A Paddler’s Diary of Five Days in Canoe Mecca
Last summer, when Eveline and I started to look into canoe trips further afield than Manitoba, I discovered the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. The Boundary Waters are a 4,400 km2 wilderness area nestled within the Superior National Forest in northern Minnesota, directly south of Quetico Provincial Park. It is a popular canoeing destination, with more than 2,000 backcountry campsites and over 1,900 kilometers of canoe routes. It draws over 250,000 visitors annually.
Access to the Boundary Waters area is strictly controlled. Each entry lake has a maximum number of permits available for any given day, and you may not enter without a permit. As well, no more than four paddle craft or nine people may congregate in one place at one time. This can lead to delays on portages, as it may be necessary for a group of paddlers to clear before you can land to unload your gear.
So it went on the list as a place to paddle some day.
“Some day” happened sooner than anticipated when we decided this past summer to attend a re-enactment of a voyageur rendezvous at Grand Portage National Monument in Minnesota, just forty-five minutes from the east-side Boundary Waters entry points. How could we go all that way, and not capitalize on the opportunity?
I set about making our plans. We’d be at Grand Portage from August 10th – 14th, so we could look at doing a five-day loop starting on the 15th.
I didn’t want to bring our canoe along, as we wouldn’t have a reasonable way to store it while we were at Grand Portage. I reached out to Gunflint outfitters, located at Gunflint lake, to see how they could help. They were able to rent us a 46lb Kevlar canoe, devise a five-day route with an entry point starting at Seagull lake, and secure the last permit for Seagull starting on the 15th. Gunflint offers full outfitting, so it is possible to organize all of your equipment and food through them as well. But, owing to Eveline’s dietary restrictions, we opted to plan our own meals and bring our own gear along.
On August 14th, we drove to Gunflint Lake. We overnighted in one of the outfitter’s bunkhouses, and in the morning took an early shuttle to Seagull Lake.
The landscape was beautiful, much like the Canadian Shield here at home, though the vegetation was somewhat more deciduous. I was struck by how large and open the sky seemed to be.
The weather was amazing on our first day. We decided to push for distance to give ourselves some buffer time in case we ended up with poor paddling conditions along the way. Initially, we had trouble navigating and got off course while searching for some petroglyphs noted on our map. We were able to get back on track, but we never did find the petroglyphs. Now that we had our bearings, we were able to keep ourselves oriented and get on with the paddling.
On our first day we paddled from Seagull through to Ogishkemuncie Lake, putting nearly half of our trip distance behind us. Much of this trip was through forests regrown after fires. The portages were well-kept and generally easy to find, despite being unmarked. We saw more paddlers the first day than we would see over the remainder of our trip, and at one portage we even became the fourth boat.
We stopped for a lunch of landjager, cashew-date balls and dehydrated fruit at a vacant campsite near the portage at the west end of Alpine Lake. After a second lunch of fresh blue berries and raspberries, we took the portage to Jasper Lake.
Our outfitter had told us that Jasper Lake and King Fisher Lake were great fishing locations, so Eveline and I trolled along the shore of Jasper en route to the portage. It wasn’t long before my rod bent and my line started running out, a sure sign that I’d hooked a decent sized northern pike. Many fishers choose not to keep northern pike due to how difficult it is to fillet, but I find it makes for excellent eating.
King Fisher Lake was shallow and we gave up on fishing after I lost a lure. Near the portage to Ogishkemuncie, a loon came out to play with us, popping up just a few feet off the port side of the canoe. I got quite a few photos. I used my cellphone so much on the first day taking pictures that I almost fully discharged the battery. My cellphone wouldn’t recover for the rest of our trip. For the first time, my solar charger failed us.
'a loon came out to play with us'
We arrived on Ogishkemuncie Lake around 6:30 pm. Many of the campsites on the lake were already occupied and we decided to paddle off course to the southwest where we found a vacant site a little after 7:00 pm. We only had about two hours of sunlight left to set up camp and cook dinner, so I leapt barefoot from the canoe onto the pebbly beach to get unloading. When we were finally unloaded I discovered, to my chagrin, about 25 baby leeches on my left heel. Tending to them would have to wait while we made camp.
With the tent up, I broke out the Ghillie kettle. This would be my first experience using the Hobo stove attachments for the kettle to cook the fish we had caught for dinner. I started by boiling water for the rice and for doing dishes. Then I added fresh kindling and got a good fire going to cook the fish. Dinner was a great treat at the end of a long day. Before heading to bed, I made use of the swimming hole off the west side of our island campsite.
The next morning we woke up far too early because I had forgotten to shut the alarm off on my cellphone. My cellphone only had about 30% battery left on it. While I waited for the morning’s water to boil, I put the solar charger out in the sun. Unfortunately, I just couldn’t get it to charge my phone. I decided to turn the phone off, and keep it for emergency use if needed.
We were on the water around 10:00 am and made good time paddling to the Mueller portage, through Mueller Lake and Agamok Lake, and onto Gabimichigami Lake. We were still sore after our marathon paddle the day before and the winds had picked up a little. We noticed smoke from the campfire at our preferred campsite and diverted south to a site on a different island. It was an incredibly beautiful site with easily enough room for three tents. It had small cliffs that dropped sheer into the water, making for a great swimming location, and there were many cedars and jackpines to allow for a proper bear hang.
We’d covered more than half our trip in two of our five days and decided that we would rest on day three. We hung our hammock and spent the evening studying the map and reading. As night fell, we tried to stay out to see the constellations and perhaps catch the last of the Pleiades meteor shower. We were lucky enough to see a few shooting stars before the mosquitoes came out in force and we retreated to our tent.
Seagull Lake Cliffs
The next day was relaxed. We swam, jumped from the cliffs, hung out in the hammock reading, and just generally kicked back. In the afternoon we tried some fishing from the shore near the cliff.
Eveline has a favorite fishing lure. It’s an old crankbait that we’ve named Russ. Crankbaits are known for diving under the force of being reeled in and on one cast Russ got snagged on the submerged cliff wall. I took the opportunity to swim again, wading out to the edge and reaching below the surface to rescue Russ.
A spruce grouse had made something of a home near the privy at our campsite. It was late in the summer, so the bird didn’t make much of the chest-beating drumming that spruce grouse are known for, but it did get pretty agitated any time one of us needed the privy.
Late in the day, Eveline and I took the canoe and went fishing. We paddled to the north end of the island and then turned back. Eveline’s rod jerked back and her line started running out. We had another fish! If nothing else, Russ is a producer!
That night our camp was illuminated by the full moon. We sat for awhile staring at the stars before turning in. Much later, I awoke to the cacophony of loons calling as they sang to each other and to the moon.
We were up a little after sunrise on day four and were on the water in good time. We had three portages today. The outfitter had recommended camping on Gillis or Bat Lake on day four. Our target was Gillis Lake.
Peter Lake was a return to regrowth forest. The shores were marked by the blackened skeletons of large trees that had dominated the landscape prior to being extirpated by forest fire. There were four campsites marked on the map for Peter Lake, though we were only able to find three of them.
We made quick work of Peter Lake, and of French Lake, then crossed a short portage into Gillis. We were seeing quite a few other paddlers now and could tell that some of the campsites across the lake were occupied. We found a great site not far from the portage with no less than three quality tent sites, easy access to a privy, and a good spot for launching and landing. We set up our kitchen, pitched the tent on a flat, mossy knoll near the lake, and hung the hammock in amongst the trees.
Falls along the way
This site had the best bear hang on our trip so far, a large cedar close to the water that had thick, spread out branches at least 18 feet above the forest floor. Not long before the trip, I had a read an article on the accuracy of basketball players and their perception of “cool.” Statistically, basketball players are more likely to make a shot by tossing the ball underhand rather than overhand, but it’s not considered “cool,” so few of them do it. I used to have quite a bit of trouble making my bear hang throw. Since reading that article, I now often set my bear hang on the first throw by tossing underhand.
On day five, we were up with the sun and ready to go. We had eight portages ahead of us, and a long drive once we were out of the woods. We were officially bad camping neighbours as Ghillie’s piercing whistle broke the morning air sometime around 6:20 am and roused the campers who had moved in near us. The sky was still pink from the sunrise and there was mist above the glass-like surface of the lake as we made our way toward the portage.
The first portage brought us to Bat Lake, where the three available campsites were all occupied. One crew was preparing to launch for their day, while the other two were still slumbering in their tents. Bat Lake led to Green Lake which led to Crag Lake. When we left the portage at Crag Lake we had a lot of trouble orienting ourselves. We looked for the next portage for at least fifteen minutes before we faced the unsettling reality that we were utterly lost. Luckily, my phone still had a little power. Before we left home, I had downloaded the US National Parks maps app and the related topo maps for our trip. With the app and my phone’s GPS, we determined that we were on Flying Lake, not Crag Lake as we had presumed.
We later learned that beavers had flooded the portage between Green Lake and Crag Lake. The existing portage entry had been redirected to Flying Lake.
Once we knew where we were, we were able to find the portage from Flying Lake to Gotter Lake and were back on track. Other paddlers had caught up during our lost time and there was congestion along the route. The portage from Flying Lake to Gotter is a staircase that you access directly from the water. We got to watch a number of paddling groups do it before we could go.
Gunflint Lake Sunset
From Gotter, our paddle out continued fairly smoothly. The portage to Brant Lake was coated in ripe blueberries, so we took a little extra time before shoving off again. Brant led to Edith where the put-in was three inches of water above thick, fluid mud. It took us 20 minutes to navigate the 30 meters of mud.
Edith Lake led to West Round Lake, with more fresh blueberries on the portage, and then, finally, to Round Lake where we were greeted by a strong headwind. Here we were on our take-out lake, so close to the end of our trip, and Mother Nature was imposing upon us extra effort!
We finally arrived at the Tuscarora outfitter camp where we called for our take-out shuttle. We had made it – five beautiful days in the Boundary Waters, eighteen portages, nineteen lakes – an amazing trip. Our shuttle arrived in short order and we were back at the outfitter at Gunflint Lake where we could shower at the bunkhouses before heading off on the long drive home.