Boundary Waters, Trip Reports, BWCA, Stories

Full BWCA Border Route - Crane Lake to Grand Portage
by kdewahl

Trip Type: Paddling Canoe
Entry Date: 09/15/2022
Entry Point: Little Vermilion Lake (Crane Lake) (EP 12)
Exit Point: North Fowl Lake (EP 70)  
Number of Days: 10
Group Size: 2
Trip Introduction:
We started our adventure on a cloudy Thursday morning with likely showers forecast. We spent a little time on Crane Lake adjusting packs to help the canoe track better in a cross wind and then we were off. We just got to Little Vermillion when an ominous front moved across us from the north, and soon started dumping large rain drops that made big splashes and bubbles on the surface. Hard rain lasted 20 minute and slowly trailed off to a fine mist over the next hour. The wild rice fields were thinner this year than 2 years ago and most of the kennels had been harvested or fallen off. We sighted a couple of otters on the Loon River before it turned east. At Loon Falls Portage the landing was muddy and slippery. I helped CF get the canoe on his shoulders with his 60lb pack (a practice we did throughout), then I loaded my 60+lb pack a second pack and the paddles. We took campsite 21 on Loon Lake, a mile south of Beatty portage, put up a tarp and hung cloths under the tarp to drain moisture even if it wouldn’t dry in the humid air, and then made a hearty pasta dinner. Day 1 was 20 miles done in 5.5 hours.

Day 2 started the way day 1 had ended – cloudy, and humid, with low to moderate wind. Had breakfast and we were on our way to an easy crossing of Beatty Portage. North of Beatty, we stopped for a quick look at the pictographs which had been under water in May, then checked out campsite #1 where the fire gate had been a foot under water in May – now the campsite was dry and 4-5 feet above the current lake level. We cruised up Lac La Croix and a steady rain started around Snow Bay with a moderate wind building out of the east. We had lunch on the lee of Twenty Seven Island – pretty wet throughout from rain and/or sweat. I started shivering lightly as soon as we stopped moving. We bailed to remove perhaps 1” of water. After lunch we quartered the wind and building waves to take the more protected and slightly shorted route through Fish Stake Narrows. For the open water I was in the bow and leaned back as we hit some of the bigger waves – there were only 4 times water came over the bow and those were all small volumes. Got a good abdominals workout. As we entered the protected waters of the narrows we had to take compass bearing twice to check our heading in the heavy mist and fog, We worked our way down to close to Never Fail Bay and set up on a nice but wet campsite (#170). Again we hung our wet things under the tarp to drain rather than dry them. The rain tailed off into a mist, but there were plenty of drops falling from the trees above. We curled up in the tent. Day 2 was 22 miles in 5.5 hours.

Day 3 started mostly cloudy with some fog but the overcast was thinning. We finished Lac La Croix and took the Bottle portage – a group coming the other way suggested the high route. We got our 1st glimpse of sun through the leaves (quite pretty and uplifting). The Bottle landing had changed from 2 years ago – most of the mud flat was underwater and water plants were growing. Then a quick trip to the narrow channel to Iron Lake – much easier to navigate this year, although still tight. We saw our first swans on the west end of Iron – 2 adults and 3 cygnets. The Curtain Falls portage was uneventful and Curtain Falls was very impressive – wonder what it looked like during spring high water? We had a pleasant lunch at campsite 1879 on Crooked Lake. We started dragging in the afternoon and stopped at campsite 1866 on the Basswood River. Someone had cut down a dead Jack Pine and laid it down across on the best landing for the campsite – that made unloading an loading more interesting than it should have been - Not Good Thinking. The air was still humid but we started drying out a little. Day 3 was 22 mile in 5.5 hours.

We planned day 4 to be intentionally light to help us recover from the efforts of the first 3 days. First a look at the pictographs on the Basswood river. Came through Lower Basswood Falls and then up to Wheelbarrow Falls –half way thru we found a deadfall the was too high to step over and to low to work under – packs off ; heave and reload. At the upper landing, CF took a look at the boulders in the water and made a guess on the best place to put in, but on closer examination a different location would have been a bit easier to for loading. One more short portage and we were to the 1.2 mile Horse portage – our first long one for the trip. The horse portage went about as good as a long portage can go but it was hard and we exchanged shoulder rubs before having a pleasant lunch at Basswood Falls. Then on to Basswood Lake. After tuning south from United States Point we had a moderate head wind from the southwest and then a bit of a tail wind after going past Ottawa Island, although the wind backed off for this stretch, We found a descent, open campsite (#1314) on Rice Bay and made our first real progress on drying out. Day 4 was 16.5 miles in 4 hours

A sunny morning for day 5. A quick trip over Prairie Portage and then 5 more shorter portages to Knife lake – we pulled the boat up the rapids, bypassing the 2nd portage on Seed Lake for a change of pace. Then a paddle up Knife for a lunch on Thunder Point. We had the first decent phone reception and were able to give a quick update to family on our progress. A beautiful view from Thunder Point. Then up Knife and Little Knife to Ottertrack, which I was surprised to see labeled as Cypress on our Fisher E- series map – My F-series map at home calls it Ottertrack. We got a nice campsite (#2) and had beautiful reflection views through the afternoon, evening and the next morning. Tabouli and Falafel for supper, with the grains hydrating since morning, and a good swim. Day 5 was 21 miles in 5.5 hours

We had a quick trip up Ottertrack and started seeing cliffs rising out of the water. Monument portage was in good condition and other than puffing up a couple of climbs it was relatively easy with a boardwalk out into the water. Then through Swamp Lake and over the short Swamp portage. We had a couple of wrong turns before we found our way to Saganaga on a nearly cloudless morning with deep blue-colored sky & water. We had a moderate tailwind that pushed us quickly up to American Point where we stopped to consider our options: go on the NW side of the islands to near Jock’s Narrows, cutting south of Bradley island; or take the more protected route between Munker and Voyageur Islands in case the wind built further. We chose the more conservative, southern route although the wind stayed moderate, and we had an uneventful crossing. We entered the Ham Lake Fire area and had lunch at Saganga Falls, entering a new area for both of use. Then on to Horsetail Portage where presumably Canadian parks staff set flat stones close together to create almost a paved section of the portage – very impressive. Then across Maraboef Lake to the shortcut portage to Devil’s Elbow Lake – with very tough footing through what appeared to be an old river course. Then through Gneiss Lake, down the Granite River, over the Swamp portage, and then to the last portage before Clove lake. This portage was very wet and muddy and we paddled up to the rapids and found a rocky landing that shortened the portage substantially. Camp was at site 439 with a beautiful view to the south. Day 6 was 26 miles in 6.5 hours

Day 7 started cloudy with NW wind building. The portage across Pine Island was easy, but we missed the next portage and followed an informal portage that was difficult. Lined through the upper part of the rapids. Little Rock Falls was very pretty and an easy portage. We had a windy crossing of Magnetic Lake, then turned into Gunflint Lake and hugged the Canadian shore to keep as much protection from wind out of the northwest as we could. Waves built to 1.5 feet on the west side of the first Canadian headland. We were in a calm area to the south of the headland but got into strong wind as soon as we passed the east point. Then waves built again as we approached the 2nd Canadian headland, this time reaching some 2’ rollers. As we approached the east end of Gunflint, our E-series map showed a wide entrance into Little Gunflint which we didn’t see as we approached. Luckily the large waves tended to break out from the sand beach so we were able to move along the shore and we eventually found a small opening to the far south end of the beach with a turn that camouflaged the entry well. Once in, it was an easy crossing of Little Gunflint and the Railroad portage. Then into North Lake we had a windy crossing to the Height of Land portage – Approaching this portage it looked like we would have quite a climb, but it turned out to be a fairly gentile crossing to South Lake. Lunch at the landing on South Lake, then into Rat Lake. In Rat there was a pair of swans and their cygnet just off shore, and we saw what looked to be the next short portage across the lake. That was a false lead that wasted 30minutes as we searched that area. The actual short portage was 1/2mile to the south and around a bend. A short hop over a 4rd portage and we were in the shallow west arm of Rose. Unfortunately, between the short hop and the earlier wasted time, we let our guard down and left CF’s fanny pack at the portage that included his phone. The landscapes in this area seem similar to western landscapes, with what appear to be broad vistas interrupted by tall cliffs well away from the shore. Rain moved across us and as it moved away we were treated with a rainbow. As we entered the main part of Rose, we stayed to the north side to stay out of the wind and then crossed over to campsite 653. There we found a shredded drypack, presumably from a bear visit and a small pack of spices left by a previous occupant. Thhis is where we discovered the missing fanny pack with 4 windy miles between us. We had a cold, windy night. Day 7 was 24 miles in 6 hours

On Thursday we got an early start to find the long portage. We overshot the landing, and coming back we ran into a couple of your guys from the Waconia area who were doing a border route trip also although they had started a few days before us and had taken a different route around Saganaga & Gunflint. They were travelling much lighter than us and moved out on the Long Portage. 1 mile into the portage we ran into beaver work that flooded the portage. We unloaded, packed the canoe and paddled across the pond – there we reloaded ourselves and headed out again – almost immediately running into a 2nd beaver pond. We finished the 2 mile portage and paddled through Rove and Watap Lakes, having lunch on the east end of Mountain Lake, where the sun warmed rocks felt good under wet feet. We cruised across the 6 miles of Mountain, passing the campsite the Waconia boys settled on. We crossed to Moose and cruised down it. The three portages through the Lily Lakes to North Fowl were wet. North Fowl had wild rice growing and more swans. We cruised down to campsite 745 at the north end of South Fowl. Day 8 was 21.5 miles in 5.5 hours

Friday opened with a beautiful sunrise, a clear sky and a little fog on the lake. We crossed South Fowl and started the 300-rod Fowl portage. The Portage starts with 100 yards of a steep climb that really gets you puffing. At the top the trail splits with the portage taking a right turn and another trail goes straight, presumably to an overlook at the top of the cliff. We followed the wrong trail until we got to a place the canoe could not be turned through trees. We backtracked and found our mistake, and from there the trail gently descended from the heights, but I renamed the portage the steeplechase portage due to the 105 downed trees (counted by one of the guys from Waconia) that we had to step over. The last couple hundred yards also had some ankle-deep muddy sections. It was nice to get on the Pigeon with wild rice growing on the edges and lots of duck geese and swans. For swans, we first sighted a pair – they flew downstream as we got close. A few miles later we ran in to four swans and they flew downstream as we approached. A few miles later we sighted 6 swans ahead and they flew off. Finally close to Pigeon Falls we came on 9 swans who took off – this time the larger portion flew upstream over our heads. We looked for the Caribou portage as we approached the first rocky section, but saw no promising takeout. We ended up slowly walking and lining the canoe through this section over slippery rocks. Then we looked again for the Big Rock portage as we got to the second rocky section. We found a landing, but the trail quickly petered out and we put back into the river, honing our lining skills and doing quite a bit more paddling with ferries into the deeper channels between rocks. The last section of the river before Partridge Falls is peaceful with the take-out just above the falls. There is an impressive view of the drop from the top but we saw no simple way to view it from below. We made camp at the Fort Charlotte area of the Grand Portage National Monument. About an hour after arrival, we were pleasantly surprised at the arrival of the young guys from Waconia, who had come from Mountain Lake and did not spend time looking for river portages along the Pigeon. We spent a pleasant evening exchanging stories and learning a little about each other. Day 9 was 15.5 miles in 5 hours

There was a light rain overnight and heavy overcast when we got up. A quick breakfast, organization of snacks, packing to make things as compact as possible, and then we were off on the Grand Portage. The young guys started a few minutes behind us, but with their young bodies and lighter loads, they quickly passed us and were gone. The first mile and half was a wonderful portage trail – generally flat, with well drained dirt and gravel, and just a few tree roots to complicate footing. Then came a long, wide boardwalk through the beaver ponds. At 2 miles out, the character changed as the drizzle started. The trail narrowed with longer grass and brush closer in, and more frequent 10” board walks, many of which became quite slippery. We divided the carry into 9 segments, starting a bit longer than a mile, and shortening as we went along. CF took most of the heavy load, taking the canoe plus his pack for 7 of the segments. He likely carried close to 120lb, compared with my 2 packs, likely weighing 75-85lb. At each 5-10minute break, we had snacks and exchanged shoulder rubs. Descents and climbs became more frequent. We crossed the gravel ‘Cowboys Rd at 7.7 miles, and old Hwy 61 at 4.5 miles – both of which signaled we were making progress. At 5.3 miles we crossed Poplar Creek – the deepest of the watercourse valleys with a partially washed-out bridge (did not affect our progress) and a steep wooden staircase on the south side that really had me puffing for the climb. Shortly afterward I slipped off a boardwalk and dropped the canoe on a rock. I came out in good shape, but the canoe god a good ding in its side. CF took over the carry and somewhere around 6.5 miles he slipped and fell on the bottom of a descent on mud near the bottom. He had one leg briefly caught behind him, but again he came out of it intact although the canoe took another ding that will require some repair. While we were recovering, A Ukrainian couple hiked by from lake Superior, they filled us in more precisely where we were, and hearing of our travels decided we needed nourishment and shared some candy to boost our energy reserves. Over the last 2 miles the trail condition improved. The terrain was a little more gentile, and we also sensed or smelled the drier air off the Lake. Hearing traffic on Hwy 61 was uplifting – the carry was almost done, but crossing it was a bit scary – our acceleration abilities were not what they used to be The last half mile seemed long with a constant expectation the lake must be just through the next trees. Finally, we see the reconstructed fort and Lake Superior behind, drop our loads and check out a little of the National Monument. We eventually moved our belongings to the Visitors Center, cleaned up and changed into dry, warmer cloths. We fielded a lot of questions about where we were going to or coming from, and we used these opportunities to borrow phones to see if any messages had gotten through to our ride home. Day 10 was 8.5 miles in 5 hours