Kawishiwi, Boulder, Makwa, Kawishiwi Loop
(A Low Water Hand-Full)
As always, we strive to plan our annual BWCA trip to bring us variety, enjoyment, solitude and good fishing. Our 2006 trip hit the water on July 25 and presented us with plenty of variety, solitude and reasonably good fishing for this time of year. It also presented us with quite a bit more than what we had expected.
Our planned route started at EP#37 (Kawishiwi Lake) and proceeded north through Square, Kawasachong, Polly, Koma and Malberg. Then headed west on the North Kawishiwi River to Trapline. Turned north again through Beaver, Adams, Boulder and Ledge. Then east through Vee, Fee, Hoe to Makwa. There it swung back south through Panhandle, Pan, Anit, Kivaniva, North Kawisiwi River to Malberg and then out the way we had gone in to exit at our starting point, EP#37.
We left Duane’s Canoe Outfitters in Babbitt, MN (where we were outfitted and had spent the night in their bunkhouse) at 5:30 AM on July 25. We arrived at the Kawishiwi Lake Campgrounds about 7:30 AM. We wasted no time in unloading the gear, taking a few pictures and bidding farewell to Bret, our van driver from Duane’s. We loaded the canoes and set forth on the task at hand.
Kawishiwi Lake was calm so it presented us with a nice relaxing paddle to get into the swing of things. It was a great way to start a week in the BWCA. We soon reached the creek connecting to Square Lake. It was very low and choked with vegetation. We pushed on through the creek and the easy paddle across Square Lake to the creek connecting to Kawasachong. It too was dreadfully shallow and weed-choked. This section of the creek has two normally short portages around small rapids. During this low water season there were no rapids and both portages had to be extended to reach canoe able water.
The paddle across Kawasachong was uneventful and was quickly put behind us. The 189 rod portage to Trapline has decent take-out and put-in areas and a pretty good trail. It poses no problems other than its length. For 189 rods, it is an easy carry. Tiny little Trapline Lake gave us a little breather before the 90 rod portage into Polly. This portage is only half as long as the previous one but probably took as much energy as the longer one. The portage has a long narrow take-out area, a nice trail that climbs slowly up and over a rise and then drops quickly to a nice put-in area.
Lake Polly is a pretty lake and was a pleasant paddle. We made our way to the north end and the nice take-out area for the 19 rod exit portage. It has a nice wide and fairly smooth path so we only unloaded a few of the larger packs and four-man carried the partially loaded canoes across. A bit of a time saver.
After a short paddle across an unnamed pond, we negotiated the second portage between Polly and Koma - a 48 rod carry. It was shallow at both ends of the pretty much flat trail so there was little to slow us down. We were soon paddling across the second unnamed pond to the longest of the three portages between Polly and Koma, a 127 rod carry.
This was a much narrower trail that starts out level and then drops down into a low area for 40 rods or so, climbs a little and then levels out for 40 rods before dropping quickly to the lake and a nice put-in area.
We reached Koma at about 1:30 PM. It was to be our first night’s campsite so we stopped at the first vacant campsite. It was not a very good site, but we were glad to have it for the one night. Camp was set up quickly and we were able to get in a little fishing prior to dinner. A number of smallies and pike were caught and released.
Our traditional first night’s steak dinner was enjoyed by all. After clean-up we all went back out to fish. Additional smallies and pike succumbed to the various offerings presented. We turned in early; it had been a good day.
We awoke to a beautiful morning, but it was accompanied with a rather stiff north breeze (into our faces). It was one of those “good news, bad news” things; the good news was that the north breeze was cooling things down a bit. The bad news was that extra energy would have to be spent to offset the force of the wind in our faces.
The 24 rod portage from Koma to Malberg is a flat, easy carry that follows along the creek. Malberg is a beautiful lake that meanders around through the area’s hilly outcroppings. It was about a two and one-half mile paddle to the 67 rod portage exiting Malberg’s western arm. We were impressed with Malberg and agreed that we would come back some time and spend a few days there.
The portage to the Kawishiwi River has a nice take-out area then drops into a low area. This looks like an old dried up pond that probably holds water during wetter seasons. After a short climb out of the low area, it levels for a ways and then drops down to a very shallow, very muddy put-in. We bushwhacked down the bank a ways to find a more suitable put-in.
This section of the North Kawishiwi River is very beautiful and presents a wonderful area to paddle through. It was great until we turned north to head for Trapline Lake and again had to battle the stiff north breeze.
The 60 rod portage to Trapline has a narrow, but adequate take-out area and a narrow, rocky and little used trail that meanders around and over a small hill. The carry was made appreciably longer than the posted 60 rods in order to circumvent a couple of small beaver dams. Trapline is a small lake of about one-half mile in length with one established campsite. The 30 rod exit portage to Beaver has nice take-out and put-in areas, but the trail is narrow, rocky and lightly used.
Beaver Lake is a large lake about the size of Malberg and like Malberg has arms that go off in various directions. It is more secluded and has only two established campsites. It was about a mile and three-quarters paddle to the 90 rod exit portage to Adams Lake. Most of that paddle was into that persistent north breeze.
The portage to Adams was a pretty interesting challenge. I had read several accounts about this particular portage being hard to find and what a pretty picture taking opportunity it is. It was indeed a little hard to find, but we located it and found it to be one of the most picturesque portages that we have encountered in the BWCA. The portage starts at the base of an immense rock cliff and is hidden from view until you are right in front of it.
The portage has a rocky, awkward take-out area with little room for canoes and gear. It climbs steadily for 40 rods and then levels out for most of the rest of the length. The narrow, rocky, little-used path ends in a narrow, rocky put-in.
Adams Lake is the biggest lake so far on our route. It is bigger than Polly, yet only has seven established campsites. This due to the fact that we were moving steadily away from the more popular routes/areas off of EP#37. We had not seen any other campers since leaving Malberg. Anyway, we made our way across Adams (all the way into the wind) to the north end bay where the low water, combined with heavy, choking vegetation made progress difficult. We had to practically slog our way through a hundred yards of mud to get to the lake’s exit.
As we struggled to get through the mud and vegetation-clogged marsh area we could see a fairly good size beaver dam up ahead of us. This we reasoned would be holding deeper water on the back side. NOT!!! When we finally reached the beaver dam and peered over, it was quite a disheartening sight. There was no deep water; there was practically no water at all. There was only a puddle here and there going up the creek bed as far as we could see.
It was conference time. We considered our options and decided to see if it was possible to bushwhack up along the creek bed to find some canoe able water. It turned out that there was no canoe able water and we ended up blazing our own trail through the chest-high marsh grass almost all the way to Boulder. Just short of reaching Boulder we were able to put the canoes in to the creek only to find that we had to partially unload for a lift-over at the lake.
As a little side bar, while sitting at the lift-over a momma moose and her little one came out of the trees right beside our canoes. They barely paid us any attention and provided us with another great picture taking opportunity.
Boulder Lake is a medium size lake with very clear water and three established campsites. Since we had the lake to ourselves, we had our choice of sites and ended up at the island camp. We had a planned layover day at Beaver and the three star island campsite looked like a great place to do it.
We got the camp set up and put out the sun shower to heat up for any one that desired a hot shower. It was good to get the dirt and sweat of the day washed off. After dinner we all went out to see what kind of fishing Boulder had to offer. We were sorely disappointed. One average size pike was all that was boated. The clear water, lack of cover and shallow lake did not bode well. While fishing we spotted a big bull moose lounging beside the lake back in a secluded cove. Another good photo opportunity! He let us quietly approach to about fifteen yards before showing any kind of concern.
Day Two had turned into a low-water monster of a day, but we had persisted, made it to our planned layover lake, found a great campsite, had the lake to ourselves (except for the moose) and had a great sense of accomplishment. It had been a great day. Now if we could only catch a few more fish…
We slept in a while this morning because of the strains of Day Two, but finally got up and had scrambled eggs and bacon with all of the fixings. Ah, life is good! It was a nice morning, but the temperature was rising and there was no offsetting cool north breeze. We went back out fishing after breakfast and were again disappointed with the outcome. We returned to the campsite and decided not to layover on Boulder but to pack up and move on in search of better fishing waters.
Two of us paddled over to the east end of Boulder to see if we could locate the old abandoned portage to Vee Lake. Even if we had to do some bushwhacking, it would allow us to bypass the rugged 330 rod portage to Ledge Lake and the 160 rod portage between Ledge and Vee. We were able to locate the old trail, but too many blow-downs made the old portage impassible and not an option for us. We broke camp and headed for the Boulder to Ledge portage.
All of the pre trip information that I had found concerning the Boulder to Ledge portage left a lot to be desired. The information painted a not too pretty a picture. The portage starts off with a nice take-out area then climbs rapidly for the first 30 rods. From there it is a rolling, narrow, overgrown path to a creek. Some maps show a distance of 125 rods to the creek, I stepped it off and it is closer to 160 rods. At the creek the path takes a hard left turn and follows the creek for about 20 rods to a small open water spot. At this point you have to reload the canoes and push across the creek. Due to limited space, this has to be done one canoe at a time. On the far side of the creek you have very little room to unload and very limited space for equipment and/or canoes.
The path on the other side of the creek goes straight up a very steep fifty-foot embankment with loose gravely footing. The path then becomes a narrow rolling trail for about 90 rods where it intersects the Cap Lake to Ledge Lake portage. From there the trail is a narrow, rolling path of about 100 rods to Ledge. The dense overgrowth on the trail points out how little this portage is used. Solitude, don’t you just love it!
The put-in on Ledge was very awkward and was not an easy load. Two of the guys slipped on the wet logs and plunged into chest deep black goop. Neither was hurt, but they didn’t take too kindly to the laughter and the comments about the distinct odor they had discovered.
Ledge Lake is a small narrow lake that has one campsite. It was not anything close to the three-star site on Boulder, but in our tired condition (and two needing to be hosed off) it was a welcome site. Right after putting in at the campsite two big bull moose came out of the forest right across the short span of water and spent most of the afternoon in our field of view. Another great photo op! We set up camp, did a little fishing and hit the hay early.
We had a “quick start” breakfast, broke camp about 7:00 am and headed for the 160 rod portage to Vee. The take-out area was a one-at-a-time variety leading to a narrow, heavily overgrown trail. The overnight rain made the carry a very wet proposition. The trail itself is fairly level except for a slight climb in the middle. The put-in on Vee is very restricted and not very friendly.
Vee Lake is a small, pretty lake with no established campsites. The paddle across provided a nice break from the wet portaging. The 80 rod portage from Vee Lake to Fee Lake has a poor take-out area leading to a fairly level path through a meadow of chest- high grass. Again, the path was little used and heavily overgrown. It did have a nice put-in area on Fee.
Fee Lake is another in the line of small lakes that make up the northern tier of the route we were on. It has one campsite. We quickly paddled its one-half mile length to get to the 40 rod portage to Hoe Lake. The Fee to Hoe portage has an awkward take-out area that will handle only one canoe at a time. The path is basically flat, but rocky and heavily overgrown. The trail goes through a marshy area that would be a real problem in a wetter season. The put-in on Hoe was shallow, but sandy for a change.
Hoe Lake is a mile-long, narrow lake that more resembles a river than a lake. It has one established campsite. The little longer paddle was a welcome change. The 100 rod portage from Hoe to Makwa Lake starts out at a narrow, rocky take-out and heads out to a narrow, rocky trail – the worst that we have had all day. Heavy, heavy overgrowth made it difficult to see where to put your feet. The trail gradually drops most of the way to a nice put-in on Makwa.
Makwa is a pretty lake with two campsites. We contemplated stopping for the night on Makwa, but decided to push on to Pan Lake. Leaving Makwa to the south is a 60 rod portage to an unnamed pond. The portage has a small take-out area, a small climb and then levels off the rest of the way. It was a very easy carry for a welcomed change.
The small unnamed pond was a quick load them up and short paddle to a semi hidden take-out area. We had to slip through a tiny hidden slew to get to the take-out area. The 55 rod portage from the unnamed pond to Panhandle Lake was a pretty good trail, but was overgrown in spots. Lots of blow-downs made the carry an unusual challenge at times. Put-in on Panhandle was shallow, but nice and sandy. Panhandle Lake is very small, little more than some of the ponds that we had been through and has no established campsites.
Somehow we missed the take-out area for the 55 rod portage out of Panhandle. Unknowingly we went on down the bank and found what we assumed was the portage landing. As it turns out, it must have been an old abandoned trail that eventually intersected with the newer, better trail. But, we were already committed and used the old path. It was a nasty, rocky, tree-grabbing trail with numerous blow-downs. We walked the better trail just to be sure of our mistake and found it to be a nice level trail. Such is life, you take the bad with the good and do the best you can with it.
We arrived on Pan about noon. It is a beautiful little lake with two campsites. The first camp was occupied so we were happy to find the second unoccupied. It wasn’t a choice site, but being tired and hot we were glad to have it. It had been a good day, we had made a lot of progress.
After a good night’s sleep we broke camp at 8:15 am and headed south to the 60 rod portage to Anit Lake. It was a pretty good trail, overgrown in spots and rocky in others. All of the normally wet, muddy areas were dry. Both ends of the portage were shallow, but had sandy, firm footing.
Anit is another very small lake with no established campsites. We quickly made the brief paddle across to the 20 rod portage to Kivaniva Lake. The portage has a nice take-out area and then meanders slowly downhill through rocky, muddy stretches to a rocky put-in area. After put-in you have to make your way through a long vegetation choked channel to get to open water on Kivaniva.
Kivaniva is about three-quarters of a mile long with one campsite. Our paddle path, though, only cut across the north end of the lake and took us to the 25 rod portage back to the North Kawishiwi River. This is a nice trail that goes up and over a slight rise to a nice put-in at the river. As we loaded at the river, a stiffening south breeze began to meet us head-on. The wind made the half mile paddle to the next portage a little harder, but we managed to make pretty good time. The take-out for the 48 rod portage to Malberg was tight and restrictive but the path was an easy carry to a nice put-in area on the lake.
We paddle down through Malberg into a steady south wind for a mile or so to where its many arms converge. We found a great campsite (four star) and proceeded to set up camp. We gathered for a spirited game of hearts and waited for the wind to subside. We were able to get out and do a little fishing before dinner. After dinner we went back out, but approaching thunder showers had us scurrying back to camp to button everything down. Those storms passed to the southwest of us, but thunder in the distance threatened additional storms coming our way. We planned a layover for the next day, so we turned in early looking forward to a hot breakfast and some good fishing.
DAY SIX – LAYOVER DAY
Two of the group got up early and went out fishing. Two slept in a while and then got up and fixed some wonderful blueberry pancakes, bacon and coffee. Fishing on Malberg was the best that we had encountered on the whole route. Many bass and pike were boated and released. It started to rain right after lunch accompanied with high winds and lightening. That combination put us back in the tent with our handy deck of cards. It looked as though the rain was going to last most of the day so we did get out and erect a fly over the kitchen area for some protection. We watched as numerous groups made their way passed us. The paddlers heading south to the EP fighting the head wind and rain, those headed north riding the rollers. We stayed in our comfy campsite.
The storms let up late in the afternoon and let us get back out for a little more fishing. We could still hear more thunder off to the south so assumed that we would be getting additional rain later. And rain it did. Heavy rain with gusts of wind in the 35 to 40 mph range whistling through and bending over the trees accompanied with a spectacular electrical show. We were thankful for good equipment and a good campsite.
DAY SEVEN – HEADING OUT
As always, our BWCA trip must come to an end. It always seems to get over with all too quickly. With mixed emotions we would retrace our entry path out through Koma, Polly, Kawasachong, Square and Kawishiwi. The trails were wet from the heavy rain and there was a traffic jam on the 189 rod into Kawasachong. Other than that the only consideration was the warmth of the day. All in all, a pretty typical day on this section of the route.
Our pick up, Bret Hanson from Duane’s, was at the Kawishiwi Campground beach patiently waiting to run us back to Babbitt. We took care of the gear, had a wonderful hot shower and headed to Ely for our traditional last day steak dinner. Getting to Ely proved harder than usual, we had to drive through one heck of a wall cloud. Extremely high winds, heavy, heavy rain, quarter-size hail and lots and lots of thunder and lightning lasted all the way to the edge of town. We were so glad to be in our relatively safe vehicle and not out in our canoes.
We spent the night in Duane’s bunkhouse and rose early for the long trip back to Texas. This year’s trip had been harder than what we had planned, but it is always a joy to get back into the BWCA. We had lots of solitude, saw numerous moose, shared some quality campsites and enjoyed pretty good fishing - all of the things that good memories are made of. It just doesn’t get much better than that!