Trip Reports

Last Day in Paradise: a Boundary Waters trip report by Richard “Doc” Gams


Jim (jsaults), Frank (fwalburg), and I had been planning our BWCA trip for months, planning on entering at Sawbill (entry 38), paddling to Cherokee to base camp, and day trip from there. On the day before we were to leave, I got a call from the reservation center informing me that because of the Ham Lake fire, all entry points in the eastern part of the Boundary Waters had been closed, including Sawbill 38.

We had anticipated this for too long to cancel the trip, and I was able to secure a reservation for Lake One (entry 30), enabling us to substitute an exploration of the numbered lakes. I arranged to pick up our permit at Voyageur North in Ely, and reserved a room at their bunkhouse for the Sunday night prior to entry.

1Saturday: Frank arrived at my house in Columbus having driven from his home in Zanesville, OH which is about an hour or so away. We transferred his boat (Wenonah Prism) and gear to my truck which already had my Magic racked. After a cup of coffee and getting a dead fish off my pool cover which had apparently been left as a present for me by one of the raptors that hang around my back yard which overlooks Hoover Lake, we were on our way. While driving on I-70, Jim called me on my cell and it turns out was only a few miles ahead of us, his having started out that morning from St. Albans, WV. We caught up with each other at a Steak and Shake a few exits further and were able to drive the rest of the way together. We stopped in Madison for the night, but got there after Rutabaga’s had closed.

Sunday: After an early Denny’s breakfast, we were on our way North. Since we were still on Eastern Time, we stopped at an Appleby’s for lunch around noon our time, just beating the Mother’s day lunch crowd. We indicated that Jim was the mother of our group, but they didn’t give him a rose. We arrived in Ely in the late afternoon, picked up our permits, and had a great meal at the Ely Steak House. After Jim splurged on a beautiful Bell wood/composite bent shaft paddle at Voyageur North, we headed upstairs to the bunkhouse and finally fell asleep, although I must say that I was so keyed up over finally doing this trip, I had trouble sleeping.

2Monday: The great day of our BWCA entry arrived. We had breakfast at Vertin’s café in Ely, and then rode to the end of the Fernberg Road to the Lake One entry. We arrived at the put-in around 9:00 and were embarked at 9:30. We did the Lake One entry arabesque, first having to go north through a narrow slot, then northeast through another narrow passage, then south into Lake One itself. It started out with overcast skies, became sunny, and after a rather circuitous paddle we stumbled onto the portages into Lake Two. The portages themselves were rather easy to negotiate, but were frustrating since after unloading, portaging, then launching and paddling only about 200 yards through a small pond, we had to do the whole routine again. Going across the first portage carrying one of my packs and the canoe, I encountered a troop of cooler toting yahoos (with extra six packs on top of the cooler) who came barreling through forcing me off the trail. I thought canoes were supposed to have the right of way. After the second portage, we were in Lake Two and stopped on an island for lunch. After a leisurely and enjoyable paddle into Lake Three, we hit an open water crossing so of course the wind suddenly kicked up. Pushing our way through the whitecaps, we appreciated how stable the Magics and Prism are when loaded with gear. After a rest to get our bearings, we continued to fight the wind into Lake Four. We had to pass up a couple of nice campsites which other people had had the nerve of occupying, but found a nice site and were set up by 5:00. Jim had thoughtfully brought his 15′ Cooke’s tarp, which later proved to be a life saver. After a well deserved supper, we would have certainly enjoyed a warm and friendly campfire. There was no lack of wood, but the entire BWCA was under a fire ban, so soon after dark, we dispersed to our separate tents for the night.

Tuesday: We awoke to howling winds and rain. It was blowing so hard, we spent the day in camp, shivering under Jim’s tarp. We all were wearing all the layers we had packed in, and had on our rain suits to boot. Not all was lost – during times when the rain let up, we wandered down to the landing area and were treated to an aerial ballet of a pair of mating eagles. Toward evening, the wind finally lay down and the sky cleared, promising nice weather for the next day.

Receive PaddlingLight updates straight to your inbox every time I publish a new article. Your email address will never be shared

3Wednesday: dawned calm and clear. We rushed through breakfast to get out on the water as soon as possible. A red squirrel visited to wish us a nice day. Paddling further into Lake Four, we spied a bald eagle perched just above our heads. It was a treat to lie back in the canoes and get up close and personal with the bird through the waterproof monocular I had brought, and Jim’s wide angle binoculars. We also paddled past another eagle having a shore lunch. Just as we got close enough for pictures, he took off with a doggie bag of fish guts clutched in its talons. It was a wonderful day exploring Lake Four. The weather was a bit fickle, with intermittent sun and thunderstorms. At least one squall passed over us, making paddling somewhat interesting. We got back to camp and under the tarp and were surprised by a hailstorm. We got pounded pretty good by 3 separated sessions of half inch hail, but the tarp and tents stayed erect and dry inside.

Thursday: We were up early and off to explore Lake Three. We found wonderful bays and narrows, and again had the opportunity to practice our open water crossing skills. The wind was pretty playful, always managing to be in our faces. Our black gold Kevlar canoes were the perfect canvas for the white pictographs occasioned by encounters with the rocks of the Canadian Shield which will provide life long memories of our wonderful adventure.

4Friday: It was a sad awakening to realize this would be our last day in paradise. We packed up reluctantly and blew out of Lake Four on our way home. There was a constant headwind. This trip was an interesting navigational challenge. There are so many islands and islets and narrow passages, all of which look alike, following the map is difficult, especially when trying to keep the canoe steady paddling into the wind. But we got back OK, only pulling out the GPS once to confirm Jim’s suspicion of where we were at a particularly confusing moment. (Frank and I didn’t have a clue). But we only went a little out of our way, which we rationalized by saying it gave us the opportunity to get in just a little more paddling on our last day, tempered only by a slight anxiety over whether we were ever going to get out of there. But get out we did to another fine meal and hot showers in Ely. On Saturday, having driven half way home, I turned to Frank and said, “We could just turn back, hit a Laundromat, get a little more food, and just do it all again.” Well, we didn’t, but I’m ready and I’m sure we’ll be back again this year.

5Some afterthoughts: We explored moose habitat, but saw no moose. We didn’t see any bears either. We saw and heard some loons, and encountered a Sawbill Merganser, lots of ducks, one osprey and plenty of seagulls. No jays in camp, but we did have a rabbit visit. And best of all, THERE WERE NO BUGS. The one thing we missed most were chairs with backs, but we made do with the Crazy Creeks. Absolutely great were the combination lighter / flashlights that N.T. had given us the week before at Clendening.

So great company and great paddling in one of the truly magnificent places on God’s wonderful earth.

One comment

  • A charming report. Enjoyed the humor. How much more meaningful for those traveling from afar. Hope these guys got in again.

Comments are closed.