logs to get dry kindling. It was also a good learning experience for my daughter who now knows where to find dry wood even after days of rain. After a couple hours, I became frustrated with the weather and decided to retreat to the tent. My family soon followed, but I think I was the only one who actually managed a nap. I got up in time for a spaghetti dinner and more cold rain. We were all ready for bed early that night again because of the unpleasant weather.
Day 6, Thursday, August 20
The plan was to wake up early and get back toward the entry point, but the weather was miserable with steady winds, rain and temps in the high 40s or low 50s. It was definitely outside our comfort zone for paddling with a 7 year old. So, despite having packed up my sleeping bag and pad, I retreated to the tent after a couple of cold hours in the blowing rain. The weather was forecast for a partly sunny afternoon, so we prepared for a late start, keeping a close eye on the conditions.
Despite Lorraine not liking to paddle in the late afternoon, we postponed our exit until 1 pm, which turned out to be a good window for tolerable weather. We still encountered a few whitecaps and showers, compared to the last couple days, it was a big relief. Our main concern was whether we could find a campsite late in the day. We decided that if either of the two sites near the exit of Koma were open we'd take one, but they were taken, so we pushed on to Polly. We had not seen anyone on the move all day, so the stress of finding an open site continued to build. It was after 5:00 when we were making the portages between Koma and Polly, so I started thinking about where we might be able to stealth camp as a last resort. We finally encountered a group heading toward Malberg who said the southern island site on Polly was open. We really kicked it into high gear to race to the site and found it open around 6 pm but not before getting stuck on a rock shelf just northwest of the site. I ended up climbing out of the boat to push off after several attempts to free ourselves. It's weird to get out of the canoe in the middle of a lake, but it did the trick and we were able to push off.
The island site is really nice and big with several tent pads and nearly unlimited opportunities to hang hammocks. The biggest problem with the site is that it's infested with mice, but they didn't damage any of our gear as we had feared. Amber did have a mouse run up her leg and freaked out, although her reaction was less sever than I would have expected. It didn't even send her running for the tent. We wished for more time at this site, so we decided to delay our start out until late the next morning, which would also allow some of our gear to dry. We had Knorr buttery noodles with foil-package tuna for a late supper. We then enjoyed the moon and stars until we were ready to crash.
Day 7, Friday, August 21
I woke up to nicer weather than I'd seen in days and looked forward to dry gear and pleasant traveling. By the time we ate a late breakfast of hash browns and bacon and got packed up with was about 11 am. What we expected to be a 4 hour trip (as it was on the way in) turned out to take nearly 6 hours due to the crowds and persistent winds out of the south. We spent a quite of bit of time waiting for groups to pass us or for them to load and unload at portages. The difference in the crowds between our entry on Sunday and exit on Friday were night and day. We did have some nice conversation with a family of four from Oshkosh. We talked gear, boats, local trips, etc. It was nice to encounter another family with similar interests, and I hope we run into them again, possibly at Canoecopia. Our plan was to stay our last night on Kawishiwi Lake for a quick paddle out on Saturday, but it was full, so we headed to Sawbill to stay at the campground. We managed to get the last open site at the campground. We showered, grabbed some snacks and ate dinner before crashing.
Day 8, Saturday, August 22
Saturday morning we packed up and headed home after a quick stop to return the canoe at Sawtooth Outfitters and grab breakfast at a little bakery. The reality of an ending to our vacation set in. The drive home was uneventful, and we got home in time to wash and air out our gear.
I really enjoy going into the back country and don't mind encountering people, but the crowds on some days were a bit overwhelming. Full lakes and bad weather make for dicey travel decisions. Obviously, the further we got from the entry point, the fewer people we saw. We had Amber Lake to ourselves for three days, and despite the weather, we probably enjoyed that time of solitude the most of the whole trip. Still, everyday can't be spent deep in as one has to travel to get there. We traveled further on this trip than our previous trips, and I'm already planning a longer trip for next time. It's unfortunate we had to come out a day before planned, but it worked out fine. The week just went by so fast.
We've learned a lot over the last couple years and have a system that works pretty well, but there is certainly some room for improvement. The biggest difference this year was that we rented an ultralight Kevlar canoe, and it really enhanced our trip over the heavy royalex prospector we normally paddle. Footwear is an ever evolving struggle, but I was pretty happy with my choices this year. I wore some fully enclosed Chaco water shoes that felt more like tennis shoes than any water shoes I've ever worn. I also brought some Cushe slippers for camp shoes, and they worked well. For Amber, we picked up some muck boots under the brand Tamarac, and they helped keep her feet dry, but she had trouble with comfort on the long portages. She already had two pairs of Neos leak on her, so we're still in search of the perfect solution.
Kawishiwi Lake, Square Lake, Kawasachong Lake, Townline Lake, Polly, Lake, Malberg Lake, River Lake, Amber Lake, Fishdance Lake