RoutesTrip Reports

Sea Gull Lake Loop Trip Report

Canoe on Ogishkemuncie Lake in the BWCA

Since I moved near to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, I’ve spent less time exploring it on extended trips than before I moved here. At first, I tried to continue doing one-week solo Fall trips, a few long distance longer trips, like when I paddled theVoyager’s Route, but most my Boundary Waters trips since moving here have been overnights or day trips. It’s likely my love of Lake Superior and being able to kayak on an ocean-like body of water (or the warm bed nearby) that keeps me away. This year, I wanted to end the summer with a Boundary Water’s trip and Ilena’s vacation matched up with the time frame perfectly.

For this trip, we wanted to travel to Knife Lake for, at least, one night of camping. I figured that we could do a loop that linked Alice and Knife, which are two of my favorite lakes in the BWCA. The day before our trip, we walked into the Grand Marais Forest Service office to get our permit. We asked for the Sea Gull entry point and got the last permit available. (For paddlers not familiar with the BWCA, you’re required to obtain a permit for a specific lake and day. You have to enter that day on that lake, but after that you can paddle wherever you want. Most visitors to the BWCA book their entry points ahead of time and pay a steep non-refundable registration fee to ReserveAmerica, a private company doing the work that government should be doing and making a significant profit from it. Instead of paying a fee to a private company to use land that I own, I wait until the day before the trip to get a permit–the USFS can only issue permits one day ahead of the entry day. Most of the lakes in the BWCA connect, so getting where you want to go from any entry point is pretty easy. It’s all about being slightly flexible.)

Totals For the Sea Gull Lake Loop

Our trip lasted seven days and six nights. Sea Gull Lake defined out most easterly point, Alice our most southerly, Ensign our most westerly, and American Point on Sag defined our most northerly point.

  • Time: 7 days, 6 nights
  • Distance: 88 miles
  • Portages: 2097 rods (about 6.5 miles–1 rod = 16.5 feet)

View BWCA Aug 2010 in a larger map

Weather Report

I caught the weather report before heading in; it looked like we would face windy conditions with most days predicted with sustained 10 to 15 mph winds with higher gusts. NOAA predicted temperatures in the 80s with nighttime lows in the high 60s. The weather report was right. Most days we faced headwinds up to 15 mph sustained with gusts to 20+mph. A couple of days sustained winds were higher. We saw white-capping chop on lakes with any amount of fetch. On our last day, the wind picked up so bad that despite all our efforts we paddled staying in one place and even were blown backwards at points. We had to get out of the canoe and line our way through a narrows that the wind was funneling through. We didn’t have a campfire any of the nights, because we felt it was too hot.

Typical portage in the BWCA.
Typical portage in the BWCA.

Day One

We woke up early, but got on the road a little later than we wanted. Sea Gull Lake is about a 50 minute drive from Grand Marais, and we didn’t get there until mid-morning. We were on the water by 11am just after another group of several canoes loaded with multiple packs, plastic crates and two dogs.

In the past few years, Sea Gull suffered from two forest fires. The Cavity Lake Fire burned most of the south and western portions of the lake, and the Ham Lake Fire got much of the eastern side. This was the first time I paddled in these burnt areas. I’ve hiked into them, drove along them, but paddling into these seemed different from some other burns I’ve paddled through–it seemed so fresh.

We paddled down the lake past the granite domed islands, the thin charred matchstick-like tree trunks and the white granite seemingly bleached by fresh exposure to the sun. Here and there small patches of trees–mainly on the points and somehow around campsites–remained. I wondered why the fire skipped areas but decided there was no reason. The fire burned what it did and left what it didn’t.

Towards the end of Sea Gull, I adjusted our course to a different set of portages than I originally wanted–a navigation mistake made while adjusting to the scale of the new National Geographic Boundary Waters maps. We made our way across the portage. I carried the canoe and one paddle. Ilena carried our only pack, the other paddles and her fishing pole. It’s almost guaranteed on the outer lakes in the BWCA that you’ll run into someone on the portages. We ran into two groups. The first: a father and son pulling out after several days of winds stopped them from getting to Alice (one of our destinations). The second: a group of six carrying loads of gear inside of garbage bags. After we answered questions about my wooden canoe (answered to almost every group we ran into),

  1. Yes, I built it.
  2. It’s made from cedar.
  3. No, it’s not a kit.

We paddled to an island to eat lunch. During lunch, we watched the second group do a triple carry. Trip one was a load of garbage bags. Trip two was a load of garbage bags. Trip three was the canoes. They portaged a total of 500 rods (1.6 miles) over the same portage that we’d done in 100 (0.3 miles). A major benefit of going light with only one pack between two people is only having to do a portage once.

We arrived on Ogishkemuncie early afternoon, set up camp and fished for dinner. At about six, the group that left the entry point just before us caught up and paddled past. We heard them discuss how disappointed they were that they didn’t get the island campsite that we settled in at.

  • Lakes Traveled: Sea Gull, Alpine, Jasper, Ogishkemuncie
  • Miles Traveled: 12 miles
  • Rods Portages: 202 rods

Day Two

We faced a choice in the morning. We could head down into the Kawishiwi River system on route to Alice or check out Kekekabic Lake and end up on Fraser Lake. We choose the second route, paddling through a number of small lakes connected by short portages before we got to the Kek by noon. Large cliffs, a hundred or so feet high, define the northern shore of the Kek. We paddled to a campsite near the cliffs for lunch. During lunch, Ilena noticed a big leech sucking blood from my toe. I pulled him off only to watch my toe bleed non-stop despite pressure for the entire break.

After lunch, we paddled along the cliff face looking for pictographs. We didn’t find any, but there’s suppose to be a pictograph of a large canoe and many paddlers. It took about an hour to paddle to our portage–a relief from the short lake, short portage routine of the morning.

On Fraser, strong headwinds and whitecaps talked us into staying along the north shore. Our campsite was breezy, but featured a slab of rock as a beach and a nice swimming area. During dinner we recounted some of the wildlife we’d seen: a leech, frogs, an American toad, Bald Eagles, many many loons, an arctic loon and bats.

  • Lakes Traveled: Ogishkemuncie, Tradition Lake, Jenny Lake, Eddy Lake, Kekekabic Ponds, Calico Lake, Kekekabic Lake, Strap Lake Wisini Lake, Ahmakose Lake, Gerund Lake, Fraser Lake
  • Miles Traveled: 12 miles
  • Rods Portages: 330 rods

Pictographs on Fishdance Lake in the BWCA.
Pictographs on Fishdance Lake in the BWCA.

Day Three

The winds increased over night, and in the morning, we faced a fresh breeze. We almost called it a wind day, but I knew a nice campsite, a mere seven miles away, at the southern end of Alice. We decided we could paddle into a headwind for seven miles. Weaving into wind shadows when we could, we fought our way down Fraser and Thomas to the portage into Alice.

The portage was a nice sand beach big enough for 15 canoes. Tried from the paddle, we rested on the portage–something that’s poor etiquette. Ilena found some old bear tracks on the beach. We followed them down the sand until they disappeared into a dried up-stream bed.

Just as we were gathering up to portage a group surprised us by coming across the portage. We figured most groups wouldn’t venture out today and on these big lakes, we were surprised to see anyone moving anywhere in the whitecaps. We found out that this group needed to make it back to Snowbank Lake to leave. They spent yesterday as a wind day in the protected northeastern campsite on Alice.

Once on Alice, we found the protected campsite, a sandy cove notched out of a small peninsula and completely out of the wind. We sat on the beach, took a swim under the hot cloudless sky and watched the whitecaps and waves pass the point. After getting antsy, we set out down Alice, which is the only lake I’ve been wind bound on in the BWCA. A gale force NW kept me in camp one day with shoulder-high waves on the lake. This time, the whitecaps were pushing one to one and a half-foot. I watched from the stern as the bow rose on each wave and splashed into the trough. The waves soaked Ilena.

After making camp, we tripped over to Fishdance Lake to look at the over 500-year-old pictographs. On the way back, Ilena saw the butt of a bear.

  • Lakes Traveled: Fraser Lake, Thomas Lake, Alice Lake
  • Miles Traveled: 7.4 miles (sidetrip: 2.5 miles)
  • Rods Portages: 205 rods (sidetrip: 220 rods)

Day Four

Another hot day but without wind in the morning. We got on the water that was still, like a reflection in glass, and paddled west on the narrow Kawishiwi River. Eventually, we swung around to the north and ended back on Thomas heading northwest. By the time, we got there, the winds started and blew us up the lake on whitecaps. We ate lunch huddling behind a massive old white pine at a campsite.

A few short portages away, we decided to stay the night on an island on Ima. The campsite was large and park-like. It’d seen lots of usage and it showed. The defining feature was a five foot cliff that dropped into deep water. Shortly after arriving we were dropping off the cliff into the water.

  • Lakes Traveled: Alice, Kawishiwi River, Kiana Lake, Thomas Lake, Hatchet Lake, Ima Lake
  • Miles Traveled: 11 miles
  • Rods Portages: 319 rods

Sunset on Ima Lake over my canoe
Sunset on Ima Lake over my canoe.

Day Five

Day five is usually when things click. We had our routines down, we felt efficient, we were reading each other’s minds while paddling and that touch of regret that the trip is almost over started to set in. I felt it and wished we had planned a ten-day trip. Ilena liked that the pack was about 15 pounds of food lighter. We pushed onward trying to look for the pictographs on Jordan. We found some red smears, but nothing that looked like firm pictographs.

After the portage to Ensign, I set the canoe down into a green lake. The winds had picked up and I was looking forward to an easy wind assisted paddle to the portage. We set across the lake watching our paddles disappear into the green water. Once at the “portage” as shown on the map, we spent about thirty minutes fruitlessly searching. The portage wasn’t there! And I only brought the eastern map, so I couldn’t see the entire lake to see if there was another portage into Vera. So, we paddled out to a couple fishing from an island. They were from Arizona and up for a week with their friends. They didn’t have a map that I could look at, but shortly after their friends showed up with a map. We compared the maps. Their map showed our “portage” as a trail–the real summer portage was just down the lake and just off my map. After further discussion, we decided that the “portage” on my map was a winter trail for dog sleds. It went through swamps and across lakes, so that made sense. We bid the group goodbye and set out to the new portage.

The portage was rugged and straight up across slabs of exposed granite. On the highland, burr oaks, an unusual tree to find in the Boreal forest, surrounded the trail. Back on the water, we enjoyed a strong tailwind that swept us across the next rugged portage and northeast down Knife. After we landed at the campsite, Ilena had her sea legs from the waves pushing us down the lake. She swayed the entire night.

  • Lakes Traveled: Ima Lake, Jordan Lake, Cattyman Lake, Gibson Lake, Ashignn Lake, Ensign Lake, Vera Lake, Knife Lake
  • Miles Traveled: 15 miles
  • Rods Portages: 543 rods

Canoe sailing on Knife Lake
Canoe sailing on Knife Lake. Ilena uses her jacket to get us down the lake.

Day Six

Knife Lake runs northeast. It marks the border of the United States and Canada. Half of the lake belongs to each country. There are very few portages all the way northeast to Saganaga. With a 15mph wind behind you, it’s almost no work to reach American Point on Sag. We had that wind. During the morning, we paddled along at 4 mph without working. At one point, Ilena draped her rain jacket around two paddles to make a sail and we sailed down the lake–sometimes in Canada and sometimes in the U.S.

Before we knew it, we landed on a sand beach on Sag for lunch under a fluffy cloudy sky. The sun beat down on us and then the clouds relieved us. We looked across Sag to Cache Bay–a popular entry point to Quetico Provincial Park. With the wind increasing, we knew that once we rounded American Point and had to paddle into the wind again we’d be in trouble. With thoughts of ending the trip and a big juicy burger at Trail Center, we decided to push south. The winds were strong on Sag as we did.

So strong that a mile took 45 minutes. The portage into Red Rock Lake was a brief, but welcome reprieve from the wind. I hadn’t eaten much at lunch and bonked shortly after the portage. Ilena was strong. We paddled into the wind towards a constriction that funneled such a strong force that we couldn’t paddle into it. With all our strength we held our position. If we let up, we floated backward. Finally, I steered us behind the peninsula. We got out, tied the boat to a tree, walked 10 feet to the other side and looked down the lake. I went back and pulled the canoe down the shore. Once in the wind, the waves bounced the canoe up against the rocky shoreline. Out of the constriction, we got back in and paddled down the lake to our last campsite.

  • Lakes Traveled: Knife Lake, Ottertrack Lake, Mud Bay, Swamp Lake, Saganaga Lake, Red Rock Bay, Red Rock Lake
  • Miles Traveled: 20 miles
  • Rods Portages: 114 rods

Day Seven

No wind! We awoke to no wind and paddled back to Sea Gull with no wind. Until. Until we got to Sea Gull where we ran into 10 mph north crosswind. Putting in on Sea Gull seven days ago, we thought about how beautiful the burned area was. Now after a week of tripping through a pristine Boreal forest, it saddened us to see the work of a fire. All the trees gone, but even only a few years after the fire, the forest was regenerating. Nature reestablishing itself. And isn’t that what we go here for? Our lives, our jobs burn us out, we head into the woods for a break from convenience, from our routine and we emerge regrown.


Just as we reached the bay with the take out, a float plane descended from the sky to land in front of us. As we got closer, we saw the Forest Service logos and figured that it was here because of a fire. In the first couple of days on the trip, we had seen two large water tanker planes. The Forest Service uses the plane to dump water on fires.

We loaded the car and just after we finished, Ilena ran into two of her friends who work for the Forest Service. They confirmed our suspicions. The Lizard Lake fire, caused by a lightning strike, had burned about 50 acres of the BWCA. The Forest Service plan was to let it take its nature course while protecting the lake shores and portages.

Pictures for the Sea Gull Loop

I took over 500 pictures during the entire trip. Here are a few. You can also find some on my Flickr page.

p.s. We had Bull Moose Burgers at Trail Center. They were good.

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  • Wonderful post. I can honestly say thats the first time I’ve seen someone video the portage. Nice perspective

  • Nice post. Seems like you saw alot of lovely country. Am jealous.

    If you pull a permit from an outfitter, are they using the Reserve America site as well?

    Thanks again.

  • Yes. If you reserve a permit from an outfitter, they actually run that reservation through the ReserveAmerica website and you end up paying a non-refundable reservation fee to ReserveAmerica.

    Also, an outfitter is allowed to charge an additional fee when they reserve or they issue you the permit. Not all outfitters actually charge the fee.

    Essentially, private industry is profiting from the government permit system.

    If you must reserve an entry point ahead of time, it’s easy to do on website, which is administered by ReserveAmerica.

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