Boundary Waters, Trip Reports, BWCA, Stories

Cummings, Buck, Lunetta loop
by djwillco

Trip Type: Paddling Canoe
Entry Date: 09/19/2018
Entry & Exit Point: Crab Lake and Cummings from Burntside Lake (EP 4)
Number of Days: 5
Group Size: 5
Trip Introduction:
I’m fortunate enough to share a passion for wilderness canoe tripping with a larger group of close friends. Every year we send out the call for a fall trip and wait to see who’s available. This year there were five able souls, including one old friend who is the most experienced adventurer among us, but had not been able to join us for a number of years. So great to have him back! In all the years I have been tripping in the BWCA/Quetico I have never been to the far western section of the BWCA through Crab Lake. I’m glad that this year we decided to try it out! A beautiful area that has spawned a new tradition for us.
Day 1: Headed Out

We rendezvous at 4am to begin our trek North. Four dudes and a mass of gear crammed into a Buick Enclave with a Wenonah Spirit II cinched down above us. We make a stop in East St. Paul to pick up the 5th member of our eager crew. I have no idea how we’re going to fit even one more sleeping bag into the vehicle. Our worst fear is we’ll have to leave behind…the beer cooler. God have mercy. Through some miracle of physics, we all fit in. It's like a road trip Twister game; a jumble of bodies and luggage that threatens to collapse without notice into a pile of wrenched lower backs and pulled hamstrings.

Our goal is to reach Voyageur North Outfitter early enough to grab our rental canoes and get towed across Burntside Lake to hit the long portage into Crab Lake well before noon. Mission accomplished! We crack open the trunk of the Enclave at the boat launch and a techni-colored explosion of backpacking gear vomits onto the asphalt. We scramble to make final adjustments to our packs and decant the entire contents of the beer cooler into our Nalgene bottles. In the frenzy of stuffing our packs, heart medications or lifejackets might get forgotten, but by God we will not thirst for ale.

If I were to believe the description of some, the portages into Crab Lake and Buck Lake on our route would best be renamed the Bataan Death March and the Trail of Tears. I've learned over the years, whether it’s the Stuart River, Tuscarora Lake, Little Trout Lake or any other infamous BWCA portage, these routes are rarely quite as grim as in the memory of some. The Crab Lake portage proved to be no different. Aside from being washed out about halfway through, which required us to briefly float our gear in canoes down the trail, it is a delightful walk in the woods. Unfortunately, I’m not known for my patience when it comes to facing off with a difficult portage. Before we could decide how to tackle the flooded portion of the trail I proceed to march through the bog that surrounds the flooded area, and quickly found myself up to my bro-globes in silty muck. Fortunately, I was dressed for the occasion.

The rest of our trek through Crab, Little Crab, and Korb were uneventful and gave a long-awaited opportunity to settle into the silence and beauty of the wilderness and leave our busy lives behind. We arrived at Cummings Lake and found it as we had all the lakes thus far - completely empty. We selected the northern of the two Island sites and unloaded our gear to make camp for the night.

After getting our gear set up, we hit the lake to see if the Cummings Smallmouth bite would hold up to its reputation. While we caught nothing of miraculous size or volume, we did catch enough nice ones to feed our hungry band. I broke out the bacon and wood skewers. An appetizer platter of bacon wrapped bass whilst enjoying the stunning sunset sent us all to our bed rolls as happy men.

Day 2: The Trail of Tears

According to the last weather report, rain was moving in sometime later on our second day. We had planned to spend two nights on Cummings, but adjusted so we wouldn’t need to pack our gear up wet on move day. The new plan was to pack up early and make our way over to Buck Lake for a two night stay.

We caught a couple of bass on our way down Cummings Lake and fileted them at the portage to keep for shore lunch. We then began the long march down the Trail of Tears (AKA Buck Lake portage). This portage was not as heavily travelled as the trails we’d crossed thus far but was still a very enjoyable hike. As we made our way across, it quickly became apparent the local wolf community decided to designate this portage as their poopatorium. The abundance of wolf scat on the trail got our hopes up for a nighttime canine serenade, or maybe to see some of the pack on our trip.

We secured the western-most site on Buck Lake and made camp. The group brought two rain tarps that we set up in preparation for the coming rains. The trees at the campsite were fortuitously placed, allowing us to string one of the tarps right next to the fire pit so we could sit dry and comfortable while still enjoying the warmth and flame-gazing of a classic evening around the campfire. The second tarp was strung up right beside the other to cover our gear. It was a great setup; our own anhydrous tabernacle in the woods!

We got out on Buck Lake in the canoes to see if we could hook into some dinner. We ended up with a mixed catch of Walleye, Bass, and Pike that we converted into a two course meal. A simple baked Walleye in garlic, butter and season salt to start, followed by the Northern and Bass in a delicious yellow coconut curry.

By dinner time the rains had begun falling in earnest but our evening was not to be ruined as we hunkered by the fire under the safety our massive nylon umbrella and one-upped each other for hours telling stories of past adventures.

Day 3 – Where’s Waldo?

Day three greeted us with continued rain. Never a deluge, just a cold and nagging 12 hour drizzle that sucks the warmth from your bones and weakens the spirit. The wind had also picked up during the night. While we slept our sanctuary of dryness under the meticulously erected rain tarps had partially shredded and completely collapsed. I was awoken by a scratching on the door of my REI Quarter-Dome by my paddling partner. “Hey” he stage-whispered. “Sorry to drag you out, but can you give me a hand? All hell broke loose out here…”. I smiled and roused myself to lend aid in getting the gear covered back up. We knew the rain would be stopping sometime soon so we didn’t try to recreate our nylon Shangri-La but simply got our gear stuffed under the tarps on the ground to keep dry.

After some breakfast and coffee we decided we should take a hike across the nearby portage into Chad Lake to keep the blood moving and fight off the morning chill. While finishing our coffees we realized we hadn’t seen a member of our group in some time. We were pretty certain that Waldo (names have been changed to protect the innocent and avoid charges of libel) had gone to look for firewood as he had done the day before. However, he hadn’t told us, and we did not know what direction he had gone. About 45 minutes had passed since we’d seen him, so we were somewhat concerned.

We walked down the trails leading away from camp while calling his name. No response, and no signs of our buddy. After another 15 minutes passed we were legitimately worried. The remaining four of us divided into two groups, each group with a Walkie-Talkie, and set out in opposite directions from the camp. After ten minutes of searching and yelling, Waldo was recovered. Turns out he indeed had gone to look for firewood, but as we feared, lost his bearings in the woods. He knew the direction back to the lake, but once at the shoreline he did not recognize the rocks or trees in the landscape and headed off in a direction away from our camp. He eventually realized his error and made his way back in the direction of our camp and we found him during his trek back. Crisis averted! While not angry at him for getting lost, we made a pact moving forward to let people know if we’re going anywhere away from camp.

With Waldo safely back in the fold, we headed off to hike the portage into Chad Lake. It’s always enjoyable to hike down a portage and take your time soaking in the beauty of the environs while not sweating and cursing under a heavy pack and canoe load. At the end of the portage we hiked around the shoreline to one of the two campsites on Chad Lake. Chad also showed no signs of life, and we enjoyed an hour of solitude on the shore eating our lunch and drinking in the sun which had finally broken through the clouds.

Upon returning to Buck Lake the rest of the day was spent luxuriating in the pleasant weather while reading books, fishing, performing camp chores, and lounging around the fire into the night. As the day drew to a close the stars were out, our stomachs were full of fish, and our souls were satisfied. As we settled into our beds for the night the wolves began to howl. A perfect ending to a near perfect day in canoe country.

Day 4: Moving On

We awoke to a slightly overcast day and slowly packed up camp in preparation for our paddle over to Lunetta Lake.

An early morning paddle through the fog that had settled over Buck revealed a Lynx sitting happily on a rock just down from our campsite. Lazing in such a position as to look like an overgrown tabby-cat enjoying the morning view. Wish we'd gotten a picture of this.

We set out ‘round mid-morning and hit the portage from Buck to Western Lake. This portage and the two to follow (from Western into Glenmore and Glenmore into Schlamn) were definitely further on the “rustic” side of the scale as far as BWCA portages goes. At one point both myself and another member of our group walked right off the portage trail and had to turn around to find our way back to the correct path. The trail had been obscured by falling leaves and undergrowth.

We made our way through Schlamn Lake and exited through the creek at the end of the lake. We worked our way over several beaver dams, one portage with a creek running through it, and another stretch of creek before finding ourselves at the landing into Lunetta Lake. It was a great day of paddling through isolated beauty.

Despite encountering only one other group the entire trip, I had a nagging feeling the site on Lunetta would be taken, so I was relieved to find that, once again, we had the place to ourselves.

We set up camp and considered what to do with our afternoon. Besides fishing, I was also interested in seeing if I could locate the remains of a pre-Boundary Waters Act cabin that used to be located on the lake. I had read about the cabin in a thread on and had seen the approximate location of the cabin on an older Fisher Map book I own. We paddled to where the cabin was supposedly located and crashed around in the woods until we finally stumbled on an old stone wall that presumably made up a portion of the cabin’s foundation. A very cool find.

Several in our group, myself included, tried to pry some fish loose from the waters of Lunetta to no avail. I spent several hours unloading my entire tackle arsenal on the local fish population and was getting ready to quit just as daylight was beginning to fade. Being it was the right time of day, I pitched out my Buzz Plug lure into an opening on a weed bed…and Lunetta finally gave up her virtues. For the next hour the Large and Smallmouth bass went full Shia LeBeouf throwing themselves at my topwater plug. A super fun final night of fishing out solo in the canoe!

Another evening was spent together around the campfire telling tales and sipping down the remaining drips in our whiskey flasks. During this night of tale-telling a disagreement arises. The nature of the disagreement pertains to details from a trip many years past. One year on a kayak trip down the Granite river we lost one member of our group (no, despite what you may gather from this trip report we do not lose people often!) and we did not find him until after dark. It was a near disaster of a trip! My friend and I discover we have a different recollection as to which campsite we found him on. Both of us are thoroughly convinced of our rightness, and a bargain is struck. Whoever is wrong will buy the other a Bucky Burger and beer at the Ely Steakhouse after our paddle out the following day. Not only that, we raise the stakes by having the other three members of the group wager on which one of us is correct. Mostly, it's pride that's at risk. We laugh deeply as we needle one another over our poor memories.

Day 5: The Final Push

Our last day of the trip and some in our group are wakened early by a pack of howling wolves close by. The last day of a trip is always a tough one knowing you’re only one day away from sitting in the garage looking over maps and wondering how soon spring will come so you can make your way back again. As if sensing our reluctance to leave a pair of Otters bob in the water to bid us farewell as we make our way into the Tamarack bog out the end of Lunetta.

We’ve made an appointment to meet our tow from Voyageur North at the portage entrance on Burntside at 12pm so we need to get a reasonably early start so we don’t have to rush through our final paddle and portage.

The only wrinkle to our paddle out is the strong headwind we hit that makes our paddle across Crab Lake a difficult one. It also makes us very thankful for the tow across Burntside as the big waters are being churned up pretty good.

When we arrive at the last portage from Crab to Burntside we gather at the portage for a final annual trip ritual. Several belts of Whiskey are saved for the beginning of the last portage. We gather around, thank one another for a great trip, and raise a toast to the same time next year.

Perhaps it’s due to several nips of Jack Daniels I now have on board, but I thoroughly enjoy our final portage. As is oft times my habit, I sing a song while hiking a long portage. This time its “Fairytale of New York” by The Pogues that comes to mind.

“It was Christmas Eve Babe, in the drunk tank

I know I certainly, won’t see another one

And then they sang a song. ‘The Rare Auld Mountian dew’

I turned my face away and dreamed about you…”

On return to the outfitter we consult the maps to settle our bet. Even after reviewing the maps some uncertainty remains and it requires a phone call to one of the other travelers from our past trip. Much to my dismay, his answer is quick and confident and firmly drives the last nail into my coffin. I should have listened to the echo of my wife’s voice in the back of my head reminding me of what a horrible memory I have. Oh well. I take my lumps and we laugh as we head off to the Steakhouse to settle up. But we also decide this is a new tradition that must be maintained. Every year henceforth we will find a disagreement on and old trip memory and make the same wager. Just one more thing to look forward to next time around…