Boundary Waters, Trip Reports, BWCA, Stories

Border Route - Grand Portage to Lake of the Woods
by Kelso

Trip Type: Paddling Canoe
Entry Date: 05/18/2018
Entry Point: North Fowl Lake (EP 70)
Exit Point: Little Vermilion Lake (Crane Lake) (EP 12)  
Number of Days: 10
Group Size: 3
Trip Introduction:
Our group was Matt, Andrew, Peter, and Bonnie the Golden Retriever, paddling a Wenonah MN-III. We called ourselves "Three Men in a Boat, To Say Nothing of the Dog", a reference to the great classic of British boating humor by Jerome K Jerome. Our goal was to retrace the historic Voyageur route from the stockade at Grand Portage to Lake of the Woods. The original goal was to finish at Angle Inlet on the NW corner of Lake of the Woods, but ultimately we cut the trip short due to dangerous winds and waves on the big lake, contenting ourselves with reaching Wheeler's Point at the SE corner of Lake of the Woods. We had planned for 15 days, but due to good weather we finished the 350 mile route well ahead of schedule in just 10 days, 5 of which were spent crossing the length of the BWCA. An excellent trip, and highly recommended!
Grand Portage to Lake of the Woods - 350 miles in 10 days


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Worst mistake: We should have brought paper maps, since our GPS proved unreliable.

Favorite place: The famous Picture Rock on the eastern end of Crooked Lake.

Weirdest experience: Camping in the Duty Free Liquor Store parking lot in downtown International Falls.


Many others have completed the Border Route, but there is surprisingly little information available about it online. It also seems that almost all previous Border Route thru-paddles have been completed from West-to-East, in order to avoid westerly headwinds and in order to have empty food packs on the Grand Portage. We had also originally planned to go West-to-East, but just 2 days before departure we changed our minds. This decision forced us to carry the Grand Portage uphill with full packs, and to drag our canoe upstream on the Pigeon River. It did, however, allow us to run the Rainy River downstream from International Falls to Lake of the Woods. Ultimately, we felt that the East-to-West route was a good decision, especially because we had good weather with less headwind than expected.


Day 1: May 18, 8.5 miles. Sunshine and light winds.

Started at the Grand Portage stockade at about 2pm, loaded the canoe and paddled out onto Lake Superior a few hundred feet. Unloaded and completed the entire 8.5 mile portage in about 7 hours, with full packs containing 12 days of food. Completely exhausted, camped at Fort Charlotte.


Day 2: May 19, 25.2 miles. Chilly drizzle all morning, strong breeze from the north, becoming calm and clear in the evening, hard frost overnight.

Paddled upstream and portaged around Partridge Falls, current became too strong for upstream travel in many sections, dragged canoe upstream wading in knee-to-waist deep water, reached the Stump River, intended to portage along the Border Route Hiking Trail but accidentally joined a series of forest roads and ATV tracks which we followed to South Fowl, battled a headwind and waves on South Fowl and North Fowl, crossed Moose Lake and camped on beautiful Mountain Lake.


Day 3: May 20, 42.4 miles (including a 9 mile accidental detour on North Lake). Sunshine and light SW winds.

Quickly crossed the 3 mile Long Portage (easy compared to Grand Portage), reached the Laurentian Divide between South and North Lake, misread the GPS and accidentally paddled far off course to the NE corner of North Lake, retraced our steps back to the border and crossed Gunflint Lake, met some fishermen on Magnetic Lake who invited us to stop at their beautiful chateau on Gallagher Island, photographed paper maps and drank beers at Gallagher Island, reached Clove Lake after dark, Matt was sick because of too much beer on an empty stomach, Peter spilled the Jetboil pot and scalded his wrist.


Day 4: May 21, 38.0 miles. Sunshine and calm winds.

Quickly completed the Granite River, crossed Saganaga in the hot sun, GPS only worked intermittently all day, skipped many portages by running the rapids, struggled to navigate with poor maps on the digital camera photographed at Gallagher Island, camped at the SW end of Knife Lake, just across from Dorothy Molter's Isle of Pines. Passed the long paddling hours by telling Tom Swifty puns:

Matt's Tom Swifty: "Why do I always have to steer?" Matt asked sternly. "I could take a turn." Peter said with a bow. "Oh no you won't!" Andrew thwarted.

Peter's Tom Swifty: "Someone certainly farted!" Tom fumed astutely.

Because we were so fond of the "astute" Tom Swifty, pronounced "ass-toot", we decided to name our canoe the Astute.


Day 5: May 22, 43.8 miles. Sunshine and calm winds.

GPS no longer reliable. Matt broke his wooden bent paddle while attempting to run rapids instead of taking the Carp Lake portage, purchased a cheap (and heavy!) plastic paddle from a woman working at Prairie Portage, hot sun on Basswood Lake, portages on Basswood River, photographed the pictographs at the SE end of Crooked Lake, camped at the NW end of Crooked Lake.


Day 6: May 23, 44.0 miles. Sunshine and calm winds.

Portaged to Lac La Croix, Matt broke the second wooden bent paddle on Lac La Croix, purchased a new heavy wooden one at Campbell's Cabins and made phone calls to our families, finished Lac La Croix and Loon Lake, paddled the Loon River and reached Little Vermilion at sunset, finishing the entire BWCA in just 5 days. From Day 6 on Matt used the one remaining good graphite paddle up front, paddling 80 strokes per minute for hours on end. Peter steered with the heavy plastic paddle and Andrew duffed with the wooden paddle.


Day 7: May 24, 44.5 miles. Rain showers in the morning, calm and clear in the evening.

GPS no longer functional, using cached Google Maps data on Peter's cell phone for navigation. Rain started on Sand Point Lake and continued across Namakan Lake. Pushed hard to reach Kettle Falls for hamburgers at the historic hotel. Peter's cell phone no longer functional due to rainwater. Loaded Matt's cell phone at Kettle Falls with maps for navigation. Called the park service to reserve Kawawai Island campsite 13 miles further on, reached camp before sunset.


Day 8: May 25, 28.7 miles. Sunshine with breeze from the west all day.

Difficult day island hopping and navigating from peninsula to peninsula on Rainy Lake. Battling a headwind all day. Many speedboats and houseboats in the main channel. Finished crossing Voyageur's National Park. Reached International Falls before sunset and got permission to camp in the grass near a liquor store parking lot. Ate a huge dinner at the Border Bar Pizza Parlor, with a huge platter of poutine, the Chewie Burger, 2 large pizzas, and several beers.


Day 9: May 26, 39.5 miles. Sunshine with breeze from the west.

Late start in the morning, spent time in International Falls shopping. Repaired one of the broken bent paddles with 5-minute epoxy, which held up well enough to be usable. Portaged around the hydroelectric dam down main street of International Falls and got many funny looks and grins. Paddled downstream past Emo and camped at sunset on an ATV trail near the US shore. Many mosquitoes.


Day 10: May 27, 41.2 miles. Sunshine and calm winds.

Early start due to mosquitoes, ate breakfast at Franz Javne State Park, pushed hard to reach Baudette, stopped for 2 hours in Baudette for lunch and groceries, pushed hard again for Wheeler's Point. Reached Lake of the Woods campground near Wheeler's Point at 9pm. Unexpectedly received a generous offer from a family to camp in the backyard of their nearby cabin.


Day 11: May 28, 6 miles. Sunshine with strong breeze from the north.

On the water before 5am, reached Lake of the Woods, planning to cross the lake heading for Angle Inlet. Decided to cancel plans due to a dangerous headwind and poor weather forecast. Returned to the cabin and waited for my wife and infant daughter to come pick us up and take us home.