Boundary Waters, Trip Reports, BWCA, Stories

Island & Isabella river tour, chasing the ice out
by TuscaroraBorealis

Trip Type: Paddling Canoe
Entry Date: 05/06/2022
Entry Point: Island River (EP 34)
Exit Point: Isabella Lake (EP 35)  
Number of Days: 3
Group Size: 1
Trip Introduction:
This trip was supposed to be a short trip just to get my paddling & portaging arms & legs back in some semblance of shape. When I reserved the permit right after Canoecopia, I had no idea that it would be a late ice out. That fact added an interesting dynamic to this trip. Also, like we set out to do in the "First fish and a walking stick" trip, I wanted to see this burned off area before the forest fully reclaims its dominance. Unfortunately, I haven't kept records of past trips anywhere near as well as Spartan2 but, I did include a couple of vintage photographs from a trip taken about 2 decades ago in this report.
Day 1 of 3
Friday, May 06, 2022

During my morning break at work, I receive an email from Ginny at Spirit of the Wilderness outfitters wondering if I actually plan on utilizing my overnight paddle permit for Island River EP #34 today? I call and verify that I am indeed going to 'roll the dice' and will be in to pick it up during my lunchbreak.

Ginny graciously opens the door as I arrive and confirms my suspicions that, with the lakes in the area still locked up with ice, there haven't been any people showing up to pick up permits. She informs me that she has issued a few hiking permits; although I am the first to claim a reserved overnight paddle for the season. As we chat, I reveal that I'm not so concerned about the rivers being snow & ice free, as I am about the Tomahawk Trail (a mostly unmaintained forest road) being nearly free of those very same things.

On my way out of town I grab a Subway sandwich to eat as I drive to the entry point. I'm encouraged seeing the Kawishiwi River completely open as I cross over on my drive south down Highway 1. And the Tomahawk Trail is in great shape as I turn down that historic thoroughfare. It appears there has been some logging going on very recently so, that might explain the excellent initial conditions of the road. Further on, however, I start encountering some snow across the road in various shaded places. Still, there are clearly evident tracks that others have proceeded onwards so I follow suit.

Passing by the Little Isabella & Snake River EP spur, I stop and see complete snow cover on that road. A little less sure, I press on only to start encountering patches of ice with increasing frequency. The fact that there is always a track running through them is the only reason I maintain the confidence to keep going. In vain, I struggle to recall the nature of the upcoming road, as my van rumbles, bounces and pinballs in the frozen double luge lane. However, as I sluggishly pass by the Bog Lake Road the reality is I am making slow steady progress ever northeastward. In my resolute quest to satisfy my deep passion for outdoor adventures and make this trip happen; the iconic words so eloquently penned long ago by St Paul, ruminate in my heart. “Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things...”

Finally, the old wooden trestle bridge crossing the Island River comes into view! Further glad tidings present themself as I discover the large lobe of water to the west is completely free of ice. This was my litmus test: if this large expanse of flat water is open, I surmise the rest of the river(s) will assuredly be.

In short order I’ve got the Black Pearl (my canoe) loaded and I'm on the water. The water is so high I actually have to duck as I effortlessly glide under the trestle, the brisk current pushing me through. With the uncommon & unrelentingly cold April, and early May, northern Minnesota has experienced this spring; the indulgent rays of radiantly sultry sunshine this late afternoon offers a sublime measure of contentment that only those hardy souls who have endured this frigid tribulation unabridged can fully savor.

As I scan the still scarred (from the Pagami Creek fire) horizons, there are still some small remnant pockets of snow cover along the southern shoreline brightly accentuating the otherwise stark scene. Curiously, my eyes soon fixate on a motionless round puff of fur sitting atop a shoreline boulder.  As I paddle ever closer it appears to be a dead beaver, as it makes nary a move as I draw near.  Suddenly, at the last second, it flops into the water! Apparently, it had just been sleeping.  Not sure, at this point, who is the more startled?

Having paddled across this largest lobe of the Island River propelled by a winter's worth of stored-up adrenaline; I now turn north into a constricted, more riverine stretch of this waterway. I won’t go so far as to call this section a gorge but, there are precipitous slopes shadowing both flanks. With the current high volume of icy water flooding through these narrows, the cacophony of the distant rapids echoing off the hillsides sounds not unlike traffic on a busy downtown street. According to my Voyageur map the portage is supposed to be on river left. I see nothing that resembles anything close to a landing or, even a trail climbing up these mostly barren inclines. Fortunately, it’s a straight shot down the barrel of this chute. Well in advance, I can clearly see there are no strainers or impediments, and only ‘haystacks’ (the fun kind of waves) down river so, I confidently decide to run these rapids.

Warily piloting my fully loaded craft into the midst of these rolling rapids, I keep an ever-watchful eye out for potential hazards as the Black Pearl bobs in an orchestrated cadence through this long stretch of whitewater. Only the sporadic spray of icy cold water sharply stinging my cheeks, tempers this otherwise exhilarating ride.

As I wash out into flat waters, my exuberant demeanor gives way to a more somber tone. Pulling into a calm back water eddy, I begin searching for the downstream landing or trail. Once again, I see nothing that even looks like it could be. Perhaps the high water is concealing the portage but, I think the more likely answer is that most of the time, with lower water levels, people still run or line their canoes through these rapids, so the portage is rarely if ever needed. Obviously, I didn’t need it here today either. However, I am quite concerned as there is currently no way I will be able to safely walk or line my canoe up these near class II rapids on the return trip. Sitting motionless atop a frigid liquid highway, contemplating the significance of my newfound reality; the uneasy question, “What did I just get myself into?!” swiftly bubbles to forefront of my mind.  In times of distress, I turn to my Lord. “Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Let the day’s own trouble be sufficient for the day.”

Today's trouble is now the 3-rod portage just down river. This one curves around a bend in the river and I cannot get a good look at it. I pull up to the landing on river left. There are so many downed trees preventing easy viewing that I surmise it would actually be more work to properly scout this one than to actually do this short easy portage. I make quick work of this diminutive up & over.

A very brief paddle later, at the confluence of the Isabella River, the waterway once again broadens out. I wouldn’t call this a lake but, it is a decent enough sized body of water that discerning exactly where the river flows in this flood plain is a bit challenging. There is a designated campsite at the western edge just as the river narrows so, I navigate my way over and take an expeditious break.

The landing isn’t very user friendly but, I reason that it is likely much more accommodating at normal water levels. It’s something of a scramble up to the site proper but, once there, a wonderful little sheltered camp with a couple of grassy tent pads is unveiled. Even though the river narrows here, this site does offer a measure of privacy. Not that I’m expecting any passersby!

Back on the river, I paddle towards what I expect to be the first real challenge of the day – the 106-rod portage.  My eyes guardedly catch the perpetual aquatic splash dance of water cascading off of unseen boulders downstream.  Once again, the portage is supposed to be on river left and I spy an opening that looks promising just ahead.  Admittedly, this is where I ‘hoped’ the landing would be.  As fate would have it, the actual landing is still closer to the head of these formidable rapids.  I gingerly maneuver around a myriad of overhanging trees in the accelerating current, ever mindful of keeping tight to shore. Providentially, I soon pinpoint, and pull safely into, the proper landing and begin the laborious process of peeling my fingers, one by one, from my paddle. In the end the dramatics were perhaps unnecessary but, this is unquestionably a section of the river where I don’t want to mess up. 

In the pre-Black Pearl days, my brother Clay & I had done a trip from Isabella Lake down the length of the Isabella River and eventually exited out Little Gabbro Lake. I don’t remember all of details from that adventure but, I do vividly recall seeing our 1st moose in the wilderness, excitedly running many of the smaller rapids along the river including the chute between Bald Eagle & Gabbro lakes and, the big cedar trees at the end of this portage.

Soon after starting down the trail, there is a boardwalk over a marshy area. With the river in full flood and the snow cover recently melting, I’m flabbergasted, though grateful, that this section (or any other) isn’t under water. The trail rolls along past countless fallen casualties of the Pagami Creek fire. The only visible marks, along this otherwise untrodden path, are those from moose and wolves. Eventually it drops down to the river's edge near the head of the most impressive rapids before crossing over a footbridge across a small gorge. It’s not exactly Curtain Falls but, the sheer volume of water pumping through here provides a front row seat to witness a similarly majestic display of nature’s breathtaking fury.

Continuing on; the trail drops down the only really significant hill on the trail, terminating at a flooded landing.  Sadly, I make note that only a lone sentinel of the impressive grove of cedars survived the ravages of the fire; as I pay silent tribute to a few of the now hollowed-out collapsed shells alongside the trail as I finish the portage.

Back out on the river, where these rapids wash out, I give the tempestuous flume a wide berth and stay in the back water eddies. As I approach Rice Lake, I notice a couple of beavers perched on something out in the middle of the watershed. Upon closer inspection, they are on top of their barely visible huts. The water is up that high!

The two campsites formerly located in Rice Lake have long ago been abandoned so, I turn west to claim the site where the Isabella River exits the lake. The current is a bit pushy here and I overshoot the landing. But, eventually pull in to the fabled Stonehenge site #1938.

This site came by the 'Stonehenge' moniker because of the eerily elliptical configuration of expansive boulders encircling the camp, including a particularly gargantuan rock towering over the west side. Clay & I had previously stopped here to fry up some walleyes on our aforementioned trip. The fire has leveled much of the area but, there is a beautifully flat, grassy area in the midst of the boulder array and the fire grate is well protected up against one of the boulders. There is a small, though commanding, promontory jutting out with which to sit and contemplate the expanse of the lake or, the western river valley. Premium dead, downed & dried out firewood is scattered in all directions but, a severe shortage of mature trees in and near camp is certainly the big drawback. Still, I’m grateful to call this home for the next few days.

Since this is only a weekend trip, I left my hammock & CCS tarp at home. Doesn’t appear they would’ve seen the light of day at this site anyways, as I enlist one of the precious few larger trees nearby for hanging my gravity water filter. Camp goes up quick, and I gather enough wood to get enough of a fire going to cook my hobo dinner. This is just some chicken, steak, medley of vegetables, seasoning & butter wrapped in aluminum foil. This is an incredibly low maintenance meal that I can just throw and leave unattended on the fire while finishing stocking my firewood coffer.

It’s supposed to drop into the 20’s tonight so I don my Under Armour before the sun goes down, and then enjoy the spoils of my labors & the bounty God has graced me with this day. Basking in the luxuriant glow of a well-stocked campfire while consuming a hearty dinner.

There is a quote (I believe originating with Socrates?) my Priest used for an Ash Wednesday homily a few years ago that applies to one of the primary reasons I so cherish getting away to the BWCAW. “A busy life is an unexamined life. An unexamined life is rarely worth living.”   Canoe country lends itself so ably to this sacred endeavor. As always, spending quality time alone with my Lord in this tranquil natural environment is a soothing salve for my soul.