Boundary Waters, Trip Reports, BWCA, Stories

Isabella to Little Gabbro 2021
by AdventureRob

Trip Type: Paddling Canoe
Entry Date: 07/25/2021
Entry Point: Isabella Lake (EP 35)
Exit Point: Little Gabbro Lake (EP 33)  
Number of Days: 7
Group Size: 7
Trip Introduction:
What can be said about this trip. We do a big guys trip every year and alternate years of going to BWCA simply because its an amazing place to visit. This trip was a Frankenstein Monster of a trip based on wildfires, fire bans and drought conditions. We simply took what we could a week before our scheduled start and made the best of it.
So as mentioned in the description this was not our planned route and to be fair to EP #33 it was still a route. Or original route was planned for Mudro to Crooked and back out through Gun to Mudro. In case anyone is not familiar with what has happened summer of '21 MN has been under drought conditions most of the summer so all the lakes/rivers we passed through were extremely low (best guess from water line on rocks 3-4'). There have also been several wild fires causing EP closures hence why we changed from Mudro to Isabella a week prior to starting our trip, also a fire ban was put into effect. So I will just preface in saying because of all these factors this may not be a fair assessment of this route under normal conditions.

We had planned to go in at Isabella have a nice easy paddle down stream to Bald Eagle lake on day 1. (normally we do 15 or so miles first day so this was going to be easy). We planned to take out at the outfitters in Farm Lake bypassing our scheduled take out point of Little Gabbro, however BWCA had other plans for us.

Day 1 (campsite #1940)

We set out heading west across Isabella lake with a pretty strong head wind in our faces that persisted for the next 3 days. Every single portage was more difficult to land at as the water level was so low many rocks were out of the water that normally would have been well below us. Not the end of the world. As we completed the first portage again into the strong head wind of the river rendering the slow moving downstream current useless. If we stopped paddling we were easily blown back up stream, again such is life when canoeing. As we approached Rice Lake we started having some more issues with the water levels. Well before the lake we started bottoming out in the middle of the river with spots of 3-6" of water. (all reports I have read about Rice Lake say its pretty much pointless to go under normal conditions, I would be willing to say it was impossible to get there under current conditions). From this point on for another mile and a half or so was slow going between pushing the canoe like a Gondola and getting out to push/pull it through the water and mud.

We did however see a family of River Otters playing in the water up ahead of us about 20 yards, as well as plenty of beavers and eagles so that was great for the kids. Once our impromptu portages were completed we were back on the water so to speak. After about 4 hours on the water we had made little progress to where we had planned to be. Finally we decided to grab a camp that was available just below the last 30 rd portage before Quadga Lake. Reading the campsite reviews prior to the trip I had low expectations as most sites were rated 1-3 stars. The site we grabbed however was actually pretty nice sitting on the corner of a bend in the river. Under ideal conditions this looked like it would be a great fishing spot up and down from the site and we did have a little luck with a couple very small northerns. The site was big enough for 3 three man tents since we were not having a fire and could be close to the grate. Under normal conditions though I would say this was a 2 tent site to be comfortable. Bugs were not bad as we had a nice cross breeze and this is in the burn area from about 10 years ago so not many bigger trees around to shelter from wind. Also made it difficult to find a suitable bear bag tree. Great open sky for star viewing though.

Day 2 (campsite #1721)

We decided to get an early start before the wind picked up and it worked out great. Hit the water at 0630, perfectly smooth and actually felt a slight bit of the current pulling us along every once in awhile. Our lead boat came around the corner and saw a bobcat in the river, but that was pretty much it for wildlife this morning. We pushed up to Bald Eagle lake and covered both sides of it looking for a suitable base camp. 2 of the sites we looked for were not even able to be found, and yes we were using updated current maps showing them as open. Quite a few other parties on this lake as we arrived about 9 so most were not breaking camp for the day yet. We wanted a site up around the corner leading to Gabbro lake but it was occupied for the 2 nights we stayed on this lake. Fishing was horrible, tried everything in our kit around the entire lake, weed beds (very shallow), deep water and everything in-between. Ironically the best fish caught on this lake was in front of our campsite 18" northern which is still nothing to brag about. Site was sheltered from the westerly wind which was not great for the bugs at night between sunset and cold time but it was survivable. The landing was actually nice with water levels so low it was a semi sandy/rocky beach. Again a suitable bear tree was difficult to find and the latrine was missing a lid so the west wind blew a pleasant smell through the campsite, personally would not recommend this site.

Day 3

We decided to portage up in to Turtle Lake for a day trip as it was supposedly good for catching some decent northerns. This was not the case. First of all the portage is not great (not the worst by any means) but not great. The landing on the Turtle side was horrible full of mud and rocks. There were some really nice campsites and maybe if the lake had been at full depth would have some great fish but after 5 hours we caught a small perch and a very small bass both of which went back. Needless to say it was not worth the portage.

Day 4-7 (campsite #1707)

We made the decision to abandon Bald Eagle lake and head on up to Little Gabbro and check out fishing in the river on the other end of the portage #665 in to South Kawishiwi River. We again left early to beat the wind but unfortunately the wind picked up early this day so it was yet another day heading into a decently strong head wind while crossing Gabbro. Also worth noting with the low water levels in the middle of the lake while clipping along we suddenly bottomed out on a giant boulder just below the surface. After scouting some campsites we settled on one that was actually very nice. Plenty of room for 3 tents, a nice area we set up with a tarp for shade and rain shelter that had a great view out over the lake and the fire grate would be perfect if able to be used. Worth noting though if you dont want a climb then pass this one yup as its a good 25' up on a rock. Breeze was great and kept bugs very low. Latrine was a hike back into the bush with a slightly sketchy rock that could be slippery but was nicely situated in a clearing which kept bugs at a minimum. Fishing continued to be a problem, not a lack of fish just a lack of sizable fish worth keeping. We did land 4 nice size walleyes, a perch and a decent smally but all the northerns were still very small. Great star gazing from the campsite wide open views of the Milky Way reflecting off the water.

Ultimately we made the decision that based on the low water conditions, poor fishing and strong head winds to just ride out the remainder of our trip at this site and take out at EP #33. Didnt want to totally crush the kids moral with another day of paddling and trudging through low water, instead we had a nice leisurely paddle 1/2 mile across the lake to the EP portage on Little Gabbro. Despite not one thing going as planned on this trip it was still a week in the BWCA and to me its one of the most amazing magical places around. Granted we would have preferred to keep our planned route, less other parties to encounter, better fishing, quite honestly better views also but such is life. I can say we would not recommend this route to anyone, but in a pinch it worked. Again this is based off of a crazy year so perhaps normal conditions it would be a great route as well.