Boundary Waters, Trip Reports, BWCA, Stories

Fall Inaugural
by Bulldogge62

Trip Type: Paddling Canoe
Entry Date: 09/10/2017
Entry & Exit Point: Sawbill Lake (EP 38)
Number of Days: 7
Group Size: 2
Trip Introduction:
My last time in the BWCA was 1984. I was telling my wife about that adventure and she was curious. I bought a couple maps and showed her the route my cousin and I took 30 plus years ago searching for lake trout along the Gunflint Trail. We watched some youtube videos and it didn't take much to convince her that we could and should do a wilderness canoe trip.

We left Somonauk IL around 4 AM on Saturday Sept 10 and arrived in Tofte about 10 hours later. After getting our permit, fishing licenses and rental equipment we headed out on the Sawbill Trail. We got to the campground, picked out a site and set up our tent. After returning from registering at the office we started organizing and packing our portage packs. We cracked open a couple cold beers and let it sink in that we weren't in the corn desert but the north woods and at the crack of dawn we would embark on an adventure. We sat at the table looking up at the brilliant night sky and toasted our good fortune. Sleep did not come easy and 5 AM was here before we knew it.

We were brimming with excitement as we packed up, loaded the car and drove to the launch site. we unloaded our gear, took the canoe off the car roof, and Anita drove the car up to the parking lot. I had most of our gear on the dock and the canoe in the water by the time Anita returned from parking the car. We got in the canoe, pushed off from the dock without trouble, and were on our way. Our plan was to spend a couple nights at the north end of Kelso Lake before backtracking across Sawbill and heading over to Smoke Lake and beyond to Burnt Lake. I had jokingly told the outfitter the day before that my wife was good weather luck on wilderness trips and we would be enjoying blue skies, breezes at our backs and comfortable temps all week long. As we paddled past the "official" entry point and the lake opened up I commented that the breeze was blowing us toward the opening into the bay that leads to the Kelso river portage.

The first portage was over in minutes and we got in the canoe and paddled off on the kelso river. The gentle breeze helped move us along as we marveled at the scenery
Our plan was to claim one of the 2 campsites at the upper end of Kelso for a couple nights and as we passed another party going the other direction they let us know that they had just left a very nice site, so we knew at least one of the sites would be open. We got to the first site and slowly paddled by noting it was empty, so we decided to check out site#874 in the back of the bay before deciding where to set up camp. After landing and checking out the entire site including a walk back to the latrine, we both felt this was just an "OK" site so we paddled back to claim site#872. We set the tent up and got our air pads and quilts squared away.

We took our chairs down by the water and sat there for lunch. While I was sitting there enjoying our snacks and the view before us, I noticed the wife visibly upset and weeping quietly next to me. She explained that she was completely overwhelmed by everything so far and just needed to relax and "take it all in".

As if on cue a large snapping turtle surfaced about ten feet away and floated there staring up at her, trying to say "everything is gonna be fine and welcome to the BWCA" That was all it took, suddenly it was time to explore, so we loaded the food barrel in the canoe along with our folding saw and water bladder for the gravity filter and pushed off heading further up the Kelso river hoping to find the Dolmen.
As we paddled, the river narrowed down until it was not possible to turn around in places. There were hundreds of Pitcher Plants in clusters all over the floating bogs we paddled past. After a while I was starting to think about turning around and heading back to camp. All of a sudden we come across a beaver dam blocking our way. Figuring this is as far as we would go I commented that we can try again the next day to find the Dolmen and we should grab some firewood before heading back to camp. As we were maneuvering the canoe about, I looked up on the shore to see
THE DOLMEN right there Hey cool we found it We took pictures and stood marveling at this geological wonder for awhile before grabbing the saw and harvesting some firewood. We loaded up the canoe and headed back down river to camp
We got back to camp and processed our firewood before relaxing again. We weren't really hungry so I decided to do a little fishing from shore. Made about a dozen casts with a Daredevil before switching to a Zara Spook. First cast with the surface lure resulted in a strike but no hook up. Threw right back and walked that dog past the rock where the previous strike occurred and WHAM hit it again but still no hook up, left it sit there and as soon as I twitched it BAM another strike and miss. I let the fish rest about ten minutes and went back at it. This time the fish launched completely out of the water to attack the spook and I saw it was a small Northern. His aerial attack resulted in a brief hook up followed by a limp line as the lure floated back to the surface. I quickly launched the canoe and retrieved my lure that had been separated from my line by this pesky pike
We started a fire and sat there in silent appreciation of all we accomplished on our first day in the Boundary Waters. Looking up at all the stars in the sky made me feel rather small and insignificant but also invigorated and alive. We sipped on a little bourbon and huddled by the fire, watching it slowly die, as we reflected on an awesome first day. We both started nodding off so I put the fire out, and we retreated to the tent for the night.

Day 2 morning big breakfast and a discussion about todays plan results in our decision to break camp and move on to our next destination. We took our time packing up and enjoyed an extra cup of coffee after breakfast before launching the canoe and heading back the way we came toward Sawbill Lake. The wind has shifted in our favor once again and we enjoy a push down the river to the first portage of the day. No big deal here, as we had just crossed this one the day before
Across Sawbill to the Smoke Lake portage. This will be our first "real" portage of the trip, around 100 rods with a boardwalk at the end
I help Anita with her pack and grab the barrel myself and we head off down the portage. I take the lead and get to the other side without incident. After a brief rest to catch my breath I start back to get the canoe when I hear my wife calling for help. I step up the pace and hear her yell "HURRY" as I round a bend in the trail to find her stuck in the mud past both knees and with the heavy pack on her back not allowing her to move in any direction. After making sure she wasn't hurt and pulling her pack off, we both started laughing at her predicament. She was wearing hip boots over her shoes and while the boot remained buried in the mud she could pull her foot out and balance on a rock while I got down and pulled the boot out of the "boot sucking mud". Then we did the same thing with her other leg and boot. I took the pack and carried it the rest of the way while she went back to the Sawbill side to wait for me. I met her there and helped her get the second pack on while I carried the canoe over. This time we avoided the mud and arrived at Smoke lake with all our gear and footwear intact.

We paddled across Smoke lake and easily found the portage to Burnt Lake.
There was an algae bloom going on in Burnt Lake as we started looking for a campsite. We can already see that site 924 is occupied and continue on hoping that 925 is open as that was our first choice after reading the reviews on this forum. We round the corner and see that the site is open and we happily claim it as our home for the next 5 nights.

We set up our chairs and took a short break admiring the view before deciding where to put the tent
We found several tent pads and decided on one up the hill and unseen from the fire grate area. The rest of the day was spent relaxing in the shade and gathering up some fire wood. The sun was setting as we started a fire and leaned back in our chairs to watch the stars come out. The darker it got, the more stars became visible to us. We broke out the rum and poured a nip into our titanium cups and toasted the day. Another round? why not? We weren't driving. We sat by the fire, staring at the sky and sipping rum until our eye lids became to heavy to keep open and it was off to bed.

We were awaken by the birds in the morning as bands of nuthatches were traveling through hunting bugs in the pines. I went down to the shore and made a few casts with the Zara Spook to no avail. I heard Anita moving about so we got some coffee going and had our oatmeal for breakfast. I started a fire and Anita assembled the reflector oven. This was going to be our first attempt at wilderness baking. We chose to make some wild berry scones from a mix we picked up at Trader Joes before leaving home. The results were phenomenal and with another cup of coffee the scones disappeared quickly. We spent the entire day in camp just relaxing and by dinner time we were ready to bake something again. We had chicken and dumplings for supper and put a lemon poppy seed cake in the reflector oven for dessert
Another clear night sitting by the fire gazing at stars until we were too tired to keep our eyes open. Off to bed.

Up early the next morning and the nuthatches were traveling through camp announcing their presence with calls that sound like little tin horns, while the chickadees were saying "me me me". We got up and had oatmeal with coffee and a couple fruit bars for breakfast. We had planned to take a day trip over to Kelly lake but instead agreed on trying to catch fish for dinner and not leave the lake we are camped on. We paddled over to an island and tried fishing for walleyes with leeches, one of us fishing under a float and one using a jig/leech to drag the bottom. We worked our way along the east shore all the way to the north end of the lake without a bite. We decided to check out the campsite at the north end of the lake and both of us liked it as we stretched our legs. Anita suggested we should be fishing top-waters as the conditions were perfect. I quickly agreed and we changed our rigs over to surface lures. She chose a mouse colored crazy crawler and I went with a torpedo. We launched the canoe and started heading down the shore heading back towards our camp.

We eased along, casting towards the shore, and within minutes the first strike happened. After a short battle I slid the net under a nice smallmouth bass that Anita hooked on that crazy crawler.
This one went on the stringer and we continued on. We fished all the way back to camp and while we had some strikes neither of us landed another fish. After a short break/snack in camp we went back out determined to catch at least one more fish for dinner. We paddled over to the nearest island and started casting our surface lures again. This time it was my turn and I hooked and landed a nice bass that joined the one Anita caught earlier on the stringer. We worked around the island and had more strikes and misses before I set the hook on another and brought in a small pike which I promptly released. We had enough for dinner now and headed over to a rock to fillet our catch before going back to camp.
I cooked the fish on our twig stove and we enjoyed our fresh fish with mashed potatoes and fire roasted veggies. Both of us were stuffed and dessert was unnecessary. We cleaned up the dishes and put everything away before starting a campfire and breaking out the bourbon. Fresh air, full tummies, and a couple rounds of drinks had me nodding off almost immediately. The sky was clear once again and we both stared at the stars until the fire started to die and sleep beckoned. So far every day and every evening had been clear with only a few clouds scattered and no rain whatsoever. This was about to change.

Morning arrived, but the sun didn't as it was heavily overcast for the first time since we started. Breakfast was scrambled eggs with biscuits and gravy. I got the fire going as Anita prepared the biscuit dough. The reflector oven was positioned in front of the flames and we enjoyed our coffee as the fire baked our biscuits to perfection. Once the biscuits were far enough along I scrambled the eggs while Anita whipped up the gravy.
After eating, and a second cup of coffee, we realized that rain was in the forecast today so we broke out our tarps and set up a covered sitting area on the west side of camp and a second smaller rain fly near the cooking area
I grabbed a fishing rod and made a few casts from shore before crossing over to the west side of the site to fish and immediately caught a nice bass. The fish appeared to be still "on the bite" so we launched the canoe and started fishing right away. A couple bass later and another small pike we were thinking about heading back to camp when we heard a distant rumble.

That made our decision easy and we scurried back to camp tied up the canoe and secured camp. The thunder continued as a uninterrupted rumble that sounded very ominous.
It was on us in no time and we ran for cover. The sky opened up and down came the rain with thunder and lightning and wind. We huddled under the tarp and were doing ok when a lightning strike occurred somewhere close, now it was no longer fun as every thunderclap was followed by a flash of light. The storm passed by as quickly as it had begun but the rain persisted. We had dinner under the tarp and no campfire that night

Rain and wind continued most of the night, including a couple more downpours, but the wind died down and rain stopped before we exited the tent in the morning. The temperature had dropped and it was a bit chilly as we got coffee going and decided on oatmeal for breakfast. I scratched out a small fire to warm us up and take away the damp chill, but it didn't last very long as I used the last of our dry firewood. After breakfast we discussed breaking camp down and leaving a day early since rain was in the forecast. That was a brief discussion as neither one of us really wanted the adventure to end. The day was spent slowly packing up most of our gear and taking down the large tarp. It rained off and on throughout our last day, but after 5 perfect weather days in a row we certainly couldn't complain. I did a little fishing from shore but nothing was biting, so I broke down our poles and got them ready for traveling the next day. After supper we broke out the rum and finished off the last of it as we sat there in the dark. The wind picked up, and combined with drizzle, chased us into the tent for the rest of the night. I woke up several times during the night to wind and rain, which caused me to re-think our decision to stay until the last day before paddling out.

We emerged from the tent early and started water for coffee and oatmeal as the final packing up began. The wind had died down and although heavy overcast, there was no rain. I got our pads and quilts packed before joining Anita for breakfast. After eating, she cleaned and packed up the "kitchen" while I took down the tent and got to packing our gear into the portage packs. Once the packs were filled, and a final camp inspection done, we loaded the canoe and shoved off. After a short paddle, we got to the portage
Uneventful portage to Smoke lake and while crossing the lake it began to drizzle. It stopped as quick as it had started as we made our way to the last portage of the trip. The landing with the boardwalk was completed and we had all our equipment on shore. We stood on the boards and soaked in as much "wilderness" as we could before leaving.
Another portage done and back on Sawbill lake heading to the entry point. We slowly followed the shoreline back to the dock enjoying every last minute of our BWCA adventure
We got to the landing and unloaded the canoe. Anita went to get the car, as I moved our gear up and out of the way of other paddlers. We sorted and separated our gear from the rental equipment then loaded the car before placing the canoe on the roof and strapping it down. We drove back to Tofte and returned the canoe and gear we had rented.

On the drive home I asked the wife if she'd do another canoe trip and she agreed without hesitation. We started to discuss how our next trip would be better based on what we learned this trip. Our food pack will be the first place we can trim weight. We over estimated our appetites and will plan the next trip accordingly. I wanted this trip to be special so we brought a French press and fresh ground coffee. Packing out the grounds was enough to realize "not next time" We rented 2 tarps, which was nice to have along when it did finally rain, but one is quite sufficient and we have since then purchased our own from CCS. The Platypus gravity filter we rented performed flawlessly and our Sawyer Squeeze syringe made back flushing the Platypus easy, good thing since there was a pretty good algae bloom on Burnt. The tackle box can also be cut down a bit as I realized how much went unused for the week.

We also rented carbon fiber paddles which are ridiculously light and an utter joy to paddle with. The canoe seat backrests are another "must-have" along with the Kevlar "Boundary Waters" canoe we rented. All the equipment we rented from Sawtooth Outfitters in Tofte was top of the line and performed flawlessly. I would highly recommend them to anyone and will use them again in the future

Lakes Traveled:   Sawbill Lake, Kelso Lake, Smoke Lake, Burnt Lake,