Thomas Lake in Spring. Windy, Rainy, Cloudy, Wonderful.
Trip Type: Paddling Canoe
Entry Date: 05/30/2018
Entry & Exit Point: Snowbank Lake (EP H)
Number of Days: 5
Group Size: 2
What started as a simple trip report about a rain soaked, wind blasted, sunless 5 day trip evolved into a long winded story with flashbacks, background history and a few philosophical musings. Read it if you like, comment if you want. Hopefully you don't feel like I wasted your time.
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Part 1 of 3
In my book, any trip to the BWCA is a good trip. Just being in such a unique and wild place is enough to make me happy. I rarely plan anything specific for my trips since flexibility is a necessity when weather, injury or a good day fishing can cause plans to change quickly. So I'm usually able to adapt to the goals of my group, do my own thing when possible or, if necessary, just smile, enjoy the scenery and let them worry about some arbitrary goal or agenda being accomplished or not.
That being said, being with someone who you don't need to adapt to, who has the same attitude and goals for a wilderness trip as you is more enjoyable. When you also trust each other in a canoe in harsh conditions, that's even better. When that person is also a lifelong friend who you've grown up with, your wives get along, your dogs are best buddies and your families treat each other like their own, that's something special that I can only hope everyone reading this has.
As we almost always do, at least when it's just the two of us, Dan and I Ieft NE Minneapolis at 2am on our entry date. That gets us to Spirit of the Wilderness to pick up our permit right around their 6am opening time. I've often wondered how many, if any, others do something similar. Our wives think we're crazy, but they're used to it and don't argue anymore. Maybe in a few years age will catch up to us and make a lodge stay the night before tempting enough, but not yet.
We always tune in WELY once we're close enough, but it wasn't coming in which was odd. The guy at the outfitter solved that mystery when he told me that there had been a big storm the night before with 60 mph winds. Ely had no power until around 3am, and there was a good chance that people in the park might need help. I was glad I had forgotten about Memorial day when I reserved the permit, or else we'd have come up Monday and had what I'm sure was a miserable night.
I told him we'd keep an eye out, (thankfully it wasn't as bad a he'd anticipated, at least not where we went) bought a granola bar and we were on our way. Timing went as planned, and after waiting for two groups at the landing before us, we were on Snowbank around 7:30. It was a beautiful, still morning, which allowed us to go with our first choice and take the northern route through Boot Lake. We quickly overtook the 4 person group that left before us, which we agreed was due to the machine-like efficiency and endurance that our years of paddling together has given us. But more likely it's just that they didn't know it was a race.
The small lakes/ponds and similar portages between Boot and Jordan lakes, plus the gray skies and constant light rain that rolled in as we approached the North end of Snowbank, all blend together in my memory. All except the 80 rodder from Haven to Abinodji which anyone would remember as the longest one with the hardest climb of the bunch. But it's forever burned into my brain for another reason.
Long side story: When we were on the same route last year with 3 of our very close friends we had two boats, one with a Fisher map and one with a McKenzie map. The Fisher has the portage on the north end of Haven, but McKenzie has it further south. And they're both correct. It seems that the northernmost portage is the "real" one that had been there forever. But there is a huge fallen pine about 2/3 of the way to Abinodji which is laying in the middle of the trail for a good 50 feet or so. It's had all of its branches removed, and is now not a problem. But it seems that when it fell, it made the portage impassable and an alternate (steeper, harder) trail was cut, whether officially or not, which matches the marking on the McKenzie map. That's what we know or at least think, now. But back then a string of stubbornness and immaturity peppered with personal insults and reminders of past blunders on a level only possible after 30 years of history with each other led to all five of us doing BOTH portages, and feeling pretty stupid in the end. And it also led to our new rule - always bring both maps, Fisher for navigation, McKenzie for fishing (they have more lake contours shown) My advice to anyone going this way is to stick to the north portage, unless your trip is making you miss leg day at the gym.
The other highlight of this section is a waterfall between Gibson and Cattyman lakes. If you're traveling east, into Cattyman, you can put your gear/boat down at the end of the portage and it's a quick hike back to the falls. This trip it was a place for a quick lunch and photo, but late summer, when the water is warmer and usually lower, sitting under it for a quick cool down is an option.
After Cattyman, the monotony of small lakes and short portages is over. Next is Jordan, which is a bit bigger with 3 nice campsites. The narrow channel on the east side leading to the next portage is flanked on both sides by cliffs and rock outcroppings. It's a nice spot to paddle slowly and enjoy the scenery.
Next is Ima Lake. I've been through Ima a number of times and think it's a gorgeous lake. It's rocks, islands and shoreline are what I think of when I picture a generic Boundary Waters lake. The portage landing out of Ima is a narrow trail between two rock walls, barely visible until you're right on top of it. There's hardly enough room for two canoes side by side and if the wind is blowing, it can be a sketchy situation coming or going.
After Ima is a stretch of narrow channels and short, annoying portages, culminating in our destination, Thomas Lake.
The island site in the southeast corner of Thomas was our goal. We stayed across the lake on last year's 5 man trip, and despite Dan and I touting its superiority after a day trip to check it out, our 3 friends were content with where we were and outvoted us. This year's trip was set on the ride home, somewhat out of spite, with plans to watch sunsets and stargaze from its adjacent clifftop sundeck. As you'll see, we'll need to come back again to fulfill those plans.
Coming around the corner to find It vacant this time was a 10 month mission accomplished. The full lake trout left on shore, 3 fileted northern carcasses tossed 5 feet out from the landing area, and wads of toilet paper left in the fire pit were disappointing reminders that some people just don't get it. After getting camp set up, I checked the clock for the first time since parking my van and was pleased to see that it was only 5:00. A couple hours of leisurely trolling Husky Jerks around Thomas's southern bays produced 4 good sized Pike, all cleanly hooked and easily released without leaving the water. A hearty meal of steaks and salads finished a long, but satisfying day. We skipped a fire for the night, electing to hit the hay early. We were looking forward to 3 days of fishing and the couple of gorgeous sunsets and starry night skies the forecast had predicted.