Trip Report - Lady Chain (posting a month late)
Two decades later, I finally got around to the planning stages (a generous monetary donation from my mother made this possible – no shame in that). The impetus for this trip was my 40th bday (which was actually in January); I wanted to do something epic and I wasn't interested in another cruise or beach vacation. Besides, I had just quit drinking and was looking for an alcohol-free alternative.
After deciding on the destination, I needed to find companions. My go-to buddies weren't interested; one prefers technical mountaineering and the other doesn't care for sleeping outside. I found two willing participants in a couple good friends who share my appetite for adventure. They were as intrigued by the idea of the Boundary Waters as I was. The only potential drawback was that they were both considerably less experienced in the outdoors than I was, and I was not exactly steeped in wilderness expeditions. I've fished all my life but have never spent more than three consecutive nights sleeping outside and have only been in a canoe a dozen or so times. One of my companions, Jon, however, had done plenty of paddling on day trips. My other friend, Adam, spent five years in the military; all three of us are in good shape and spent extra time in the gym before the trip. So despite our inexperience, I felt we were reasonably prepared for the challenge.
I’ve been on a few fool-hardy backpacking trips in the past that have rendered me dehydrated and unbearably sore so I’d learned some lessons that would aid me on this trip: #1 STAY HYDRATED, #2 STAY HYDRATED., #3 SEE RULES #1 AND #2. As anyone reading this can attest, sufficient fluid intake is one of the biggest challenges of outdoor adventures. It took considerable effort to take in the 4-5 liter-a-day minimum on my trip – you’re constantly filtering and drinking, filtering and drinking. But I was able to avoid the dreaded dehydration symptoms. Flavoring the lake water with Mio and Tang negated the yuck factor that often contributes to insufficient hydration for me. Plus, the sugar provides a much needed energy boost.
I spent months planning and obsessing about my upcoming trip and the BWCA; reading books, stalking the message boards and bugging the outfitter over the phone. I tend to get a little over zealous about these things. Knowledge-wise, I was as well-equipped as I felt I could be for a first-timer. As it turned out, I faired pretty well on this note. I didn’t encounter too many surprises – that doesn’t mean that it wasn’t tough at times but I pretty much knew what to expect, with one or two notable exceptions. So without further pre-amble, here is the rundown of my trip:
Day #0 (Sunday) Woke at 3:15 AM in Clayton, NC. Jon drove up from Tennessee with his wife and kids the night before (they spent the week with my wife and kids here in NC). Adam’s wife dropped him off. We did a last minute check of our gear, rearranged some things, loaded up Jon’s rental car and headed for RDU Airport. Dropped off rental, checked bags (including oversize for the rod tube) and made it to the gate plenty early for our 6:30 flight. The airport was busy but we didn’t encounter the nightmare lines that we were warned of. Boarded without incident, flew to O’Hare for connecter on Canadair to Duluth. Arrived in Duluth 11 AM local time. Picked up rental from Hertz – had a slight kerfuffle regarding payment method that I had to mitigate with my wife over the phone but got everything straightened out. A little surprised and mildly down-hearted at the high 80s heat and high humidity. We thought we left that behind in NC. Thankfully, the weather turned cooler and the rest of the week was beautiful. Quick stop at Arby’s to fuel up on toxic fast food and pointed the car in the direction of Tofte. Noticed fog rolling off Lake Superior in broad daylight. I always heard about the Great Lakes having their own weather systems and they truly do. Further evidence of this is the fact that it was 10 degrees cooler in Tofte than at Sawbill 30 minutes down the road. This was one of a few environmental factors that surprised me; the late sundown/delayed darkness at night was another. Not used to having daylight til almost 10 pm. Seemed like it didn’t get truly dark until almost midnight. Made the evenings easier, though, on account of not having to stumble around in the dark after dinner or blind each other with our headlamps.
Checked in at Sawbill and met our friendly “trip manager” Claire, our “food manager” Meg, and our shuttle driver Emma. Very nice girls with lots of knowledge of the area…and tough as nails. We remarked to ourselves that North Woods folk are a heartier stock than suburbanites like ourselves. We watched the orientation video, got the run down on the canoe and the rest of our gear from Claire and went over our food for the week with Meg (we did the Complete Outfitting Plus package, which means they provided everything except our clothes and fishing gear). Pitched our tent at the campground, fought swarms of black flies, prayed that Claire was right about the flies not being a problem once we got into the B-dub (she was), and headed out to the Coho Café in Tofte for dinner. On the way out of the campground, we caught our first glimpse of moose – I looked up and saw what I initially mistook for a horse and a dog running down the road. I quickly realized we were looking at a cow moose and calf. They trotted alongside the road for a few paces before darting off into the woods. Got some top-notch pizza to go b/c we were worried about getting caught in the rain. As it turned out, we didn’t get much. (We didn’t find out about the bad storm and the tragedy until we were at the airport on the way out).
Day #1 (Monday) The next morning, after a fairly restful sleep in the tent, we dressed, packed the car and drove back to the store for coffee and danishes. Repacked our stuff in the dry bags and portage packs, took Claire’s advice about leaving behind some unnecessary items, and I asked Phil, the fishing expert, 101 questions about tackle, best fishing spots, etc. Got a leech locker and 4 dozen leaches (the damn thing kept popping open through the trip not matter how secure we thought we had the top on). Also picked up a couple pre-strung lindy rigs, some slip bobbers and some extra split shot. Phil inventoried my tackle box and assured me I had everything I needed (could have easily made do with 1/16 of what I brought but I didn’t know what to expect so I erred on the side of excess).
Adam, Jon and Emma packed the van while I finished up with Phil. I climbed in the front seat and we headed to Kawishiwi Lake. Had great conversation with Emma about all things BWCA. On the way, we had to stop to remove a sizable tree that had fallen across the road. Dug out the saw from our packs and went to work on it. Made pretty quick work of it and got back in the van.
Made it to the EP around 9ish and we were all immediately shocked by the vicious whitecaps thrashing the surface of the lake. The guys later told me that they overheard someone at the outfitter say they were expecting 30 mph wind gusts that day. I was not expecting this. Even Emma seemed a little concerned for us. She shrugged and said “you’ll be ok”. I got the impression that this is the North Woods way: take care of yourself. Disclaimer: I don’t think she/Sawbill were at all negligent in letting us go. As you’ll read in a bit, we had a rough go of it at first but we managed just fine. However, there was a group of guys that pulled up as we were preparing to launch. Among them was an old-timer who told us he logged in the area in the ‘50s and had been coming up here to paddle for half a century. He said he had never seen the lake like this. I was not encouraged by his words and not at all looking forward to getting out there. The surface reminded me of the Chesapeake Bay on a windy day near where I grew up. I would never take a canoe out on the Bay on a windy day like that.
After a few minutes, Emma came back. I thought for sure she had radioed back to the store and they had told her to come get us for our safety. This was not the case; another tree had fallen across the road, blocking her path and she needed our “manly might” to remove it. We hopped back in the van and cut up the considerably larger-than-the-first tree with the help of another returning paddler. Back to the EP we went and bade farewell to Emma again.
After playing a strange game of chicken with the other group for a while, waiting to see who had the cajones to go first, we bit the bullet and jumped in the canoe. Though extremely windy and hard to paddle, everything seemed like it might be ok…for the first 200 yards or so. After that, a strong gust blew us parallel to the waves (we were of course trying to hit them head on as we were advised to do). We started taking on water at an alarming rate and it looked pretty inevitable that we were going to dunk. The wind gust continued to carry us to the right shore, at which point I leapt out of the boat in thigh deep water and reached out to a big rock to keep us from slamming into it as well as to get us onto dry land. (This all seemed very dramatic to us at the time, but as we soon learned, sh*t happens in the wilderness and you just gotta be ready to roll with the punches, or in this case, the waves). We pulled the canoe up, unloaded out gear, dumped the water, and hunkered down in vain hopes that the wind would dissipate.
I was prepared to spend the night in the mossy area in the woods behind the rocks Survivorman-style (an illegal practice, I know) but the guys were confident that we could get back on the water and at least make it to the nearest campsite. The site around the peninsula from where we were stranded seemed like it would be tough to get to. So after about an hour or so, we loaded up and let the wind carry us back in the direction of the EP. We found the campsite just to the left of where we put in. It was relatively sheltered and more importantly, dry. We congratulated ourselves for making it there without capsizing (much later in the day, we got a visit from one of the guys from the other group that we saw at the EP; he told us they “rolled” five times! That’s determination! They never made it off Kawishiwi. They decided to spend the night in their truck and try again in the morning. We would do the same thing, minus the truck).
We spent the day “relaxing” around camp on what would turn out to be our only sedentary day – the extra day for base camping that I had built into our schedule was squandered, but I’m glad I planned it that way – otherwise we would have been sorely behind schedule. We also took the opportunity to get familiar with our gear, including the massive feat of engineering that is the bear bag pulley system – took us a while but we figured it out and became more adept at it as the week wore on. Monday, however, included multiple comic attempts to get the rope over best limb we could find. Once we got it over, the line didn’t drop down far enough so I attempted to pull off a tree-hugging squat with Adam perched on my shoulders so he could reach it; I’m 6’2”, 210 lbs and he’s 5’10”, 170. I’ve squatted that much in the gym. I didn’t make it all the way up but at least far enough for him to grab the rope. I was thankful for the extra time spent on the squat rack in the gym. (I’m sure some of this sounds idiotic but we’re greenhorns at this and you only succeed by making a few mistakes.)
For dinner, we fried up the pork chops they packed us – they were supposed to be steaks but as we found out when we got back to Sawbill, the girl who packed our food was a vegetarian and didn’t know the difference. We easily forgave her for this. We capped off the night with a cigar – I brought along a box of ten Tabak brand coffee-dipped miniatures as our only vice. We turned in just as it was getting dark. I was a little cold that night as the wind continued to cut through the tent. It would take me a couple nights to figure out the right combination of layers and sleeping bag adjustments to stay sufficiently warm. By the third night, I switched places with Adam so I was in the middle and used my partners as insulation.
Day #2 (Tuesday) (I’ll speed things up a bit from here on out or else I’ll end up writing the great American novel.) Woke up to the sight of water still as glass. We forewent the hot breakfast and coffee and jumped on the water while the getting was good (next time, we’ll go with cold breakfast options: bagels, etc.) I would later regret skipping coffee. We crossed Kawishiwi in no time flat and enjoyed the beautiful sites of early morning on a wilderness lake. Saw a bald eagle being harassed by a raven right as we were making it onto the river. We got to our first beaver dam and had some discussion about what we were “supposed” to do before getting out in thigh deep water and pulling the canoe over (we didn’t see a convenient portage). We passed some guys as we were walking the canoe through thigh deep water and “warned” them of the beaver dam they would have to make their way over. The look on their faces was a combination of “Duh” and “No sh*t”. Our green horns were on full display.
By this point, we had all assumed our own specialized roles: Jon was in the back as the steering guy; Adam was navigating with the map (I had the map out too); and I was the lookout up front watching out for rocks, beaver dams, portages and campsites. We got slightly off track when we flew past the portage on Kawoshachong and headed up the Kawishiwi River to the northwest. I had to explain to Adam that the red lines with the numbers were what we were looking and the red did not mean we shouldn’t go there. I thought I had explained that but I don’t fault him for the mistake. We corrected our course quickly and made it to the first portage.
Portaged across to Townline and got our first taste of the difficulty of hauling heavy packs down a rocky, uneven trail, not to mention the fun of carrying a 20’, 55 lb canoe overhead, battling winds all the way. We let Jon man-up for the first canoe carry. Adam would do the next one. They both complained of the discomfort of the wooden yoke resting on their necks. By the time it was my turn the next day, I took out a hand towel and some paracord and fixed that problem. Instant cushioning. Another portage and into Polly we went. Encountered a couple nice Forestry Service guys on our way off the portage. We were told by another group to have our permit ready b/c they were asking people for them but they didn’t ask us for some reason. I would have been happy to show them. That was the only contact we had with any type of enforcement officers. I expected to see more in such a heavily regulated and micro-managed area but I guess they have a lot of ground to cover.
It took us a bit of paddling around Polly to find a site. The wind was picking up and our PTSD from the previous morning was starting to kick in so we were relieved to find a nice spot on a rocky point. Arrived mid-afternoon – probably should have taken the time to take the canoe out to fish but the wind was more than we wanted to deal with after our ordeal the previous day. We did a little fishing from shore. Adam caught a small walleye – just big enough to have a couple “fingers” for dinner. This would turn out to be our only taste of Minnesota walleye on the trip. I caught an 18” Northern that lunged out of the water at my lure as I was quickly retrieving it b/c Adam had a snag and I was trying to help him. The fish more or less jumped on shore. I’m not too confident in my y-bone removal technique so we opted to throw him back. The rest of the afternoon was spent lounging in our hammocks and messing with the bear bag again.
We had a smorgasbord for dinner – we had our planned rehydrated meal plus a dozen eggs and a pound of bacon they packed us for breakfast. Since we weren’t doing hot breakfasts, we figured we may as well go ahead and eat it all. So we did. We capped the night off with another cigar and another early bedtime. Heard a bull moose bugle in the distance followed by a crashing sound through the brush a ways off down the lake before turning it. Also noticed the collective hum of millions of mosquitoes that sounded uncannily like a noisy freeway.
Day #3 (Wednesday) (Really gonna pick up the writing pace now or I’ll never get this posted.) I was up at 6:30 before the other guys. Very groggy from being dehydrated the day before. Got on the water a little later than we wanted to. The odyssey from Polly to Phoebe was long, slow and arduous. I stepped in a total of four holes both on land and in the water. It’s a miracle I didn’t injure myself. I knew it would be long but I wasn’t expecting a ten-hour day. Lots of tricky navigation through rocky areas and over beaver dams, etc. Dealt with a couple challenging portages. Adam lost an expensive watch at some point (another rookie mistake: don’t bring expensive stuff to the BWCA). Did zero fishing. Found a nice spot on Phoebe at about 6 pm. The landing was very difficult. Had to haul the canoe up a steep rock face to get it out of the water. By the third night, we finally figured out that cooking with the backpacking stove was much easier and more prudent than trying to cook over the fire cowboy-style. Food was meh – that’s to be expected with camping food, I guess. We were getting pretty worn out by this point and starting to yearn for the finish line. Decided to take our time the next day on the trip to Alton and vowed to stop on Grace and do some fishing.
Day #4 (Thursday) Slightly less arduous than the day before. Kept our promise to ourselves to pause on Grace – we were especially motivated to do this after passing a group who said they had a lot of success on Grace and advised us to look for rocky areas just deep enough that you can’t see the bottom. This turned out to be great advice. We spent two hours fishing with Rapalas and leeches and had tons of fun with some 14”-16” smallmouths. Being from the South, almost all my bass fishing experience had been with largemouths. Smallies fight so much harder than their bigger-mouthed cousins. Threw them all back. I don’t care for the taste of bass. Very glad we took the time to actually do some fishing on our fishing trip!
Made it to Alton around 7 and found yet another beautiful spot on a point than resembled the Shire from Lord of the Rings. Personal hygiene was reaching disgusting levels by this point, but not surprising, we didn’t care. Lounged in hammocks. Ruled the bear bag by this point. Smoked cigars. Thought we may have heard wolves. Off to bed.
Day #5 (Friday) Up and at ‘em. Our thoughts by this point were dominated by hots showers and cheeseburgers. Our flight out of Duluth wasn’t until 6:30 pm so we could have taken time to fish Alton but our newbie adventure spirit had about run its course. We were spent. Did a little half-hearted fishing with the dare devil spoon for Northerns. Had a visible follow but didn’t hook him. Portaged into Sawbill and entered civilization. It was a beautiful June morning and the scene resembled a canoe derby with dozens of day-trippers coming out of Sawbill. Saw some sun-bathing young ladie on the dock from a distance (turned out to be the girls from the outfitter taking a break – glad we didn’t act like creepy old men considering we had to see them a few minutes later – albeit fully clothed). Pulled the canoe up and hauled the gear up to the store. Unpacked our gear, showered, loaded the car, pointed it in the direction of Duluth, and bade farewell to an unforgettable experience. _____________________________________________________________________________________ Things we did right:
Physical fitness – we concentrated on the right muscle groups, worked on cardio, and prepared about as well as we could without access to a canoe before the trip. I was skeptical as to my own fitness level as I was only doing 2-3 days a week but I did a lot of walking whenever possible. I was not sore the entire trip as I feared I would be. And very little soreness after. I think staying hydrated had a lot to do with this.
Preparation – as I said, I stalked the message boards and made multiple calls to the outfitter asking tons of questions. As a result, I feel like I packed appropriately and knew what lay ahead . My trip mates, especially Adam, over packed. I thought I communicated recommendations to them but apparently they didn’t listen (at least, he didn’t). I brought a few unnecessary items but not too much.
Picked a great outfitter – would use Sawbiill again without a doubt again. Great people.
Made smart decisions – turning back on Day 1 on Kawishiwi was the right move even though it set us back. Properly gauged distances and how long it would take us from Point A to Point B. Trip Planning – Picked a good route for first timers (the Lady Chain was recommended to us both by the outfitter and several posters on the message board). Also, building an extra day into the trip for base camping ended up being prudent for a different reason; losing a day b/c we were wind-bound on Monday meant we had to make up time and distance. If not for the extra day, we would have been even more rushed.
Picked the right time to go: Temperature was perfect. Couldn’t imagine doing what we did if it were 90 degrees. It would have been horrible. We had 60s-70s. And no rain. Of course, can’t control that but we lucked out with beautiful weather. Black flies dissipating and mosquitoes not as merciless as I feared they might be. Don’t get me wrong, they were still pretty bad. Wore the head nets a lot. They seemed to prefer Jon and Adam over me.
Good trip partners: traveling with like-minded companions can make or break the trip. The three of us got along great. Jon and Adam did not previously know each other. They became fast friends. We had a lot of great discussion to pass the time. I have a few other outdoorsy friends whom I’m frankly glad didn’t come along. They can be a little too gung ho, don’t always share my sense of humor, and can be a little moody. I would go anywhere with these two guys again in an instance.
Brought gloves! – These were indispensable. We’re not used to the air being that dry and my hands got horribly chapped and cracked before I finally dug out the gloves on day 3. Should have put them on earlier. My Rapala fishing gloves sufficed but the workgloves I brought worked fine for Jon. So anything that offers coverage and protection is sufficient.
Brought multi-tool! (and left behind my heavy duty bushcraft knife) – this proved wise. I used my Leatherman countless times for various tasks, including unhooking fish, getting snagged hooks out of clothing, untying tough knots, making cuts requiring the little scissors included on the tool, handling hot cookware with the pliers, etc. Would probably bring two next time. Didn’t have any situations where I would have needed my Schrade 36 bushcraft knife. Glad I didn’t bring it.
Things I would do differently next time:
Base-camping – I wouldn’t do such a long point-to-point route in such a short amount of time. I would likely paddle a day or two to a good fishing lake and spend 2-3 days fishing the lake and surrounding lakes and paddle back the way we came. I do feel like I missed out on some great fishing. I didn’t regret it too much at the time bc we were so exhausted from paddling all day.
More fishing – see above. Also would spend more time figuring out the trolling technique. My non-fishing trip partners didn’t have any patience to fool around with it. Would bring a little less tackle but not much. Would probably bring a travel rod and/or leave the rods in the bazooka-looking rod tube whenever we weren’t fishing. Was talked out of bringing the rod tube at the outfitter. Should have brought it. Tried tying the rods to the gunwales and end up with some rod damage. Had a lot of stuff in the canoe and things caught bumped and hung up and my partners weren’t very careful with the rods when handling the canoe.
Pack lighter – more specifically, encourage my partners to do so. Also, wouldn’t bring so much stuff from the outfitter. Maybe do a different package so we wouldn’t have so much gear from them. We had three packs from them alone: one for food, one for camping gear, and one for cooking/kitchen gear. I think we could have done with two from them. Would have gone as ultralight as possible. Double-portaging was murder. Was not expecting to have to do that considering there were three of us.
Trip Rating: 9/10
Overall, this was the trip of a lifetime for all three of us. Since we live so far away from the BWCA, I don’t know when we’ll be able to make it back. The expenses were considerable. Not something I can afford every year. I wish there were more places like this nearer where I live. Sure, I have the picturesque mountains of Western NC a few hours away but the canoeing opportunities are almost all whitewater and I have no desire to attempt that. I much prefer canoeing over hiking as a means of travel. The trip did however re-ignite in me my passion for outdoors and adventure. The more I do of this stuff, the happier I am. Period. To paraphrase Ishmael from “Moby Dick”, I long in my heart for things remote. Unplugging and venturing into the deep wild is an experience that is essential to life for me, as well as everyone reading this, most likely. I stagnate in a sedentary lifestyle. I will be doing some hiking and camping in the Fall, for sure. Too miserably hot in NC this time of year for that. The area was every bit as majestic as I envisioned it would be. I pondered the amount of political crusading and legislation that went into preserving the Boundary Waters so they are the way they are today. I waxed philosophic on the fact that the BWCA is really “born again virgin” territory. Testament that man CAN fix what we “break”. This needs to be done in more areas in this country. The champions of the BWCA and the Wilderness protection status they procured set a great precedent for other conservationists to do the same elsewhere in this country. I am deeply envious of anyone who lives close enough to the area to be able to visit frequently.
Thanks for reading my long, rambling report. I hope you got something out of it that may be useful in the future or at least found it entertaining. I hope it's not too incoherent.