Boundary Waters, Trip Reports, BWCA, Stories

Stuart River to LIS Solo - Storms, Insects and Walleye
by PineKnot

Trip Type: Paddling Canoe
Entry Date: 07/08/2020
Entry Point: Stuart River (EP 19)
Exit Point: Little Indian Sioux River (north) (EP 14)  
Number of Days: 14
Group Size: 1
Trip Introduction:
Hope you enjoy reading. First, a brief intro and bit of background.  My last BWCA trip was in 2008.  Since then, I've been tripping mostly in Quetico, but have also paddled in other parts of Ontario including Temagami and Noganosh.  Due to Covid-19 and the border closure, BWCA it is in 2020.  When I solo trip, I like to explore new territory, but also revisit areas I have traveled before.  I like to fish a couple hours or more each day, and I have developed a reliable system with a Piranhamax fish finder that runs on four rechargeable Li-Ion batteries and a transducer that shoots thru the hull.  My detector and rod holder are on a homemade wooden bracket attached to the thwart near my knees.  I like evening campfires alot and so I bring along my Boreal 21 saw and Fiskers Sport Ax for splitting wood.  As I prepared for this 2-week solo, I was hoping I would get better weather than my 2-week early June 2020 solo on the eastern side of the BWCA.  On that solo, I experienced 11 of 14 days with winds that gusted between 15 and 30 mph.  If you solo and fish, that kind of wind makes things quite difficult, almost impossible.  In fact, that trip was a fishing bust.  So, I figured the weather for this trip couldn't be any worse right?  Right?
Part 1 of 2
I depart Springboro, Ohio at 5:00 am and made the 14+ hour drive into Duluth, arriving at my hotel at 6:00 pm.  As usual, I did not sleep that well and was up at 4:00 am with coffee, eggs and bacon.  I arrived at Piragis in Ely at 7:30 am.  Wade and I talked for a bit and then we loaded my gear and canoe onto the van.  I followed Wade up the Echo Trail to EP14 where we dropped my Outback.  I hopped into the van and we arrived at EP19, Stuart River.  I wanted to take a picture of the entry sign, but four 30ish-old forest service employees were putting up a new sign.  Did I mention that a fire ban was in effect?  Why the heck not!  Anyway, heavy rain was forecast for today and tonight as well as a couple days over the next week.  So I asked one of the rangers if the fire ban might be lifted with the rain forecast and she said she expected the ban to be in place the rest of the season since total rain was about 5 inches below normal this year.  Wade was kind enough to give me his cell number and I planned to use my inReach to contact him if we got heavy rain to see if the ban was lifted.  So, I thank Wade for the shuttle and rig up my canoe for the long 1.5 mile portage that ends at the put-in on the Stuart River.  I had hoped to get on the trail at 9:00 am, but I'm a bit slow this morning and start down the trail at 9:45 am.  It's supposed to rain most of the day with scattered T-storms.  And potentially massive storms hitting later in the evening.  Sure enough, it starts to rain as I begin my 2-week solo adventure.

July 8.

As I start the portage, it starts to rain harder and I hear intermittent thunder in the distance. It's about 75-80 degrees, and I'm having trouble keeping my glasses from fogging up. Since I'm double portaging, my plan is to leap frog my gear by taking my heavy pack, yak paddle, and rods about a 1/2 mile, go back and carry the canoe and small pack a couple hundred yards beyond that, repeating until I finish the portage. As expected, the portage is long, but the trail is not bad--very little mud or elevation change, mostly downhill to the Stuart. The first obstacle is a series of basketball-sized and larger boulders that are strewn across a 10-yard wide creek. They are quite slippery given the constant rain, but I manage not to break an ankle or leg. Then, about 200 yards from the end of the portage, I am faced with a flooded area that cannot be waded. I had read that a previous group decided to load their canoe and head to the right around the bend instead of paddling straight across the flood zone to finish the portage. They said later "don't paddle around the bend" as they lost about 90 minutes in the rocky, beaver-laden shallowness of that part of the Stuart River. So I paddle about 30 yards across the flood zone, unload my gear again, and about 200 yards later, I arrive at the muddy mess of a put-in to the Stuart R. The good news is I'm able to skirt to the left along the grassy hummocks and reload the canoe without going knee deep into the muck. From here, it's north to Stuart Lake. I'm on the water at 12:00, so this portage took about 2:15--not bad for a 60-yr-old with one knee already replaced. This first photo is the Stuart River put-in facing south and shows the mud. The second photo shows the scene I'll be paddling to the north.

The one good thing about it being overcast and raining is it should reduce the number of deerflies the Stuart River is renowned for. But as I begin paddling, I notice the sky is lighter and I can almost see my hazy shadow.  The temp is rising and the wind is almost nil.  And sure enough here they come like the Japanese over Pearl Harbor. OMG!! I absolutely hate deerflies, horseflies, and ankle-biting flies. I can handle mosquitos with deet. But nothing deters flies, except clothing over skin. Almost as bad are ticks, which I don't expect much of in mid-summer since I treat my clothing with Permethrin every trip. We'll come back to that topic tomorrow. Anyway, I'll be escorted by a squadron of deerflies while paddling and portaging for the rest of today all the way to Stuart Lake.

I quickly reach the take-out to the 500-yd portage on my left. Nice trail all the way. Ignore that finger in the upper portion of the photo!!

As I resume my northward paddle, I pass two couples in 2 canoes. They are smiling as they near the end of their trip. They tell me all the campsites on Stuart Lake are open. I'll find out in a few hours that not all were open. Next obstacle comes quickly--a massive beaver dam with a 4-5 foot drop. I unload on the ledgerock to my left, and snake my way about 10 yards between a large boulder and the dam down to another piece of ledgerock. As I push off, I leave a few more scratches to go along with the hundreds already scarring my Placid Rapidfire canoe.

The sky remains hazy cloudy, some darker clouds all around on the horizons. It's now probably about 85 degrees, very little wind, and quite humid. I'm sweating like a pig!! As I pass the entry into Whitefeather, I can look to the east and make out the lone campsite in this PMA--looks pretty nice. I make it through the next 300 yard portage on the right and continue my paddle towards and past Contest Lake. I note the really tea colored water and lots of rocks near the surface that add a couple more scars to my canoe. It slows my progress a little bit. The next 350 yard portage on the right is on a really nice trail with decent landings on both sides. Unless you lose your concentration and step off the grass on the take-out, which is what I did and next thing I know I'm shin-deep in muck with both feet. The good news is that it kept me from falling over the canoe into the water!! Thuuuwwwuuck as one boot comes out, and thuuuwwwuuuck as the next boot comes out, boots still on my fee--thank God.

Back on the water, paddling northward, I come upon another damn that requires hopping along boulders on the right as I struggle to pull the canoe through the damn dam. I'm too damned tired to look for a portage trail on either side of the river.  Then I quickly move thru the short 100 yard portage on the right and come across 2 more liftovers of these damn dams--I just pull, slide and push the canoe over the beaver wood, trying not to lose my balance and end up in thigh deep muck. The river is really shallow now and I see the rock cairn on the granite face indicating the start of the last portage leading to Stuart Lake. I decide to keep paddling to the left around the bend where I've been told you can land on some ledgerock and resume the portage at about its halfway point. I find the ledgerock, but there is no discernible trail leading to the actual portage trail. After searching around for 5 minutes or so, I locate the portage trail, bombarded the whole time by very aggressive deerflies.  Did I say I detest deerflies??  When I finally get to Stuart Lake at 5:00 pm, I can't be sure if I saved any time by paddling around the bend.

So, 7+ hours since I started from EP19.  While in the canoe trying to escape all the deerflies, I clean off my really gross portage boots and socks and let my feet dry off as I paddle to the nearest campsite on the southernmost island. I really want to stay on the campsite on the NW corner of Stuart, but I pass close enough to stop by this campsite.  As I get out of the canoe and walk up to the firepit, I'm attacked by half a dozen angry deerflies. The site is ok, a bit overused, ok tentpad. But the deerflies drive scare back into my canoe. 10 minutes later I'm heading north and west using my Steripen to purify a liter of much needed water and I look in the distance to the NW campsite.  And I see a canoe paddling near the site. Nooooooo! My heart sinks.  I veer to the right and paddle eastward to find the campsite on the eastern shoreline. Unsuccessful. I'm so tired, I think I lost my sense of direction and went too far north. Never did find the site. I end up on the northern campsite. Nice ledgerock landing, very open around the firepit, but no easy area for a rain tarp. And I'm seeing dark, really dark clouds coming my way fast from the south. It's about 6:30 PM and I'm out of options. I quickly set up my tent, and then run my tarp ridgeline and secure it so it's lower facing the south. The weakest link is the NE corner which is secured with a branch from a smallish birch tree. I use several additional tiedowns on the southern, SE and SW sides as the wind begins to pick up and the skies darken. I hear thunder and as I complete the last tiedown, it starts to rain. Heavy plops. 15 minutes later, the wind starts coming from the SE about 20 mph and gains steam.  Its gusting well over 30 mph and raining so hard I can't see the shoreline 30 yards down the slope. I have to stand under the tarp and hold it up so it won't rip apart.  Lightning is intense, flashes with deafening instantaneous thunder.  I close my eyes a couple times hoping the lightning doesn't strike land near me.  Then the wind shifts now out of the east, then the northeast, and I wonder if I'm experiencing a tornado.  The branch on the birch breaks off and I notice my tarp has become lower and loose.  So now I'm trying to hold the tarp corner in the wind and rain, and I'm soaked.  My pants are wet, my shoes, socks, underwear is soaked!!  Everything except what is in the tent or inside my tupperware containers gets absolutely soaked.  So I stand there holding the tarp corner and after another 15 minutes the wind finally starts to subside and I retie the corner. The temp has dropped some 20 degrees. I am not a happy camper!! But hey, at least the deerflies are gone!!

I switch into some dry clothes, snarf down a triple decker PBJ sandwich, and crawl into the tent.  I'm sore all over. It rains on and off till about 8 in the morning.  My last thought when I finally fell asleep amidst the rain, thunder and lightning was, "I'm never coming back here again"!!  A month later, I still feel that way.

July 9.

I roll out of my tent at about 7:30 am. It was sprinkling throughout the night and it finally stopped around 8:30. I make a couple cups of Cafe Verona coffee with my Aeropress--you just can't beat a fresh cup of coffee in the morning in canoe country. Breakfast is Oscar Mayer pre-cooked bacon with OvaEasy eggs and some Cache Lake cinnamon-raisin panbread. It's overcast, wind slightly out of the southwest with sunny skies coming in the afternoon--that's the good news. The bad news is the wind is supposed to start gusting from the SW up to 25 mph and then switching to the W and NW thru the night. Great, just great. I really wanted to fish for the walleye here on Stuart Lake, but not in that kind of wind. And this site is not really protected much from a SW wind. Well, I decide to use this day to dry out all my wet gear and allow by body to recover from yesterday's long brutal trek. As my gear dries out, I rearrange my tarp so it provides somewhat of a windbreak, and spend the day reading, smoking a couple cigars, and taking a long nap. Just a few deerflies now and then--they don't seem to like hanging out under the tarp with me. I do a little fishing from shore with a Zulu ShadZ rig--no strikes but the deerflies attack me with a vengeance anytime I move along the expansive granite ledges--damn things!! As if that was bad enough, throughout the day, I find ticks crawling up my pant leg and my shirt sleeve. Unreal. I had put permethrin on my clothes at the end of May and figured it'd still be working into mid-July, but I guess not. I can't figure out why the ticks are all around here--perhaps the rain brought them out or perhaps its the grass that is quite prevalent on this campsite. I'll never know, but I really did not foresee having to deal with biblical numbers of deerflies and now ticks as well. I had planned to stay on Stuart Lake for at least 3 nights, but heck with it. I'm moving to LLC tomorrow. I eat dinner and get everything packed up. I'm in the tent at 8:30, read for an hour and fall fast asleep, dreaming of who knows what.

July 10.

I'm up and out of the tent at 5:30 am. I have a quick cup of coffee. Breakfast is Special K with fruit and yogurt to which I added dried blueberries and Nido milk. I press another cup of coffee, load up the canoe, step in with my mug of coffee and push off at 6:45 am--that is almost a record for me!! My plan is to get into Tiger Bay of Lac La Croix around 11:00 am.  I head west to the portage leading to the Dahlgren River. The W/NW wind is already starting to rise as I paddle by the NW campsite. The campsite looks really nice from the water, set in a large grove of red pine. Several guys are already up and about and I sense they are basecamping on Stuart Lake.

I reach the sandy shoreline where the 650 yd portage leads into the Dahlgren River. I unload and move the canoe off the shoreline into a shaded opening under the canopy of tall pines, maples, and some cedars. The temp is cooler by at least 10 degrees. I deet up as mosquitos are plentiful and hungry.

I take my big pack first across the nice, duff covered trail. What a fantastic scenic portage. Downfalls are plentiful, but most have been taken care of by the portage crews. But not this one about 50 yards in.

As I make my way along the trail, I see large old red pine all around. It's amazing how some have been snapped like toothpicks. Most are standing tall, some others are laying across the trail. As you near the end of the portage, young red pine dominate and litter the trail with soft duff.

It takes me about an hour to complete this portage which ends on a nice sandy put-in just past the small falls dumping water from Stuart Lake into this part of the Dahlgren River. Quite scenic. I snap a few photos and turn my canoe northward to the next portage that'll take me to the Boulder River and into Lac La Croix.

As I make my way along the Dahlgren, waterfowl are abundant. It's funny to see ducks take off in front of me, fly 50 yards, skid back into the water, only to take off again as I near. They escort me all the way along this part of the river. I push through 2 or 3 beaver dams as the river becomes choked with weeds. Several times there is no real channel and I just paddle my way through only a couple inches off the mucky river bottom.

Finally, I arrive at the next take-out which is very shallow and rocky. It's a struggle to get my gear out without putting too many more scratches on the canoe.

Unlike the last portage, I do not particularly like this one. It's about 800 yards, seemed longer. Lots of muddy spots, tons of mosquitoes which became my lunch as I musta swallowed at least half a dozen. And of course, a squadron of deerflies pretty much follow me all the way to the end. Damn things!! The only good thing about carrying the canoe is I can escape the deerfly onslaught. It's almost 10:00 am as I flip the canoe over and slide it into the Boulder River.  I'm sweating profusely and totally out of drinking water. At least the wind, which is only about 5 mph is blowing right into the put-in and cooling me off nicely.

I load the canoe, untie my portage boots, get in the canoe, paddle into the river, take my muddy boots socks off and rinse them in the river. I paddle barefoot along this shallow boulder-strewn river, pass a couple canoes along the way and enter Boulder Bay in short order. I fill up my Nalgene and use the Steripen to purify the water. I'm surprised that the first couple of campsites on the eastern shoreline are actually open, but my goal is to snag one of the nice ones in Tiger Bay. As I exit Boulder Bay, I stop at the open campsite on the southern tip of a big island and am greeted by the resident red squirrel. Not a bad campsite, lots of red pine cover for my tent and tarp, and an elevated open firepit area with expansive views to the southeast. I figure if Tiger Bay is full, which is quite possible, I'll come back and stay at this one.

I make my way eastward towards Tiger Bay and can see that the nice beach campsite to the NE is occupied as is the well-known 5-star site at the entrance to Tiger Bay.  As I turn south into the bay, I see the campsite on the eastern side of the bay.  And it's open!!  The wind is freshening enough that I can't safely land my canoe in front of the campsite, so I paddle south and land on a nice flat piece of ledgerock that is protected from the NW breeze.  It's about a 30 yard walk up to the campsite which is fairly open, with a couple of level areas for tents and enough trees for hanging a tarp if needed.  The views to the north and east are great.  I lay my gear on some flat granite slabs, and ease my butt into my aluminum director's chair.  I love this chair because it sits higher than most Helinox-type camp chairs so it's easier on my knees.  To portage it, I simply slide it under the front thwart and jam it tight under the gunwales.  I light a cigar and relax in the shade gazing north into the expanse of LLC. 

And then I look over at my pack on the granite and see a red squirrel trying to chew into the pack.  HEY!!  GET THE HECK OUT OF THERE YOU LITTLE TURD!!  He scampers away, but 10 minutes later he's back trying to chew into my other pack.  OK.  That's it!!  I declare war on the stinking little varmint!! 

With the little varmint scared into the woods, I declare victory and decide to get in the canoe and procure some more water. I try to drink 4-5 liters per day on solo trips so getting water is a daily activity. My water system uses a couple of 1-gal vinegar jugs, one marked Clean and other Dirty, and a Platypus gravity system that uses a Sawyer Mini as the filter. On travel days, the lightweight jugs are lashed to the front and rear thwarts with a small Gear Tie. I started this method many years ago when I read a post about it from Intrepid Camper. I first used plastic milk jugs, but found they tended to leak after one or two trips whereas the thicker vinegar jugs can last 10 trips or more. I hop into the canoe with the dirty jug, turn on my depth finder, and paddle northward into a freshening NW breeze. I try to collect water that is at least 40 feet deep which helps to keep my filter from clogging. Tiger Bay itself is fairly shallow, less than 15 feet, and so I exit the bay and soon enter water that is over 40 feet deep. The jug makes it much easier to collect water from the canoe than using a collapsible bag. I return to camp and pour the water into the dirty bag and run the hose into my half full clean jug--a clean gallon of water in less than 5 minutes and still 2 liters in the gravity's dirty bag for tomorrow. Next up is the tent. On the upper level is a large level area that could hold several tents, more than enough room for my 2-man MSR Elixer. The weather report is not calling for any rain for a couple days so I don't need to hang my tarp. And since I'm not being bombarded by any deerfiles or skeeters, I don't need to hand my bugnet either, which brings a smile to my face. I putz around and explore the shoreline and the trails leading from the back of this large open site. There's at least 100 yards of walkable shoreline that looks very fishy--might have to make some casts before dark. It's early afternoon and the NW wind is now 5-10 with gusts around 15 mph. Waves are piling into Tiger Bay and are starting to crash into the front of this north facing campsite. The wind is just strong enough that I can't relax and enjoy sitting on the shoreline to admire the views of Tiger Bay and LLC. Luckily, one side of my upper-level tent pad is bracketed by enough young trees to block most of the wind and still have views to the water. Taller red pine provide ample shade--can't beat that!

As it nears 4:00 pm I've counted 28 paddlers and 14 canoes that have come across the mouth of Tiger Bay looking for a site, half going west and half going east. The only site that might still be open is the 3-star with a really crappy landing on the far west side of Tiger in a small shallow bay. The last group I see is 3 canoes with 7 people. They paddle past my camp and continue south, not realizing it's a deadend. Twenty minutes later they're back in front of my site and spend another 10 minutes trying to get their bearings. Then one of the canoes heads over to check out the 3-star site and then the other two canoes follow. I don't see them come back out so I guess that's where they ended up for the night. A tight squeeze for a group of seven. My stomach growls. It's time for dinner but I don't feel like cooking anything, so its another PBJ for dinner, some gorp, and iced oatmeal cookies for desert. In case you're wondering, I bring a loaf of whole wheat bread in a plastic watertight bread box. I can usually get four or five triple-decker PBJ and also a few fried fish sandwiches on my solo trips. After dinner, I try my luck with a few casts from shore and after a couple I hook into a 24-inch pike, then a couple of smallies running 14 and 15 inches and then another 22 inch pike. Not bad for 30 minutes, but the gusty wind is a pain on my eyes so its back to camp and into the tent after covering my packs with a ground tarp to keep the varmint from getting any ideas.

July 11.

I'm up as the sky begins to lighten before sunrise. It's a calm Saturday morning but supposed to become windy in the afternoon like yesterday--but what a great morning!! I make some coffee and take a few pictures of this site and its views.

I start purifying the remaining 2 liters of water into my clean jug, placing the green cap on the ground next to the jug. I return to my chair and cook up a breakfast of bacon and eggs and press another mug of coffee. The calm and quietness of this morning is what all of us paddlers live for in canoe country. It is absolutely mesmerizing in its beauty!! This is the kind of morning all paddlers live for in canoe country and what keeps us coming back year after year.

I listen to the morning weather report on my weather radio and its calling for today to be a repeat of yesterday with stronger winds in the afternoon, light winds and partly sunny skies for Sunday and Monday, and massive storms hitting Monday evening into Tuesday--chance of rain--100 percent! I pull out my maps and have to decide if I stay here through Tuesday (5 nights total) or make my way north to Takucmich Lake or 41st Island of LLC by Monday afternoon.

It's a decision made when the damn red squirrel comes out of nowhere with a brutal attack. I look to my left where I had placed my garbage ziplock under a heavy rock adjacent to the firepit. What I see instead is a chewed up ziplock and its contents strewn all over the place--that little bastard!! Then I hear something to my right and look over to see the squirrel chewing into my fish pack again. HEY!! I heave a couple of small rocks and he dodges them without a problem and darts off into the woods.

Without much time before he returns, I clean up my breakfast dishes, take down the tent, repack my gear and move everything down to the canoe. I rig up my trolling rod with a TD-9 flicker minnow and before pushing off I realize I forgot my gravity filter and clean water. When I get there, the green cap that was next to my clean jug is missing. Where's the green cap? I turn around and the damn red squirrel is sitting there 20 feet away and laughing. He took my cap!! I spend 15 minutes trying to find the thing without success. So I tear off a piece of foil to use as a cap for the remainder of this trip. The squirrel is still sitting there so I grab a few small rocks. He dodges my weak throws easily. And he laughs his little ass off. I wave a white flag in surrender and leave the campsite. The second time in 2 years I've lost battles to these persistent little rodents.

Well, at least the fishing is good. I exit Tiger Bay and head west around the big island and troll up its western shoreline. Bang. A nice 16 inch smallie. A few paddles later and I land a 19 inch walleye, perfect eater that goes on my stringer. I spend the next 30 minutes with the ShadZ and land a few more smallies, the largest hitting 17 inches. I continue paddling northward toward Never Fail Bay and catch several more eater walleyes and a couple smallies. I keep two eater walleyes for dinner. I decide to head north and see if the nice 5-star site near the pictos is open. As I near the site, it's open!! So I paddle onto the sand beach landing on the north side.

I've never stayed here and it's a really really nice site. A gravel beach landing on the southern side, nice firepit, large flat kitchen area with a unique rock picnic table, and lots of large red and white pine making for easy tarp options. Out front is a large expanse of flat granite providing great views to the north, east and south of big LLC. And no deerflies!!

I spend the remaining part of the afternoon setting up the tent, tarp and bugnet, relaxing in the shade canopy of the pines. The wind continues to gain strength out of the north and by late afternoon is gusting over 10 mph straight down the channel from the pictographs. Dinner is nice walleye fish fry with pasta in a butter and herb sauce.  After dinner its a nice cigar and vodka with berry propel. This site is well protected from winds from any direction. I relax and daydream about catching trophy lakers, smallies, walleye and pike over the next week. Several canoeing parties pass through the channel. Two canoes spend time fishing the Canadian shoreline from north to south and I really wish that could be me. Big sigh. Before I know it, it's time for bed.