Boundary Waters, Trip Reports, BWCA, Stories

Sawbill Lake Loop -- The Real World?
by BigOarDeal

Trip Type: Paddling Canoe
Entry Date: 08/01/2018
Entry & Exit Point: Sawbill Lake (EP 38)
Number of Days: 5
Group Size: 8
Trip Introduction:
I’ve often referred to the Boundary Waters as ‘The Real World’. Leaving modern society behind and being secluded in nature has just felt more ‘real’ to me. This trip would definitely question my notion of what is ‘The Real World’ because of that dreaded message received upon returning to the outfitter. I went back and forth on whether or not to post this report, but decided this is a very real part of going to the BWCA.

For this trip, it is a group of 8 guys entering at Sawbill Lake and completing the popular ‘Sawbill Lake Loop’ in a four-night trip. Most had been to the BWCA before, but the trip was new for two of the guys.
Day 1 of 5
Lucky 13

Wednesday, August 01, 2018

We left the Twin Cities around 7 am in hopes of getting to Sawbill Canoe Outfitters around 1 and putting in before 2. It was a pretty chilly day for it being August 1, but then again you never know what to expect in Minnesota. We stopped at Tobies in Hinckley (I obviously got a giant cinnamon roll) and continued on towards Duluth. We stopped in Tofte for lunch around 11:30 or so at Coho Cafe. It was definitely decent food, though it’s not like there were a lot of choices in Tofte.

After lunch we headed up the Sawbill Trail and arrived right on time. Did the paperwork on our canoe rentals, and we were soon launching off. It had been drizzly all morning and although the weather reports indicated it would taper off, the drizzle was still going strong when we launched around 2:00. Here we are launching our canoes at the very convenient dock.

The plan for today was to camp on Burnt (2 portages away) given the afternoon entry. In no time at all, we were at our first portage to Smoke.

I love watching first-timers do portages the first time. ‘So I just walk this trail until I see water again?’ ‘Wouldn’t it be easier to have 2 people carry a canoe?’ Anyway, they loved it once they got to the other side. On this trip, we single portaged all portages since there were 8 able-bodied young men.

The Smoke side is definitely an adventure. Due to the boggy nature of it, there is a ‘floating’ dock from which to launch your canoe. However, put more than one person on it and it definitely starts to sink. Oh and don’t step off the dock! If you do, you’ll be up to your knee in muck—let’s just say we know from experience!

We really enjoyed the elevation in the distance while paddling Smoke.

The portage to Burnt was pretty uneventful. Being on Burnt, we now started to look for a campsite. We looked at the map and decided which we would prefer, if possible.

We made a beeline for the island site just south of the put-in point. Occupied. How about the southern point? Occupied. The two in the middle of the lake? Occupied. At this point I saw more canoes on the lake than I’ve ever seen in a BWCA lake. We counted 11 (!) canoes on the relatively small Burnt Lake. Needless to say, when we checked out the northern campsites, they were also taken. Okay, so we were skunked on Burnt. No big deal. We’d get the 210 portage out of the way and take one of the 4 sites just after the portage on Kelly.

I really enjoyed this portage. Definitely not difficult, but very pretty. Since I went first, I walked quietly and hoped to see some wildlife. Unfortunately, I didn’t see anything.

Once we were all over to Kelly, everyone was happy that we had gotten it out of the way for tomorrow. So we started to check out the campsites on Kelly. We could not find the southern campsite in the bunch of four on Kelly, so we went into the bay to check the others. They seemed pretty low-lying and were quite hidden. We had to get right up next to the campsites before we were able to see that they were… occupied. Went up to the northern campsite in the clump of four: occupied. Finally located the southern campsite (seemed much further south than our maps indicated) and it was occupied. Okay, so now we were 0 for 10, it was still drizzling, and it was going to be dark soon. I don’t generally like to look at the time in the BW, but I looked so I knew how much time we had before dusk. It was 6:15, which isn’t great.

The group at the northern campsite was out canoeing, so we decided to approach them and ask if we could share their site, seeing that it was quite a paddle to the next three campsites, and with our luck those might be occupied as well! The gentleman responded with ‘I’d rather you didn’t.’ Now, I get it. We’re a group of eight guys. I wouldn’t want to share my campsite with another group, let alone a group of eight guys. But at the time we were getting desperate (oh, and we had some steaks thawing that we REALLY wanted to grill). So his response became a joke for the rest of the trip: ‘I’d rather you didn’t.’ He also told us the campsite at the far north side of Kelly was occupied. Just past that one, there were two campsites on Jack Lake that last he saw were unoccupied. We also had the option of paddling south to Peterson Lake as that campsite was much closer. However, being one away from an entry point lake, and it being the only campsite on that lake, we decided to wind our way up the Temperance towards Jack.

Sure enough, the campsite at the north end of Kelly was taken. 0-11. The portage to Jack was nothing. We decided that the Jack side of the portage could definitely be a makeshift campsite if the two sites on Jack were taken. I was bummed we were in such a rush and didn’t get a chance to explore the Jack Lake mine at the Jack side of this portage.

As we neared the bay with the two campsites in Jack, we saw… a canoe. They had the southern campsite. But, to everyone’s delight and relief, they informed us that the northern campsite, though small and swampy, was free! Good thing too, as it was getting quite late. The first 12 were taken but lucky 13 came through for us! They also informed us that the campsite on Weird Lake, just north a little ways, was also free, and by their account was a much better site. Somehow, we decided to get greedy and send a couple canoes to Weird to see if the site was still open.

Wow. What a bad decision. We definitely underestimated how far away it was. I was in the group that checked out the Weird site. By the time we got to the portage, I knew it would take too long to go back, get the others at Jack, come back to Weird and set up camp. So I made the executive decision to call the other canoe back who had found the Weird site unoccupied and go back to Jack. They were both very frustrated as they sang the praises of the Weird site, but there simply was not enough daylight. Should not have done that scouting mission!

Back at the Jack site, we got tents set up during dusk and it was pitch black by the time we had things set up. We tried to get a fire going, but everything was too wet and we were too tired! We made some instant mashed potatoes and called it a night.

~Sawbill Lake, Smoke Lake, Burnt Lake, Kelly Lake, Jack Lake