Trout in the Time of Covid
We agreed to set an alarm for 6 am and do our last-minute packing before heading to the dining room for a pancake breakfast. I almost made it to 5 am before I couldn’t stay in bed any longer. I made my way back down to the docks and meandered around taking in the sunrise and fresh air.
Davis and Grant started to mobilize around 6 am and we found our way down to the shop greeted by the one and only Dave. This guy is the epitome of knowledge and hospitality and once we finalized the details, we soon found ourselves alone in the dining room as Amanda served us up some delicious bacon and pancake breakfast. There’s an intriguing split feeling between sitting comfortably and having a great meal versus the itch to get on the water and leave civilization behind.
After we got some route recommendations, a weather report, and finalized a pickup time (3 pm Tuesday afternoon), we hopped aboard the tow and made our way to the drop-off, a 40-rod portage into Splash lake. We knew there was a sizable storm heading in, and the forecast had it reaching us around 1 pm. I eyed the Minnesota II and Encounter strapped to the tow boat wondering how hard it would be to adapt to the solo. There were a few canoes out, but Moose Lake was mostly empty at this hour. There was a slight chill in the air, and I wished I had made a long sleeve shirt more accessible. I reminded myself that the portage to come would likely get us warmed up fairly quickly. It did not disappoint.
We were dropped off at the shallow mouth of a stream and quickly found the heavily worn portage on the left side. The portage went quickly no doubt fueled by the adrenaline of starting the trip. After getting everything situated on the far side, we all made that first push off from the shore and got a feel for the boats. Putting the paddle into the water on Splash was like a dream, a year in the making so to speak. Once I got used to the stability, I played with my stroke a bit and got into a rhythm. I had read different takes on whether a solo paddler would have trouble keeping pace with a tandem canoe. Apparently experience makes the biggest difference. The kayak paddle quickly put that question to rest and I found I could outpace the other canoe, but only if needed. A steady medium effort stroke with the double blade kept us about the same pace. The 30-degree bent shaft was there as a backup and discovered it didn’t carry near the efficiency and speed as the kayak paddle. It was a bit overcast but the lack of wind made it a leisurely paddle into and across Ensign Lake.
We didn’t have a definitive destination and found Ensign had about every third site occupied from what we could see. No one was up yet and we had the lake to ourselves otherwise. Our main goal this year was to find some solitude. Last year with the trip into Quetico, that was easily accomplished. With many of the permits sold out and the border to the north closed due to the virus, we didn’t know where or even if we were going to find the crowds. After a steady paddle across Ensign, I found myself about a hundred yards ahead and waited for the Minnesota II to catch up. I quickly rigged up a blue and silver rattler and after a few casts, I felt that familiar tug on the line. I reeled in the catch to find a tiny bronzeback. The smallmouth was hardly the monster I envisioned, but it felt good to start the trip off with a catch. Grant and Davis glided to the portage entrance with a crankbait trolling behind as well.
I tossed him back into the water and we made our way over to the 54-rod portage into Ashigan Lake. The rocky beach made for an easy unload and we made great time with the crossing. The blue barrel however was quickly becoming our Achilles heel. It was loaded to the brim and had the weight to match. Davis inevitably took the load more often than not. We eyed one of three available sites on Ashigan and surveyed the impending storm. A light rain had begun to fall but we couldn’t appreciate any lightning/thunder so we decided to push on and see if we could make it into Ima.
Every trip, I try to envision whether single portaging would even be possible. We clearly weren’t packed for that with numerous rod holders, camp chairs, three or four large flasks of whiskey, and a myriad of other luxuries. For several portages, I was able to get my CCS Pioneer pack and the Encounter canoe on one pass, but even with three of us, double portaging was the only possibility.
At the end of Ashigan, we finally began to slow down our pace as we encountered to 100+ rod portage into Gibson Lake. It was a bit buggy with some subtle elevation changes. You’re met with gentle hills on the beginning and end of the portage. One interesting feature is three wide wooden planks in the middle of the portage. It makes for a pretty cool site as the three wide wooden planks stretch straightly into the woods. A quick stop for a picture was quickly met with the resident mosquitoes reminding us this was not a good place to rest.
We took a quick breather looking out into Gibson Lake, but didn’t take too long of a break given the storm we knew to be approaching. A quick bite of lunch consisted of Ritz crackers, summer sausage, and some Wisconsin chipotle cheese. PackItGourmet began by getting some pretty rave reviews from us.
The 27-rod portage into Cattyman Lake is another fun one. Approaching, you can hear running water to your right as you start heading uphill almost immediately. About halfway up the portage, there is a side trail that leads down to a beautiful waterfall. A garter snake didn’t seem bothered by our presence as we watched him slither up and down the adjacent rocks. Without the storm pressing our timeline, it would have been nice to take a dip in the pools below.
The short trip across Cattyman brought us to a 44-rod portage into Jordan Lake. We were starting to get into a rhythm of loading and unloading. We also found only 2 of the 3 of us would have to go back for a second load and third walk across the portage. The reward of rest was usually afforded to whoever manned the blue barrel pack, which was likely pushing 70-80 lbs with the added Duluth Walmart additions. This ended up being Davis most of the time. At 6’7, he’s a giant among ants.
The clouds had started to thin somewhat, and we glanced around somewhat surprised we hadn't encountered rougher weather. “What storm?” we told ourselves. Our hubris forecasted the tumultuous night to come. We also started to see what we feared more than the storm…an absence of campsites. All three sites on Jordan were taken. With an abundance of sites on Ima, we figured something had to be available. A meandering path through the cliffs than connect to Jordan brought us to the last portage of the day, a quick 13 rod into Ima Lake. The path is a pretty one, lined by rocky shores with the occasional rock face and high trees on either side.
With small wind gusts, we arrived on Ima and discovered we weren’t the only ones who had made this lake an overnight destination. A quick survey of the initial three sites closest to the portage showed them to be occupied. We additionally saw traces bright red and blue on the two northern sites, a surefire sign of a tarp or tent. Dave at Williams and Hall had circled the southern island as having a premiere site and we wondered if it was too much to ask that it be open. My hopes were not high. As we pulled within a hundred yards or so, we saw we would have no such luck. With a great landing, rocky outcropping, and great views, I’m sure we weren’t the only ones who had checked its availability. Given that it was taken, we had planned on checking the southern end of the same island and then across to the southern shore of Ima where two additional sites were. Davis and Grant were a good thirty to forty yards behind me when I heard a distant shout. We could all see the northern island site was occupied. I turned back and gazed at the other canoe before distinctly hearing Grant shout “RACE” as the wind tried to drown him out. I quickly scanned the shoreline and saw it. A group of two canoes had just rounded the island from the northeast side, no doubt checking also to see if this island site was free. This was bad for several reasons. One, we were now headed in the same direction both clearly looking for lodging for the night. The other thing that worried me is that they were coming from the opposite side of the lake. If they’d come this far, chances are there wasn’t anything available on the east side either.
Grant and I had encountered this once on the 2019 Quetico trip, and it is one of my least favorite parts of the Boundary Waters. A race to find a campsite isn’t exactly the most relaxing way to start a vacation. The lead canoe was heavily loaded with three grown males. I saw the lead canoe look my way and without missing a beat, their paddle cadence quickly doubled as they tried to loop around west side of the island heading south. Knowing if a site was available and we missed it, it could mean several more hours in the boat and potentially finding a new lake to call home for the night. I hunched forward and put the double-bladed paddle to the task. All three in the lead canoes had their heads down with their paddles in the water in unison. The unspoken communication was clear…they were not going to give up their shot at a site either. After an initial flourish of activity, I steadied my strokes and steadily pulled ahead. My head on a swivel, I scanned the shoreline for what would hopefully be an unoccupied site. The smaller canoe cut through the water with an efficiency the tandem couldn’t match. It became clear after several minutes that the trio could not keep pace with the lighter and more nimble solo.
As I rounded the island, the elated feeling of victory was quickly shattered as a beached canoe on one of the southern sites came into view. “F*****K” I muttered to myself, trying to catch my breath between paddles. Another occupied site. One last chance. Site 2313 was our last hope on Ima. Sitting south and east of the island, I had figured there was no way it was available. It would have been visible to the other group as they approached the island site from the east. Nonetheless, as I rounded a small peninsula south of the island, a feeling of elation began to build as I scanned the shoreline for tarps, tents, or any other signs of human activity. I spotted the site almost instantly with no one in sight and glided to the landing, climbing out and doing a quick survey to make sure it would suit our needs. There's always that initial fear that it in fact was not a desigated site, but the firepit quickly allayed those fears. The other group slowed their pace rounding the peninsula as they saw me climb to the rocky point at the edge of site. I promptly sat down on the rocky outcropping still trying to catch my breath and solidifying my intention to stay put. They immediately slowed their paddle and slowly pointed their canoe back toward the east, most likely to the next portage to Hatchet Lake. From my vantage point, I eyed the three sites on the eastern shore which confirmed my suspicion…they all looked occupied as well. Grant and Davis eventually rounded the point and I signaled with a big smile and thumbs up that we were good for the time being. They quickly beached the canoe and surveyed the great view we had for the next several days. Davis promptly sat himself on the water’s edge with no intention of moving for the time being. It felt well deserved for a first day of travel.
There are those times when you take a site because there is really no other option. What was great about this campsite is that I would have picked this site amongst many of the occupied sites that we had already passed. Grant and I were hammock camping, so all we needed were some well-spaced trees and one decent tent pad for Davis’s solo tent. The views were incredible with enough well-spaced trees for both of the hammocks and tarp. Around 2 pm, sunshine started to peak through the scattered clouds and confidence began to build that the storm had missed us. We scouted our respective sleeping spots and got to the task of setting up camp. With a fire ban still in effect, collecting firewood was a moot point. I always appreciated gear reviews in trip reports, and not enough can be said about the CCS tarp. It is one of my favorite pieces of equipment. The Platypus gravity filter is another great addition on its third trip, making water filtration a much more manageable. I can’t imagine anyone still pumps their water or would still want to with the gravity filters.
After getting settled, I headed back to the boat to get back on the water with a line in tow. I was already pretty exhausted from the early morning and day’s travel but had been dreaming of fishing these waters for months. The enthusiasm slowly faded after almost three hours of jigging, trolling, and casting without a single bite. It was very hot, probably pushing 90 degrees, and I assumed the heat and time of day had something to do with my lack of success. As I slowly trolled back toward camp, I watched the familiar twitching of the tip of the rod as the crankbait quivered forty yards or so behind me. The Garmin Stryker 4 fish finder you think would have helped. I could see the fish very clearly with the help of the sonar, I just couldn’t get them to show any interest. Halfway through the outing, the screen shut off and faded to black. I must have forgotten to replace the batteries prior to leaving home. Rookie mistake. I had backup batteries back at camp, but the idea of the unnecessary weight certainly bothered me, and on day 1 of the trip!
The sudden bend in the tip of the rod and familiar whirl of line running out was all I needed to hear to brighten my mood. I grabbed the rod and slowly cranked up the drag and began to work the catch to the surface. After several runs back down to the bottom, I was able to work it several feet below the surface and spotted the speckled silver side of the only species I had yet to catch after four BWCA trips, a lake trout. He took several more dives until he tired out and I slipped the net beneath him and hoisted the beast out of the water. He was a monster in my eyes. I don’t catch a lot of lake trout (it was my first after all), but I was quickly confident the three of us could have a fish dinner with no one going hungry. I threw him on the stringer and began the slow troll back to basecamp. What a strange outing. The only bite I had would feed three grown men. I could see the curious glances from my trip partners as I approached the site. “Any luck?” they shouted across the water. I feigned disappointment…” almost three hours fishing and only one bite”, I replied as I pulled my trophy out of the water.
After quickly getting settled back in camp, I set to the task of cleaning the catch down on the water’s edge, hoping any smells the fish generated would be quickly washed away.
We surveyed the menu and unanimously decided lake trout mac and cheese with griddle cakes was what the evening called for. As we grilled up the trout, a light rain began to fall, and we watched as an amazing sunset dipped behind impending storm clouds.
We were thrilled the weather didn’t ruin the day but the night would be a different story. The storm was not absent…just running a little behind schedule. We spent the hour after sunset watching an incredible lightning show not so way off in the distance, only made that much better by a glass of Bulleit Bourbon and a cigar. I’ll admit a campfire would have rounded out the night, but with a fire ban in place, it would have to wait.
Exhausted from the day, we all retired to our respective sleeping quarters, two of us in hammocks and Davis opting for the 1 man tent.
My eyes were closed soon after my head hit the pillow, but unfortunately the feeling did not last long. I awoke maybe an hour later to my hammock bouncing in the wind and the sound of heavy rain coming down. The sound progressively became louder until I knew there was no way any of us would be able to sleep through this. The wind gusts were fiercely impressive, and I found my whole body clenching in fear that my tarp stakes were going to give up at any moment and subject me to the immediate wrath of the storm that surrounded us. I tried to remember if I had seen any widow makers around camp as we set up. I made a mental note to try to be more diligent about spotting the dead trees that were still standing. The worst-case scenario was that the wind would fell a large tree and land on one of us. The next five to six hours or so were more of less the same intense barrage as the storm showed no signs of letting up. I’d nod off from exhaustion only to awaken with my heart racing as more wind gusts battered the tarps over and over again. It was something I had never experienced before and will hopefully never again.
~Moose Lake, Splash Lake, Ensign Lake~Moose Lake, Splash Lake, Ensign Lake, Ashigan Lake