Boundary Waters, Trip Reports, BWCA, Stories

First Solo - Crane to Gunflint - September 2007
by gc428

Trip Type: Paddling Canoe
Entry Date: 09/07/2007
Entry Point: Little Vermilion Lake (Crane Lake) (EP 12)
Exit Point: Magnetic Lake (EP 57)  
Number of Days: 6
Group Size: 1
Trip Introduction:
I left on 9/7 for a 10 day solo journey across the BWCA from Crane Lake to Lk Superior. After 6 days, I came out at Gunflint Lake. While I didn't make it to Lk Superior, I did learn a lot about myself and why I like the BWCA. I did not intend to set any land speed records, but when I was planning the trip, I was hoping to average 15-18 miles per day, while maybe doing some longer days with favorable conditions. I ended up ONLY doing longer days, which ended up in my getting burned out pretty early. In 4.5 days of travelling (I went in at 1pm on 9/7 and was laid over in the 20-30mph winds on Saganaga on Tues), I went 125 miles to Gunflint Lake. I had a couple days over 30 miles, and 2 of 25, and the first afternoon I went in, I made 20 miles between 1pm and 7pm or so.
Part 1 of 4
OK, in summary, on my first solo trip I discovered that I REALLY missed having my wife Amy with me. Not just to carry packs! I missed sharing stuff with her and now, with little kids, it seems BWCA time is really OUR time, so it was tough to do it alone. As a result, though, when I got to camp, I was really bored and lonely, so consequently, I would travel pretty much as long as possible. Which, after 5 days, left me in a state of near total exhaustion. Not to mention that one 24 degree night...that would have been nice to have had a sleeping bag partner during!

The things I like about the BWCA are 1. time with Amy, 2. time with friends, 3. Hot days laying in the lake, 4. relaxing in the hammock, 5. fishing, 6. dawdling. I realized on my last day, that I had done NONE of those things. I wasn't having a lot of fun and I was in pretty rough shape physically. Time to go home.

I'm glad I did the trip, and even thought I didn't make it to Superior, and probably will never go solo again, I think I still accomplished a lot. Although I did wake up this morning thinking "I should have kept going." Easy to say after a night in a warm bed, a hot meal, and visit with your loved ones. I'm sure I made the right and safe decision.

Day 0, Thursday September 6, 2007, Chisago City – Babbitt I'm all packed up and ready to head out by 6pm. It's been a hot week, but a dramatic drop in temperatures and some rain is in the forecast for my trip. I prefer hot. Oh, well. I take a picture of my girls next to the canoe so that I can look at them in the camera if I get lonely. This later proves insufficient to quell my lack of affection for solitude. I hit the road, on the way stopping at my friend Tom's house, where he has been downloading detailed map data from his computer to his GPS, which I am borrowing. In spite of some technical glitches, solved with assistance of his able wife Robin, he gets the detail downloaded. THIS will later prove over and over again to be a great addition to my gear bag, a tremendous time saver on the lakes, and an amusing way to keep myself occupied as I try to keep myself on course out on the water. My other friend Tom has provided the other very expensive item of equipment for the trip: his Bell Magic solo canoe, a great boat that I name "Homer" due to the first letters of the serial number spelling out "DOH". During the course of the trip, every hint of rock scrape is accompanied by an audible "Sorry Tom" from yours truly. At 10pm, I hit Babbitt, where I am staying with Amy's dad, Chuck, and his partner, Carol. This is the day, of course, where the Ely area got around 10 inches of rain. So I arrive to no power…very dark. I have a flashlight, of course!

Day 1, Friday September 7, 2007, Babbitt-Ely-Crane Lake-Lac La Croix 20 miles traveled, 5:46 hours moving, 0:23 stopped, Moving avg. 3.4 mph, Overall avg. 3.2 mpg Lakes: Loon Lake, Lac La Croix Portages: 60 r. Beatty Portage

Day 1 starts out as day zero ended: dreary and overcast, but with me filled with hope and anticipation about the journey that lies ahead. I wake up pretty early, but without much need, as we have until noon to get to Crane Lake to meet my shuttle boat captain at Anderson Outfitters, who will take me across Crane and down the Little Vermillion River on the first leg of my trip. We hit the ranger station in Ely at 8am to get my permit, with a quick stop to pick up a bailing sponge (another great late addition to my equipment set). I left the bailing sponge on the floor in front of me (attached by a strap so I can tug it back to squeeze it out, and so that it hangs on portages) so the splash as I switch sides with my paddle gets absorbed by the sponge without drifting aft to get my feet wet. We head up the Echo Trail and are at Crane by about 10am. They drive me down to the landing, and I unload my gear and wait for the group of 5 that are heading into the Quetico that I am piggybacking with, which allows Mark at Anderson to give me a better rate on the boat ride. I have to wait rather than going early, but I saved a lot of $$$ American.

One note on the shuttle: I chose to bypass paddling the Little Vermillion after a couple of outfitters and several books told me that it can be rough waters for a canoe given the narrowness of the river and the speed at which the motorized boats run the river. After riding in a motorized boat down the river, I am glad I made the choice. It is very narrow, and these guys are running big aluminum boats with 225 horse outboards on them. I pulled out the GPS at one point and we were doing 40mph…around a corner! Anyway, the shuttle ride itself was worth the price of admission!

The guys I am riding with show up at 11am, and man are they packed heavy! We laugh about my load compared to theirs, but they will have more drinking and fishing choices than I do. They are a good crew, most from Kentucky with one transplanted to MN, and everything gets loaded and we are at customs on Crane Lake by 12:10. After doing what has to be done, we head up river. By 1pm, we are at and over the motorized portage at Loon Falls, which is where I get off. I pack some of my clothes, as I started the day in a long john top and a t-shirt and my fleece jacket, and by this time am down to the t-shirt.

Heading across Loon Lake, I'm struck a bit by what I'm doing. All alone, heading into the wilderness with all this mileage spread out in front of me. I'm pretty delighted to have a sunny warm day to start, and really am enjoying the paddle. I am mostly using my bent shaft Bending Branches paddle, but I have a Bending Branches kayak paddle that I will try out as well, on the theory that I will make better time with it. Going across Loon, I see one more tow boat, empty, coming back from Lac La Croix, otherwise nothing. This looks like a nice little lake to hang out on, but I'm moving on.

I hit the Beatty portage, my first chance to see how single portaging is going to be. This is only a 60 rod portage, and it looks like you are hiking across someone's lawn as you walk next to the rails for the mechanized portage, so this is a good one to break myself in on. I seem to be exerting myself a little more than I expected I would, but figure it's because this is the first portage. I unload and head north onto Lac La Croix, right into a headwind. Not a lot of chop, so it can't be that strong of a wind, but enough to impede my progress a bit, although later I figured out I was averaging about 3.5 mph into the wind, so not too bad. One weird part about this part of Lac La Croix is all the cabins on the Canadian side. Very strange to see. Some nice cliffs on this side of Lac La Croix (I have only been on the east end before), which has always been one of my favorite lakes. Heading past Sandbar Island, which looks pretty cool, I am passed by Mark from Anderson's, heading home after dropping off the Kentuckians.

By now the sky is pretty well overcast, and I've got my rain jacket ready to go, just in case. For this trip, I've finally bought some good rain gear, so I am, in a perverse way, looking forward to a little rain to try it out on! After going around the corner and making the turn to the east, I get my chance. As I'm cruising through the mishmash of islands around Fortyone Island (and thanks again to Tom for the use of the GPS), I get hit by a real heavy rainstorm, at right around 5 pm. I'm in a protected channel, but as far as I can see, the lake is calm except for the froth thrown up by the raindrops hammering down. Since its calm, I keep moving, but I figure if things keep up, I'll look for a campsite around here, otherwise, I'll scoot the gap to Twentyfive Island and camp on that end.

By 6 pm, the rain has stopped, and I get a nice rainbow. There's a distinct line behind the storms, and I can tell from the blue sky that it should be a nice evening.

Rainbow on Lac La Croix:

Storm Line on Lac La Croix

I press on, and decide that, given what I know about Lac La Croix, a more protected route might be beneficial in the morning, so I make plans to head down the western end of Coleman Island, so I'll be protected in the case of winds in the morning. I find a campsite at around 6:30 pm before I head into the narrows, with a nice high (20-25 foot) fire grate looking south into the western narrows of Coleman. Setting up camp is pretty straightforward: I have a 10x10 nylon tarp I throw up, and then put the entrance to my tent under that, so I've got a dry "porch" area in case of rain. Then I find a branch to hoist my food up to after eating, to keep it from the bears. I've packed all my food in a separate clear dry sack, so that I can hoist it without worrying about it getting wet. During the day, the clear sack goes into my duluth pack behind my seat. I did try putting the clear food sack into the front of the canoe one day for trimming purposes, but noticed no difference, so it stayed in the duluth pack the rest of the trip.

Supper is a dehydrated Spicy Thai Chicken. I am transported into the back streets of Bangkok as I munch the soupy mess I've made, but then the cry of a couple wrangling loons out front of camp brings me back to the good old BWCA, and the realization that this is not really Thai tasting, or spicy, and I don't see much chicken.

I think it's around this time, after camp is set up, that I begin to realize that being alone can be lonely. I obviously knew that I was going to be alone, but I guess I didn't realize what it would be like until I actually experienced it (which, obviously, is one of the reasons for doing this type of trip). I'm looking at the GPS, and in my effort to save memory (or something) I accidentally delete the "track" I left today by leaving the GPS on during my travels. Oops. Tired, I hit the hay at dusk and set the alarm for 6am.

Camp on Lac La Croix

Day 2, Saturday September 8, 2007, Lac La Croix-Basswood River 31 miles traveled, 8:54 moving, 1:34 stopped, Moving avg. 3.5 mph, Overall avg. 2.9 mpg Lakes: Lac La Croix, Bottle, Iron, Crooked Portages: 80 r. Bottle Portage, 140 r. Curtain Falls Portage

Sunrise on Lac La Croix:

I wake to fairly clear skies on Saturday morning, and relatively warm temps. I've had a bit of rain overnight, so everything is damp. Breakfast is oatmeal. Yesterday, I made the mistake of not packing lunch into my day pack, so I remember to do that today so that I don't have to dig around in the food pack during the day. I am eating Clif energy bars and GORP for lunches, so I take my pick of flavors, and grab 2 Crystal Light single serve drink mixes and put those in my day pack. For water, I have a 32 oz. Nalgene bottle that I fill whenever I'm thirsty, that takes 2 of the single use drink mixes to flavor (I prefer the strawberry energy ones during the day and peach tea or lemonade in the evening). When I get set to stop at my campsite, I also fill a 2 liter collapsible platypus jug so that I have all my meal and drinking water needs taken care of without having to take the canoe out again in the morning. I have brought a filter this trip, just in case I get stuck on a river or somewhere I'm not willing to drink water straight. But, I've been drinking unfiltered lake water for 25 years and never had an issue, so my basic plan is to keep the filter stowed.

Panoramic photo looking up the pictograph cliff:

Heading out, I move south around Coleman Island and east through Fish Stake narrows. I am a bit disappointed not to see the fish stake (whatever that is), but what the heck, you can't have everything. Straight east and a bit south of the narrows "pictographs" are noted on my map. I head toward a grouping of them and find them, as advertised, at the base of spectacular cliff. It is a pretty amazing experience to sit here and try to picture people painting this stuff on the cliff walls and having it last so long. There is a beautiful moose, very clear, and some other images that might also be moose, and maybe a canoe. There are also a lot of very clear handprints, some of which seem to be ten to twelve feet off the water surface. Now, granted, the water was most certainly much higher than it is now, but I kept having this image of one person sitting on another's shoulders while making handprints! Everyone pretty much acknowledges the importance of these paintings in native culture, but I started thinking "What if these pictographs are just graffiti?" I mean, maybe instead of tagging a rail car, native teens headed out and marked up the cliff walls. Then the elders would have to jump on them about being irresponsible and wrecking the earth and stuff, so that's why there aren't many of them. Maybe not.


I head out and curve around toward the east at the base of Warrior Hill. My first trip to the BWCA was in 1981 or so, and we traveled to Lac La Croix. I remember visiting warrior hill, Curtain Falls and Rebecca Falls. Our honeymoon, in 1991, was to Lac La Croix, and Amy and I stayed on the island to the south of Warrior Hill that we call Professor's Island, so this area is pretty sweet for me. It brings back lots of good memories. On this trip, being alone, it makes me a little wistful as well. I see someone camping on the north end of Professor's island, a canoe heading toward warrior hill, and I saw a boat with people fishing off the pictographs. These will be the only people sightings I have today, until the very end of my day.

That's one of the strange parts of this trip for me. Even in the BWCA, I'm used to seeing people, and because I'm not usually alone up here, I'm usually interacting with people. Also, I have a pretty outgoing personality, so being able to chat and laugh is a big part of who I am. This forced deprivation of human contact is hard for me, and I suspect that as the days go on, I will be latching on to people at portages and who are passing me by on the water to talk their ears off.

Next stop is the bottle portage. I have only done this portage two other times, and both were years ago, so I don't really remember what its like. I do remember hearing that it’s a muddy portage, but I'm hoping that our dry weather will have tamed that a bit. I unload at the beginning of the portage, get everything ready to pack over in one trip. Again, I'm a bit uncomfortable with the load as I head over the portage. About halfway across, after fighting to get the front of the canoe up, I realize that my pack is hitting the seat, which is right behind the yoke, and forcing the canoe into an uncomfortable position on my neck, and making me shift over and over to try to get the balance right. Not realizing I'm twenty or so yards from the end of the portage, I finally give up and lay the canoe down.

My first glimpse of the Bottle end of the portage is not encouraging. It looks like a giant mud flat. As I look closer, I realize that there are footprints going out 20-30 yards in the muck, where people have had to set their canoes down and shove everything out while walking through the mud since they can't float on the mud. There's also an abandoned flipflop out in the mud, 20 feet from shore, bearing silent testimony to the cruelty of a muddy portage. I imagine a teenager ('cause who else would be wearing a flipflop on a portage) limping down a portage trail with one flat tire, bemoaning the loss of that blue flipflop.

The portage itself WAS relatively dry, but the downside to our dry summer is obvious here at the landing. While walking back to get the canoe, I'm trying to think of an alternative to the mud walk. With the canoe, I head down the shore and find a spot where there are some rocks heading out through the muck. Then, I load the canoe and, holding the rope tied to the front of the canoe, I jump from rock to rock, skimming the canoe along the 2 inches of water on top of the muck. Amazingly, the technique works, and I am able to tug the canoe out to deep enough water to get in without every dipping my tootsies in the brown snot that lines the lakeshore.

End of Bottle Portage:

Pleased with myself and happy to not have muddy feet, I head down Bottle Lake to the opening into Iron. As I'm paddling toward where the opening SHOULD be, I start thinking "I don't remember this rocky area!" Of course, another casualty of the low water this year is the opening between Bottle and Iron Lakes. Once I get close, I realize that there's about a 3 foot wide, 6 inch deep "stream" flowing through the jumble of boulders. So, I hop out and walk along the boulders, pulling the canoe through the little stream. Thankfully, there isn't much scraping, but I can't imagine getting through here even a couple days ago when the water was even lower.

"Opening" between Bottle and Iron Lakes

I have a west wind today, which works out to be a nice tailwind as I head across Iron Lake. I'm taking the northern route around Four Island, so that I can scoot up and see Rebecca Falls on my way through. Rebecca is a twin falls around an island, which requires you to paddle across the top of the falls. This sounds more dangerous than it actually is, given how big the lake is above the falls. I remember my first trip here, paddling with all my might after my older brother and his friends told us we would get sucked down the falls with any false move! Obviously, you can get sucked down the falls, but it would take a series of very stupid moves to have that happen. Rebecca is a little low, which you can tell more on the east side than the west, but not as low as I've seen it on other trips. The west side churns like crazy, but I decide not to sit in the whirlpool, given I'm all by myself with no one to help if I lose my footing. After a few pictures and some GORP and the energy bar for lunch, I'm on my way again.

Rebecca Falls

At the top of Rebecca Falls

Next stop, Curtain Falls portage. I have never portaged this falls, only walked up the trail for fishing and picture taking. I've stood on the top, staring up Crooked Lake, feeling like I was on the edge of a vast unexplored territory, so finally heading into the lake will actually be pretty exciting. But first, find the portage. I can see the portage trail, but there's an island with rapids on either side of it between me and shore. I'm not 100% sure which way to go, so I head left of the island. I think, looking back, that this is the wrong choice. Or maybe it's just that I'm paddling alone, but I can't seem to get up enough steam to get through the faster water. So, once again, I hop out and line the canoe through the faster water.

I've been thinking about portaging technique, and deciding that until my pack gets smaller, or I figure something out, I'm going to have to double portage. I was thinking that I could make the 40-60 rod portages single packing, but then, those are the ones that are short enough where it doesn't take much time to go back and double portage. So, I've pretty much decided that in all cases, double portaging will be the way to go. I'm feeling a little dread about the Grand Portage, which lay ahead of me, thinking about walking 27 miles in a double portage. I worry about that one the whole time I'm paddling, thinking of various solutions. Ultimately (SPOILER ALERT), I don't have to worry about it, in that I don't make it that far!

Curtain portage is a bit steep at the beginning, but it's really a nice trail and a relatively easy portage to pull off. And the view once you finished is awesome. Curtain Falls is gorgeous, and everything I remembered it to be. It isn't flowing at full capacity, but it hasn't dried up enough to walk all the way across, either. I again take the time to snap a few pictures and hang out a little bit, but the call of Crooked Lake is beckoning, so I head out.

Curtain Falls:

Ultimately, Crooked is a little disappointing, in that I've had expectations over the years about what might lie around that particular bend. In reality, it's not a particularly spectacular lake, but again, its fun to see what's around the next corner. I am surprised at the great number of sand beaches I see on Crooked, though. I make pretty good time with a tailwind across Crooked, passing Sunday, Saturday, Friday and Thursday bay without seeing a soul, either in canoe or at camp. At one point, a flock of around 100 Canada Geese honks their way overhead. They are a pretty spectacular sight!

Just as I turn south into Wednesday Bay, I pass two guys in a canoe, and chat for just a second. They let me know that the "Table Rock" campsite is the only one taken until Basswood Falls, and I let them know that they're the only people I've seen since Lac La Croix. Hooking through Wednesday Bay at around 5:30pm, the folks at the Table Rock site offer to share if I need, but I'm sure I have enough time to work my way down into the Basswood River to one of the sites there. "Be safe," shouts one of the guys as I head down the river. I get that a lot when I talk to people. It's nice to have a little bit of a feeling like others are watching out for you and care about your survival. On the safety front, it makes you, as a solo canoeist feel not so alone out there.

Around 6pm, I start getting sprinkled on, so I aim for the campsite on Crooked Lake (or the Basswood River, the GPS and the map are fighting about what to call the body of water I'm on) that sits in the narrows straight east of Frolic Lake. I have developed Traveling Guideline #1: Always aim to stop at a spot with at least 2 campsites nearby, that way you can (at this time of year) assume that at least one will be open and you will be able to stop without ENDANGERING YOURSELF (foreshadow). The camp is a neat little spot, with a nice view across the channel of some pine-studded hills. Everything goes up quickly and I enjoy a hot meal. Tonight is dehydrated chicken gumbo, which is actually spicy and pretty flavorful. And tonight, in an effort to NOT wipe out the GPS record of my day, I try saving my track. Someone it doesn't work, and thinking I've saved it, I delete it from the active memory, which apparently deletes it entirely. Oops again. Early to bed gets me ready to rise early. Cloudy again tonight.