Boundary Waters, Trip Reports, BWCA, Stories

Solo trip through the number lakes
by molshove

Trip Type: Paddling Canoe
Entry Date: 09/05/2018
Entry & Exit Point: Lake One (EP 30)
Number of Days: 4
Group Size: 1
Trip Introduction:
So this trip was not initially intended to be solo - my cousin, who often joins my excursions into the BWCA, cancelled on me about a month before our departure date. I figured there wouldn't be better opportunity to see what I was made of, and so I started looking for a route where I could get away from the crowds and enjoy a little time by myself.
Day 1 Sep 5, 2018

After a peaceful 25-30 minute drive through the woods, I reached EP 30 Lake One. There was a group of 8 middle aged men unloading their 4 canoes as I pulled up.

One of them asked if I drove all the way from Virginia - nope! I flew into the cities the day before and grabbed a rental.

After a little small talk, I learned it was one of the guys first trips into the BWCA, even though he lives so close (central Wisconsin). I told him he’d have a blast, and end up like me, trying to come back whenever my hectic life would allow.

They paddled off as I went up to use the latrine before hitting the water. There was a couple in their sixties, if I had to guess, who were bringing their portage packs to the shoreline as I came back from the latrine. “The water is so clear!” The woman remarked. She was right. Crystal clear.

I’d eventually catch up to the group of 8 men rounding the corner into the main body of Lake 1. I took a more direct route across the lake to the first portage.

As I threw my backpack on my front, and my portage bag on my back, they had the pleasure of pulling up behind me and witnessing me throw the yoke over my shoulders for the first time. I attempted with the paddle and fishing pole strapped into the canoe, but it made it too off balance, so I started over and opted to carry both in my left hand while balancing the canoe with my right.

A quick 30 ish rod portage had me into a small body of water before a slightly longer second portage.

As I rounded the last corner, I ran into a group of men that were kind enough to snap a picture of me with all of my gear in one shot. This was before I realized that fastening the fishing gear to my frontside would be much easier than dedicating a hand to it.

We spoke briefly, the youngest of the bunch a spritely 65 in a big alumacraft full of coolers (steak and all the fixins, they said). Jealous, but I’m looking forward to my freeze dried chili Mac, nonetheless.

As they paddled south for lake three, I b-lined across Lake two, counting my islands and peninsulas, bays and campsites, until I came across the site I was sure would be my marker short of the portage to rifle. Lucky for me, there was a married couple sunbathing on the rocky peninsula, and I asked them if they’d seen anybody head into the portage this morning. They both said they didn’t think so, but they hadn’t gotten up until 9.

Being that I put in at about 915 and it’s now only 1015, I felt confident enough to take a stab at the rifle campsite.

I headed back into the bay and was surprised when there was no portage to be found. I was sure I’d seen all of the landmarks I needed to see, but the gentleman at the campsite said he thought the portage I was after was around the other side to the Northwest. Maybe he was right?

Circling back I made a joke about him being spot on. They said they struggled to find the campsite short of the lake two dam yesterday, and that this little area threw them off, too.

So I headed around. As I started up the “river” towards the dam, I was sure this was not where I would find the portage. About to turn back around, a bald eagle dropped off of its perch not 30 yards to the starboard and flew straight over me. I took this as a sign to stick around for a few. Maybe I could find that campsite the couple couldn’t track down - the people at the outfitter said it’s a nice one.

I scoured the shoreline all the way to the rocky dam and back. Nothing more than a birch branch somebody stuck in the ground (about where I’d expect the campsite). So I hopped out and explored, finding a survey marker and an area too dense to be a campsite.

Back in the canoe, I headed out into the body of lake two again, circling back past the sunbathing couple once more. I told them I, too, was not able to track down that campsite, but I’m now certain the portage must be back where I first looked. They wished me luck, and I told them hopefully I wouldn’t be pestering them further.

Now it’s about 11:15. Found it! Right where it should be. And boy did this look like a doozy...a very small landing and then a big staggered uphill into the woods. I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to single portage this one, but I wasn’t going down without a fight.

All loaded up, I climbed into the woods and started the 70ish rod portage, which continued to change elevation. The ups were bearable. The downs had a multitude of 1-2 foot drops. Mostly manageable shelfs, but one at the very end was all I could handle to not sit on my butt as the canoe was pinched between a fallen tree and a boulder. It took me a couple minutes, but I made it down, winded and sore.

As I put into Rifle lake, the first thing I noticed was the color. A soft mucky bottom and a murky copper tone was quite different from the lake I had just left.

I made it out onto the water and rounded the corner, eyes focused on the far shore, scanning for a campsite I was praying would be empty.

It was! The whole lake to myself, I pulled up, offloaded, and was pleasantly surprised by a neatly stacked pile of tinder, twigs, branches, and even a few small logs. A bunch of pre stripped birch bark, too. Too good to be true!

I setup camp, pumped some water, ate a protein bar and some jerky, and then decided I’d drift around the lake and throw some crank bait out. Not even a nibble. Switched to a chartreuse jig and a matching twister tail, and I got a bite. Pulled a baby largemouth out of the water without a struggle. nice hook set through the lip, tossing him back in, this little guy will live to be a lunker, one day.

No more bites on various tackle, I decided to head back to camp at about 1700. Boiled some water I pumped earlier, and made my chili Mac. Got a fire going, by which I would enjoy dinner, and sat down to write in my journal. A good first day.

As I finish writing, I think I’ll get the fire going again and sip on some Weller 12 before casting from shore for a bit, and then climb into the tent for the night.

No nibbles casting from shore at dusk and after dark. I was content feeding the fire and enjoying my bourbon. The light was still barely visible glowing over the west side of the lake at 20:45. I waited a bit longer to see the stars before heading into the tent.

Note added 1/29/19 – First night was a doozey. Pitch black, all the beautiful noises of the wilderness I normally enjoy so much, had my skin in goosebumps. This was the first time I felt very, very alone. I woke up at some point in the middle of the night needing to pee really badly. After tossing and turning for longer than I should have, I climbed out of the tent, refusing to turn my flashlight on (if I can’t see the woods, they can’t see me). Taking a quick pee, I about sh** myself when a bunny (I think?) went scurrying past in the dark at approximately 0300. Scampered back into the tent like a frightened child.

Day 2

The lake was covered in a dense fog. When I first woke up, I couldn’t see past the fire pit. By the time I had my breakfast fire lit, it was starting to lift.

I mixed a Starbucks via (first time I’ve done instant coffee instead of a press, it actually wasn’t terrible), boiled some water for my dehydrated biscuits and gravy, and relaxed next to the fire with my hot meal.

I decided rather impromptu that I would ditch this lake - it wasn’t much happening with fish bites, but it did treat me well. Exactly the solitude I was looking for. I will come back here again.

Realizing how long the portage is from rifle to bridge, I hadn’t decided whether I’d go easy on myself and double portage, or suck it up and go all at once.

After picking my things, I decided I could do it as a single if I found a way to secure my fishing pole and tackle bag hands free. Carabiner to my front pack did the trick, and I was on my way.

This portage wasn’t as technical as the portage into rifle, not as many ledges. But nearly twice as long and several long slow changes in elevation had my quads and calves burning. A few spots were tricky with scattered rocks and exposed roots, but I actually managed it easier than the one yesterday. I chalk this up to removing my PFD - my double pack straps weren’t as uncomfortable and awkward for the yoke to sit on this way.

As I launched into bridge, I realized it was another murky lake. Thick mud bottom with little visibility. Maybe I won’t stay on the campsite here...we’ll see. It sure is a pretty landscape though, and just as much solitude as rifle.

The campsite is a nice one. Rather small, a less than ideal landing with a rock ledge that drops off to a deep murkiness (tough the manage the landing without a helping hand), but the climb up to the elevated site with a firepit overlooking the lake makes it worth it. Fully stocked with cleanly split wood, to boot! I dropped my things and hopped in the canoe with my pole to drift around some. I’d like to see whether there’s any action here before settling in.


Nothing. A few snags, and I saw bass hitting the water bugs, but with no top water I was having zero luck. Pretty sure I’m learning that I suck at fishing, never realized how much I’ve relied on the knowledge of those around me...

I paddled down to the portage and walked through with my pole, leaving my canoe behind. Looks like a big bay on the other side that opens into lake four. Jumping from boulder to boulder, I found my way to the edge and cast a shad rap out a few times. On the third cast, I landed a small pike. This was my sign that I should continue on.

After gathering my things and portaging through to four (this was my first double portage, it was so short it just made sense), I paddled past the first campsite which was occupied, but canoes gone. Coming to the second site, I met a nice couple (those occupying the first) with their two dogs, jigging from the rocks. After some small talk, I paddled on through four, passing a couple campsites that didn’t call my name, and into three.

Wow, the burn is crazy. I passed up a few campsites that offered little shelter, before getting into the body of three and realizing that I messed’s now pushing 1430 and every damn site is occupied.

Into a stiff headwind, I continued on through two. From a distance I could see the nice couple I met yesterday as I circled their site looking for the rifle portage were still in the same site. The next three I passed were all occupied. I’ve been paddling constantly for about 4 hours after that long portage and I’m tired, hungry, thirsty, and worrying about whether I’ll find a site or not. This is the first time that a negative thought hit my mind, which I was pretty worried about as I planned this solo trip. “What am I doing here? Why did I plan the trip so long? Why did I pick such a busy network of lakes? Why didn’t I just stay on rifle or that nice site on bridge with all the beautifully split wood? It’s not like I’m good at fishing anyway. Screw this wind. Wonder if that big site over there with four canoes from which I can smell red meat cooking will take me in for the night? My elbows and shoulders are shot, no way I’m going to make it through this wind to the other side where there probably isn’t a campsite anyway. Etc.

But finally, I come across a site just around the corner from the two portage’s in from Lake One. This will be home for the next two days I think. Or at least I thought, until I sat down after setting up camp and got eaten alive by biting ants. They’re everywhere, on second glance. Might have to portage back to one for my final night. We’ll see. For now, I’m just glad to have a home, and I can fill myself with positive thoughts after getting down on my decisions for the last hour or so.

After eating dinner, pumping some more water, hanging my bear bag, and changing my shirt, I drifted around the bay and threw some crank baits, some jigs, a few worms. Nada. Not even a nibble. Back to build a nice fire, write about the day, and sip on some bourbon before bed, which is looking to be before 2100 tonight given how exhausted I am, but I’m going to do my best to stay up for the stars. I forgot how amazing the night sky is here, before last night.

I set my tent up on the edge of the site facing the water, and I’m looking forward to sleeping with the fly pulled back, listening to the night sounds that come over the water. They’re more peaceful than the ones I heard last night coming from the woods....

The noises here are spectacular. Almost as amazing as the lack of noise, and how in tune with that lack of noise you become. I never fully appreciated it before a solo trip, because you still have the pots and pans and rustlings and conversation of your comrades. Earlier, my portage bag started slowly falling over and the sound of it rubbing against itself may as well have been an unexpected train horn.

Day 3

I slept much better last night - I think knowing what to expect of being alone around an evening campfire as night falls made the adjustment a good bit easier. I also think that night 1 on an extremely remote, much more dense and dark lake made the learning curve a bit steeper.

I woke up a bit later today, maybe 0630, and laid in the tent for close to an hour staring out at the water. I was trying to decide whether I’d stay here another night, or venture through the portages back to lake one to find a new site for my last night.

When I climbed out of the tent, the realization of the wood situation and the biting ants made up my mind. I’d pack my things and head back to lake one. I did find a nice felled tree to split some fresh wood off of to leave for the next person to venture across this site. Thought I’d pay forward, after benefiting similarly, myself.

I met four middle aged guys coming out of the portage into Two. This was their first trip in and you could tell they were excited. Headed to insula, and then ultimately exiting at snowbank after their sixth night.

I got turned around in the small lake between portage’s, unloaded my things at what looked to be the portage, only to realize it was not. Ugh. Packed the canoe back up, wandered around the corner, and did it over again.

As I hit lake one, the water was still glass, which made for easy moving. The first campsite I stopped at was one of a series of three along the southeastern side of the lake. It was very small, steep, and lacked any real cover or spots that looked good for shore fishing. I moved on to the second, which appeared empty, back in a small bay. But 3-4 guys were huddled around the fire pit doing something, and it seemed like I startled them. I said hi, they didn’t respond, so I turned around and headed to the third site, in another small bay just a couple hundred yards away.

Whoever inhabited this last must have just left recently. The fire was still smoldering, which was bothersome (this is how forest fires start, guys). Even more annoying were the multitude of fish carcasses strewn across the landing at the base of the camp. Smart move...I did my best to push the carcasses further out into the bay, carried some water up to put out the fire, and looked around. This one was better than the first, but not as good looking as the second one with the sketchy guys.

Because it didn’t seem like they’d be staying, I figured I’d take my chances and jig around a point the outfitter said was good for walleye. 45 minutes of this and not a nibble. I headed back to the second site and the guys were gone. It’s as nice as I thought it might be.

I made my first dumb move of the trip and hung the hammock between two trees over the edge of a 12 foot cliff with the water below. I couldn’t resist. I spent a good couple of hours lounging here, watching two turtles hunting in the water below.

I finally decided to pull my pole back out, refusing to let these lakes defeat me. Literally, first cast of a spinner jig off that small cliff, and I had a strike that I was sure was a northern. Found myself in a pickle when I realized he was too heavy for my drag setting to lift up out of the water, so I awkwardly handed the rod to myself around two trees and walked him down to the bottom. He wasn’t happy with me, and threw a fit when I pulled him in, jumped right out of my hands and into the dirt.

I popped the hook out and got him going in the water. After a couple seconds he splashed away.

Feeling better after pulling one in so fast, I decided I’d sit the rod down and do my camp chores. This site was much like the others on Lake One, and I’ve decided that I like the remote sites better. People seem to care for them more.

Trash was half burned in the fire grate, a plastic bag was back in the woods, a dirty towel tossed to the side of the site. A large birch tree had all the bark stripped off of it, while a downed birch tree right next to it was still covered. Little things, but they bother me. Also found some dirty TP back in the woods (nowhere near the latrine) while I was finding a suitable tree for my bear bag.

Did some more fishing, prepped my gear to be easily packed away in the morning, built a fire, ate some dehydrated food. Sat down to write.

Today was my favorite day so far. Much less travel than the first two days, frankly much less done as a whole. But no more negativity in my mind, and a lot more sitting back and just taking it all in.

Time to feed the fire and sip on a little bourbon.

Final Day

Not a ton to report here – a small weather system came through overnight, and it was peaceful. A nice break from all the pesky sunshine I’d been treated to so far. Packed everything up, took in all of the sights one last time as I meandered my way back to EP30, where I’d load the rental and head back to the outfitter for a hot shower.

Took a peaceful drive to Duluth, stopped and checked out the shore of Superior and found a couple of breweries to visit for beers and dinner, before climbing into a comfier than expected hotel bed, and flying out the next morning.

Also, here's a picture of a frog



And a sunset on Rifle