For you looking for a trip that will get a bit off the beaten path, and provide a few challenging portages, this 4 to 5 day loop will offer just the thing. Solitude, a good mix of small and larger lakes, challenging terrain, lake trout and small taste of the effects of the 2006 Cavity Lake fire are all on the docket for this loop.
With five permits per day for Missing Link Lake, you should have a fairly easy time getting the entry date of your choice. In fact, if you’re planning a trip on short notice, you should be able to find a permit for Missing Link. The main reason that these permits aren’t as demanded is due to the mile long portage into Tuscarora Lake. This scares many people off, so for those who are ambitious and would like to reap the benefits of seeking out a trip of lesser popularity, you’ll find yourself in minimal company.
The trip starts out with a truck ride from your fine friends at Seagull Outfitters about 6 miles south down the Gunflint to the public landing at Round Lake. Round is outside of the Boundary Waters, and does allow motor boats, but this is the only lake on the trip that you may see a motor boat. Round itself is a smaller lake with a maximum depth of about 40 feet. The fishing is quite excellent if you spend some time there and harbors smallmouth bass, walleye and northern pike with the occasional yellow perch.
From Round you will make your way to Missing Link Lake. There are two portages out of Round, one to West Round (which you’ll navigate through on your way out) and one on the southwest shore to Missing Link. The Missing Link portage is 140 rods and climbs gently throughout the portage. You’ll find yourself following a small stream for a portion of the climb as well as skirting a small pond about two-thirds of the way through the hike.
Missing Link has a maximum depth of 25 feet, and in these 25 feet of water, anglers will be treated with the rare opportunity to fish for brook trout (a theme for this trip). Brookies are the primary species found on Missing Link. There are three campsites on the lake, and if you’re interested in brook trout fishing, you’re ready for camp. That was an easy day. Not only does Missing Link offer brook trout, but a small lake off of the east bay has been designated for brook trout by the MN DNR. For six consecutive years between 2000 and 2005, the DNR has stocked over 1000 brook trout each year into Mavis Lake. The trail is not well worn, but if you venture that way, you’ll find Mavis to be a very small, but deep lake, and filled with trout.
Once you’ve had your fishing fill, it’s time to get on with the trip. Bring your hiking boots for this one, the “Tusc Portage” is next. The mile long portage out of Missing Link to Tuscarora will take you over some rocky terrain, around a lake, through a swamp, over some boardwalks and down some steep slopes. On this trail, you’ll find a little of everything. But overall, you descend over 150 feet as you make your way to the sand beach landing on Tuscarora.
Once here, you’ll find some nice camping opportunities on this large beautiful lake. Lake trout and northern pike are your options here. If it’s windy, you’ll want to use extreme caution when crossing Tuscarora as there is some large open water. Eventually, you will want to make your way to the western shore where you’ll find the portage to Owl Lake. With the longest portages out of the way for the rest of the trip, you’ll be scoffing at those 60 rod portages. And that’s what you’ve got here. Nothing tricky, just a bit downhill. Remember, when you’re portaging a canoe down a steeper slope, be sure to pull the bow end down so as not to catch the stern end on a rock behind you and throw you off balance. Those of you who have experienced this know exactly what that feeling’s like.
Owl Lake has no camps and will be a quick in and out unless you trout fishermen want to try for some lakers. From Owl, there is a 50 rod portage into Crooked Lake which will more than likely be your destination for this night. Before the Cavity Lake fire in 2006, Crooked had some excellent island campsites. We have heard that the fire did affect the western portion of Crooked, and will be interesting to see how it looks now. Regardless of the fire, Crooked has some great character with a number of islands and some decent lake trout fishing in the deep holes.
Your way out of Crooked is through the portage on the north side of the lake that leads to Gillis Lake. On this path, you will see an old trapper’s cabin that has not been used since the BWCAW was founded in 1978. Gillis is another very large lake with open water much like Tuscarora. You’ll find many nice bare rock outcroppings along the shorelines and some nice campsites as well. Lake trout again are the dominant species with a few northern pike as well. The fire in 2006 also affected the west and north shorelines of Gillis. You’ll see nature’s way of recycling the forest and many new growth trees and blueberries pop up all over areas which have recently burned.
From a camp on Gillis, you can venture further west into the burned areas on French or Fern Lakes and explore nature taking its course. In fact, there’s no reason you couldn’t venture further west and extend your trip another day or two, but if you follow this loop, your next portage is to Bat Lake. This portage is in the northeast corner of Gillis behind a small island and climbs 50 feet or better over the short 25 rod hike. Bat Lake will be the last you’ll see of the fire remains on this trip as you’ll pass through into Green Lake. But before you do, drag your line for lakers as this will be one of your last chances on the trip.
Green Lake is smaller, and not much for fish. The portage to Flying Lake is a steep one up the hill about 100 feet in elevation. There is an old portage to Crag Lake in the same area as the Flying Lake portage, so make sure you’re on the northernmost trail that goes northeast instead of south.
Flying lake is pretty shallow and not much for fishing. However, if you still have that brook trout fishing itch, take a side trip into Bingshick Lake. North out of Flying, you can take two short portages and a short paddle through the Chub River drainage that will take you north into Bingshick Lake. Bingshick has two nice campsites in case you want to stay the night. Another option while on Bingshick is a side hiking trip along the Kekekabic Trail that can be accessed from the easternmost campsite of the two on the lake. Bingshick has been stocked with brook trout for the past 15 years, and the most recent stockings (2000-2005) there have been over 1500 fingerlings stocked each year. The population of brookies is healthy and you’ll be able to catch nice size fish as well.
From Flying Lake, you really only have one tough portage left into Brandt Lake. This 100 rod portage is steep in areas and rocky, a theme on this entire route. Brandt Lake has three decent camps. The two on the main route may see some traffic, while the camp on the northeast bay of the lake is nicely tucked away and elevated. The fishing opportunities on Brandt Lake are mostly northern pike. This is your last real opportunity to camp before pulling out at Round Lake, so plan your days accordingly.
There are three portages left to get back to Round Lake. From Brandt, if the water is high enough, you may be able to pull/paddle through the creek that connects Edith to Brandt that is in the southeast bay on Brandt. Otherwise, the portage is a nice path that is just to the north of the creek in the same bay. Edith is a quick in and out to another shortish (50 rods), but rocky portage that will lead you to West Round Lake. And then lastly, an 85 rod portage into Round Lake.
Depending on the time of year you plan your trip, you may see a fair amount of people on the northern half of this route. The southern part however will be virtually free of any canoe traffic because of the length of the portages. This route provides more brook trout fishing opportunities than most any other route in the entire BWCA. Permits are readily available throughout the canoe season. It’s often been said that the Gunflint Trail side of the BWCA is a bit more rocky and has more elevation change from lake to lake than do most of the routes out of Ely. This will be evident on this trip.