Boundary Waters, Trip Reports, BWCA, Stories

Quick Solo Overnight
by TominMpls

Trip Type: Paddling Canoe
Entry Date: 09/22/2018
Entry & Exit Point: Fall Lake (EP 24)
Number of Days: 2
Group Size: 1
Trip Introduction:
Though I've gone on wilderness trips since I can remember, I've never gone solo. I'm a social person and I love sharing adventures with others; it would feel strange to plan an extended trip without others, and traveling for a single overnight would be strange. So I've never had an opportunity that made sense until now. I was the 3:55 pacer for the Ely Marathon on Saturday morning, and due to prior commitments neither my wife nor daughter were joining me, so I was planning to be in Ely alone anyway. Even as a pacer one can never be sure how one will feel after a marathon, so I made no reservations for a trip, but I brought my gear along with the plan to rent a canoe and grab a permit if I felt good.
I finished the Ely Marathon right on time: 11:24 AM, 3:54:02 after starting. I'd had a good group with me - almost a dozen for the first several miles, and a few who were with me for the whole race. As a pacer your primary job is to help people meet their goals, and so the race was a tremendous success.

Although I planned to paddle in, there are higher priorities after a marathon, so I went back to the Adventure Inn and showered - thanks to them for taking excellent care of their runners! - and then drove to the Ely Steakhouse for a Bucky Burger and a pint.

After lunch I swung by Piragis and asked if they had a Magic, but unfortunately all their Magics were out. They did have one Prism, and I decided that rather than hunting all over town for a Magic I'd take the Prism. We loaded it on my car, and a quick stop into the Ranger Station got me a Fall Lake overnight paddle permit. I like being in the wilderness and so I've never even looked at Fall Lake before, but some suggestions on the board indicated it met my post-marathon requirements perfectly - close to Ely, not too big of water, easy portages for tired legs, a variety of decent sites at various distances from the car depending on how I felt.

It was a gorgeous, if somewhat windy, day as I pulled into the Fall Lake entry. There were a few motor boaters and a few canoeists coming out, but it was surprisingly quiet for 2:30 on a pretty day. An AIS inspector was at the landing and asked me some questions but sent me on my way pretty quickly.

I'd brought my Beavertail paddle because in my experience it's my favorite solo paddle, but I also borrowed a kayak paddle from Piragis with the canoe, and I started out using the kayak paddle. It was certainly fast, but I was surprised at how much I disliked using it - besides dumping piles of water in my lap, I found that against the wind I had I was making lots of corrective strokes, paddling much harder on one side than the other, and even taking multiple strokes on one side before taking one on the other, so I was losing a lot of the efficiency of it. So after the portage I switched to my beavertail.

The portage from Fall to Newton is crazy-easy, with smooth landings on both sides and a wide, well-established path with portage-wheel tracks. Usually I'd be annoyed by that but two factors made this very welcome - besides having just run a marathon, I was also quite unhappy with the Prism's goofy portage yoke. it took me a couple tries to get it adjusted, and on a narrower, more difficult portage it might have been hard to take it down and put it up to adjust, but on this portage that was a piece of cake. Single portaging with my tiny pack, I passed a soloist with loads of gear and a tandem canoe, as well as a couple with an aluminum canoe, and pushed into Newton.

Newton is a beautiful lake, and as I was looking at the first color changes on the shore I paddled almost right up to a loon who let me get very close before ducking under the water. The sky was getting quite a bit cloudier though, and I was feeling like maybe I'd had enough of a day already, so I decided to take the northernmost site on Newton rather than pushing on to Pipestone Bay - which I'd thought might be my destination back at the launch. I ate some snacks and set up my tent as it started to sprinkle, and I decided maybe I'd climb inside the tent and read a little before fixing dinner. 

Next thing I knew it was dark, raining, and 9:00 PM, so I decided to just call it a night and went to sleep. People talk about having trouble sleeping on solo trips, but I think the secret is to run a marathon before going - I slept like a baby and honestly probably wouldn't have cared if a bear had walked right through the center of my site. Heck, maybe one did. I wouldn't have noticed.

I woke up at my normal time - 5:30 - on Sunday morning and could hear that the rain had stopped. I was incredibly comfortable in my tiny almost-4-season solo Hilleberg tent, but knew it would be cold outside, so took my time getting organized. It turns out Fall Lake has cell reception, and my various devices agreed it was 35 degrees outside, and things were wet. I'd expected that and packed accordingly, so I put on basically everything I had to face the morning. I'd brought coffee and oatmeal for breakfast, but I also knew I was only four miles from my car so I decided to just eat a few energy bars and get back to Ely for coffee and breakfast. I packed everything up and pushed off at about 7:45.

The wind was relatively low and the heavy clouds weren't dripping, so my paddle was surprisingly pleasant. I was surprised at how much I enjoyed the Prism in the water - pretty fast, pretty responsive, pretty good at cutting through waves, very stable, easy to get in and out of. I was warm - perhaps even too warm once I was moving - except for my hands, which were cold enough that I was a little worried I might drop my paddle. I found a decent routine with the portage yoke and had an easy paddle across Fall Lake (much easier with my beavertail), and was back to my car much faster than I expected. I loaded the car, drove back to Ely for coffee and quiche at the Front Porch Cafe, dropped off the canoe at Piragis, and drove back to Minneapolis.

With a few days' reflection I'm really glad I decided to do this quick overnight paddle after the marathon. It was an easy way to finally get a solo overnight paddle in without feeling like I was robbing myself of a potential regular trip. But I don't know that I'm likely to schedule an actual solo trip any time soon: I didn't feel like I got anything out of being out there alone that I wouldn't have gotten while sharing the experience with another person. I'll have to give that more thought.