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An Unexpected Multi-Day Boundary Waters Canoe Trip

Deb thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail and is a Search & Rescue volunteer and writer living in Flagstaff, AZ.

Canoeing in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, in Minnesota and Canada

Canoeing in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, in Minnesota and Canada

Backpacking Before Paddling....

Up to this point, my travel partner, Alan a/k/a "Stumped," and I had spent five days backpacking (and bushwhacking) the Kekekabic Trail (the "Kek"). When we finished that leg of our journey, we stopped at Gunflint Lodge to resupply, clean up and re-organize our gear before continuing on with our trip on foot. The overall plan had been to hike the 41-mile Kek to the Border Route Trail (BRT) and then continue 65 miles to the Superior Hiking Trail (SHT), ending the journey at Two Harbors, 203 miles later, for a total of approximately 309 miles.

You can read about the first part of our trek on the Kek here: Hiking Minnesota's Kekekabic Trail.

The Kek and BRT pass through the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, where paddling is the popular mode of self-propelled travel, while the well-maintained SHT follows the ridge that generally parallels the coast of Lake Superior.

Following the Kekekabic Trail, this is the next part of my journal from the Minnesota adventure that didn't exactly go according to plan.

A Change of Plans

July 18
Today's miles: 3.5
Destination: Gunflint Outfitters/Gunflint Lodge

Sixty more miles of overgrown, barely marked wilderness trail lay ahead of us to the junction with the Superior Trail. We were carrying 10 days' worth of food, our packs heavy. We were using an inadequate trail guide that discusses more about picking berries than crucial turns or clearly identifiable landmarks. And the Border Route trail would take us far from exit points should we have lost the footpath. These things were on our minds this afternoon when we set out to hike to the nearest campsite on the BRT. Our permit to re-enter the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness was dated for tomorrow, so we intended to make this a very short day, stopping before the entry point.

But we didn't get far before confusion set in. Ski and snowmobile trails diverged from the BRT then looped back around, becoming one and the same trail. Then the barely discernible BRT would make an abrupt turn. The guide would state something to the effect, "Turn left at the clump of raspberries." There were raspberries all over!

Within a mile we came to a jumble of blowdowns and, after picking our way over, under and through the obstacle, we saw no sign of a footpath on the other side. Retracing our steps, we noticed a passable area to our left, a 90-degree turn, which looked more like a large animal had recently passed through the thick brush than part of a designated trail. We pushed through, also -- maybe 50 feet -- and found ourselves on another snowmobile trail. No mention in the chatty guidebook about such a turn, although Allen did find a piece of blue flagging tape on the ground, almost hidden by tall grass. Were we even on the BRT? We decided not to find out.

Border Route Trail hike aborted.

Actually, what I said to Allen was, "Isn't there another way to do this? I'm only half-kidding, but what about canoeing?"

Within seconds, our MacKenzie maps were laid on the ground, end-to-end, and we studied the possible water routes, determining if we could get to, or close to, the northeastern terminus of the Superior Trail by boat. Sure enough, it was doable.

We sat there in the middle of the ski trail, being munched by mosquitoes, and discussed the canoe trip. It was either that or get a shuttle to the SHT, which I didn't want to do. So, we decided to hike back to Gunflint Outfitters and talk to Sheryl Hindermann, the general manager, about what we wanted to do and find out if we could get a permit. (The hiking permit we'd already purchased was non-refundable and not transferable to a canoe permit.)

Longish story short (because I'm tired and we're planning an early start tomorrow), we've been outfitted with a 40-pound Kevlar Epoxy canoe, paddles, PFDs and a new permit, and will be paddling and portaging our way to the boat launch on McFarland Lake starting first thing tomorrow. From there, it's an eight-mile dirt road walk to the SHT trailhead, where we'll continue on foot for another 200-some-odd miles. Since there is no phone at the take-out, we've prearranged with Sheryl to have the canoe picked up on Wednesday at noon, allowing ourselves more than ample time to get there ... just in case. If we arrive a day early perhaps, we'll camp at McFarland Lake and enjoy and explore the area while we wait.

As it turns out, what we've chosen to do for this middle leg of our journey is part of the historic Voyageurs' Route, which I'll find out more about when I get home. An unexpected but exciting change of plans. I'm so happy we're still going to cover the distance under our own power.

Gliding along the border.

Gliding along the border.

Day 1 on the Water

Day 7
Today's miles: 15.5
Destination: Campsite at Rat Lake/Rose Lake portage

This is great! A nice change of pace after the Kekekabic bushwhack.

Allen and I began paddling on a glassy Gunflint Lake at 6:30 a.m. As far as we could see, we were the only people on the water. Early morning mist rose and loons called as we glided along the border between the U.S. and Canada, the forest dense on either side.

Two and a half hours and six miles later, we came to the end of Gunflint Lake and, after some searching, found the 10-foot entrance to the channel between Gunflint and North Lakes. We carefully passed between two beaver dens, and the channel widened, with marsh grass and white lilies flanking the passageway.

At the end of North Lake, we came to our first portage, but we'd been told by canoeists who'd passed us in the channel that we could walk the boat up the little rapid rather than unload our packs and carry our gear and the canoe across the short trail to the next lake.

Portages are measured in rods, a surveyor's instrument Allen tells me, one rod being 16 feet. There are 330 rods in a mile. Our second portage today was 76 rods, or 1,216 feet, a little under a quarter-mile. I wanted to see if it could be done in one trip, so I put my backpack on and, with Allen's help, lifted the canoe over my head and set the padded yoke on my shoulders. I got about two-thirds of the way to the water before the weight of the canoe pushing down on the top of my pack became too much for my shoulders. So I tipped the stern of the boat down and rested until Allen took over. Looks like portages will be done in two trips after all, including 660-rod (2-mile) and aptly named Long Portage tomorrow. So for that one we'll hike six miles total, two with packs, two (back) with nothing, and two with the canoe, which we'll take turns carrying.

When we got to the 55-rod portage between South Lake and Rat Lake, we met a party of four, portaging in the opposite direction. Since the portage trails are narrow, Allen and I waited until they all came through with their gear before we headed the other way with ours. The man of the group, who appeared to be in his seventies, offered to carry our canoe on his way back to retrieve theirs, so we'd have to make only one trip, but we declined with thanks. It just didn't feel right to have someone else shlep our weight if we couldn't shlep theirs in return.

When Allen and I returned for our boat and as they were packing up to paddle on in their two badly-dented aluminum canoes, we chatted for a bit. The foursome was made up of grandfather and grandmother, 15-year-old granddaughter and her friend. The granddaughter had read about the Voyageurs' Route and wanted to make the trip. This was day four of their 18-day, westbound adventure.

On this first day of Allen's and my five-day paddle, we were on the water for nine hours, including three portages and several short breaks. We called it a day of canoeing at 3:30 and relaxed, resting our arms and shoulders here in camp on a narrow strip of land between Rat and Rose Lakes, just off the four-rod portage.

Thunder clouds are forming and rumbling all around, so I think I'll take a little hike to the open-air latrine now, rather than wait for the rain that will surely be here soon.

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We stopped at the end of Gunflint Lake to search for the entrance to the channel.

We stopped at the end of Gunflint Lake to search for the entrance to the channel.

Paddling and Portaging

Today's miles: 12.8
Destination: Campsite on Mountain Lake

A mama grouse and her five children just walked by. I'm lying under the tarp, sheltered from the rain and wind, which began just as we reached the campsite. All day I watched impressive cloud formations, some pure white and others dark gray, against a vivid blue sky as we made our way east. We saw only one other boat today--in the distance, someone was fishing on the Canadian side of Mountain Lake.

As Allen put it, this morning was surreal. We silently glided on the calm, misty water of Rose Lake at 6:30, watching for any sign of movement along the shores in hopes of seeing a moose. Our sighting came during the first leg of Long Portage between Rose and Rove Lakes, as we carried our packs and paddles. I was wading through a washed-out section of the portage trail, which is one and the same with the Border Route Trail for those two miles, and heard a kerplunk in the swamp to my left. Then another, and I saw the large female moving slowly through the trees with her nose in the water. She didn't seem to notice me, so I stood in the muck for several minutes and watched until Allen came along. The moose heard him approaching and moved off into the forest.

We completed those six miles of portaging in three and a quarter hours, the last leg with the canoe being the longest at one hour and 20 minutes. We traded off the canoe, passed it over a fallen tree and, for a while, carried the boat together. It was tough to make some of the turns on that narrow trail without scraping the boat against trees.

Though it's only 6:30p.m., and it's been staying light out until after nine, the sky just darkened considerably as the next thunderstorm begins.

Allen and I took turns portaging the canoe.

Allen and I took turns portaging the canoe.

Day 3 on the Water: Against the Wind

Today's miles: 11.8
Destination: Campsite on Fowl Lake

I had to put my journal away quickly last night, when the rain came down hard. The tarp had been pitched for comfort and head room, not for rain protection. We soon found out that we were lying in a depression, which filled with rainwater in minutes. The tarp being pitched too high, mud splashed in on me and all over my wet sleeping bag. Such is how I spent the night and packed up soaked, dirty gear this cloudy, chilly morning.

Allen and I paddled against the wind nearly all day. This morning, there were whitecaps on Mountain Lake, so we stayed close to shore and tried to keep the canoe pointed across the waves. My arms are tired after eight hours of paddling and four portages, with few breaks and none for more than 10 minutes.

Today, our pattern for portages went like this: I'd head across with my pack and the paddles while Allen followed, slow but steady, with the canoe. I'd drop off my stuff and head back, ducking out of Allen's way as we passed, then retrieve his backpack. Three of the portages were very close together, with two short marsh crossings in between. Once, Allen had my pack loaded and the canoe floating when I got back with his gear, and we shoved off right away. The mosquitoes were out in full force at the portages, which made stopping rather unpleasant. The fourth portage today, a 132-rod trail between Moose Lake and Fowl Lake, was literally a muddy stream.

We'd considered covering the remaining seven miles and two portages to McFarland Lake today, then spending two nights in that same camp before meeting the truck from Gunflint Outfitters on Wednesday. But the wind and waves increased as we headed down Fowl Lake and the rain began, so we pulled into the first campsite we spotted. Thankfully, the rain soon stopped and held off until we had the tarp pitched, the mosquito netting hung, and dinner cooked and eaten.

Right now, the sound of the breeze, a loon calling and the constant hum of insects are what I hear. When I look up, I see mosquitoes clinging to the green netting, inches from my face, with their blood-sucking protrusions poked through the holes. I'm not at the top of the food chain out here. You should see my arms and legs--I've been well fed upon.

Beyond the netting and mosquitoes, what I see is green foliage. All shades of green. Thicker than I've ever seen anywhere, except in the rainforest.

I can hardly keep my eyes open. I didn't sleep well last night in the puddle. It's probably only about six o'clock, but that's bedtime for me tonight.

Allen a/k/a "Stumped" at the end of a portage.

Allen a/k/a "Stumped" at the end of a portage.

Many of the portages followed the U.S./Canada border, marked by metal cones

Many of the portages followed the U.S./Canada border, marked by metal cones

And More Paddling and Portaging....

Today's miles: 5.5
Destination: Campsite at McFarland Lake

Sometimes, finding the portages presents quite a challenge. Allen and I both had to get out of the canoe at different times today and search marshes to find the portage trailheads. A deer watched us as we fumbled around in knee-deep water and tall grass near Royal River, which flowed toward us into South Fowl Lake. Turned out that the portage was around the bend, upstream, and we had to walk the canoe up the shallow rapid to the trail.

Back in the water on the other side, the searching continued in reed-filled Royal Lake. At times, the grass was so thick we couldn't paddle or push our way through, so we had to back up and try another direction. Eventually, we found some flattened reeds where other canoes must have gone through and located the channel to the other side of the lake and back into the river. At the end of Royal River, we looked for the second portage, the last of our trip. When I got back in the boat at John Lake, I removed a leech from my foot. Fed upon yet again. I feel like a piece of fast food.

At 11:30, we reached the boat launch at McFarland Lake, the end of our canoe route. We set up the tarp here at a primitive state campground. Allen napped on a picnic table and I did the same on the dock. Then we both took shelter under the tarp during a mid-afternoon downpour. The sun and mosquitoes are now out once again.

So this concludes the second phase of our trip. Not what we'd planned to do, but a fun change and a different way to see the BWCA--the most common way, by boat--though my original intention was to hike the BRT rather than canoe along the border. Until our first portage today, we'd been following an invisible international line down the centers of lakes, rivers and oftentimes portages, some of which have U.S./Canada markers at either end.

My favorite parts of the canoeing were the narrows, where the water is usually calm and the shores close, and early mornings my favorite time to paddle. I prefer to get on the trail early, also, but tomorrow we'll have to wait for an employee of Gunflint Outfitters, who's supposed to pick up the canoe at noon. Then it's on to the Superior Hiking Trail. I hope my socks and boots dry by then. Both have been wet since July 13th.

Searching for the channel in reed-filled Royal Lake

Searching for the channel in reed-filled Royal Lake

From Boating Back to Backpacking....

Destination: Andy Creek campsite, Superior Hiking Trail

At 11:45 this morning, the red truck we were expecting pulled in at the McFarland Lake boat launch and out stepped Sheryl Hindermann and another employee of Gunflint Outfitters, bearing strawberries. Sheryl said this was her day off, and she thought she'd come along for the ride.

Once the canoe was loaded and we said goodbye to Sheryl for the fourth time this trip, Allen and I began the 8.5-mile dirt road walk to the SHT terminus.


© 2018 Deb Kingsbury

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