Our plan was to enter through Poplar Lake and go through Gaskin Lake, head West through Kiskadinna and base camp for a few nights on Long Island Lake. Then head south to Cherokee and stay there for a few nights and return to another location on Long Island Lake for another two nights. Finally, depending on the weather we would head north and stay at Ham Lake and exit from there. All of this would be determined by weather, fishing results, aches and pains or just how much we liked a particular camp site. Basically, just kick back and enjoy each day as it came.
The day before we entered into Poplar we purchased sub sandwiches to split up for the first day’s breakfast and lunch. We also purchased steak and a couple of baked potatoes to have for the first night’s meal. We rented a Kevlar canoe and two large portage packs from the outfitter in Gunflint and we had my 60L food barrel and a rod tube for our fishing rods. After a year of anticipation the trip was underway.
Day 1 Poplar was a great lake to start on since it had many islands in which we needed to discuss our location and where we were headed. This initial confusion seemed to be from thinking we had traveled further on the map then we actually did. The weather the first few days were in the mid 70’s with clear skies. A great start...
We started on Poplar at 0830 and arrived at our Gaskin camp at 1430. The camp we chose was rated as a #4 site and we enjoyed the steak dinner on the open fire. We later reconfigured our packs for the next day.
Day 2 The next morning we were not prepared because our camera was packed away and not easily available. The lake was like glass and the images we saw as we paddled along the shoreline were jaw dropping. We contemplated turning around to dig out the camera and retrace our route but figured with 9 days remaining there would be ample opportunities for great photos so we continued on. Regrettably, we didn’t see anything which compared to that morning for the rest of the trip.
We left Gaskin Lake at 0812 and planned to either stay at the good camp site on Kiskadinna or if it was occupied make it a long day and press on to Long Island Lake. As we dropped off the first load of gear on Henson Lake there were two canoes on the lake but they were not heading into Gaskin. By the time we returned with our second load they were gone. We enjoyed the lakes as we paddled and we reached the camp site at 1330 and it was not occupied.
Day 3 Leaving Kiskadinna at 0820, the 185r portage was a little hard on my bad knee but overall our bodies were adjusting and it really didn’t feel as long as we thought it would. We arrived at Long Island Lake at 1230 and found a really nice camp located on a point facing west. It overlooked the entire lake with a great view north as well. The plan was to be on a site which we could see northward because the next two nights were great times for viewing the Northern Lights. Later I went fishing in a few bays which were close by but didn’t catch anything so I pulled up to shore and filled the canoe with enough firewood to last a couple of days. We were settled in for the day, had a great fire going but soon it started to get cloudy and we could hear thunder in the distance. It looked as if everything was going to pass by I decided to check the weather station. The first thing we heard was an alert for strong storms on the west side of the BWCA. They had 60mph winds and was traveling at 45mph. Some lakes were mentioned in the alert but not knowing where they were we decided to put the rain flies on our tents. Just as we were finishing up my brother called out that the storm was on the other side of the lake. Within 30 seconds we took the full brunt of the rain and winds. We chased down flying gear, and tried to stuff what we could into our tents. The fire was blowing embers 30 feet away and the tarp sounded like it was ripping apart from the wind. It was total madness for 5 minutes as we finally ducked for cover in our tents. We put on our rain gear as the strongest winds passed overhead and we went back out into the rains to ensure the canoe remained secure. My tie down of the canoe would not have held if the canoe was not located in a protected area so we were lucky the canoe didn’t end up back on Gaskin Lake without us. All we could do at this point was put the remaining gear wet gear under the tent vestibules and ride out the remaining wind and rain. Looking back I'm glad I turned on the radio.
Day 4 The morning was overcast and cool and as you can expect everything was wet from a night of rain. My brother’s tent was not able to withstand the torrential rains and ended up leaking throughout the night. It was a 3 season North Face tent which I used for 23 years for backpacking. We cut up a trash bag and used it as a barrier between the tent and rainfly. We were not able to get a fire started due to the wet wood and this about the time my new stove started acting up.
Day 5 It was overcast again when we left the camp to go fishing but there was very little wind and no rain so we were happy. My brother hooked into a nice pike on a top water bait but it cut the line so I tied on wire leaders so we didn’t keep donating lures for the rest of the day. Twenty minutes later I hooked into a nice pike and was able to get it to the boat. Guess what… it was the same pike with my brother’s lure still attached; that was awesome. We cleaned the fish on a small rock island so we could leave the remains for the watchful eyes of the eagles. We were able to start a small fire so we had pike for a late lunch.
Day 6 We woke up to high winds and the temperatures were only going to be in the mid-50s. We set up the tarp to use as a wind breaker to try to get a fire started but the winds were too strong. We thought about going to an east facing camp site to cook but the waves were too high for us to risk it. We kept having problems with the stove and had to take it apart each time we needed to use it. I didn’t anticipate this many days going without a firej so a growing concern was running out of fuel. At least tomorrow had sun and warmer temperatures in the forecast.
Day 7 Compared to a week ago when we slept on top of our sleeping bags, last night’s temperatures were only in the high 30s so we were glad to have the additional sleep shirts and knit hats for a good night sleep. At 1am we woke to see clear skies and over the northern horizon we could see the Northern Lights. They were not brilliantly colored but seeing them was another highlight for this trip.
Once the sun came out in the morning we knew it would be a nice day. We started a fire and cooked pancakes, blueberry muffins, bannock and put these into ziplock bags and then cooked up some pizza for lunch. We took advantage of the sun and dried everything we could, including ourselves and clothes. Our goal for the next day was to travel to Ham Lakeand catch and cook some fresh walleye.
Day 8 We left at 0810 and arrived at our camp on Ham Lake at 1140. We choose the NW camp as it was a nicer site and after setting up camp we went fishing. My brother caught a pike and released it and I caught a small walleye. We hoped to catch more but we filleted the small fish and cooked it on the stove. Wow, walleye tastes great! Unfortunately the stove broke again and we couldn’t get it to work. The forecast was more thunderstorms the next day so we decided it may be better to leave on day 9 unless the weather turned for the better.
Day 9 It rained again during the night but stopped by the time the sun came up. We wanted to fish again for walleye but since the main lake was still choppy and it was obvious we were in for more rain we decided to end our trip a day early. After a cold breakfast we packed up the wet gear and headed out. Soon after we were in our canoes the rain came down in buckets and the lightening was everywhere. It was a fitting end to a soggy adventure.
I want to mention an observation. It was obvious before we even stepped foot on our final camp site on Ham Lake we were not in the BWCA. Trash was everywhere, including in the water. I’m talking old food, rope, fishing rod parts and so on. We did clean up some of the trash but there was more than I was willing to carry out. I’m glad those who enjoy the beauty and serenity of the BWCA have the integrity to follow the simple rules of leave no trace. It really sets it apart from all the wildernesses around the globe.
In the end, the first trip in the BWCA was everything I had hoped it would be. Even though backpacking takes you to some spectacular places I think the second half of my life’s wilderness adventures will be spent in a canoe. I’ll post what I learned from this trip since it’s from a first timer’s perspective.