First Solo: Sawbill loop up to Cherokee and back down through Temperance. September 2016.
I left my home in Illinois on Saturday morning around 7:30 am for the 9 ½ hour drive to Sawbill Outfitters. Months of planning and the day had finally arrived. Two hours into my drive I started noticing a lack of acceleration with my car. It would hold at 70 mph but would not go any faster. This is not typical and concerned me, but I figured that I would keep on driving. A couple of hours later and it’s worse. Now it’s having trouble holding at 60-65 mph and has no power to climb hills. I finally had to ride the shoulder at around 40 mph and get to the next exit in Hixton Wisconsin. Just great! It’s around noon on the Saturday of the Labor Day weekend. I’m in a small town in Wisconsin and my car is broke. My thoughts are that I will be stranded here until Tuesday when I can get my car fixed. I start running through options. Maybe I can rent a car. Nope. The nearest Rental car company I can find closed at noon and won’t open until Tuesday. Then I see what looks like a semi-truck repair facility and go over there. They do not work on cars but give me a business card for someone that does. I call and talk to Dave, who tells me it will be about an hour and a half before he can get over and take a look. Oh well, at least I have someone to look at it. I go back to my car, start it up just for the heck of it, and everything seems to be working fine. I take it up the road a mile or so, and it’s all good. No issues at all. Now I’m confused. I call my local mechanic and tell him what’s going on. He asks if I smell a rotten egg smell. I realize that I had just noticed that. He says my catalytic converter is clogging when it heats up and the reason its working now is that it has cooled down. “No problem, I tell him. I’ll just stop every hour or so and let it cool down.” At this point I’ll do whatever it takes to get there. He suggests that I wait for Dave to show up and at least take a look at it. So I wait. Dave shows up. Agrees that it probably is the converter and tells me that I can either hang out in Hixton until Tuesday when he can get the parts and install a new converter on my car, and, oh by the way, the parts alone are $1300.00. Or, I can drive the car. Keep the speed around 65 and stop every now and then. A no brainer! See ya, Dave and Hixton Wisconsin. It’s was nice knowing you.
I arrive at Sawbill around 9pm. They’re closed for the day. But I half expected to be sleeping in my car anyway. I don’t think, even if they were open, that I would have found a campsite. It’s seemed like a pretty busy place. But it’s all good. I made it to Sawbill and can start my trip on schedule. It’s a clear night and the stars are out. I have a couple of cold beers on ice. I have some salted peanuts and a lawn chair. I’m a happy man.
Day 1. Sunday 09/04/2016.
I’m up before the sun, which is typical for me anyway. Sawbill Outfitters open at 7am and I plan to be the first one in the door. I get everything ready at the dock, get my permit and map and I’m off. It’s very calm, there’s some fog and I can’t wait to get going. My plan was to make it to Cherokee Lake that day and either spend the night on Cherokee Lake or push on for Long Island Lake. Depends on how I feel. After that I would head to Tuscarora and then Little Sag and back down through Mesaba and Wine Lake, do the long portage to Lujenida and back to Sawbill. I was planning on being out for 7 days. After all, I had done all the calculations on paper. Since this is only my second trip to the BWCA and my first solo trip, I thought it would be a good idea to read other trip reports. I now had a pretty good idea of how far I could travel each day. Then reality hit.
I tried to keep the amount of stuff I was bringing to a minimum. I considered my gear and food choices and thought I was bringing everything I needed, and maybe some stuff I just wanted to have, like my Helinox chair. But I read other people really like having a chair and as a result, I ended up with a 40 lb bag, a 30lb bag and a 45 lb. canoe. I’m not a big guy, I weigh about 160 lbs and I’m not young anymore. I’m 56. And for the life of me, I did not have the strength to carry more than one of these at a time. I was meaning to try this out at home, before I left, but because I was really busy with work and family, and, I just didn’t. So, no problem, I’ll just triple portage. The first portage to Ada is only 60 rods, which went fine. I had my first ‘mental mistake’ on this portage. On the first leg of the portage, I grabbed my 40 lb bag, my two paddles and then, for some reason, thought it would be a good idea to take my padded canoe yoke at the same time. I was halfway down the trail before I realized my mistake and that I would have to carry it with me when I went back to get my canoe. A few hours later I’m at the portage to Cherokee Creek, I’m pretty tired, I’ve been out here nearly 7 hours and I have the longest portage of the day ahead of me. But, I try to stay positive. It’s a beautiful day, the sun is out and I’m in the BWCA. I can do this! Two hours later and it’s done. Now, I just have to paddle down Cherokee Creek to Cherokee Lake.
On the portage, I ran into a guy that told me about a beaver dam on Cherokee Creek. Now, like most everything else, I’ve only READ about pulling a boat over a beaver dam, but, like a lot of things on this trip, I have never done it myself. Cherokee Creek is just beautiful. I’m the only one out here. I’m tired, but still having a good time. I approach the dam, get out on one side, pull over and then step on what I thought was solid footing. It wasn’t. I sink down in the muck, up to my waist. I feel myself getting sucked down into it. I grabbed something, maybe a branch, I’m not sure, and pulled myself up, almost losing a shoe in the process. Lesson learned… always check the depth of the water and the firmness of a footing with your paddle before stepping on it.
I make it to Cherokee Lake and realize the first few sites are taken. It’s getting late, I’m totally spent and rain is in the forecast for the evening. Ok, don’t panic. “You’ll find a site”, I tell myself. Which, I finally do, on the first island I come to. Site #888. I’m so happy to have made it and it only took 10 hours.
At this point I am seriously wondering what I’m even doing here. Why did I think this was a good idea in the first place and how quickly can I get back home? But I also realize that I am tired and things will look better in the morning, which they did. During the night, as I lay in my hammock listening to my tarp flapping in the wind, because I was too tired to properly secure it, I realized that my plans would have to change. There was no way I could continue with my original route. Rain and thunder storms were predicted for most of the upcoming days and, with how slow I was traveling, I would need a shorter route. With that in mind I fell asleep.
Day 2. Monday 09/05/2016.
The rain continued through most of the morning, but I was warm in my sleeping bag, happy to be resting and reading my nook. It stopped around 10:30 am and I got up, got dressed, made coffee and breakfast and sat by the water. It’s times like these that you realize why you do this…the beauty of the lake, the stillness. The fact that you can finally decompress and let go of all the stress that comes with life. I was very happy to be right where I was at that moment. The exhaustion, anxiety and fear of the previous day passed away. I decided I needed a day of rest and that I would spend the day right where I was, on Cherokee Lake.
I decided to do this trip starting at Sawbill, because it gave me a lot of options as far as a route. And, at this point, I needed options. I had originally wanted a trip that covered a lot of territory. I like to be on the move. But I had to face facts. I’m moving pretty slowly and I was ok with that. I was out here to enjoy myself. I didn’t have to see 20 different lakes. I would enjoy the few I would see. With that in mind, I planned my next few days. With the storms in the forecast, I knew I wanted to head back towards Sawbill, but I didn’t want to go back the way I came. I decided to head through the Temperance Lakes, down though Weird, Jack, Kelly, Burnt and then on to Smoke. From there it would be a short portage back to Sawbill and then home. I was happy to have a route that would allow for shorter travel days, some lay over days and put me closer to my ending point. With that decided, I spent a very relaxing day on Cherokee. It was cloudy most of the day. I did some fishing. I redid my tarp setup so that I didn’t have to hear it flapping all night in the wind. I read. I ate. I relaxed.
On day one, I was using my phone a lot. I was using the Terra Map program to track my progress and taking a lot of pictures. As a result, by day two, my battery was pretty low. I brought a solar charger to recharge my phone. Good plan, except for those days where there is no sun. At one point, late in the afternoon, the sun came out and I could tell it would be a short window. The only place the sun was shining was by the lake. So, I grabbed my solar charger and my iphone and made my way to the big, slanting rock the sun was shining on. I set my phone down on the rock, just to plug in the line, and down the rock it goes, into the water, with me in after it. I was able to grab it, but not before it went completely under. At this point, I’m hoping the Otter Box that the salesman at Best Buy said would protect my phone better than anything else, was going to hold up to all the hype. Wait, did he say it was waterproof? Only time will tell. So, now my plan of documenting my entire trip with Terra Maps and photos is out the window. I am quickly learning that the trip you plan in your head and on paper can look very different from the actual trip you take.
Day 3. Tuesday 09/06/2016.
It rained again last night, but my tarp was tight. I was dry and warm, and I slept pretty well. Up before the sun again and I’m looking forward to a travel day. Got packed up and out of my site by 7 am and headed for the 140 rod portage to Sika Lake. Now that I’ve resigned myself to a triple portage, I get into a rhythm. I take the heavy bag first. I sing songs, just to make noise. I try to guess where the halfway point is and I look at it as if I’m just out taking a hike. In this case, it’s a 700 rod hike. But, I’m feeling strong today, a little sore still, but feeling good. I drop off the heavy bag, go back for the canoe, take the canoe, boy my shoulders are sore, go back for the lighter bag, and done!
Now just a short paddle across Sika and on to the 105 rod (525 rods for me) portage to North Temperance. Finish that and paddle down North Temperance to the South Temperance Portage. The morning was still and quiet. The weather was cool, there was some fog but, it was beautiful, and I was very happy to be here and doing this. It is now around 10:30 am and I have been on the move for 3 ½ hours. I haven’t seen or heard a single human being all day, when, as I pulled up to the portage, I hear a man say, “Hey, check out the quail.” I look up and see a quail on the portage and a man, without a canoe or any bags, just a life jacket with a BWCA.com sticker on it. He looks at my canoe, with my BWCA.com sticker on it, and says “I think you and I talked on the message board last week about being up here in the same area at the same time”. Sure enough it was Pete, aka, pswith5. He was staying on South Temperance for the day and was just taking a day trip over to North Temperance. The odds of us meeting at that moment were pretty slim. We talked for a few minutes and Pete offered to haul one of my bags for me. Thanks Pete. I told him I would stop over to his site for lunch before I continued on. He said he was at the last site before the portage. I still had one more trip to make for my canoe so he took off. I loaded up and headed for the last site before the Weird Lake portage. As I approached the site, I saw a group of people on it. I knew that Pete was traveling solo. It was then, I realized, that he meant the last site before the other portage. Too late, I’m not paddling back across the lake. So Pete, if you’re reading this, sorry, but it wasn’t intentional.
At this time, I needed lunch, so I stopped and rested a while before the longest portage of the day, the 240, I mean, the 1200 rod portage to Weird Lake. I finish the portage, paddle down Weird Lake, do the very short 12 rod portage to Jack Lake and pull over a beaver dam. “Damn, I’m getting good at this”. I take the south site on Jack Lake, #928. It’s around 3 pm. The site is up a steep rock staircase from the lake, which is not ideal, but offers some pretty good views and a nice breeze to dry out some of my wet items. I feel really good. It was a good day. I set up camp, have some dinner and am in the hammock before its dark. (There are no photos from this day. My battery was almost dead and the only time I saw the sun was while I was in the canoe and didn’t even want to try and set up my phone and charger while paddling).
Day 4. Wednesday 09/07/2016.
I had a good night sleep. No rain. Nice temperature. I went to bed not knowing what I would feel like doing the next day and I kind of liked that. I knew that I would do whatever I felt like doing after I woke up. And I felt like traveling again.
I got packed up and on the water by about 7:30 am. The northern section of Jack Lake is very nice. It’s narrow, so you feel like you’re on a river. It was foggy. It was quiet. I was, yet again, loving where I was and what I was doing. I saw a bald eagle take flight from a tree off to my left.
I paddled to the short portage of Kelly Lake and then down Kelly Lake, to the 230 rod Burnt Lake portage. I’ll do the math for you… 1150 rods, for me. It was early. I swear, I was getting stronger as the days went by. I finished this portage in record time, for me, 1 ½ hours. It was close to 11 or 11:30 a.m. and I still haven’t seen another person, yet. Just as I had the thought…’I do not believe that I have ever spent an entire day, out in this world, without having a human encounter’, a man and woman come around the corner of the portage. Oh well, I almost, ran into no one. Turned out to be the only two people I would see all day.
I decide to spend the night on Smoke Lake. I end up taking the second site I come too, #919. It’s a great site, with a sandy beach landing and good hammock areas. It’s a large open site. It’s only noon and I am done traveling for the day. I found a great site, I appear to be the only person on this lake, it’s about 70 degrees and the sun is out. It’s time to dry out some clothes, recharge my nook and phone, have a cocktail, or two, and lay on the beach. I think these few hours, between noon and 8 p.m., when I went to bed, will be stored in my memory as some of the most relaxing moments I’ve ever had. Looking back, it was the calm before the, literal, storm.
As I’ve mentioned earlier, I’ve done a lot of reading about the Boundary Waters. Since I have limited experience here, it’s how I educate myself on what can happen on a trip. Of course bears are a concern at first when you start thinking about being out here, but I’ve read of very few bear attacks. No. What concerns me the most, are trees. Specifically, the kind of trees that fall on you, in the middle of the night. I was very saddened to read about the deaths and injuries that have occurred here recently because of falling trees. I told myself that when I set up my hammock, I would look for a spot that would be the safest from any falling tree. Yeah, right! You need trees for your hammock. You need trees for your tarp. There are, literally, millions of trees all around you. I had a weather radio with me and knew they were calling for thunder storms with high wind gusts and heavy rain after midnight. They were right. 12:56 a.m., to be exact. The rain was pounding my tarp so hard that it sounded like a set of kettle drums being played next to my ears. The lightning would flash and the thunder boom so close to each other that I knew it was right next to me. And the wind was shaking my hammock so much, that it felt like there was a person on either side of me pushing and pulling. Reflecting back on this, I can honestly say, it was the most terrifying moment I can remember ever experiencing. The only saving grace was that it lasted only a few minutes.
Day 5. Thursday 09/08/2016. The final day.
I had originally planned on 7 days and covering about 40 miles. This trip was about accepting a change in plans, if nothing else.
I had thoughts of spending the day here, on Smoke Lake. The forecast was for cloudy skies changing to sun later in the morning. But the forecast also called for more thunder storms on Friday. I decided that I had had a very enjoyable trip and it wouldn’t be so terrible to head back a little early. I packed up my stuff.
Now, the wind and I, we do not get along. I paddle a Wenonah Vagabond. It’s the first canoe I've ever owned so I can’t compare it to any others, but I do not think it’s the most stable. I tipped over in it once, on a river back home, after a speed boat sent some waves my way and even the slightest wind seems to almost send me over. The big problem for me, today, was the wind, and there was some. I’m sure for some people, it was just a mild wind, but it was a concern for me. My canoe has a seat that can be adjusted to a forward slant, to allow for kneeling. And, again, having read, but never actually kneeling in a canoe, that this allows you to keep your center of gravity lower, I adjusted the seat and practiced with an empty boat before I took off. They were right. It did help, a lot. I packed up and took off into the wind for the Sawbill Portage.
For the last 5 days, I had wanted to do a double portage. Once, I tried carrying my heavy pack on my back and the lighter one in front. It didn’t work. My legs couldn’t move and I had to abandon this idea a third of the way through the portage. I knew that, if I was to do this, I would have to carry my lighter pack on my back and my canoe on my shoulders at the same time. I have only one portage today and it’s only 100 rods. I can do this. I start with my heavy pack and, on the way, notice a lot of standing water and mud. Now I don’t mind getting my boots muddy, but I never know how deep the puddle is or how slippery it will be. I like to go along the sides of each puddle and step on rocks, whenever possible. I drop off my heavy pack and back to the beginning I go. I strap on my lighter pack, hoist my canoe on my shoulders and I’m off. I’m doing it. And I’m doing it well. I can do this. About halfway in was the largest of the puddles. Now, in hindsight, I probably should have walked right through the middle of it. But no, I try to go outside of it. I get halfway through and slip a little. I let go with my left hand to grab a branch. This causes the canoe to become unstable. The next thing I know, the canoe is going over and I am being pulled backwards. I land on my back in the middle of the puddle I was trying to avoid stepping in. Lesson learned. I pick up my canoe and look for my pride. I lost it here somewhere. I leave my pack and come back for it. No double portage for me this trip.
It’s even windier on Sawbill Lake. I kneel in my canoe and stay close to shore. I make it back to Sawbill outfitters with a new found confidence of handling windy conditions. I’m back to my car by noon. Loaded up and heading home. I stopped every hour or so to let it cool down. I was home by 11 pm, but not before meeting another BWCA.com member. I was getting gas in Two Harbors when I hear, “Hey, boundary waters dot com.” I head over to the vehicle with the canoe on top, and meet Pete, aka. Jackfish, and his son. They were just heading up to start their trip.
It was a great learning experience and an awesome trip. I learned what I can, and can’t, do, how far I can travel in a day and to just accept what is and make the best of it. I will be back. I will try to get to where I can double portage someday. I told my son this morning that, “If I can take a little less stuff, and if I get a lighter boat, I can probably do a double portage.” He said “Yeah, that will all help, but you’re also going to be older on your next trip”.
Thanks son, I’ll keep that in mind.