Boundary Waters, Trip Reports, BWCA, Stories

Ironing out the wrinkles in my soul
by TuscaroraBorealis

Trip Type: Paddling Canoe
Entry Date: 05/13/2023
Entry & Exit Point: Snake River (EP 84)
Number of Days: 3
Group Size: 1
Trip Introduction:
For the second year in a row, winter weather proved to have a near unshakeable grip on northern Minnesota yet again this spring. Overall it hadn't been bitterly cold, as we even had a rare Valentines day rainstorm, but new seasonal snowfall records were shattered across the region with significant storms well into April. Needless to say, open water couldn't come soon enough. I am usually loath to enter on a fishing opener weekend. However, that was my only open window time frame wise this year so I eventually pulled the pin and grabbed the Snake River permit for that Saturday. While winter did indeed linger on & on, the silver lining was that the high water melt had occurred much earlier than last year and consequently, I wouldn't have to deal with the historic high water.
Day 1 of 3
Saturday, May 13, 2023

#84 Snake River is probably the closest BWCA entry point to where I currently live, so the inherent convenience factor played a huge role in choosing this route. I usually loathe to be out anywhere on fishing opener but, I only had a small window of time available, and this happened to be the weekend.

My van is locked, loaded & ready to roll the night before and helps ensure a 0’dark thirty departure. The Tomahawk Road literally runs right out of town so I’m almost instantaneously ‘off the grid’ as I rumble along the still shadowy gravel on my way towards Snake River entry point #84. There are still some small clumps of snow desperately lingering in the ditches along the way as the sun is just beginning to peek over the horizon just before I turn off the Tomahawk Road down the Little Isabella/Snake River spur trail.

It has been another long hard winter with record snowfalls in many areas here in northern Minnesota. The road ahead is littered with remnants of the fallen trees and branches that, thankfully, have been sufficiently cleared to make unfettered thoroughfare possible. At the “T” I take a hard left and the road becomes even more rustic. In fact, I’d venture to guess this is perhaps the least developed drive to any entry point in the Boundary Waters. In a few areas the bottom of my van inadvertently, though unavoidably, becomes a little shinier but, I’m able to meticulously proceed onwards all the way to the parking lot without serious incident or damage.

No sooner do I get out of my van to begin unloading than I hear another vehicle approaching. It’s a father & son heading in for a day trip to do some fishing. While they are incredibly friendly and I do enjoy our brief conversation. Not too long after, yet another vehicle pulls in; a day hiker & his dog. While I don't begrudge any of these people for doing what they're doing; still, these remote early morning encounters further confirm why I normally like to avoid being out on fishing opener weekend.

To the business at hand...The path starts out in fine fashion as back in the 1960's it was a road back to an old logging camp. Certainly this has got to be one of the straightest portages I'll ever encounter, at least until reaching the well-constructed bridge just before the site of the old logging camp where the trail then turns down a root & boulder laden hill tracing the course of the aptly named Snake River. Coming back for my second load, the almost imperceptible gradient of the straight stretch back up to the parking lot now generates a deeper breathing cadence. Except, of course, in the very level wet and muddy mid-section.

I’ve used this entry a few times in the past so, I can tell the water level is still high but not exceedingly so. Lingering patches of foam hint that the water was higher not so very long ago. The upper reaches of this ‘river’ are more creek like as the constricted banks don’t allow much room for maneuverability. Often, I find the best course of action is to just grab some of the overhanging branches and pull myself ahead. Still, I’m making ever steady progress and soon arrive at the first portage.

There is a clearly obvious grassy landing here on the eastern (right side) shore. I cannot see the entirety of the flume, so I crawl out to check things over. The trail is overgrown but easily followed for its 15-20 rod length, save for the abysmal gauntlet of shiny smooth roots throughout. After assessing that the waterway is free of obstruction, I gingerly shuffle back across. It’s a quick uneventful run-down the small rapids where the Black Pearl picks up a few new minor scrapes along the way before quietly gliding off into a now widening waterway.

The floodplain near the confluence of the Isabella River is soon encountered. Maps show that there is supposed to be at least one other portage around this area but, I don’t see anything that even resembles a need for getting out, so I contentedly paddle on.

Just below where the last rapids of the Isabella River wash out is the father/son duo ’d met earlier as well as another group of fishermen. I’m not here to fish, just curious about the portage and the campsite on the upstream side. For my solo last spring, in through Island River EP #34, I had the over ambitious goal of day tripping to this end of the river. High flood waters & windy conditions conspired to convince me, quite easily, that would not be a prudent strategy.

So, being it’s still quite early, I feel the tug to revisit these ‘old haunts’ and recall the ghosts of trips gone by. The last time I did this portage has forever been emblazoned in the deep recesses of my memory. It’s not that it was/is the most difficult path, it was just a portage where we did not conserve the energy or motivation to undertake it after an exhilarating, though very long, day. We wrongly surmised the camp near the upstream side of this trail would assuredly be open and thus were forced to undergo one last long agonizing portage upon finding it occupied. To this day, I don’t think I’ve ever been so happy to be finished with a portage?!

The portage is pretty much as I remembered it. Along it’s steadily climbing course, it runs tantalizingly close to the shores of the river, where the swift crashing & bubbling of the ever-cascading water provides a motivational backdrop to get across so as to go back and see what's making all the noise. Since I am without burden this morning, I soon veer off and bushwhack down to the river’s edge where I am treated to a still very full and root beer hued waterway shrouded by some impressive shoreline cedar trees. It’s early, in both the day & season, so the bugs are not an issue while I linger here relishing the sounds and smells of this much anticipated & overdue re-visitation I’ve been graced with today.

Working my way back on to the portage trail, I encounter a number of large downed trees across the path. Since I’m just hiking, they don’t present too much of an annoyance but, certainly would if I had been bringing the Black Pearl or my pack across. I note that the landing on the upstream side is precariously close to the top of the rapids before cutting off up the spur trail to the campsite.

This is/was the site we had hoped for so long ago. For the first time I finally get to set my eyes on what we bypassed. It’s a nice elevated site with a few excellent grassy tent pads and is not totally burnt out. There’s a panoramic view back up the river that can be contemplated from an ideal sitting rock just up from the fire grate area. The log seating could use an upgrade (and there are a few serviceable replacements already cut near camp), and another huge drawback is that there is currently a huge widow maker leaning in the near vicinity of the best tent pads. I devote some extra time sitting out on the rock knob looking back upstream, fondly reminiscing about the trip through here so long ago.

I’m not sure where, exactly, cartographers would say the Isabella River ends and Bald Eagle Lake begins but, I surmise it to be shortly after passing by north of the currently occupied campsite #1726. I mention it because it is here that an actual bald eagle regally soars just overhead. Instantly an unexpected tingling sensation runs down my back and I become certain of the significance of this event. Let me be clear, I’ve seen countless bald eagles including more than I can count in canoe country but, I will get to the noteworthiness of this particular siting later.

Traveling up the campsite rich eastern seaboard of Bald Eagle, I check out a few of them along the way. The next one, #1727 (in particular) catches my fancy and it is with some regret I press ever northward as getting at least somewhat off the beaten path is a primary factor in choosing camp. With the current high waters, I can paddle very near the otherwise rocky shorelines. There is an ever so gentle breeze that does little to hinder progress but, since the shores are rimmed with lush cedar trees, the intoxicating aromatic indulgence that it proffers up is truly invigorating.

Soon I turn into the tiny bay where the portage landing for Gull Lake is situated. Normally, this is a troublesome boulder garden but, with the high water, I glide right in with nary a scratch. Although a bit damp, there is a roomy staging area here and I take a moment to gather my wits about me before undertaking this notorious portage.

For me, one of the principal reasons I so enjoy traveling in canoe country is the obvious relation it has with Christian Spirituality by transforming the suffering of deprivation & labor into exultant joy. Let’s face it; most people would NEVER subject themselves and their leisure time to even camping in a tent much less also dragging their food, clothing & shelter across as little as a short easy bug free portage and then exuberantly call it some bizarre version of therapeutic joy. Yet, that’s essentially what anyone who enjoys spending time up here is doing! So, at least in a small way, the transforming of my labors here can help me grow spiritually by preparing & strengthening me for the undoubted struggles that still await me in all other areas on my life.

Of course, all analogies fall short on at least some level and this is a freely chosen endeavor not a random unforeseen event. And, I’m not trying to suggest or trivialize that because I’m doing a tough portage means I (or anyone else) will ‘magically’ be able to adroitly deal with things like an accident, illness or death etc. without plunging into the depths of emotions. But I do believe the type of transformation I detail here certainly promotes spiritual growth and will help to give me a deeper understanding, a sense of fortitude and a better perspective when those type of things do roll around. Most especially when I allow Christ to walk with me through those experiences - small & big.

The trail is initially wet, faint, rocky though easily followed and I soon encounter several nice sized cedars including one substantial upland specimen on the south side of the trail just after the first big climb. These noteworthy cedars aside, much of the portage passes through newly sprouting birch forest where there appears to be no shortage of ruffed grouse. Closer to the creek end there is a neat opening where the trail passes over an immense rock knob before dropping steeply down a rugged path to an undersized, cumbersome landing. There is an impressive nearly sheer granite rise just across the creek.

Yet again I have no trouble as there is sufficient water for enjoyable landing & navigation. The small tamarack trees are just beginning to needle, and I immediately think ahead to how ablaze in color this creek passage will be in October. There is a small beaver dam & hut very near my next portage. And, the resident beaver has carelessly let some of his chewed sticks drift down stream so, I grab a prized specimen for my ‘pokey’ stick once I reach camp. Also, there is a high ridge just across the waterway. On the top sits a large solitary boulder and for some reason I get the uneasy feeling that it’s somehow watching me! Maybe that last portage took more out of me than I realize? :)

The landing here is a little mushy but otherwise unremarkable. There is a short climb right off the bat and then some very minor undulation along a boulder laden, burnt over trail. Island campsite #1740 can be seen from this bouldery landing and I set course for that potential new home post haste.

Conventional wisdom has it that this is one of the better sites in this burnt-out area. And I must concur that it is indeed just that; as it does not appear to have been ravaged by the fires of the past decade or so. Still, there is just something lacking for me here today and I decide to push on. On the way to the portage to Pietro Lake I also quickly determine that site #1740 is even quite a bit less appealing. However, the large sheer cliffs looming across the bay behind camp intrigue me so I paddle over for a closer, more thorough inspection.

It’s a reasonably easy trek to the top of this granite escarpment as the fires cleared this area out pretty good. I take a few moments to enjoy the incredible vista across Gull Lake before heading back down to continue my journey.

The landing for the portage into Pietro is exceedingly mushy. And, as I proceed down the trail, I encounter a few more well-defined mud holes which are then followed up by the occasional knobby boulder. The path is very level and I’m shocked to see a couple sizable mounds of snow still holding sway near the boulder infested landing on Pietro.

Pietro Lake has had the great misfortune of having had 2 major wildfires ravage its shores in the past generation. And to be sure, the regeneration of the surrounding forest is still something of a work in progress. I don’t think too many have recently targeted this lake as a destination which kind of inspires me to spend some time here if possible.

As I begin a clockwise circuit around the lake, the site nearest the portage in from Gull soon comes into view. I paddle up and quickly assess this slightly elevated site as worthy of being my new home for the next couple of days. An exquisite flat area with room for at least a couple tents is tucked back in the shaded corner. An emerging stand of jack pine behind camp and the shoreline has a dozen or so up & coming cedar trees which will really fill in this site beautifully in the coming years. There is a very tiny island just out from camp that adds to the scenery and an easily accessible massive rock rise behind camp that provides an overlook of the lake but, with the trees growing this will likely soon be minimized. There is an active beaver lodge in the small back bay and some loons are soon checking me out as well. This site will only get better with time if the trees are left alone and I’m happy to call it home for the next couple of nights.

There isn’t much for firewood in & around camp so, taking full advantage of camping in a recent burn zone, I paddle a very short distance NE up the shoreline and pull out several of the still standing, dried out skeletal remains of several old cedar & spruce trees. Soon, I am putting my recently acquired beaver stick to its intended use as I savor the flickering, ambient glow of a warming fire during a rapidly cooling evening under an elegantly starlit sky.

~Snake River, Isabella River, Bald Eagle Lake, Gull Lake, Pietro Lake