8 days on the South Arm of Knife Lake
Dates: 9/12/15 - 9/19/15
Entry point #25
A little about us: We’re all in our mid-thirties. We’re all addicted to coffee. Unless stated otherwise, the assumption should be that we’re drinking coffee or making coffee while doing everything else.
DL is an Eagle Scout with significant paddling, fishing, and outdoor experience. This was his 5th trip to the BWCA. CS is an experienced fisherman and outdoorsman, and a moderately experienced paddler. This was his 2nd trip to the BWCA. JD is an experienced outdoorsman and fisherman, and a moderately experienced paddler. This was his 2nd trip to the BWCA. DD (JD’s wife) is an experienced outdoorswoman, moderately experienced fisherwoman, and an enthusiastic yet relatively inexperienced paddler. This was her first trip the BWCA.
JD, DL, and CS took a trip together to the BWCA approximately 8 years ago, and none have been back since. That trip was a 5 day trip the second week of July to Bonnie Lake, in which a base camp was established with day trips to Spoon and Knife. This was a spectacular fishing trip, one of those trips where you have to take a break because your wrists hurt from reeling in big pike and big smallies, and we were very much looking forward to revisiting some areas from our previous trip.
DL took the initiative and organized the majority of the trip. We utilized Way to Go Canoe Outfitters, who were fantastic. Jeff, Donna and Jake were more than happy to share their favorite spots in the areas we were planning to go, and added a few of their fishing spots to our map. We were set up with some beautiful Minnesota II 18 ½ ft. Kevlar canoes. These canoes were fast, light, and incredibly stable. We were surprised to learn that most of their customers select the shorter, slower canoes that they offer. Jeff and I came to the conclusion that this must be a psychological phenomenon in which people believe the shorter wider canoes are more stable. This may be true, but we didn’t notice any instability, and were extremely appreciative to have the longer, faster boats.
In all honesty, we selected Way to Go because their website had the nicest looking bunkhouses we found, and we would be arriving late on Friday the 11th and looking to crash for a few hours before getting up and on the water. The bunkhouse didn’t disappoint, and was verging on being a luxury cabin. Jeff and Donna waited up for us as we arrived around 2300 hours, and even woke up their sled dogs so we could meet them. They had a few beers waiting for us too, which was much appreciated!
Day 1, 9/12
We woke up at 0530 hours and had a quick breakfast before getting underway. It had frosted over night and was in the low 30’s when we left. Jake took us down to Voyagers, where we picked up leeches, fishing licenses, and our permit. The folks at Voyagers were friendly and regaled us with tales of recent bear activity on the South Arm of Knife Lake (SAK), exactly where we were headed. Filling our Nalgene bottles with leeches, DL enlightened the staff to the glory of “Canadian Tequila”, our running joke for accidently drinking the water bottles full of leeches. This fortunately never became a reality for any of us, as we kept everything well labeled, or so we thought (more on this later!).
Jake then took us to Moose Lake, where a really nice guy named Willie (and his awesome bulldog) gave us a quick tow up to the Sucker/Birch portage. Willie had brought a group out the previous day who had been on SAK, and apparently had a lot of bear problems. With a slight 5mph tailwind and the MNII canoes we made good time going through Birch Lake, Melon Lake, Seed Lake, and then on into Knife. The portages were easy, and we ran into several really nice people heading out. A young woman in her mid-twenties and her dad were heading home after 10 days in the Q, and she chatted us up on their way past. DL, the only single guy in our group, managed to walk straight into a tree with a canoe on his head, doing a double take as she walked past him (she was quite attractive!). We all got a good laugh out of that. She was wearing these awesome looking water shoes connected to some sort of Neoprene leggings that went about 3/4ths up her legs. They were very cool and JD and DD would love to know what they were (in the one and a billion chance you’re reading this, hit us up in the comments section!). A woman named Meredith was also on her way out after a few days fighting the head winds on a solo trip. She had been wind-bound on Knife for a few days and had to alter her plans due to the weather and an impending meeting at work. She was super friendly and clearly loving every second of her trip, wind-bound or not.
We stopped for lunch at a camp site on the east end of Robbins Island, by which time it had warmed up to almost 70 degrees, and then got back on the water. Paddling through Knife, we saw a moose on the southern shore line just prior to entering the South Arm. It had been several years since any of us had seen a moose, and it’s always an impressive and fortunate sighting. We arrived at our preferred base camp site in the SAK around 1530 hours and made camp. Jeff from the outfitter had recommended the site and it didn’t disappoint. We stayed on the southern camp site on an island just north east of the Sema Lake portage that had several large tent pads a few nice hiking trails for exploring the island. A bluff top was easily accessible and gave phenomenal views to the west and south, and an absolutely amazing view of the night sky. Great site, highly recommended. We spent the evening fishing from shore, and JD managed to catch a smallmouth on a jointed floating Rapala. We let him go, as CS is the only one who fillets fish in the group, and he wasn’t in the mood to clean him (CS gets temperamental in the evenings; it’s kind of his thing). The wind and chop had started to pick up by early evening, and a few cups of hot chocolate later we cleaned up camp, stashed the food, and settled in and went to sleep after a great first day on the water.
Day 2, 9/13
We woke up early and had a light breakfast as DL and CS were anxious to catch some fish. The morning was clear and crisp, and the weather expected to again be unseasonably warm with some stronger winds. Following a quick breakfast, we all got out on the water and fished most of the morning with no luck. DL and CS were fishing a drop off west of the island where they were marking fish at 30, 40, and 70 feet deep while JD and DD fished a bay to the north, but neither group proved successful. We all went in and ate a quick lunch while the wind began to pick up. The remarkable lack of mosquitoes had not gone unnoticed, and we were all appreciative at what a special time of year it was to be in the BWCA. JD and DD spent most of the afternoon exploring the island and fishing from shore. JD saw some type of small animal run through camp, but didn’t get a good enough luck to figure out what it was. DL and CS fished the narrows on the north side of the island a couple of times trolling for lake trout. DL had one on but got bit off (probably a pike). We then paddled around the rest of the island casting for pike after DL lost his 3rd spoon of the day to a snag while trolling. CS picked up one decent pike on the calm side of a small island to the north throwing a perch colored Shad Rap, and we made him dinner before cleaning up camp and crashing for the night.
Day 3, 9/14
CS was the first up at ~0500 hours. Making coffee for the group, a pine marten walked out of the brush and walked right in front of him, no more than a few feet away, before disappearing back into the bushes. This was likely the animal JD had seen the day before. Having never seen a pine marten before, it was one of those special moments that will not soon be forgotten. The rest of the group woke and following a short breakfast we all made the journey into Sema. The portage was a little longer than we had anticipated, but Sema is a really beautiful lake. We paddled across to the west end of the lake and drifted back across several times. We were marking fish at 40 and 60 feet, but they were not interested in what we were bringing to the table. DD had one on but wasn’t able to land it. JD then picked up a nice 26 inch laker, with beautiful pink flesh that made for a great lunch. Tough portage for only the one fish, but it was worth every bite!
We portaged back into Knife and spent the afternoon fishing there. DL and CS were again skunked trolling for Lakers, and then jigging for walleye. JD and DD picked up a few smallmouth fishing a couple of islands south of camp, but nothing worth keeping. It was a beautiful, clear night and after eating dinner and cleaning up camp we spent several hours looking for shooting stars from the bluff top.
Day 4, 9/15
CS getting sick of oatmeal, so JD picks up the slack and starts eating for two. We took a short portage into the North Arm of Knife Lake and fished a couple of bays. CS got onto a couple of decent 16 inch smallmouth fishing a jig with a chartreuse twister tail tipped with a leech and we kept two for lunch. DL JD and DD picked up a few that we didn’t keep and then JD and DD paddled around checking out the campsites. The wind picked up and began giving us some white caps while paddling through a narrow section connecting two bays. We paddled out and CS picked up another pike on a black jitterbug before we all portaged back. We made fish tacos, which were great, and spent the rest of the day fishing SAK for walleye with no luck. CS and DL cooked up a “great” scheme for making millions of dollars on a website, which was quickly shot down by JD and DD for its sheer stupidity, which had been self- evident from the start.
Day 5, 9/16
DL and CS wake up early and make coffee for themselves (Aeropress), and then a second round for everyone (drip filter pitcher). (Un)fortunately during this process, water runs low and a few partially filled Nalgene bottles are hastily thrown into the mix. CS fills his second cup and walks off to do some shore fishing. CS drinks most of his coffee before noticing, the coffee tastes a little funny, but continues to fish and drink (assuming the taste difference is just drinking the second drip filter cup immediately following the Aeropress cup). A few minutes later, CS notices that he’s feeling a little unsteady on his feet. At about that time, JD comes stumbling out of the path and says, “How does your coffee taste??” Apparently, JD had brought an unlabeled Nalgene bottle full of vodka, which had unknowingly been thrown into the coffee pot. This is now known as Vodka Coffee day.
We finish the vodka coffee and then everyone has another cup of regular. We, obviously, get a late start but head towards Eddy Lake. We fished most of the southern shoreline along the way. DL and CS picked up a few smallmouth in 30 feet of water drifting across a drop off near the mouth of a bay. When we got to Eddy Falls, a group was portaging into Eddy and another group was hanging out, fishing the inlet. We hung out at a nearby campsite and checked about 30 minutes later, but it was still too crowded for our liking so we headed back west. No fault to the other groups; we were planning on doing the same. Our vodka coffee fiasco had cost us valuable time.
After lunch JD and DD fished the eastern shoreline of the island. DD had a nice pike on, but lost it when it threw the lure after breaking water a few times. DL and CS portaged back into the North Arm and fished a few bays there. They managed to bring back a decent sized pike which made for a nice addition to dinner. That night, JD and DD found a very large spider in their tent. They managed to get it out without killing it… or so they thought.
Day 6, 9/17
Thunderstorms had rolled in overnight around 0230 hours but stopped before daybreak. It was a cold morning, and the forecast predicted 10-15mph winds with gusts up to 30mph, with highs in the upper 50’s and thunderstorms, so we secured camp for the storm and went out hoping that we could catch a few fish for lunch. DL picked up a nice pike in about 10 feet of water while JD and DD were skunked fishing some islands to the west. The sky turned quickly and we were all making our way back in when the first wave of storms hit. We got a little wet, but were no worse for the wear. We managed to make it back onto the water a few more times that day, hoping the storms would turn the fishing on, but no luck. We ate our pike for lunch and made a bunch of food. We spent most of the day under DL’s Kelty Noah’s Tarp and spent the evening fishing from shore when we could. JD slipped on some wet rocks and cut his leg open on a jagged tree stump, but quickly patched it up and went about his fishing. DD and DL, who are both very good amateur chef’s, made us blueberry pancakes w/ bananas foster, vegetable curry with rice, and biscuits with syrup and jam for a 3 course dinner. DL planned and packed all our food for the trip and got gourmet with a few of the meals. Gotta love good camping buddies! That night, JD and DD actually got the spider out of their tent.
Day 7, 9/18
Another day with strong winds out of the west, combined with a forecast for more wind the next day, we decided to break camp and turn our return trip into a 2 day affair. We paddled to the west end of Knife Lake and made camp at the same place we ate lunch on our first day in, the site on the east end of Robbins Island. The site was dirtier than it had been since we were last there, and we picked up bits of garbage and plastic throughout our stay. Other than that, the site wasn’t bad. It had 2 nice tent pads and several good places to access shore for fishing, plus a nice walking trail. We fished from shore with good success. DL caught a nice pike on a yellow and red bucktail spinner, and CS caught 2 smallmouth on a black jitterbug. We had a nice fish dinner that night and finished off with some whiskey apple cider.
Day 8, 9/19
Cold morning with 5 to 10mph winds out of the west. JD and DD got up early and made coffee for all. We noticed the International Boundary Commission marker on the north side of the campsite which was pretty cool. The portages on the way out were again easy, and we made it to Birch Lake with little problem. We stopped for a quick lunch on a campsite on the south side of Birch Lake, which was nice. The paddle took longer than expected due to the headwinds, but we made it to the Birch/Sucker portage just as Willie and his bulldog were coming over the trail. Jake from Way to Go Outfitters met us at the dock with a cooler full of beverages, and then took us back to their place. We can’t say enough how great Jeff, Donna and Jake were. They took us in and let us pet their sled dogs, which were beautiful and clearly well loved and cared for. Those guys are running a good family operation and we wouldn’t hesitate to recommend them to anyone. We took off for Hibbing, MN, and stayed at a really nice Hampton Inn for the night. We showered, changed, and grabbed a cab to a local sports bar called the Brickyard for drinks and dinner before making the long trip home the next day.
We did 18 portages for approximately 690 rods (just over 2 miles), and paddled approximately 50 miles in total.
Fishing was slower than expected, but we still managed to eat fish every day.
We had absolutely no issues with bears and never saw any bear signs. That said, we kept an extremely clean camp, stashed our food well, and took our food with us every time we left camp.
The trees on the SAK sing. They emit a harmonic type whistle when the wind blows just right. I’ve never heard anyone mention this before, and it was one of the most fantastic things I’ve ever heard.
The SAK, and BWCA in general, is an incredibly special place. This trip was a year and a half in the planning, and it was a well needed psychological reset for us all.
There’s truly nothing better than a wilderness experience with good friends. Hope it doesn’t take us another 8 years to get back!
Typed by CS, written by DL, JD, DD and the BWCA.