BWCAW Solo 2016
This trip follows the longest stretch of time between boundary waters trips I have ever experienced. Its been fourteen years since the 2002 ten day Quetico solo celebrating my survival to 50. In 2002 I was 50 feeling like 25. Not so frisky at 64, but I am still pretty capable in the woods and on the water.
My plan was for a ten day loop from Tuscarora Outfitter on Round Lake through EP 51. The big lake landmarks of the route are Long Island Lake, Cherokee, Brule, Winchell, Gaskin, Kiskadinna and back through Long Island to Round or Cross River. Not a lot of mileage, but 32 portages. Some new lakes to visit would add paddle miles for exploration. Snipe, Cherokee and east to Brule and Henson west to Long Island all would be new to me.
I figured I needed to lighten up the outfit a bit from fourteen years ago. In 2002 I started out with two 65 pound loads to portage. In 2016 I pared that down to two 50 pound loads. A kevlar Mad River Independence weighing in at 30 lbs replaced a 50 pound woodstrip. A one ounce alcohol stove replaced a Coleman single burner. A little less food. A little less clothing. Halved the grog, doubled the proof. Thirty pounds were gone!
I had just finished refurbishing the Indy and needed to try it with the whole outfit before the trip. The local boat ramp on the Tugaloo River is just down the road. I am thinking I will love this boat.
Travel from Georgia Thursday 6-16 to Sunday 6-19
I took four days to make the 1500 mile ride from NE Georgia to Tuscarora Outfitters. The first day I drove hard for Indianapolis to visit and play music with old friends. The second day was a leisurely drive to Janesville, WI. I had time to get off the Interstate and enjoy some small rural towns and back roads.
Saturday was a detour to Lone Rock, WI and Carl’s Paddlin’. After an enjoyable visit with Carl a big Bell Composite Northwind 18 was somehow on my racks as I pulled out. I am afraid the old woodstrip tandem will be lonely when we leave it home the next time Sue and I go to the BWCA together. I continued on back roads through handsome driftless area landscapes to Tomah and back on the Interstate and US 53. Spent the night at Chippewa Falls.
A familiar early morning drive through NW WI had me on the north shore by 11:00 AM on Sunday. A slow tour up the shore included stops at Gooseberry Falls, Baptism River and Cutbank Creek.
I caught the end of a wooden boat show in Grand Marais. Go figure that this was the first time in decades that I didn’t have a woodstrip canoe on the racks.
I headed out the Gunflint Trail in the late afternoon to Tuscarora Lodge and Canoe Outfitters. They provided me with a bunkhouse, breakfast and safe parking for my vehicle with the new canoe. I checked in, paid up and unpack and repacked the outfit before heading to Gunflint Lodge for dinner. Rough storms moved through during the night and power was intermittent. I never sleep well before jumping off and this night was no exception.
Day 1 Monday 6-20 Round Lake to Snipe Lake
I was up at 5:00 AM, unable to go back to sleep. I walked down to the Cross River access hoping to see some early morning birds. The wind was howling, unusual for early morning.
By 6:30 I had finished packing and moved my car to the long-term lot. I portaged my outfit to the landing and had to tie the canoe to a tree to keep it from getting airborne. The French toast breakfast was wonderful with fresh fruit, OJ and good coffee. I wrote a few post cards and was on my way.
The waves were piling on shore at the landing and the wind had just turned it up a notch. I began to think that the west shore might offer a bit more shelter and a start at the Round Lake public access might be more pleasant. Andy agreed and shuttled my outfit the short way to the public landing. It was during the shuttle that he told me of the Gunflint EMT/rescue group that carried a man out of Larch Lake who was crushed in his tent by a tree falling in the nights storm. A good reminder to do what I have always done during storms. Get dressed, put on raingear, get out of the tent, move to a place safe from big trees and hunker down until its over.
The wind was swirling off the west shore, but didn’t cause any problems. I was finally alone on the lake, just as I wished. The portage to Missing Link Lake was rocky and muddy, but relatively easy. The wind blew me across Missing Link in just a few minutes to a crash landing at the portage to Snipe. This portage was more interesting. There were orchids and bogs and a ledge that I had to slide the canoe down and re-shoulder it at the bottom. Fun!
The first campsite on Snipe was available and I didn’t hesitate to move in. The wind was not going to back off anytime soon. Though it was only noon, I wasn’t interested in bucking the wind later in the day searching for an unoccupied campsite. I decided not to set up camp until the wind died. At least there were no bugs on the wing. I huddled in the lee of an old deadfall reading and watching the waves roll by.
The wind finally eased about 9:00 PM. While supper cooked I set the tarp, tent and food hanging gear. I find that I have gotten real used to having weather info at my finger tips. Reading the sky makes me feel good about the morning travel. We’ll see!
Day 2 Tuesday 6-21 Snipe Lake to Long Island Lake
I awoke at 5:00 AM, but didn’t get on the lake until 7:30. It seems I have bruised the bottom of my right foot. I can still get around, but it hurts and I have to be careful to not create a chronic problem. So, I will travel to Cherokee Lake taking two easy days to get there and assess my condition and options for the rest of the trip.
The morning travel included five portages, each one easier than the last. By early afternoon the wind was building again. Passing an island campsite in Long Island Lake I spied a loon family floating nearby. I quick look with binoculars showed a “loonling” riding on momma’s back. I couldn’t resist having them for neighbors.
The campsite was shady, but breezy. The island had big healthy trees and a resident Merlin. All afternoon and evening the wind howled as I made a comfy camp, snacked and found a sheltered place to read and watch the loons. The loonling was still a little ball of fluff, but was swimming well along with the adults and climbing aboard mamma to rest. At sunset the wind died allowing a short paddle in the evening calm. It feels so good to be here.
Day 3 Wednesday 6-22 Long Island Lake to Cherokee Lake
Twenty-six years ago today Sue and I did 17 portages from Frost Lake to Little Saganaga. A solstice tour down the Frost River I will never forget and will likely never repeat.
The first portage of the day was avoided by a short upstream wade followed by two that were short and easy. Gordon Lake is charming and I think it will be a stopping place on a future trip. Today I wanted to get to Cherokee.
I found a great island campsite on central Cherokee Lake. It is shady and breezy and has an easy, sandy landing and good place to swim. I hung my food and took off to explore Cherokee Creek and see if I could find folks heading out to mail a letter for me. Sure enough, I met a family having lunch on a bare rock in the middle of the lake. They took good care of the letter and Sue received news from the wilderness three days before I came out.
The plan is to spend Thursday on Cherokee and assess the bruised foot on Friday. Options would be to continue on the loop or base camp on Cherokee and go out the way I came in. I am leaning toward the latter.
Day 4 Thursday 6-23 Cherokee Lake
A grand day off. I woke up at 5:30, read for awhile and went back to sleep. Starting the day slowly, I washed all the clothes I will need for the rest of the trip and gave myself a good scrub, too.
About noon I hung the food and paddled off to explore the northeast arm of Cherokee Lake. There are beautiful cliffs and round, wave-worn columns like I have never seen before in the BWCA. There is also a rock formation that looks like a gnarly face with a prominent forehead, a huge chin and a nose reminiscent of Richard Nixon. I marked it as Nixon’s Nose on the map.
Exploring the intimate, narrow channel approaching the portage to Town Lake had me making plans to return tomorrow and make the short portage. My bruised foot still hurts and I plan for a leisurely tour out the way I came in, but to Cross River Access instead of Round Lake.
Day 5 Friday 6-24 Cherokee Lake
Got up briefly at 4:30, but had no problem going back to sleep. I crawled out about 7:00, had a quick breakfast, hung the food and headed out to explore Town Lake.
The morning was calm for a leisurely paddle to the very short Town Lake portage. Town is a beautiful lake with only one campsite and would be great for solitude. I doubt there is much traffic on this route. The portage heading out to Vesper Lake starts out rough and bouldery.
The wind came up for the return to camp, mostly a pleasant breeze. I checked out a campsite on the north shore of Cherokee. It is high above the lake with a wonderful view from the fireplace. This would be a nice fall campsite with warm sun all day.
The afternoon wind steadily increased as I settled in a comfortable tree root chair at the shore to read and snack. A sudden shift in the wind and change in the cloud patterns stirred me to action. I pulled the canoe up and tied it to a tree then crawled into the tent for a nap.
Storms never materialized allowing a pleasant evening paddle. Along the shore I found a huge ancient cedar tree. Getting out to lean a paddle on the tree for perspective I noticed wolf tracks in the narrow sand beach.
Day 6 Saturday 6-25 Cherokee Lake
Thunder woke me up at 4:30, so I read and snoozed the morning away. It rained hard and horizontal. The tent floor had a little water before it was over at 11:00 AM. I managed to dry the outfit during a breezy, cloudy afternoon with only a few moments of sun.
The wind shifted from south to southeast to east and finally settled in hard and cold from the north. I retreated early to the tent and my book with more rain threatening.
Day 7 Sunday 6-26 Cherokee Lake to Long Island Lake
Restlessness over came me this morning and I packed up and headed to Long Island Lake. The portages were familiar and easy and the third one a quick float through the riffles. The same island campsite was open so I moved into a homey, familiar setting.
Planning an evening exploration of the eastern part of the lake, I hung the food and settled in for a nap. About 6:30 a storm went off like a bomb. Exiting the tent, I found a safe place to watch the wind rough up the lake. All the campsite trees held firm as did my tent and tarp. The storm ended, but strong, cold winds continued through the night. Temperatures were down to about 40.
Day 8 Monday 6-27 Long Island Lake
Its good thing I didn't plan on traveling today. The wind howled all day, shifting from west to north with a blowing mist. Temps actually dropped into the 30s. I spent time in the tent reading and staying warm or out in the shelter of the tarp making hot food.
As I was cleaning up after supper the sun broke through. A wonderful sunset and evening paddle balanced out the cold wet day. Mosquitoes became very aggressive when the wind let up. It has been such a windy trip that I haven't even noticed bugs.
Day 9 Tuesday 6-28 Long Island Lake to Cross Bay Lake
Not in a hurry today. Four easy portages gets me to my destination. I explored the channel from Karl into Doe Lake finding my first Whiskeyjacks. A sweet side trip for sure.
I also explored the long eastern arm of Lower George Lake finding Common Goldeyes and lots bog plants. Lots of Mergansers on the Cross River.
The first campsite on Cross Bay Lake was open and it is a five star site for sure. There is lots of canoe traffic passing by, but I don't mind. Its good to see folks out enjoying the good traveling day.
I went exploring up all the "cross bays" expecting to see a moose, but had no luck. This may be the first trip ever that I did not see a moose. Saw lots of Turkey Vultures and I think there is a correlation.
A double dose of cider and brandy kept me up watching the twilight from the camp outcrops. It also got me out in the middle of the night. It was the first time I was out during those few hours of darkness. The clarity of the night sky was amazing, the milky way dense.
Day 10 Wednesday 6-29 Cross Bay Lake to Cross River Access and Grand Marais
I decided not to rush out today. I explored the bays again for moose and poked into every patch of good habitat I could find on the way out. NO MOOSE! I made it out to Cross River Access in the early afternoon and walked the quarter mile to Tuscarora Lodge.
Grand Marais was a good introduction back into the rest of the world. The laundromat has a great view of Lake Superior, Nelson's a comfy cabin and Angry Trout Cafe a great dinner. After dinner I hung out on Artists Point until thoughts of a real bed led me back to the cabin.
The return trip was leisurely with stops at Chippewa Falls, Milwaukee and Indianapolis. I was claustrophobic in the car and stopped regularly to get aired out.
That I didn't finish the loop I had planned was not a big deal. Adjusting the plan to more exploring and less travel was comfortable. I was pleased with the outfit and will not change much for my next solo. The extra time spent in camp would be improved with a chair, but I would want to lighten up other gear to keep the weight the same.
My bruised foot was the result of poor footwear. I had traveled in Chuck Taylor Allstars many times before and they worked well. They drain easily and are quite sticky on the wet rocks. They do not have much stiffness in the sole, however, and maybe my old feet are not as tough. It felt like I was wearing moccasins. I added a thin, but rigid, orthotic to them when I got home and that has worked great.
My next solo trip will be the loop I didn't finish. My soul finds comfort in the lakes and forest of this area.