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Boundary Waters Canoe Trip, September 2013

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Boundary Waters Canoe Trip, September 2013

Postby oldranger » Wed Jan 21, 2015 12:29 pm

Our last backcountry trip of 2013 was a completely new experience for Kathy and me. Several months before Kathy was due to retire I asked her what adventure she most wanted to experience when she retired. I fully expected that she was going to respond, a trip to Turkey. She completely blew me away by answering, “Paddle the Boundary Waters.” “Why?” I asked. “Because we need to do it before we get too old!” Well this worked well into our developing plans--a late summer early fall cross country road trip to check out parks one or both of us hadn’t visited, to visit friends and family, to see New England Fall Colors, to visit both the Baseball and Football Hall of Fame, to stay in funky old hotels and B&Bs and to sample craft beers all across the northern US. All of which was accomplished over almost 2 months away from home.

From Bend it took a little over a week to get to Minnesota. We used an outfitter at the end of the Gunflint trail at Saganaga Lake to provide basic canoe gear. We also spent the night in one of their rooms--a quite nice suite.

Next morning our canoe was loaded onto a boat and we power boated for about 40 minutes to American Point, beyond which motorized travel was prohibited. This is a large lake and the wind was blowing and the whitecaps were intimidating to a couple of neophytes. (Actually we own a canoe and have canoed regularly for about 25 years but always in fair weather). We made it around the point but quickly pulled into a cove, out of the wind for a couple of hours. When the wind seemed to be dying down we took off with about a 3 mile paddle into the wind before getting to the protected area near the end of the lake. A few miles of paddling and 3 portages we made it to our first nights camp and despite the fact it was September, mosquitoes! The sunset was to die for. The fishing was a bust. Knowing that rain is always an issue in the boundary waters I had purchased an ultralight 10‘x12’ tarp with lots of tie loops. Along with the tent it was set up as soon as camp was established and was the last thing down before breaking camp. What a godsend as it rained almost every night, yet all our gear stayed dry.

Day 2 was a brief retrace of the end of the last of day 1. The rain held off during the day. As we were doing what was planned to be our last portage of the day 2 young men caught up with us and told us of a great fishing spot not far from where we planned to camp. This was the second most demanding portage of the trip. About 1/2 mile with a couple hundred feet of up and a hundred feet of down. Now you might expect that a portage used by a few hundred people every year, carrying canoes and gear would be a developed trail. Nine times out of ten that is not the case. A portage is usually nothing more than a lane kept clear of logs but the “tread” of the trail is whatever mother nature put there--if not mud then slippery irregular shaped boulders dropped during the ice ages. I quickly learned that a 50 lb pack is a much easier load than a 40 lb canoe, especially when covering such nasty terrain. Anyhow Kathy soon wished we were 30 years younger and that she had not waited until her mid 60s for this adventure. After setting up camp we had one more portage to get to the lake where the fishing was supposed to be good. That was almost the straw that broke the camel’s back for Kathy after a long day of paddling and portaging. The fishing was great for 3 lb largemouths. Since the fishing was so good we decided that this camp would be the single layover day allotted for this short trip.
We left the canoe at this lake and walked back to our camp where I filleted the bass and my index finger. After completing the fish and cleaning out the wound with a flood of blood we closed up the wound as best as possible and got down to the business of dinner. I should mention that in the Boundary Waters all campsites are designated, have a fire ring and, hundred yards or so away an open air pit toilet. During the peak season claiming a campsite early in the day is the best strategy.

Our layover day dawned cold and blustery with the wind blowing out of the NE. Fishing was difficult but yielded a few more largemouths with one kept for dinner.
Kathy spent most of the day in camp. At the end of the day I carried the canoe back to camp and successfully filleted the fish without doing further damage to myself.

Day 4 dawned gray with clouds hanging low, obliterating views across the lake. By the time we ready to paddle the clouds had lifted. The stream connecting our lake with the next lake was quite shallow and at one point I had to get out to lighten the load and clear the bottom. Halfway down this lake was the longest portage of the trip. It took a couple of hours to complete the shuttling of gear and canoe. The next lake had some spectacular cliffs and one occupied camp.
Our chosen campsite was a short portage away at the next lake.
We were pleased that it was unoccupied and even more pleased that someone had left a hammock set up next to the shoreline. After setting up camp Kathy relaxed in the hammock while I (unsuccessfully) fished.

Day 5 would be a big day as it was basically our turnaround. We would enter the north end of Knife lake then follow the international boundary to a campsite within a few hours paddle of our pickup at American point. After making the portage into Knife lake I decided to drag a plug behind as we paddled along--a big mistake the wind was blowing from the sw and that meant substantial whitecaps. Then a 2 foot pike grabbed the plug as the wind began to blow us into the rocky shore. Kathy asked “what should I do?” “Just keep us headed into the wind!” Luckily the pike was just lip hooked and with a simple twist with the needle nosed pliers he was off and I could paddle, this time with fishing gear put away.

This was our only day with a tail wind and given the distance we had to travel it was a godsend. We wished we could set up a sail but even that is forbidden in the Boundary Waters!
At last after several portages we found a campsite on a bluff, our favorite of the trip. With another tailwind the next day would be a piece of cake.

Of course that was not to be, the wind had reversed and now was out of the NE! This was the reverse trip of day 1 when we paddled into the wind from the SW. What kind of justice is that? We met several group merrily paddling the other direction after being dropped off as we dug deep to make our 1 o’clock pickup. Amazingly we were 20 minutes early. Kathy had her Boundary Waters fix, but I would love to return with someone young enough to carry the damn canoe over the portages!

On to 2014!

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Re: Boundary Waters Canoe Trip, September 2013

Postby LMBSGV » Wed Jan 21, 2015 9:23 pm

I really enjoyed this. It bought back a lot of memories since I spent every summer from when I was 9 through 19 (1960 - 1970) taking trips in the BWCA. Back then there were no assigned sites so you could camp anywhere as long as you didn’t pollute the water and packed-it-in-packed-it-out. I camped many times on Knife Lake since Dorothy Molter was living there on the Isle of Pines. Stopping at her place for a root beer and a visit was always a treat and I got to know here pretty well. (Dorothy was a quite amazing person. If you want to know more about her, check out this website: ) I’ve also camped on Saganaga a few times.

We used to "sail" when the wind was at our backs by lashing the canoes together and using a rain poncho lashed to paddles as the sail. We could get going at a pretty good speed. Is this now illegal? And portages - back in the 1960s, everyone used 75 pound aluminum canoes so when I moved to California and had a 50 pound backpack, it didn't seem so bad. I’m glad the portage “trails” don’t seemed to have improved over the subsequent years. A couple of times on longer portages, people would get lost trying to follow the trail and so someone would have to go back and find them. Thanks for sharing this.

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Re: Boundary Waters Canoe Trip, September 2013

Postby gary c. » Thu Jan 22, 2015 12:20 am

That looks and sounds like a whole lot of fun!!
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