Sawbill to Crooked and Gillis and back via Frost River loop (in reverse)
We awoke early Sunday morning in the main campground at Sawbill to the sound of a gentle breeze, sunshine through the tent wall and about 56 degrees: a promising start to a day with around 14 miles of travel ahead of us. After picking up our permit and watching the "Don't Poke the Bears" video for the 44th time, we loaded up the Wenonah and shoved off from the dock at 8:31 am. Destination Crooked Lake and, with a little luck, some lake trout.
Fortune favored us as the southerly breeze gave us a gentle nudge up Sawbill toward the Kelso portage. Water levels on the Kelso River appeared to be about average for late August, which also boded well for easy travel. Not out to make time, we enjoyed poking along through the area, enjoying the scenery, checking out the blooming pitcher plants, and pausing to get pictures of the Dolmen.
We met only one canoe with a couple who had just come off the portage from Lujenida to Zenith and stated that it was in good shape. Our experience confirmed this. The bridge across the boggy little flowage was sturdy and appeared to have been recently repaired/upgraded which is always nice to see as sometimes it is present, sometimes it has floated off, and sometimes it is entirely gone and, in the past, we have ended up ferrying people and gear across the stream in the canoe. Likewise, the trail itself was in good condition with minimal mud, and aside from being every bit as long as I remembered, was a smooth hike.
By the half way point on the portage, it became readily apparent that I had over-packed pretty much everything. Having under-packed the previous year which necessitated an early exit due to diminished food supplies, I was not about to let it happen a second time and had packed enough food for the two of us and about five of our closest friends. Also packed was a spare sleeping bag. Why? I have no idea and no good explanation. It just seemed like the thing to do at the time. It really wasn't. I estimated the approximate weight of the Granite Gear Pack I was carrying at between 60 and 65#. Which was about 10# more than it needed to be, even considering all the fishing gear.
The Zenith to Duck Lake portage was unremarkable, but the Duck to Hug lake portage had received some serious beaver revision in the past year, and what was essentially a lift-over portage last season had become a bit more complex as far as the approach which now involved sidling up to and unloading on the beaver dam itself.
Duck Lake, as always, was covered in small lily pads. We were late enough into the season this year that they had all begun to turn colors, giving the lake the look of having been covered in thousands of yards of calico. The wind continued to be in our favor as we entered Mesaba from Duck. Last year, we had spent our first night out on the northern-most campsite on Mesaba. This year, the site looked to be in tough condition due to several dead spruce trees as well as recently downed trees; our first evidence of the recent storm damage as we made our way north.
It was on the Mesaba to Hub portage that we truly began to encounter evidence of the blow down. The portage crews had recently been through to clear as evidenced by numerous fresh cuttings. Given what they must have been up against, they had made a splendid job of their work! It was obvious from there and to all points north that the portages must have been a general snarl of downed timber following the blow, but the portages were as tidy as sweat and effort could possibly have made them. On this same portage, I found a shiny blue Nalgene bottle which had been dropped at trail side in the recent past. Investigatory sniffing determined that while it may have once contained rum and Coke, it now contained pretty much straight-up rum. I emptied it out, clipped it onto the pack with a caribiner and determined to put it to use if the intense alcohol stench could be removed. For the remainder of the travel day, the pack, bottle and everything in their proximity smelled rather strongly of drunken pirate.
Hub Lake was full of loons and eagles, and has always looked to me like prime northern fishing, though we've never paused to wet any lines there. It was on the mile long Hub to Fente portage that the notion of taking an alternate route on our return trip began to germinate, though neither of us spoke of it until later.
The Hub to Mora Lake portage was smooth sailing (though by that time we were moving a bit more slowly). The Mora to Tarry Lake approach had some new beaver activity which had lowered the water level a bit and took some slow navigation. The portage itself was easy as always, at least until we reached the Tarry to Crooked portage and realized that the little pack containing the fishing tackle had been left behind at the end of the portage from Mora and would have to be retrieved. Back we went, thankful that Tarry was a small lake.
On to Crooked lake we were, happy to find that the big, westerly facing island campsite we had hoped for was indeed open (we were in fact the only group staying on the lake that night). Pausing briefly to dip water mid-lake, we headed over to claim it. Time of arrival: 4:30 pm on the nose.
Since we had eaten nothing since breakfast, and since I had a strong desire to ease the burden of my overachieving in the food packing department, I encouraged a double dinner once we had camp set up and tarped. Dave fished from the rock face directly off the campsite and hooked into a large northern on his third cast. This shook free before it could be landed which was just as well as it was far beyond eating size.
We had no fire this evening, but sat on the promontory rock until dark, watching thunderheads forming in the west. We were to bed and tired out by 9pm. Shortly after 11pm, I awoke to rain and wind. Lightening followed shortly thereafter and lasted without let up through the night. Sawbill Lake, Kelso Lake, Lujenida Lake, Zenith Lake, Duck Lake, Hug Lake, Mesaba Lake, Hub Lake, Fente Lake, Whipped Lake Sawbill Lake, Kelso Lake, Lujenida Lake, Zenith Lake, Duck Lake, Hug Lake, Mesaba Lake, Hub Lake, Fente Lake, Whipped Lake
Monday, August 29, 2016
At 4:41am, I woke to spectacular thunder and lightening, put a hand on the floor of the tent next to my Thermarest (which was not holding air) and realized that the floor of the entire tent felt like a waterbed mattress. This is not to say that it was wet (kudos to Marmot for putting together a water-tight tent!) but that the tent pad was holding 1-2 inches of standing rain water as neatly as a bowl, and we were metaphorically afloat in it.
Fumbling for the flashlight, I made my way out into the still pouring rain to assess the situation. Indeed the tent was pitched in 1-2 inches of standing water, there was no drainage, and the tide was still rising so to speak. Finding a stout, downed branch, I set to work, shamefully leaving a trace. I didn't trench, but was able to open a small spout beneath the root of a cedar tree which, with some tending, was able to drain off the tent pad. Situation in hand, I got back in the tent wet, crabby and tired, stripped off my soaked clothes and fell blissfully back to sleep until 6:30am to the snores of my consistently slumbering husband.
When I awoke again, it was to the sounds of waves breaking on rock. The morning was overcast, cool, and very windy for half an hour before becoming temporarily still. After retrieving the food pack and setting breakfast to re-hydrate, Dave again fished off the rock face and re-hooked the same northern. The water being so clear on Crooked lake, it was possible to look down over the edge of the rock and watch not one but two large northerns sharking around the rock wall while Dave teased them with his casting spoon.
During the course of breakfast, we had the first of many visits from an extremely bold red squirrel. She was obviously well acclimated to humans and knew how to work a crowd for food. Her visit explained the presence of a whittled wooden peanut left at the site by a previous group, but she was too canny to be fooled by such an obvious ruse! She was in it for the real thing!
A light breeze had picked up by 9am, and we headed out to alternately jig and troll for lake trout. Dave had broken a Lowrance Elite 3x fish finder down to its component parts to save weight and this gave a helpful depth reading but was of questionable accuracy in actually giving a clear read on the presence of fish. Presumably bothered by the storm, no lakers were biting, though I did lose one lure, likely to another large northern. The decision was made to head up to Gillis Lake for another shot at lakers. The portage to Gillis was gorgeous though muddy after the rain, following a creek and skirting the edge of a small pond. Approximately 40 yards up the portage to the right were the remains of an old cabin. Hopefully I can verify its provenance as it was absolutely enchanting; a thing evoking memories of storybooks and tales of talking bears.
We spent the next two and a half hours alternately trolling and jigging down to the west end of the lake and back, but with no luck. Declaring temporary defeat, we returned to the Crooked Lake campsite for lunch at 1:19pm. I pulled out the Thermarests and bedding to air dry as the wind had picked up significantly, and Dave took this as his cue that nap time had arrived. Many canoes went through over the next couple of hours, with all but one group passing through enroute to the area's destination lakes (Crooked not really being one of these for most people). The only group to remain on the lake was a group of 6, initially hoping to get the site we were on. I spoke with them briefly, explaining that there was another, beautiful, bigger island site about half a mile behind us which would accommodate their three tents very well.
By 4pm, it was completely clear, sunny and about 80 degrees. Further trolling proved unsuccessful, and after storing the food pack for the night we returned to the camp to find numerous hatch outs of flying ants taking place about the site. For approximately an hour, the entire camp was filled with hundreds of dragonflies picking off ants as quickly as they possibly could! Not the little, darning needle dragonflies, the huge, Huey chopper kind! Added to their ant annihilating ranks was one, fat toad who thought he had just died and gone to fat toad heaven! It made for a fun evening of critter watching, capped by the presence in the bay to our north of two adult loons and one chick who talked quietly to each other about loon things all through the gathering darkness of evening.
Dave and I took turns splashing ourselves (sort of) clean in the lake and watching a weather front move in from the west. Given the storm of the night before, this gave us pause, but resulted in nothing but about 45 seconds of sun showers and some lovely cloud to cloud lightening for our viewing pleasure. This resulted in a still night perfect for sitting by a fire, which we enjoyed until turning in shortly after 9pm. Mora Lake, Tarry Lake, Crooked Lake, Gillis Lake
Tuesday, August 30, 2016
I ventured outside at 3:47am for a nighttime piddle and was met by a sky full of stars and a stiff breeze from the north. Upon getting up for real at 7:01am, the weather was still clear and windy. We had another double breakfast in an attempt to purge the excess food from the pack, and determined that, due to the wind, our best bet for lake trout would be to forsake jigging in favor of trolling in any semi-protected deep areas we could find. We fished the north end of the lake for a couple of hours without success before moving to a quieter, protected area out of the wind by the higher island campsite that I had directed the group of 6 to previously.
This group was still at the site, and we visited with them briefly prior to fishing the 65-70 foot deep hole in front of their site. They had been fishing the area all morning with only one, 20" northern thus far, and were trying to decide whether to day trip to Gillis or Little Sag at the time of our arrival. Knowing that they planned to be out day tripping, we decided to go ahead and fish the area ourselves. We trolled the area for no more than 5 minutes before I hooked into and landed a 21 1/2" laker with the entire crowd of 6 onlookers watching from shore. This felt slightly un-neighborly (though they were as excited as we were) and I did feel like a bit of a bunghole for catching fish in their area, albeit a bunghole who would soon be full of tasty, tasty lake trout. My remorse was relatively short lived and disappeared entirely after Dave had fried her up (yes, it was a female) as shore lunch. We estimated we downed about 2 and a half pounds of fried fish for our noon meal. Key to this ultimate success was the use of a rig comprised of a 1 1/2 oz trolling weight, flattened to give some wobble and shine, with a 3 foot long leader and 2 1/2" copper and chartreuse anodized spoon (on an additional steel leader to prevent theft by northerns). The fish had hit hard and was feeding heavily as her stomach contained the remains of one minnow and one six inch long northern.
During the course of our fishing that morning, we had also gotten to watch extensively and at a distance of frequently less than 20 feet, an adult loon which had caught and was attempting to eat an 8-10 inch long white sucker. This show went on for the better part of half an hour while the loon would submerge his head with the fish still in his beak and seemingly try to bash it into submission on a rock just below the surface of the water for easier swallowing. His efforts, like ours, were finally rewarded, but it should be noted that the sucker's own efforts were nothing short of valiant, and though his end was...graphic, he died a hero's death. The loon, when next seen several hours later, was still paddling sluggishly about in the same locale; loon tummy full of fish.
As we entered the evening hours, the wind continued strong out of the northwest. The decision was finally made conclusively to return via the Frost River, with our final night's stay planned for Cherokee the following evening. We estimated the full length of the next day's trip at just over 14 miles per the map, and figured it would take us just a shade over 8 hours. We had contemplated heading to Cherokee by the northern route through Tuscarora, over and south through Long Island Lake, but nixed this idea based on a desire to stay of of bigger water should the wind continue as at present. Plan firmly in place and bellies full, we passed the remainder of the day loafing about camp in the sun; just a restin' and digestin'! We built a fire at about 7pm, and forced down a double dinner as I was fully committed to decreasing the pack weight in any way possible. If only we could have eaten that extra damned sleeping bag or the ineffective Thermarest, I'd have encouraged that too! The wind had died to a gently breeze by about 8pm, and we were in bed by 9:30, anticipating a full day of work ahead.
Wednesday, August 31, 2016
Waking at quarter after one in the morning, a peek out the tent door indicated a clear, chilly night, devoid of any wind. It was the kind of night where sound carries and hangs in the air undisturbed. I climbed back into my sleeping bag, tucked in the edges against the chill, and spent the next half an hour listening to the wavering voices of at least five individual wolves conversing, laughing, and breaking into song somewhere to the north on Gillis. I don't know if they were the first to go quiet, or if my mind beat them into the silence of sleep, but in my dreams, they were sitting around the cabin on the portage to Gillis Lake. When I awoke to Dave's stirrings in the tent at 3:47am, they were back at it; doing wolf things and saying their wolf words to the darkness.
I was up for good by 6am, the flaccid Thermarest proving too much for my endurance. Dave made it nearly another hour before getting up and in spite of his "sleeping in" we were fed, packed and headed on our merry way by 8:05.
The weather was sunny and still, we had a plan, we had a map, and we felt good! Also, we felt good because ignorance is bliss, and we were both ignorant and blissful. I will not give a portage by portage summary or a blow by blow, mile by mile account of the trip from Crooked through the Frost and down through Gordon and Cherokee. It is the kind of route that doesn't lend itself well to that. The Frost River forces you out of lake mode, plan making mode, and timeline mode, and directly into the here and now. It is a route all about dealing with the task at hand, and understanding that that task will more often than not be hauling a canoe over a beaver dam while trying to remain marginally untarnished by filth (our recollection puts the total number at somewhere between 14 and 18). This task will be made considerably more difficult by choosing to take the route from west to east. But we weren't immediately aware of that (refer to prior note about ignorance and bliss).
Lest anyone think that I am disparaging the Frost River, let me clarify that I definitely am not! Regardless of which direction one chooses to approach from, it simply requires a dramatic down-shifting of the mental process and understanding that you are not there to "make time".
We had talked about doing the loop for a number of years, and finding ourselves fortunate enough to have excellent water levels, this seemed like the optimal time. The river itself was not difficult, simply time consuming. With the notable exception of the Pencil Lake into Chase portage (virtually no landing with an immediate 45 degree climb up a granite face) none of the rest were either long or particularly arduous. The beauty of the Frost River lies less in its scenery, which is not remarkable in itself, but in its remoteness.
This seems an apt time to make mention of the fact that our 17 year old daughter who usually trips with us was not present. While I missed her company, this day would make me glad that there were only two of us along this year for the simple reasons that anything longer than a 17' canoe would have been rubbish to navigate in the tight quarters of the river, and a third person would have made for an absolute clown car scenario on the numerous beaver dam lifts.
From west to east, after leaving Afton Lake, the next striking visual to be seen will be Octopus Lake. This lake is a rugged, wild looking little bugger, and I wish we had the opportunity to explore it more thoroughly! Frost Lake is a well-known beauty, and Gordon's cathedral-like hills and rock walls don't disappoint! I suspect we may choose this as a base camping destination lake over Cherokee in the future.
We did finally locate and pull into a suitable site on Cherokee at 6:15pm that evening, after what calculated out to an actual total of something just over 16 miles and 10 hours. It is worthwhile to note that when doing this route upstream, particularly if starting somewhere farther north than, say, Whipped or Mora, you will get into Cherokee relatively late in the day. Because Cherokee is a destination lake for many, this can make finding a campsite difficult. The positive is that by the time you do find one, you don't care if the latrine is a foot and a half from the fire pit and the tent site has a hornet's nest in the middle of it.
Our campsite was adequate to our needs. We ate like lumberjacks and slept hard all night without moving. I vaguely remember that it was cold and I didn't care. Crooked Lake, Tarry Lake, Mora Lake, Whipped Lake, Fente Lake, Afton Lake, Pencil Lake, Chase Lake, Octopus Lake, Gordon Lake
Thursday, September 01, 2016
After sleeping until 8am for the first time in the course of our trip, we were fed, packed and on the water by 9. We coasted down Cherokee under a mackerel sky with a push from a Northerly breeze, and were delighted to find water levels in Cherokee Creek higher than I recall seeing them at any point since I started going there in childhood. There was one, mighty, beaver dam in the creek upon which I took an accidental sit-down while steadying the canoe for Dave to get out, but the departure was otherwise without incident.
It surprised me to note that the stretch from Cherokee Creek through to Sawbill was the only area save one by Hub Lake where we saw any moose tracks. As usual, the Skoop, Ada, Ada Flowage area was a seeming hotbed of moose stomping activity though we didn't see any actual moose.
We made it back to the landing at Sawbill Lake in about three and a half hours with a decent tail wind. As always, the sittin' bones were plenty glad to be out of a canoe by the time we made it from the north end of the lake to the dock.
All in all, it was an absolutely golden trip! We learned some things about the lay of the land. We learned some things about slow moving rivers and patience. We confirmed that after 19 years of acquaintance and 10 years of marriage, we have our canoeing partnership fine tuned and running like a well oiled machine. Most of all, we savored every moment of every watery mile, knowing that it is only rarely that all of the elements come together in one trip just this perfectly!