Trip Length: 3, 5 or 7 Days
Permit Required: South Lake (#58)
The Canadian Border Route is unique in that it follows the US-Canadian border, much like other routes in our area, namely the Granite River and the Knife Lake Routes. What’s unique about all of these routes is that they were once traveled by the Voyageurs. The French trade companies hired men called Voyageurs to travel to and from Grand Portage, near Lake Superior. The trading headquarters was in Montreal, but as the French settled more into the interior of Canada, travel became more difficult as the landscape changed. The French ran into the Ojibwa Indians and soon began trading beaver pelts for guns and food and other goods.
Because the mode of travel was by canoe and foot back in the 17 and 1800s, it was impossible to make a round trip from Montreal to Lake Athabasca (northern Saskatchewan) during the time when there was open water. So the trading company set up a trading station in Grand Portage, and had two crews. One paddled the route to Montreal and back, and one to paddle from Grand Portage to Lake Athabasca.
Well, this route happens to be the same land and water where the Voyageurs traveled to deliver the beaver pelts to the French trading company in Grand Portage. When you’re on your trip, you might want to remember that these Voyageurs had to carry a birch bark canoe that was 25 feet long and occupied upwards of 8 people. I won’t venture to guess how much that must have weighed, but I’m betting much more than your Kevlar canoe. So when you say to yourself, wow, that’s a long portage….just remember, it could be worse.
Your entry point for this trip is a #58 permit allowing you entrance to the Park at South Lake. The first few lakes are outside of the BWCA, and may be occupied by motorboats, but that will soon pass once you enter South Lake. Gunflint Lake is large and occasionally windy. You’ll want to take caution. From Gunflint, you’ll paddle or line your canoes depending on water depth through the shallows that connects to Little Gunflint Lake. There is a short portage from Little Gunflint to Little North that was once a rail car portage. Although not in use anymore, you may still see the remnants. Little North and North are connected by water and will not require a portage. North is also a large lake, but more than likely you’ll be interested in turning to the south to bypass most of this lake as you make your way to the Height of Land Portage that connects North and South Lakes. This portage is 80 rods in length and fairly basic as portage go. The significance of the portage though is that it crosses the Laurentian Divide. To those unfamiliar, this “Divide” marks the point where the water flows north and south. North of the divide, all of the water flows to Hudson Bay (kind of strange to us southerners who thought everything flowed south). South of the divide, all of the water flows to Lake Superior and south from there. Good news, your portages are now downhill….in a sense.
South Lake has seven campsites on it, and this is probably where you will want to stay your first night. The entire length of the south shore has a high ridge towering over the lake. The lake is deep and harbors lake trout primarily, with a handful of smallmouth bass. South has a maximum depth of 140 feet. Fisherman may want to try the south shore as lake trout like to hang out in areas that have a steep structure.
Your next day will take you straight east to Rat Lake. There is a short 57 rod portage into Rat Lake, followed by a mini 4 rod port into Rose Lake. Rat Lake has primarily smaller perch and some smallmouth bass for you anglers. Where there are perch, there are also northern pike not far behind. Rose Lake is a gorgeous lake with high bluffs and cliffs on the south shoreline. Rose is also known for the Stairway Portage that takes you to Duncan Lake. If you’re one who is looking for a shorter trip…say three days, this could be your off ramp to Duncan and Bearskin Lakes where we could arrange a pickup for you. But for you that want to explore some more and extend your trip and travel arguably the most scenic route in the entire BWCAW, lets paddle some more.
Rose Lake is generally a stopping point because of the portage that follows. You will probably want to grab a campsite on Rose, and explore the Stairway Portage area (very scenic with a very nice waterfall that empties from Duncan to Rose Lake). Rose Lake has a nice walleye, smallmouth bass and lake trout population. For you hikers, there is also access to the Caribou Rock Trail right from the Stairway Portage. This hiking trail will take you south atop a ridge that overlooks Duncan Lake and continues on to Bearskin Lake and eventually spits you out at Highway 65 (which means you could access this trail by driving to it and hiking to the Stairway Portage, for those of you not as seaworthy). The trail is very rugged and you should prepare yourself for a workout if this is on your itinerary.
Your next day starts with one of the longest portages in the Boundary Waters. Measuring at 660 rods (just over 2 miles) this will consume an entire morning. The trail is long, appropriately named the “Long Portage”, but is not steep and follows a good gravel trail. About 2/3 the way there you’ll see a sign dictating which way to go and you will want to take the path that leads to Rove Lake. This path shares paths with the Border Route Hiking Trail. This section of the portage is a little more treacherous, and should be taken carefully.
Once to Rove Lake, you’ll be greeted with monstrous cliffs that rise 300 to 400 feet above the water that extend all the way to Watap and Mountain Lake. There shouldn’t be any need to portage from Rove to Watap, but you may want to get out and see if you can get a picture of the breathtaking cliffs on the south end of Watap Lake. From your lake elevation of 1650 feet on Watap, you’ll be able to look up to the highest point on the south shore of Watap that measures 2042 feet. There is nothing else quite like it in the entire BWCA. The Watap lake portage is a mere 100 rods (that will seem like a breeze after your morning) and has international boundary markers on both ends to mark your place. Just south of the Watap Portage, the highest point on your trip will be on the south horizon of 2081 feet. Rove Lake is rather small, but known to hold some rather large smallmouth bass, some upwards of 20 inches. Watap Lake is an excellent smallmouth bass and walleye lake. With a maximum of 45 feet in depth, there is some very nice structure for fish to hang on, and for you to focus your fishing efforts.
Mountain Lake is a very deep and clear lake. The fish species most prevalent is lake trout because of the deep structure but there are some smallmouth as well. Mountain has a maximum depth of 210 feet, and if you take into account that on the south shore of Mountain Lake, the cliffs rise to an elevation as high as 2050 feet, which is 400 feet above the water. Add the depth of the lake to the highest cliff, and that is over 600 feet in elevation change. This is some amazing country you’re in now.
You have a choice from here. You can either extend your trip out to complete the entire loop to North Fowl Lake before returning west through Royal River, John, East Pike, West Pike and Clearwater Lakes. Or you can end your tip by portaging out to the south from Mountain Lake to Clearwater Lake where we would arrange a pickup with you by truck and trailer.
If you extend your trip another two days, you will start by exiting Mountain Lake into Fan and then to Vaseux Lake before one final portage to Moose Lake. These three portages are fairly tough, but it’s a short day, you can handle them. There is no fishing to speak of in both Fan and Vaseux, so pack your rods up and save them for Moose where you’ll find a nice stock of walleye and smallmouth. Plan to camp here for the night and try for your dinner…your chances are good.
From Moose Lake, you’ll travel southeast to North Fowl Lake (BWCA entry point #70, accessed from the Arrowhead Trail). Unlike most of the lakes on this route, North Fowl is unique in that it is over 1000 acres in size, but its maximum depth is only 10 feet. You can find plentiful walleye and northern pike as well as a good population of perch in this shallow lake. Camping options are limited here, so push on to Royal Lake which you’ll find on the west shore where North and South Fowl join. It is especially shallow here and you’ll follow a small bay that leads to your exit into Royal Lake via a small shallow river. Based on water depth, you may be required to search for the river’s entry. Royal Lake is very shallow and weedy, but the lake is not the gem….it’s the enormous, towering 450 foot bluff on the south shore. Have your camera handy.
Royal River leads you out to John Lake via a 78 rod portage and small river. John Lake is a shallow lake of only 20 feet in maximum depth. The fishing is excellent for both northern pike and walleye. The northern are plentiful and the walleye average in the 18 inch range. Enjoy it while you can, because you’re about to put on your bootstraps and hike up your final portage for the day into East Pike Lake. The trail is steep and rather long at 200 rods. But once on the other side, you’ll be ready to find camp and set up for the evening. The fishing on East Pike is a bit of a treat. The fish you catch are bound to be on the larger side. East Pike holds plentiful large northern and a nice population of smallmouth bass. Also as a treat, there is known to be muskellunge that inhabit East Pike. Give it a shot.
Your last day will take you out of East Pike into West Pike and then to Clearwater Lake where we will pick you up and bring you back to our base. The portages are on the longer side, 175 and 215 rods respectively, and do climb in elevation. The scenery is certainly not lacking on this last day. And the fishing will primarily be lake trout in both West Pike and Clearwater. The public landing is on the extreme west end of Clearwater Lake, so be ready to paddle for an hour and a half to end your trip.
This route offers everything. It has some wonderful fishing, breathtaking bluffs and vistas that tower over the lakes, scenic waterfalls, hiking options on the Border Route Trail, wildlife viewing opportunities, a piece of the Voyageurs history that helped shape this area today and good deal of exercise. What more can you ask for in a canoe trip. This route provides you with the opportunity to make it a short 3 day trip….a 5 or 6 day trip….or a 7 or 8 day trip. So if you commit to doing the entire loop, but have a change of plans during the trip, no worries, just cut the trip off where it’s most convenient, and we’ll come pick you up.
Some things to think about while on this trip are the presence of motor boats at the beginning and end of your trip in the lakes that are outside the BWCAW. You will also be paddling the US-Canadian border which has a novelty tune to it, but on the Canadian side of the lakes, it is possible that motorboats me be used…albeit difficult to get a boat in there from the Canadian side, it is possible. Wind may also be a factor on the larger lakes, so do account for that possibility on some days. Maybe plan for a layover day in your itinerary.
This is a challenging route, but so rewarding at the same time. Like I mentioned earlier, this is arguably the most scenic route in the entire 1 million acre BWCAW. Don’t you want to see the best the BWCAW has to offer?