Big Water to No Water and Portages in Between
I hadn’t been to the BWCA since August 1999 the same year I got into marathon canoe racing. I stopped canoe racing in 2004. In February 2004 I had elbow surgery and in the fall I got Ehrlichiosis (similar to Lyme disease). Those weren’t the reasons I stopped racing (the elbow is fine) but I got interested in log building. I took two log building courses in 2005 from Ron Brodigan (Great Lakes School of Log Building) who I met back in 1980 when I worked for the US Forest Service in Isabella Minnesota. I knew then that someday I wanted to build a log home. It only took me 25 years to begin that process.
I still get out and paddle in my C1 J-193 Jensen Design racing canoe build by Everett Crozier several times a week on the Run River or Mississippi River depending on the time of year, but I missed the canoeing in the BWCA.
Most of my trips are solo as I’ve learned that to many times most everyone is interested in going but when it gets right down to it they back out at the last minute. I did asked a buddy of mine who I’ve done a couple trips with in the past that I was planning on going this year. He told me he hadn’t been in the BWCA for a couple years and if he went he should go with his wife.
I checked the Superior National Forest website about a month ago for availability on some entry points off the Echo trail as I’ve never canoed from any of them. I’ve been at entry points off the Fernberg trail, Isabella, Sawbill and Gunflint trails and it was also about the time of the Cavity Lake fire.
I decided to go out of Mudro Lake and I had originally thought I would do a more aggressive route by taking Sterling Creek going west from the Beartrap River near Sunday Lake and go to Stuart Lake then eventually going to Lac La Croix. I was planning an eight day trip and with the water levels way down I thought I better not try this extra loop so then I thought I would do a counter clockwise loop around Coleman Island in Lac La Croix. I decided against that because of too much big water, so I settled on this route.
I packed my gear and had packed enough food for eights days before changing my mind on the exact route. I gave my itinerary to my father and explained I might not be out until day seven depending on if I ran into some strong winds.
On Sunday, 8-27-06 I began my drive from the Twin Cities area to the north. I hadn’t been to the Duluth Pack Store in Duluth for some time so I stopped in for a whole 10 minutes. My next stop was to Ron Brodigan’s place near Isabella. Ron wasn’t there so I spoke to a guy who was renting one of Ron’s log cabins for the week-end with his wife. They were packing up to go back to Eagan Minnesota.
I drove to Ely and stopped in at Piragis’s. I bought my Minnesota II and a lot of other gear/ stuff from Piragis’s over the years. This year I bought a couple books. I needed a book to read a night. The book I took to read was Rob Kesselring’s, Daughter Father Canoe. One time I was thinking (hoping) of doing the Snowdrift River. I though it would be lighter reading that Max Finkelstein’s , Canoeing a Continent On the Trail of Alexander Mackenzie, which I also bought but Rob Kesselring’s book had slightly larger print to read in the dark.
In 1997 a buddy and I were in each of our solo canoes doing an eight day Quetico trip when we met a couple and their two daughters from Florida near Kahshahpiwi Lake. A few days later they met Max Finkelstein on Basswood Lake near Prairie Portage. Max paddled up to their campsite at about 2030 hours and asked them if they would care if he camped at an adjacent site on the island. This couple invited Max to dinner and Max cooked bannock for them over the fire.
I went to the US Forest Service to get my permit. I also got a Primitive Management Area (PMA) permit for the Sundial area. I wanted the option of camping on Sunday Lake if things went well the first day.
I camped at Fenske Campground and began sorting and packing for the trip in the morning. It had been a while since I did this and I was a little rusty. I began taking stuff that I was planning to take and just put it in the suburban. I realized I was just taking more stuff than I really needed. It’s not like I was going to take a trip in a motor boat where weight is really no object. I had to remember there were going to be several portages. I’m not getting any younger and all those injuries when I was younger are coming back to haunt me. Let me say I’m not moving through the wilderness like I use to, I’ve lost a step or two. While I was doing all this sorting I kept my doors of my 2002 Chevrolet Suburban open.
Everything was now ready, the tent was set up and it was getting dark. It was around 2030 hours so I decided to go in the tent and read by flashlight hanging from the top of the tent for over an hour.
I knew Chainsaw Sisters wasn’t going to be open until 0800 hours in the morning. I knew I would be up before daylight.
I woke up at 0538 hours. I heard the sound of a loon in the distance. I could also hear some traffic on the Echo trail. I finally pulled myself out of the tent at 0611 hours. Chainsaw Sister’s isn’t too far from Fenske Campground. I had plenty of time to eat and get there at 0800 hrs.
I was ready to leave and got in my Suburban and it wouldn’t start. I can’t believe it my battery was dead. What a way to start a canoe trip. I must need a new battery because although I had my doors open yesterday that shouldn’t have drained the battery.
I went to the campground host and spoke to the lady who was just coming out of her trailer. She didn’t see me and I startled her when I spoke. I explained my situation to her. She asked me my campsite and she would send her husband down.
Her husband came down to my campsite and we spoke a bit. I told him where I was from and where I worked. He gave me the name of someone and I told him he was a co-worker. He told me that this guy’s father was coming to the campground the next week-end (Labor Day week-end).
I got to Chainsaw Sister’s parking lot a little past 0900 hours. There were several cars parked in the parking lot and I saw three dogs. One or two of them began barking. I went up and paid my $18 dollars. I was coming back to my vehicle reading the slip of paper I’m supposed to put on the dash when I felt one of the dogs biting my right calf. Luckily, I had some Schnee leather top boots and the bites didn’t hurt but I believe it would have been different if I wasn’t wearing the boots. I yelled at the dog and pulled my leg back to me. Then to add insult I got back to my Suburban and I saw where one of the dogs peed on my right front tire.
I prepared my canoe and got my stuff together. I spoke to a group of four guys briefly that were also getting prepared. It looked like they were going to do some fishing. I took my fishing pole for a couple of my earlier trips but I leave it at home now. I on the move every day so usually the last thing I want to do at the end of the day is fish. Those of you who have done solo trips know that after you have paddled all day and get to a campsite you look around to see who is going to set up the tent, cook the food, purify the water, prepare the camp, hang the food if one can find a suitable tree, and then it hits you, it’s you. There is no one else and by the end of the day I’m pretty tired and the last thing I want to do is fish. I used to do a lot of fishing when I was younger and now the only fishing I do is during my annual Florida trip.
I do take a lot of pictures. I find that I tend to take many more pictures when I’m fresh and as the day goes by the pictures become less and then the pictures pick up again at the campsite.
Well, at 0926 hours the first trip across the first portage. The first 30 rod portage is extended because of the shallow water. It was beginning to get warm. What a couple trips across a portage will do! The outside temperature on the Suburban thermometer was reading 60 degrees when I was driving to Chainsaw Sisters.
I reached the main portion of Mudro Lake and started heading NW to the first of three portages to go into Fourtown. I saw movement at the first portage but it disappeared. Looked like a human. This portage was very rocky and of course it too was lengthen due to the low water. Maybe I should say now that the water levels on this whole trip were very, very low.
I was getting into my canoe for the short little paddle went I saw two guys at the beginning of the 140 rod portage. I stopped briefly and they told me they were from Pennsylvania and they were going to fish in Fourtown. They said I could go before them as they wanted to see how a pro did it. I told them I didn’t know about that but thanks for letting me go first. I was not in as good of shape as compared to when I was racing or when I did other BWCA trips so this portaged seem long. There were three or four ups and downs and it was following a ridge. My food pack sure seemed heavy. I crossed the next short rocky portage and it was the last I saw of those guys
I reached the open area of Fourtown and I remember a slight breeze. I saw a group of guys in two canoes heading out. They told me the Horse River was shallow. They told me in addition to the normal three portages that there were four more and numerous pull-overs. That sure didn’t sound good. Well, I didn’t have to worry about that now but it got me to thinking what the Beartrap River was going to be like. I called both the LaCroix and Kawishiwi Ranger districts and a couple outfitters earlier and no one could tell me what the river was like due to the low water. The Forest Service told me no one had been on the River lately as most of the personnel had been tied up with the Cavity Lake fire.
The outfitters told me they hadn’t had any customers on the Beartrap River lately.
I saw another couple as I began my turn to go west toward the portage to Boot Lake. The landing at the portage was quite big. It looked like it was best to get out where I did. I took my food pack and canoe on the first trip. I took a well used portage trail to the other side. I look and I see a lot of rocks, some water but I see open water where I need to go further past the point where I was standing. I took what looked like a faint trail a little further but then I couldn’t go any further. I decided to put down my stuff and go back for my larger pack. I though I would have to paddle over all my stuff across this small piece of water to the next short portage to get to the open water water.
I walked back to the beginning of the portage and I saw a couple sitting in a canoe ready to paddle east into Fourtown. I asked them where they came from? What I couldn’t see where I got out was that there was another well used portage trail to the south and this trail would take me to the open water. They asked me if that was me that made the noise with my canoe. I told them it was me. When I put the canoe down I couldn’t get to the small water and I was perched on top of a sharp rock The stern of the canoe hit the rocks. It sure wasn’t the first time nor will it be the last.
I really don’t know what I was thinking but for me I was doing the opposite of what I normally do on the portages. I normally take my larger Granite Gear pack, water bottles and Pelican case with camera gear across the portage first. The second trip I take my smaller backpack with food and the canoe across on the second trip. It depends what the water level is at the portage, I either walk into the water and put the canoe down or put the canoe down from shore. Either way the stern of the canoe hits water first not rocks.
I walked my larger pack across the south trail to the open water of Boot Lake. I made my way to my canoe, put it in the water and paddled to the short portage. It was now 1230 hours so I decided to have lunch. I took a half hour lunch. I ordered a fresh loaf of Sourdough bread from the Cub Foods bakery just before the trip to make my peanut butter sandwiches. I had some gorp and a fig Newton or two. The bread is bulky but very tasty. Other times I’ve taken bagels or pita bread.
I remember there were a couple campsites taken on Boot Lake. I don’t really remember the 15 rod portage into Fairy Lake, but I believe it was flat. I saw no one on Fairy Lake and there are two campsites on it. I took the 50 rod portage out of Fairy to Gun Lake. I have nothing in my notes about Gun Lake, but I know I went through there. There was a 30 rod portage between Gun and Gull Lake.
I spoke to some guys who were fishing on Gull Lake. I believe they were camped on the east site on the north shore of Gull. I asked them if any canoeist had came by today. The one guy told me earlier today that a couple came by in one canoe and a guy like me using a kayak paddle came by in another canoe. One of them was going to camp at Thunder and the other on Beartrap Lake.
I did the two portages of 35 and 55 rods in and out of Mudhole Lake. I saw the south campsite on Thunder Lake appeared to be vacant. I veered slightly east of north to go around a point that had a campsite on it. I could see that it was taken by two people. I went through the narrows of Thunder and approached the 5 rod portage to Beartrap Lake. It looked like both campsites appeared to be open in the north bay of Thunder Lake.
While I had been paddling since about Gull Lake I had been thinking on what my options were for the rest of the day as I now was getting somewhat tired. I had the permit to camp on Sunday Lake in the Sundial PMA. This is a low maintenance area and what would it be like for portages? What would the water levels be on the Beartrap River? Once I got there what would I have to do if the only campsite ( I was aware of only one even though you could make you’re your own) was taken even though I had a permit and I should be the only one in this area.
Another option was to camp at the site on Beartrap Lake but the guy on Gull Lake said that someone was going to camp there. I figured that it was probably now the solo canoeist and maybe, just maybe he continued up to Iron Lake. I didn’t know what time this person passed on Gull Lake.
Well, I have to go check on the campsite at Beartrap Lake because I would feel bad for not checking and still in the back of my mind is to forge on to Sunday Lake. I had to cross a 5 rod portage to get to Beartrap Lake and of course the campsite is not in view of the portage. The wind is starting to pick up from the northeast.
I’m standing in the water because it’s too rocky to pull the canoe up to shore and get my gear out. I’m taking my big pack out of the back of my canoe. The canoe moves away from me but I’m holding on to the pack and need to walk several steps in the water to set the pack on shore. Of course, now I go retrieve the canoe and I take a couple steps and the water goes over the tops of both boots. Now I have both boots full of water and its there to stay because I wear Sealskinz over my socks inside my boots. I feel my feet swishing around inside my boots. Remember, in the back of my mind I have Sunday Lake on my mind and now I have the additional problem of heavy, wet feet.
I get my gear put in the canoe and head SW toward the campsite. I get by an island when I finally can see that the site is taken. I look at my map and it shows only a 200 rod portage to Sunday Lake. I normally go 2 miles and hour in travels through the BWCA with some portages. I go about 20 minutes per mile or 3 miles an hour in open water. I check the map and I figure that’s possible to be a Sunday Lake in 2 to 2 ½ hours under ideal situations. What would this minimal maintenance portage look like? What I didn’t realize at the time was that none of the regular portages are marked on the map I have.
I decided to get to Sunday Lake would just take to much effort on my part since I was already tired from this leisurely trip (I also still have water in my boots). Well, back to the rugged 5 rod portage. There are lots of rocks on either side of the portage. I checked out the campsite on Thunder Lake just north of the portage. I then paddled to the campsite to the northeast. I didn’t get out of my canoe but this campsite didn’t appear to be used very much. I liked the one just north of the portage better so I paddled back the quarter mile to it.
I came back to this campsite at 1640 hours. I fixed supper, got water, took pictures, hung the food pack and eventually prepared the camp for the night. There were a couple loons on the lake but they never made a sound. I was preparing to read at night but I couldn’t find my second flashlight that I used the night before to read in the tent. (I later located this flashlight in my Suburban where I had left it, huh.)
On to Iron Lake tomorrow!
I didn’t write the campsite number that was on latrine.
Total Time: 7 hrs 14 minutes
Total Miles: 12.5 miles
I was hoping to be on the water at 0830 hours but didn’t leave until 0911 hrs. Less than one minute later I was at the 5 rod portage going into Beartrap. The wind was blowing from the NE all night long. I got up in the morning and it was a slight NE breeze that stated to get stronger as I left the campsite. I got onto Beartrap Lake and the north side of the lake was calm.
The campsite was still occupied on Beartrap Lake. I had a feeling that there probably wasn’t going to be any one following me today. I didn’t know if anyone would be coming from the north or not.
I got to the 200 rod portage and the first thing I see is a large tree over the beginning of the portage. Well, actually it was not that bad I could get through. There were numerous trees across the portage. Most of them all I had to do were to step over them. There were two large trees slightly higher than chest level. I had to put down the canoe and drag it to the other side. You should have seen me carrying the large pack when I came to these trees. I was never very flexible to do the limbo but that would probably been the best way. My knees aren’t very flexible anymore either. I tried to find the largest area between the ground and tree as I was scraping the top of my head to try and avoid snapping to the ground on my butt.
The next challenge was four large trees lower to the ground across the trail next to each other. I called them the hurdles. I was not very good at doing the hurdle in track, either. My method with both canoe and the large pack was to get one leg across the tree at all cost, sit, swing (use that word loosely) get the other leg across, get my balance and off I would go.
It took me 26 minutes to do the portage with my canoe and 23 minutes with the pack. Actually this portage wasn’t too bad. I have been on much shorter portages worst than this one. I could see that areas of this portage could be pretty muddy during certain times of the season. I saw some mud on the trail and it didn’t appear that anyone had used this portage recently.
What I like to see when I’m coming to the end of a long portage is light coming through the foliage which usually means the portage is nearly done. I have been fooled by that but better yet is to see the sign of water through the foliage.
I use McKenzie Maps and I have several from 1997. I don’t know if the newer ones show any portages on the Beartrap Lake to Sunday Lake or not but this map doesn’t. I read after the fact that there are two normal portages that are described. I did at least two portages if not three. There were several beaver dams to pull over and pullovers over rocks. It would have been a mistake to try to get to Sunday Lake yesterday. The first portage I came to was about 60 rods or so. I came to a spot where there was some open water so I put down my canoe and continued with my food pack to the correct spot to put in. This portage is described in Beymer’s book. OK, I’m going to say it again. The water levels were very low.
It took me a total of 1 hour and 14 minutes to do the 200 rods portage and another 1 hour 44 minutes to get down the Beartrap River to Sunday Lake.
I had lunch at 1245 hrs at a campsite on Sunday Lake. This is a primitive site but it has been used in the past. It’s on the north shore a little ways east of the portage going out of Sunday Lake. This is an easy 19 rod portage going out of Sunday Lake. There were a couple more short portages on the Beartrap River.
I got to the area where Sterling Creek goes off to the west from the Beartrap and it appeared from the east side of the Beartrap that it was all tall grass. There is a widening of the area/river where the Sterling takes off and it appeared to be all grass. I didn’t go over to scout for any actual body of water in the creek if there was any as it would have taken to much time and effort since I wasn’t going that way. Let me say it didn’t appear that anyone had been up or down the Sterling Creek for some time.
The final portage to Peterson Bay of Iron Lake was 110 rods. The good thing about a 110 rod portage is that it feels short after doing a 200 rod portage earlier in the day. I got to the end of the portage at about 1530 hours and I’ve never seen a put-in like it. It drops 10 to 15 feet to the water at a 45 degree angle. There were only a couple feet to maneuver the canoe and gear at the water. The rock walls were straight up and down just to my left and rock I came down its face was a sheer face. I put everything down and briefly scouted the area. It appeared there was another trail on the other side to put in a canoe, but it meant that would risk possibly getting hurt getting all my gear to the spot and it really didn’t look any better where I was already. I decided just to put in where I was. I felt like a goat walking down this incline but got the canoe in the water. I put lines on both the bow and stern for either lining or tracking a canoe. I used them in this spot to maneuver the canoe around to get all my gear in the canoe. Oh, you can’t step in the water at the end of this 45 degree angle because it was one of the few deep spots. Peterson Bay was very swallow. I did several pullovers (nice word for scraping) the bottom of the canoe over rocks.
I came into the main body of Iron Lake and I saw two to three canoes. I also saw the campsite on an island to the north of the opening of Peterson Bay was taken. I decided to head NE to check out the campsites as I went. I saw a site in a cove directly south of the west campsite on Three Island and it was taken as well as the Three Island site. I read somewhere that the west campsite on Three Island was very nice. Probably explains why it was taken. I was tired by this point and I had three more sites to check out before having to make another major decision to go back further west two to three miles to check those campsites or take the 139 rod portage around Curtain Falls into Crooked Lake. I didn’t like either option at this point. I paddled between the south shore of Three Island and the north shore of another island and peninsula. It was shallow and lots of large rocks just under the surface of the water. I scraped the bottom of the canoe a few more times. This reminds me when I brought my brand new We-no-nah Prism to the BWCA for the first time in 1995 and every time I would scrap a rock I would cringe. Now as long as water doesn’t come through the canoe it doesn’t bother me as much. I don’t like doing it but what gets me are the rocks I think I should have seen and avoided.