Trip Length: 4-6 Days
Permit Required: Saganaga Lake #55 – BWCAW entry permit
This trip is of easy to moderate difficulty. You’ll find portages of average length and to be moderately challenging with respect to the terrain.
A base camp trip allows for ample opportunity to fully explore the area in which you’re staying. A base camp affords you the ability to spend the extra time exploring the back bays and nuances of each lake. You’re able to build a relationship with the lake, and study and understand it, and appreciate it for all that it has to offer.
By base camping in the BWCA, you will have the ability to seek out the perfect photo opportunities and search for wildflowers and berries. You’ll be more relaxed and have time to bird watch or fish at your leisure. And what better place to do that than on Ester and Hanson Lakes.
It’s recommended to utilize the headstart tow boat launch to American Point. This will save you easily three to five hours (depending on wind) of paddling across Saganaga Lake on your first day and allow you to get to your base camp by early afternoon to ensure yourself a choice of campsites.
From American Point, you’ll paddle southwest down the border. Keep your map handy because navigating the bays and narrows on the western part of Saganaga Lake can be tricky if you’re not paying close attention to where your next turn is going to be.
You’ll portage from Saganaga to Swamp Lake before you get to Monument Portage. This portage is well traveled and well worn. Upon reaching the other side of Monument, you’ll set sail into a shallow muddy bay on Ottertrack Lake. The lake opens up after a few hundred yards into a beautiful vista lined body of water.
The portage into Ester Lake is not far past the Monument Portage and will be located around the second small point on the south shore. The portage landing here is fair and room for a couple canoes. This portage is a hilly one, with a steep ascent at the beginning before leveling off in the middle with a couple ups and downs before descending steeply to Ester. Take your time and watch your footing on the rocky terrain.
Once upon the Ester side, you will have completed the portaging of all your gear before setting up your base camp. Whether you choose to stay on Ester or Hanson, the choice is yours depending on campsites available and your ambition. Ester and Hanson lakes are connected by a narrow water passage that is navigable in even the lowest of water levels. So no portaging is necessary.
The campsite on the north end of the island in Ester is a preferred site with a great view of the northern sky. Between the island and shore where there are four campsites grouped, there is a nice sandy bottom for swimming.
Hanson has four perfectly suitable campsites depending on the view you would like to have. East facing sites are great for sunrises if you’re the early morning type. While west-facing sites obviously give you the sunset views in the evening. To each their own, take your pick.
Day trip opportunities abound while base camping in this area. Anglers will find smallmouth bass, northern pike and lake trout in both Ester and Hanson. The numerous adjacent lakes have their own unique appeals with fish species varying depending on the lake
For northern pike, look to the smaller chain of lakes to the east of Hanson. Link, Gift, Fish, Nawakwa, Faith and Bullfrog Lakes all have northern pike and most of them have smallmouth bass as well.
Lake trout anglers, if you want to venture out from Ester and Hanson, Rabbit Lake has a great population of average sized lakers. Make a day of it and portage into Cherry Lake to the west and then from Cherry, head north to Lunar and Lake of the Clouds for some fine lake trout action. You could also seek out lake trout by portaging south from Hanson to South Arm Knife, and then into Eddy Lake.
For walleye, you will be best-served fishing South Arm Knife, Ottertrack or Cherry Lake. And if you are up for more of a paddle, Little Knife and Knife Lakes also have walleye. And for smallmouth bass, focus on Ottertrack, Ester, Hanson, Cherry, South Arm Knife and Eddy. If you make it west into Amoeber, Topaz and even Little Knife and Knife, you’ll find smallmouth bass in all of these lakes.
A Boundary Waters rarity can even be found in Ashdick Lake, northeast of Ester. In Ashdick you can find largemouth bass. You will want to focus your efforts on the northern half of this lake however as the southern half is very shallow and muddy, much like the bay on Ottertrack just west of the Monument Portage.
So you’re not a fisherman? Ester and Hanson can work for you just the same. Relaxing and quality time can be had at any campsite in the BWCA. Exploring both Ester and Hanson you’ll find some nice rock outcroppings along the shorelines and streams feeding into these lakes from adjacent lakes. For those of you concerned about damage to the wilderness from the windstorm in 1999 and the forest fires in 2006 and 2007, rest assured that this area was unaffected by either windstorm or fire. You can enjoy the mature pine forest in all its glory.
You can take a day trip to Cherry Lake to view and explore the beautiful palisade vistas on the north shore of the lake that stretch straight out of the water to a height of 100 feet. Looking for a BWCA history lesson? Portage back out to Ottertrack Lake and visit the old homestead of Benny Ambrose, the last living resident in the BWCA. Ask us about where it’s at exactly, and we’ll point it out on your map.
If you’re up for a full day of exploring and paddling, pack a lunch and go climb to the top of Thunder Point on Knife Lake. You can almost see Ely from that vantage point high atop the rocky bluff. Eddy Falls is a popular destination in this area. Eddy Lake was mentioned earlier for having good lake trout fishing, well it also has a gorgeous waterfall that empties into South Arm Knife Lake. It’s a can’t miss stop as you explore South Arm Knife.
Wildlife will certainly accompany you on your trip to Ester and Hanson. Photo ops are available around every twist and turn and every dip of the paddle. This base camp trip has something for everyone.
Four days is the minimum I would spend on this trip. Six days would be ideal to take it all in.
Give us a call if you have questions, we thoroughly enjoy introducing people to areas of the BWCA that they’ve never seen before. If you’re planning your first Boundary Waters canoe trip, this is a great introductory trip option. Let Ester and Hanson be your guide.
For more information about planning this canoe trip, see the many resources on our website for help: