Boundary Waters, Trip Reports, BWCA, Stories

The Long Way Around-First Solo on the Louse River
by YardstickAngler

Trip Type: Paddling Canoe
Entry Date: 05/21/2023
Entry & Exit Point: Sawbill Lake (EP 38)
Number of Days: 7
Group Size: 1
Trip Introduction:
This was my second BWCA trip and first solo trip. After nearly a year of planning, I chose the Louse River route because I was looking for a longer loop route with seclusion and challenge. In this report, I endeavor to share not only the details of my travel, but the inner workings of my head and heart while on the trip. This makes for a longer report, but I hope you enjoy it.
Part 1 of 11
June 2023-May 18, 2023


This was to be my first solo trip. Having never paddled a solo canoe, estimating my ability and choosing a suitable route which met my goals in the time I had was a very difficult thing for me to wrap my head around. I sought out advice from the message boards here, and was warned of the dangers of taking on too much for my first solo, especially in May, with no solo paddling experience. I felt conflicted, because I didn’t want to do anything unsafe or foolhardy, and had no means to gain any meaningful solo paddling experience near where I live. That said, I was in decent shape, and life is uncertain. I was nearly 40 years old, and family life was getting more frantic with each passing year. How many more chances would I have to take on a challenging solo trip? I chose to go for it, resolving to turn back or cut the route short if it proved to be too much to handle.

For a month or two, I planned on traveling the Frost River, since my late-May trip footprint would likely provide favorable conditions for this iconic Boundary Waters route. However, after reading a trip report or two and more time spent gazing at the maps, I chose to enter at Sawbill Lake and travel the Louse River, which appeared to offer more time in some of the most secluded, rugged areas of the park, as well as several challenging, minimally maintained portages. It also linked up nicely with an area on the map that intrigued me, the smaller lakes north and west of the Kawishiwi River, with a return to Sawbill via the highly-regarded “Lady Chain.” While I was a bit apprehensive at taking on this route as my first solo and only my second trip, I was also very intrigued by this route, and used that tandem of enthusiasm and apprehension to ignite a drive to prepare my mind, body, and gear for the trip.

My daughter began junior high sports in the fall of 2022, and while running with her cross country/track teams at practice helped with my fitness, it was clear that I needed to be more diligent about vigorously exercising daily whenever possible. I purchased a rowing machine for our home and began using it faithfully, rowing 45-60 minute hard workouts most mornings after dropping the kids off at school on my off days, and occasionally during breaks at work. This dramatically improved my overall fitness and endurance, while strengthening many core and back muscles that would be heavily taxed during my solo trip. It also provided a means of keeping up my fitness routine during a long, cold Kansas winter. The rough, rocky portages that the Louse River was notorious for concerned me. I didn’t want to injure myself out there. To prepare for this, I added about 20 minutes of balance exercises on a BOSU ball after my rowing workouts whenever possible. These workouts were tailored for trail runners that needed superior balance and injury resistance to run quickly over the type of ground I would be traversing. Finally, I incorporated a 20 minute medicine ball workout 2-3 times per week that focused on building core strength. Whenever I didn’t want to push through a difficult workout, I would think of a difficult portage that awaited me on the Louse River, and how I needed to do all I could to be ready.

The portages on this route provided me with a great deal of “homework,” as well as a bit of angst. I scoured this site and compiled every single comment I could find on the Louse River portages into a single laminated document that I carried with me in the park. There is a certain excitement to not knowing what to expect while on a canoe trip, but I knew that I needed to stack the deck in my favor as much as possible for my first solo, especially when traversing the portages of the eastern section of the Louse River. I am very thankful to those that provided strong intel to me via their trip reports and portage notes, in particular straighthairedcurly and cowdoc, as well as Mike McSweeney’s YouTube videos.

Gear-wise, I needed to think differently than last year. The most significant change was to my food prep. Last year, we used a standard food pack which we filled with mostly “real food” and hung in a tree for bear resistance. This year, I dehydrated and vacuum sealed all of my own meals, and kept them on the ground in a bear-proof Ursack. I was amazed at how much work it took to get my dehydrated ingredients “pantry” up and running, and spent much of January-February prepping a multitude of ingredients for my trip meals, all of which came online from “The Backpacking Chef” Glen McAllister’s e-books. I chose to bring two “food king” thermoses, in which I prepped my morning breakfast the night before by pouring in boiling water to soak overnight, and did the same for the following day’s lunch each travel day, in order to save time cooking and cleaning. I left my rainfly and large fry-bake pan at home. I purchased a carbon fiber paddle from GRB Newman. I drastically reduced my fishing gear, though I still chose to bring it. I also chose to bring a camp chair, albeit a much smaller, lighter one. Since I love campfires and wood gathering, I still brought my Boreal 21” saw and a 17” Fiskars pack axe. By mid-March, my pack was ready to go, save for a few last minute snacks. This was a huge improvement over last year’s frantic last minute packing experience that I swore to never repeat.

Mentally, I had heard that solo trips can be very challenging when in the park, but for me, the toughest time mentally were these final days before the trip. Work-wise, I had to work many consecutive days in the early part of May, which led to less time at home. When at home, I had plenty of last minute prep to do for the trip, but I also needed to spend quality time with my family, and make sure the house was in ship-shape before my departure. After a hectic, yet wonderful school year in which our four kids participated in 10 different sports seasons, several of which we coached or volunteered, in addition to various other extracurricular activities, it was hard to believe I would really be leaving, alone, in just a few days. As I watched my daughter perform in her junior high musical performance of “The Little Mermaid,” I was moved to tears. She and her brothers were growing up so fast. I couldn’t help but feel a bit guilty about leaving for my solo trip soon…in spite of having done all I could to “be there” for everyone during the course of this entire year. Why did I so deeply feel the need to go on this solo trip? Should I go at all? The answers I found to those questions were, essentially: “Who knows?” and “It’s too late to back out now!” This mental angst was very similar to the stir-crazy self-doubt that I had faced in the closing days before other life events that I had prepped a great deal for, such as job interviews and work evaluations. And now, as it had been in the past, those feelings meant one thing: It was time to go.

Final pack weight: 60 pounds, including 12 pounds of food|Meters rowed since last trip: Over 1.5 million