First Solo - Crane to Gunflint - September 2007
Day 3, Sunday September 9, 2007, Basswood River-Knife Lake 30 miles traveled, 9:00 moving, 2:55 stopped, Moving avg. 3.4 mph, Overall avg. 2.6 mpg Lakes: Basswood River, Basswood Lake, Birch Lake, Carp Lake, Melon Lake, Portage Lake, Knife Lake Portages: 33 r. Lower Basswood Falls, 50 r. Wheelbarrow Falls, 30 r. rapids, 340 r. Basswood Falls, 20 r. Prairie Portage (Canadian side), 40 r. Birch-Carp, 25 r. Carp-Melon, 15 r. Carp portage, 15 r. portage, 75 r. Big Knife Portage
After covering 30 miles yesterday, and being pretty worn out, I've decided that I'm going to try to get across Basswood today and knock off a little early. But, you know what they say about the best intentions.
The day starts out pretty overcast again. This is getting kind of old! However, I have hope when I spot some little bits of blue up in the clouds. I'm taken with this end of Crooked, and impressed with some of the cliffs here:
I head downriver (actually upriver, I guess, but going south) and soon spot the Lower Basswood Falls portage on the Canadian side. There's a group camped on the American side, in what looks like a nice campsite for listening to the rushing water. This portage isn't particularly difficult, it’s a little narrow in spots, and it heads through what looks like a giant Quetico campsite. I'd be surprised if anyone would actually camp there, in that its RIGHT on the portage trail. Maybe it gets used a lot for lunch. On the east end of the portage, there's a portion that goes along a large rock that kind of has a high road and a low road. The low road is a little too close to the drop to the falls for my comfort, so I stick to the high road. I snap some pictures, and then it's off the sand beach and heading further up.
Lower Basswood Falls:
My next stop is the Wheelbarrow Falls. This is another twin falls around an island, but not as spectacular as Rebecca Falls.
For this portage, there's a choice of going up 50 rods to the left of the falls on the American side or 32 rods on the Canadian side. If you choose the Canadian side, you get a slightly shorter portage, but have to paddle around the island to end up at the same point you end up if you take the American side portage. For that reason, and the general idea I've heard that the Canadian portages are not as well maintained, I head across the 50 rod. Its pretty rocky at the bottom and the top, and the top ends pretty far up from the top of the falls. There are quite a few places people have exited (or entered) the portage early, but I head to the end, hoping for a less rocky landing. It is less rocky there, but not by much. Oh well.
The next portage is a 30 rod around some rapids downstream from the main Basswood Falls. It was hard for me to figure out where the portage was until I got right up to it. Then I realized it is right on a big rock shelf at the bottom of the rapids. Again the portage was pretty easy, heading up a bit of a cliff face and then across a lot of big flat rock to the top. There's a campsite there with a nice pile of cut and split wood, but its not even noon yet, so I'm not ready to stop! Not to mention that the campsite is only twenty yards or so from the portage…my least favorite location for a campsite.
Just around the bend from this portage, I spot the first of many groups I will see around the main Basswood Falls. I suspect that this must be an extremely busy area for camping during the peak months, as this is the highest concentration of people I have yet to see while paddling up here.
The portage itself starts at a large rock that you have to climb up, and then heads on a pretty level path for the mile it takes to get through it. There are several places where people have beat down pretty good trails to see the falls, and there are logs laid over several wrong turns on the portage path. One spot in particular, where you hit a big expanse of open rock just as the portage trail takes a 90 degree turn to the right, is marked by a log and several rock cairns to keep you on track. Very helpful! There is also a part of the portage that crosses a stream from a swamp. This area has pretty good water in it, but is traversed by a well made path of stones you can walk across.
The falls themselves weren't the best ones I'd seen, but they were definitely large. It looked, too, as if most of the campsites were taken on the point in the middle of the falls. I saw half a dozen canoes pulled up at the Basswood Lake end of the portage trail, which made me wonder if you had to portage all your stuff out to those campsite that are between the beginning and the end of the portage trail. Also found a disposable camera in a foot of water on the Basswood Lake end of the portage. I put it on a rock, but I suspect that the pictures were in pretty rough shape after sitting in the water!
Basswood Falls Portage: (Cairns)
(Stream with Rock Bridge)
I then headed northeast toward United State point, with a tailwind. I wasn't hampered, either, as I turned South to head down the lake toward Canadian point, as much of the direct wind was stopped by U.S. point. To save a little time, I cut through the English Channel along the north end of Ottawa Island, and then hooked around the south side of Rookery Island. It was about 2pm, and the sun had come out at the beginning of Basswood, so I was down to shorts and my PFD, and really enjoying the day. On a whim, as I was having a snack just south of Rookery, I pulled out my cell phone. Amazingly, I had coverage! So, I dialed up Amy to tell her hello, and give her an update on my much quicker than expected progress. The girls were updating the map I left them, and I was chatting away merrily when the signal disappeared. Ah, well, a few moments of conversational bliss and a little peace of mind for Amy was well worth the "intrusion" of technology into my wilderness trip.
My trip across the bulk of Basswood was pretty uneventful. No one shot at me, for starters. I saw one group camped off Canadian point, and one group traveling that way, as well as three or four motor boats out fishing, but other than that, not much. As I headed up to Prairie Portage, I decided that I would take the shorter 20 rod portage on the Canadian side. This portage was right off the main beach by the Canadian customs area and the store that is there, and was well groomed and pretty easy. After dropping off the pack, I headed back down, but took a bit of a detour on another well-used trail, thinking I was heading back down the portage. Turned out it was the path to an outhouse! What luxury! Unfortunately, I had no use for it at the moment, and my opportunity to experience indoor plumbing (so to speak) was squandered.
Coming off the Prairie Portage at around 4:30pm, its interesting to note the large tube in the water which carries water around the spillway for use, I assume, by the Canadian Rangers for generating power. It is also interesting to note the large spillway dam at Prairie Portage. I'm very curious about the history of that dam, and look forward to finding out how it got there! There were a couple boats just coming off the motorized portage as I head out, and as a courtesy, they travel slowly past me before heading home. Sometimes slow creates a bigger wake than fast, however, and I have to turn into their wakes to make sure I don't get swamped.
Prairie Portage Dam
Then I'm off to Birch Lake. Pretty much the whole time I'm on Birch Lake, I'm kind of creeped out. You can see the bones of a lot of trees that have been submerged by the dam at Prairie Portage. Going over them made me feel like walking in a graveyard. I know, weird. But I'm weird, so get over it. The other odd thing was how the rising water had taken a lot of the definition away from the shores of the lake. It seemed as if the lake was just a mishmash of trees right down to the water's edge. Regardless of this fact, in line with Traveling Guideline #1, I am aiming for the last bay of Birch Lake which has not two, but THREE campsites for my choosing pleasure, and will leave all the portaging into Knife Lake for when I'm fresh in the morning, NOT LATE AT NIGHT (foreshadow). On Birch, I've passed 3 occupied campsites, a MUCH higher ratio of occupied to unoccupied campsites than I have seen anywhere else on my trip (additional foreshadow).
By the looks of the campsites on my map, the third one is along some close topographic lines, indicating that it may well be up on a hill, which is my favorite kind of site. I head into the bay, noting that the first one is kind of dumpy…low, open, not the best. The second one looks nice and high, but as I get close, I realize there's a tent on it. Ok, well, I'll head for the third one. I'm scooting down the lake, when I realize that the third site is actually pretty close after the second one. Thinking that I'd rather not impede on someone else's wilderness experience by horning in on their space in this less traveled time of year, I decide to take the 40 rod portage into Carp Lake. This despite the fact that its now somewhere around 6pm, and I am violating my travel guidelines in heading into a lake that only has one campsite. But, what are the odds someone will stop on Carp Lake? I mean, it’s a crappy lake name, and there are nicer lakes (Knife and Birch) on either side of it. Of course, I make this rational determination after having only seen one of the three lakes in question.
ANYWAY, here comes the drama. I cross the portage into Carp, which isn't very dramatic. It's pretty short, sweet and level, with good landings on either end. I head to the peninsula where the campsite is located. At the point of the peninsula is a beautiful little camping spot! I head in, jump out of the canoe and check it out. Of course, given the lack of fire grate and the rock fire ring next to a big rock ledge, I rapidly conclude that this is not, in fact, the campsite. Although it should be! So I head back into the canoe down the peninsula, which looks totally deserted. Until I get close and see the dude in his blue rain gear putting up a tent. Dang. So now, the question is, do I head back to one of the open campsites? Do I camp on the illegal bivouac at the end of the peninsula, or do I head for Knife Lake? Since I don't want to go BACKWARD, and I don't want to camp illegally, and I have at least an hour of sunlight left, I foolishly decide to head across the 4 portages and 3 miles of paddling onto Knife Lake. Duh.
The first couple portages are pretty easy: short and flat and quick. Then I head upstream to Knife, with my eye toward the campsite just north of Dorothy's Island. My map shows a 15 rod and a 75 rod portage on the Canadian side of the river as one long unbroken line. I'm not sure how this can be, but I'm willing to wing it. As I come upon the peninsula to my left that supposedly houses the start of those portages, I see that there is a bit of a dip into a swampy area. My thought is that there is a short carry, then down into the swampy area and then the start of the long carry. So, I pull up to the trail that comes off the end of the point (even though the map makes the portage appear to be a bit further along the point) and take my pack up into the woods. Thirty yards in, the trail does a switchback between a few small pine trees (as my head goes "How am I going to get the canoe through here?") and then just disappears. I stand there staring, thinking, this is not good. Turning around, I whisper, well, okay, I yell a prayer "What am I supposed to do?" into the waning sunlight. God tells me to get back in my canoe, dummy, and keep looking, because this clearly isn't the portage.
So I head out, round the corner and there's a trail. On the American side. Huh? Hopping out, I walk it without any packs or gear, and find that it's short, maybe 20 rods or so, and pretty easy. Okay, I think, maybe this is the American side alternative to the 75 rod portage on the Canadian side. I head across the portage, getting more nervous as it gets darker, but thinking that I'm going to make it to Knife Lake way before dark by not having to do the 75 rod portage. It's about 7:30 as I finish the portages, with a 7:45 sundown and a large cloud already starting to obscure the sun in the western sky. Flying upriver toward Knife, I mark the campsite on my GPS, thinking I'll be able to find it even after dark. And then I spot the portage trail on the Canadian side. And then I hear the rapids. OK, I think, I now have at least a half hour of portaging before I see Knife Lake, because this has GOT to be the 75 rodder. Sure enough, it is. Again, though, this is a relatively flat, smooth portage, and I make good time, jogging back to get the canoe after my first trip over. But its still 7:45pm or so when I make it across. Now, KNOWING I'm on Knife, I head out across the silent calm water, eyes dead ahead looking for the island with the campsite on it, FOCUSED on the end of another long day on a day I wanted to take it easy. So focused, that I nearly wet my pants when a beaver slaps his tail 10 feet to my right with a noise like a gunshot. After my heart slows down, I look around a little closer and notice another beaver ahead and to my left and another ahead and to my right. This time, when they panic and slap, I'm ready for them, and don't nearly jump out of the canoe in fright.
Finally, the river begins to open up, and I am heading into Knife Lake proper. The sun has gone down, but I can see the dark mass of the island in front of me, just where the GPS is leading me. Closer and closer I get, able to TASTE the relief of being able to find a campsite that might have a little twilight on it, coming within about 100 yards of the site when I hear "Ahhhh-Chooooo". Yeah, some dude sneezing almost puts me in tears. Grabbing my map, I see another campsite to the south and west a bit, in a bay. The downside is that the site will be east-facing, so there will be NO twilight to help me set up camp. I head there anyway, realizing on the way that the other downside is that I'm looking into shoreline that is in deep shadow, basically nightfall. Once again I offer up a prayer for assistance, thinking that there will be no way I'm going to be able to see this campsite. Oh, yeah, and hoping that no one is on it.
Around a bend in the shore I go, only to see the outline of a large rock protruding into the lake, with not so much as a tree nearby. Because it’s a big open space, I can see that on the rock are some logs and a fire grate. Whoo- hooo! It's an open campsite! The site is one that I would have sniffed at any other time: low, treeless, ugly. Tonight, in the last whisper of twilight, it looks like paradise. I have a cold supper, throw up the tent (forget the tarp…no trees) and get the food up. As I lay back on my sleeping pad, I thank God for keeping safe through a series of blunders and bad decisions that could have cost me at the very least a long uncomfortable night on a rock somewhere.
It's about 9pm, and I've traveled over thirty miles again. I'm tired and nothing will keep me awake. Right? Wrong. As I close my eyes, I hear a skittering noise outside. Looking out, I see a mouse beating a path from the fire grate to the woods. Then I notice another mouse on a stump next to where I laid my water bottle. Not wanting mouse poop on my bottle, I grab it and bring it in the tent. Everything else, I tuck under the rain fly alcove near my head. I'm guessing it took about 12 seconds for the mice to get over their fear of my smelly breath coming through the screen at that end, and start scratching through my pack and other gear. Knowing I wouldn't be able to sleep through that six inches from head, I decide to haul everything inside the tent. Thankfully, I'd moved up from a solo to a two person tent right before the trip and I had room. As I lay back to close my eyes I thought, wouldn't it be funny if I brought a mouse in with the gear? Yeah, ha, ha, ha.
Closing my eyes one more time, I'm about asleep when I hear a mouse heading for the head end of my tent. What the heck, I'm thinking. Then I hear him run up the end of the tent. Then I FEEL him run across my face! AAAAAGHGHHGHGH!!! MOUSE IN THE TENT!!! I sit up, screaming, rubbing my face, and look back to notice that one of the tie backs for the screen was hanging right over where my face would be when I lay down. So, as the mouse ran up the end of the tent on the OUTSIDE, the tie back was pushed down to brush against my face. So, I could laugh a little when the adrenaline went down. I tried everything that night to keep the mice away from me. I'd shake the tent, I'd growl, I'd yell. I even got up and urinated all the way around the tent, thinking that might keep them away. No dice. So on this, one of my most trying days on the trail, I couldn't get to sleep for the sound of scurrying mice. The last time I remember looking at my watch it was 12:30am. Finally, I fell asleep.
Day 4, Monday September 10, 2007, Knife Lake Saganaga Lake 23 miles traveled, 8:54 moving, 1:34 stopped, Moving avg. 3.5 mph, Overall avg. 2.9 mpg Lakes: Knife Lake, Ottertrack Lake, Swamp Lake, Saganaga Lake Portages: 5 r. Little Knife Lake portage, 80 r. Monument portage
After the mice incident the night before, I had shut the alarm off, thinking I went two extra hours, I can sleep in a little, right? Yeah. Sounds great, but the mice didn't want to sleep in. By 6:18am, they were waking me up, and by 6:30am, I had given up the hope that I might get a little extra sleep. It was a fine morning however, with a beautiful sunrise and some neat fog tendrils on the bay in front of me.
Sunrise on Knife:
I dawdled a bit in camp, but got everything packed up and ready to go by around 7:30am or so. It seemed that, no matter what I did to be ready, it was taking me about an hour each night to make camp, and about an hour each morning to break camp, including making and eating meals.
The first order of the day was to head over to the Isle of Pines and see if I could see anything related to Dorothy and her living there. I had not read about her rock anywhere, so unfortunately, I didn't check for that. As I was paddling up from the south, figuring anyone who lived on an island in the BWCA would have a southern exposure, I noted a spot on the eastern end of the island that looked kind of high and like it might have been a clearing for the cabin. After landing on the western tip, I noted a piled of what looked like burned timbers, including some partially burned shingles. (PIC OF BURNS) I figured that these must have been an outbuilding left behind and burned by the Forest Service. I hiked to the east, but there was so much blow down of pine trees that I assumed the clearings I saw were probably just blow down, not actual cabin clearings. My parents used to tell me stories of stopping to see the root beer lady, so I also marveled in the thought that 25 or 30 years ago, my dad, who at that time would have been the same age as I am now, tromped around on the same land with my mom that I was walking. Kind of cool.
Burned stuff on Dorothy's Isle of Pines:
Heading up Knife Lake, I passed a couple in a tandem canoe, with the gentleman in the rear commenting on Homer, and mentioning that he had a Bell Magic that he loved. That's about the extent of a conversation you get when riding a strong tailwind, which I was enjoying that day. It was an inch or two from being uncomfortably big waves, but it was pretty fun to surf the length of the lake. I was particularly surprised to note the clarity of the water on Knife Lake, as well as the height of the hills surrounding the lake. This is an area that I will have to come back to and explore a little more, especially the southern arm of the lake, and Kekakebic Lake, which I've heard a lot of good things about.
After lots of paddling, I hit the northern end of Knife, and the 15 rod portage into Ottertrack. One look at the creek, and the fact that it was a sunny, warmish day, made me hop out and walk the canoe up the little stream between the lakes: