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
Part 3 of 11
Saturday, May 20, 2023

Day Trip and Test Paddle

I wake up at first light just after 5 AM and prepare my “pizza grits” for breakfast. Even though this is a dehydrated meal, it still takes a lot of time to boil water, set up the kitchen, and clean up. I resolve to use ready-made thermoses for breakfast and lunch starting tomorrow in order to save time during the quiet, calm morning hours that are best for paddling.

I meet a man from Iowa outside the Sawbill store and converse with him for a few moments. He is headed to Frost Lake with his group today, and his son will be working at Sawbill for the first time this summer. This is the first of four Sawbill permits for this man! How cool. He asks if I saw the aurora borealis late last night, but the only thing I saw was the back of my eyelids! Oh well. I needed the rest for sure.

Matt checks the canoe out to me at 8 AM. After briefly considering a kayak paddle, I choose a well worn 52” bent shaft canoe paddle to use as a spare. This is significantly shorter than my shiny new 55” carbon paddle, but I want to have a backup option in case my carbon paddle is a bit too long. Matt tells me that now is a perfect time to do the Louse River with the water levels slightly higher than normal due to the heavy snowfall this past winter. He said the one time he did the Louse River he loved it, but it ended up being a pretty tough slog in low water. While canoe tripping in late May can be unpredictable, this time of year definitely has its benefits.

Just a couple days ago, I began looking for the perfect day trip from Sawbill for my test paddle, and dug up some info on Handle Lake on Multiple paddlers said that it was a fun little secluded adventure off of Sawbill, and that the lake held some small northern pike. With only 1 or 2 beaver dam pullovers to reach it, this fits my desired trip profile perfectly. Matt doesn’t have any intel on Handle, but I tell him I will report back in a few hours, and am on my way.

The Sawbill landing is bustling with activity this morning as multiple groups embark on their trips. I load my full pack, spare paddle, and fishing gear into the boat, because I want to perfect the art of trimming the canoe today. At some point during my setup process, I manage to lose my sunglasses right off my head and walk back and forth from the landing to the car to search for them, finally locating them on the ground near the landing. I am thankful for that! God is good. After the landing clears, I push off into a gusty north headwind and immediately my worst fear about this trip is realized: I have very little control of this canoe. The wind is giving me fits, blowing the bow seemingly wherever it wills, as I frantically work the water into a noisy froth around me. When I manage some semblance of control, I realize that this boat is far less stable than what I expected. I am making nearly zero progress down the lake as I keep flailing about with my fancy new paddle, occasionally hurling invectives at the unforgiving northern sky for good measure. A voice calls out from the shore near the landing, “Nothing like a good wind, huh?” I respond that obviously things weren’t quite going my way out there. “How about you bring it on in here? We’ll help you.” Gary, who was about to hit the water for some walleye fishing with his friend Grant, is the one speaking. I somehow manage to get close to shore and he pulls me in.

“You know, there’s nothing wrong with taking that boat back and seeing if they can get you one that’s more suitable for you,” Gary says once on shore. “There’s no pride out here. The key is being safe and being able to take it easy.” I think for about three long seconds and then say “You’re exactly right. That’s what I’m going to do right now!” Out comes the gear and I portage the Prism back to Matt at Sawbill. Before I even make it back to the canoe yard, he steps out of the door and I ask if I can switch to the Wilderness. “Absolutely!” he says with a knowing grin, adding “I thought this might happen.” I’ve only been here 12 hours, and already I am so thankful for the the friendly, attentive service Sawbill Outfitters provides. Within moments, I am portaging a We-no-nah Wilderness back down to the landing where I re-secure my pack, spare paddle, fishing pole, and bow/stern lines for my second attempt. I push off into the water and am astonished! The Wilderness paddles marvelously for me, even into the wind and chop. I am nearly certain that my loading wasn’t quite right for the Prism. Either I had my “extra wide” pack laying flat near the middle of the canoe (trimmed too far aft), or I had it sitting upright in the bow, which would be more proper for trim, but far more top-heavy. I may have even had it sitting upright in the middle due to the narrower width of the Prism, which would have been the worst of both worlds!

With all the excitement I have had so far, it is an incredible feeling to be paddling in the Boundary Waters for the first time since last year’s trip. I am awestruck by the vastness of the lake, but have my map and compass ready to navigate northward toward the bay that leads to Handle Creek. After about an hour, I arrive and begin my first portage…a nasty little bushwhack around a giant jack pine deadfall and large beaver dam. This is the challenge and ruggedness I came for though!

The paddle up Handle Creek is magnificent, hauntingly beautiful, and easy to follow, with many fun twists and turns as it turns north toward Handle Lake.

I arrive at Handle Lake at 12:30. I had wanted to paddle the perimeter of this small lake trolling for some of those northern pike, but I am ready for a lunch break. I also need to attend Mass at St. John’s in Grand Marais at 5:00 this evening, and I don’t have much extra time in my schedule given my hi-jinx on the water this morning. Fortunately, the entry to Handle features a lovely large slanted rock landing right at the south entry, which I decide is a perfect place to sit, cast a line, and enjoy my lunch. As soon as I unload my pack onto the shore, the boat takes off for the great beyond, and I jump in up to my knees to wrangle it. I throw a few Rapala casts into the southern arm of handle with no luck, then spend 30 minutes rigging up a leech beneath a slip bobber due to knots, tangles, the wind, and snagging a tree. Finally, I sit down for lunch with the perfect view of Handle Lake and my slip bobber. Soon my lunch is finished, and with zero interest from the pike, I pack up the gear to return to camp. It’s about 1:45 and I know I have my work cut out for me to make it back to my car for the one hour drive to town for Mass.

Paddling with the current from Handle makes for fast travel down the creek to the beaver dam, and after lifting over, I am headed back toward the Sawbill canoe landing. Somehow, I am again paddling into a headwind, which increases the time pressure I feel to reach my car in time to drive into Mass. I do my best to put the “hammer down” with my strokes, and see my kayak friends Gary and Grant approaching from the south. I again thank them for their help this morning in passing, and then Gary says “Have you ever been instructed on how to stroke a bent shaft paddle?” Aside from YouTube, I have not. He patiently takes the time to demonstrate the stroke to me, and this is greatly appreciated. These men (and the good Lord) have really been looking out for me today. The right canoe and the right stroke are both direct results of their advice, and I will spend the rest of this trip (and hopefully many other trips to follow) practicing what they have taught me today.

I secure the boat at the Sawbill Landing at 3:50 and dash quickly into the Sawbill store to thank Matt and let him know that the new canoe performed perfectly for me, as well as to pass on a short synopsis of the day trip to Handle Lake for future day trippers. After changing out of my boots and making sure I don’t look completely awful, I barely make it to Mass in time in Grand Marais. After Mass, I head back to Sawbill and make my final call home. There is so much excitement to catch up on, between the last day of school, kindergarten roundup, birthday parties, and basketball games that the kids have played in, all while dealing with spotty cell coverage along the north shore. I long to hear so much more, but I also know that I have many final prep and camp chores awaiting me back at camp, so I tell my family that I love them, will check in with them via InReach texts tomorrow, and to pray for me, as I will for them during this exciting time of year.

Similar to the final push leaving home, these last goodbyes to family and civilization are more challenging to manage than I had expected. For me, the wilderness is a place where I live without appointments, time commitments, and obligations. My Catholic faith is my life. My family is my most beautiful and important witness to my faith. However, it is very difficult to balance the necessary, beautiful scheduled demands of family and faith life with the demands of a wilderness experience that seemingly operates outside of time itself. Today was a truly wonderful day, in spite of these conflicting feelings stewing deep inside me.

I eat, clean up camp, and turn in around 11 PM. Too late for my planned sunrise departure tomorrow, but it will have to do. Tomorrow I begin my trip at last!

Paddle distance: 7.5 miles|Travel time: 4 hours, 30 minutes

Number of portages: 2 beaver dams|Portage rods: 40 rods, 0.1 mile

~Sawbill Lake, Handle Lake