Canoe Trip Report

BWCA Frost River – Father-Sons Canoe Trip

Entry Date: June 1, 2009
Trip Length: 9 Days
Permit Required: Cross Bay Lake (#50) – BWCA
Group Size: 3
Submitted by: Navigator


Frost River – Solitude, Solidarity & Stamina – A Father’s Joy

Monday, June 01, 2009

Anticipation… The only word I can used to describe the feeling as me and my two boys, Matt (17) and Andrew (14) stepped into our Jeep Liberty at 5AM and started our 12 hour commute to my most favorite place on Earth – The BWCAW! As we traveled, I couldn’t help wondering what awaited us – Will the weather hold, will there be adequate water levels in the Frost River, will my boys not kill each other (a Dad’s ongoing struggle), will the fishing be good. For me, the trip really begins in Duluth as the prairie lands and straight highways disappear and the rugged terrain of the Northwoods begins to unfold.

We arrive at Seagull Canoe Outfitters at the end of the Gunflint Trail on schedule and are welcomed by Deb Mark as we arrive. A native Northern Minnesota resident, Deb is always full of valuable information that helps us as we plan our trip ahead. We check in, buy licenses, BWCA Permits; check into the Paddler’s Lodge – our home for the evening – before heading back down the Trail to the Red Paddle Bistro.

For those who haven’t experienced the Red Paddle Bistro at Gunflint Lodge on Gunflint Lake… you are missing something special! Great food with a rustic lodge atmosphere. Try the Walleye Chowder – it keeps me coming back!

We finish our last “real food” for the week, as my sons would say, and head back to Seagull Outfitters. Dusk on the Trail is always full of wildlife! We come across a fox frolicking along the trail.

We also visit our launch point and snap off a pre-trip photo at Cross Bay River near our point of debarkation. We are excited to get the paddles wet!

After playing cards for a few hands, we decide to turn in as 7AM comes pretty early for young men 🙂

frost_river_day_1_route_mapTuesday, June 02, 2009

We load the transports and head off to the Cross Bay River landing. I always imagine what the Seagull Staff is thinking as they help off-load our gear at the landing…”All this gear for three people?” “What ever happened to traveling light?” We manage to coordinate the pack locations in our Kevlar Bell Northwoods w/ 3rd Seat. Although it feels a bit cumbersome in deciding where it should all go, we know that by the end of the next couple of portages, this will become systematic – and it does.

We arrive quickly to our first portage. A 66 rod, “highway” of a portage. It is wide and well traveled. It even comes with a handy stair-step to help you make your way up the small incline. Eagar to get the first portage behind us, we off-load and get started. Here is a map of the route for the day…

After a short 30 rod portage we set our canoe into Ham Lake. We are aware as we approach the campsite where the Ham Lake fire of 2007 started the dangers of an unmanaged campfire. It gives me an opportunity early in our trip to re-confirm with my kids the importance of campfire safety and show them the damage that can occur if not properly managed. The campsite was untouched, but the area to the west of the site – across a small narrowing of the lake – showed the ravages of a wildfire. It had almost an eerie feel as the individual who was held responsible for starting the fire had committed suicide recently. One more casualty of the fire and the only human life lost.

We passed through Ham lake and arrive at the 24 rod portage which is miss-marked on my McKenzie Map. The actual portage is about 100 yards to the west of the marked portage on the map. While that doesn’t sound too far, it did create some delay in finding the landing. As we work our way through the portage we notice we are definately in early Spring in the northwoods! Ferns are just emerging and the flowers are yet to bloom.

We quickly make it through the portage and enter Cross Bay Lake. As we paddle, we are getting a foreshadowed taste of the Frost River. The lake looks to be a great habitat for Moose and Northerns with grassy shallows. We press on as we know we have a lot of ground to cover today. We portage into Rib Lake, Doe Lake and then into Long Island Lake. We also find it difficult to locate the 35 rod portage in Long Island Lake but eventually find it to the east of the marked map showing it at the campsite. It was definitely worth finding as the alternative was a long paddle around Long Island. The portage is a great walk – flat, wide with a sandy beach landing waiting for us at the end. Not only was it the best portage (by far) of our trip – it was probably one of the best portages in the BWCA. As we arrive at the landing, a short shower ensues creating a good opportunity for a portage trail lunch stop before pressing on.

By this time, we are beginning to feel the stress of the portages already passed. This coupled with being the first day in had us dreaming of our stop at Frost Lake for the evening. We had a campsite targeted based upon the suggestion of Deb Mark at Seagull Outfitters and were pushing to get it. We finally reached the 140 rod portage taking us into Unload Lake. This portage was to be the longest of our trip and was rather uneventful and easy. We get an added treat as we paddle through Unload Lake and approach the 40 rod portage – we never saw it!

We arrive at the campsite we hoped to secure to find it vacant. We set camp and have a great meal consisting of most of the fresh food we had packed in – Ribeyes, fresh green beans, corn-on-the-cob and garlic mashed potatoes. A feast fit for a king! We spent much of that evening walking along and enjoying the sand beach immediately adjacent our campsite. Signs of moose and other frequent visitors to the beach were easily seen.

We noticed that two of the sites on the west-end of the lake are occupied, so we agree to get an early start to the day in an effort to hit Bologna Lake before the others. We turn in on a clear night and cool temps.

The day’s totals: 11 portages, 488 rods and 8 miles of territory. Started the day at 7:30AM and arrived at Frost Lake at 2:30PM.

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Appropriately, we woke on Frost Lake to frost. With the clear skies, we experienced a cold evening on Frost Lake and had frost built on our cook gear in camp. It was a very clear, quiet still morning as we tumbled out of the tent at 6AM. Our plan was to have a quick breakfast and get an early start on the morning – our target was the campsite on Bologna Lake, the only site on the Frost River. Shortly after leaving the tent, we noticed that our neighbors on Frost had the same idea, but had a head start. They had started their run toward the 130 rod portage out of Frost Lake toward the Frost River. Our goal on getting away early was to make a concerted effort to grab the site on Bologna Lake, but after seeing this other group on their way, we elected instead to have a little bigger breakfast and a little later start. We had a hearty breakfast. We pushed off at 9:10AM from our site on Frost Lake and began our run. We completed the first 6 portages and three miles of our day by noon. As we proceeded through the morning, I noticed the portage trails themselves becoming more primitive and remote – like the area we were entering. The canoe balanced on my shoulders rubbed over hanging tree limbs frequently and the portage trail overgrowth gently glanced by my knees and calves. The footing was a bit more challenging as well. With all the rain the area had received in the recent past, the portage trails were wet to the step in many places – we even dealt with trail bogs. A favorite in my book – ?! The portaging actually was quite enjoyable as we advanced deeper into the wilderness.

As we reached Chase Lake, we had a decision to make. Since we had seen the canoes traveling the route ahead of us, we assumed that they may have occupied the Bologna Lake campsite. Without scouting the site, we elected to push on and shoot for the Afton Lake site. We elected to take a quick break and “fuel the machines” before pressing on through the river. We pulled the canoe ashore by placing the nose on the bank and off loaded the gear at the landing. We began having a bite when out of the corner of my eye, I see the canoe catching a gust of wind and slowly pulling away from shore. Matt was the closest to the wayward canoe and without thinking, extinctively leaped from the shore into the bow of the empty canoe. As all reading this I’m sure knows, an empty canoe is as unstable as they come and a body being dropped into the bow was more than she could take tipping and submerging at the shoreline. In retrospect, without doing this, someone still would have been swimming for the canoe as it was on its way across the open water, but that didn’t help my son. Pulling the canoe ashore, we took advantage of the one day of warm sunshine we had on the trip to dry out.

After lunch we continued on to Pencil Lake and then officially into the Frost River. At the end of the 65 rods portage, we placed the canoe along the river bank and headed back for our gear. When we returned – the canoe was gone. Another gust of wind had taken it and when we returned, it had pushed down river about 50 yards. Fortunately for us, it was easily retrieved and we proceeded on our path. We were now in the most pristine, remote area of the Frost River. Shallow waters, grass bank edges and narrow twists & turns describe the waterway. Occasional beaver dams and lodges dotted the route. We had covered at least three beaver dams that required us to “pull-over”

afton_lake_portage_landingThe sun was dropping now in the late afternoon as we pulled into Afton Lake only to find that the site was occupied. We had no other option than to press on. We pulled up to the infamous 10 rod portage I had heard others talk about. Here is a picture of the approach The portage is on the right around the large rock…

It was a straight uphill and downhill mountain climb! A very difficult portage in and of itself, but after a long day coming through the Frost River made it even harder.

We press on targeting the aptly named Whipped Lake campsite, but as we approach we find it, too, occupied. By this time, we are tired and the sun is lowering in the sky. We head to the 100 rod landing out of Whipped to Mora and fortunately find the first island campsite open and available. We welcome the sight of the empty camp site and land exhausted! It is 6:15PM – one of the latest times of day I can recall securing a campsite in many years. I’ve learned that attempting to find a site too late in the day usually results in a longer than expected day and exhaustion.

The day’s totals: 15 portages, 421 rods and 15 miles of territory. Started the day at 9:10AM and arrived at Mora Lake at 6:15PM. In retrospect, I wish we had explored the site on Bologna Lake before deciding to proceed through the Frost River. I had thought the other groups who had left before us that morning would have taken the site and the portage may have been wasted effort. but after getting to Afton Lake & Whipped Lake to find those site taken, I wonder if they too moved on that morning. Here is a map of the route for the day…

frost_river_day_2_route_mapThursday, June 04, 2009

After our long day yesterday, we welcomed the shortened version of our trip plan for today! Our goal today was to take a site I had visited in 1988 on Little Saganaga Lake.

Flash back to August 1988. I had been on a trip with a very good friend. We had paddled all day in a lightning storm and heavy rains to Little Saganaga. Just before we had arrived, the weather cleared and the sun had reappeared. It was welcome as we were completely soaked from the day of rain. As we landed at the campsite, we noticed an open point away from the campsite that offered warm winds and sunshine – but little cover. We set our tent on the point and began the process of drying out. Later that evening, storms reformed and forced us into our Eureka Timberline tent. The last thing I remember seeing from the “night of terror” I remember it as, was looking out over the lake to a wall cloud approaching and winds picking up. For the next four hours, our tent placed awkwardly on an open point was pummeled by wind and rain. The sound of trees falling around us was deafening. We were literally lying spread-eagle on the bottom of the tent holding it down and praying for the storm’s passage.

campsite_on_little_saganaga_lakeFast forward 21 years, we arrive at the site and set camp (in a much safer position). It was no small task getting here. The 45 rod portage into Little Sag was very pretty. The rapids leading into Little Sag were just off a postcard!

As when we first entered Little Sag Lake we were greeted with a head wind and white caps. Resting only once, we pulled into the site at 11:40AM and set our base camp for the next day.

Spending time at this site gave me a chance to reconcile myself with the site where I almost died. For years I wrestled with this experience and now, I was having the opportunity to re-visit this site. Here’s a picture of the spot – you can see the lack of cover, even after all these years!

The day’s totals: 1 portage, 45 rods and 6 miles of territory. Started the day at 7:10AM and arrived at Frost Lake at 11:40AM.

Friday, June 05, 2009

Layover on Little Saganaga

The day was full of R&R. The morning started overcast and throughout the day there were periods of showers followed by clearing and showers again. We took a day trip to Vierge Lake and took the 6 rod portage into the beautiful little out of the way lake. The portage was 6 rods, but straight up hill! Still a nice little excursion and fishing trip.

Later in the day, my youngest son – Andrew – decided a dip in the lake sounded fun. I’m sure the lake temps had to be in the lower 50 degree range somewhere. It hurt to wash my hair in it. I couldn’t even fathom a full body jump into it.

A quiet sunset and an enjoyable evening by the fire was time well spent with my boys.

Saturday, June 06, 2009

We began the day at 7:10AM and had made our push to Ogishkemuncie (Ogish) Lake. We elected to get an early start on the day as we would have to pass through Gabimichigami Lake and wanted to avoid heavy water if the winds decided to pick up. As we approached our first portage – the 30 rod into Rattle Lake, my oldest son Matt spotted a moose and her 2 calves. We spend some time in the quietness of the bay enjoying the interaction and the care she showed her young before pushing on.

By the time we had reached Gabimichigami Lake, I had feared we may end up in wind, but upon heading into our cross lake paddle, we found it glass clam! It was a beautiful paddle. We paddled through Agamok Lake and were visited by an eagle.

The 115 rod portage into Mueller Lake intersected the Kekekabic Trail. We took a short walk eastward to see the falls. The Kekekabic Trail has a nice foot bridge and gave us an opportunity to see the falls from a really nice vantage point.

After portaging into Ogish we pressed on to the last site on the north shore. This site is one of my favorites and is right on the edge of the Cavity Lake fire burn area. We arrived at 11:40AM and secured camp. We had several loons in the area doing their “dance” and we were able to get them on camera.

The day’s totals: 5 portages, 245 rods and 6 miles of territory. Started the day at 7:10AM and arrived at Ogish Lake at 11:40AM.

Sunday, June 07, 2009

little_saganaga_lake_sunsetLayover on Ogish ~

The joy of a layover day that you don’t remember much of, is that it was spent doing nothing! We spent a little time fishing and managed to catch a smallmouth (one of the few fish we caught on the trip.) We really didn’t put a big emphasis on fishing this trip as we had little luck early. This layover day was spent enjoying camp life and sleeping 🙂

We were visited by a family of chipmunks and had fun feeding them. It looked like they were relatively used to visitors to the camp.

mueller_falls_canyonMonday, June 08, 2009

We started our morning early today as we had hoped to beat the wind, much as we were successful at when traveling to Ogish two days ago. Unfortunately, we were met with a cold, windy day as we left camp at 7:45AM.

The wind was in an unusual direction out of the Northeast and stiff. As I looked over our route back to Seagull Lake, I knew we were in a bad situation. We slipped into Kingfisher Lake and even encountered whitecaps on this small lake. It seemed to only grow in intensity as we continued on our trek.

After stopping for a brief stop at the Jasper Falls for our annual “boys at the falls” photo opportunity, we put into Alpine Lake. The current coming out of the falls slammed into the whitecaps blowing into the discharge. The convergence created an interesting water trap that we had to navigate.

We decided to take the two portages through Rog Lake rather than the 100 rod farther north in an effort to meet the wind off Seagull Lake head on. By taking the 100 rod portage we feared we would take whitecaps to our port side as we crossed Seagull. As we ended our last portage from Rog to Seagull, we were met with an angry Seagull Lake.

bwca_where_boys_become_menWe knew we had a 6 mile stretch into this head wind, so we powered down a “Kudo’s” bar and headed off. We took a brief rest stop behind a small island and another by the two islands off of Three Mile Island. This was the most difficult paddle of the trip and quite tiring. As we headed north toward our targeted campsite, we noticed a front moving in from the west – behind us. East wind and a westward moving storm – it was a weird situation. Before we made camp, we paddled the last 30 minutes in a downpour. We arrived at camp to a stead downpour. We elected to put up the tent and just crash. We were too tired after our push through Seagull to even eat. We thought that we would rest a bit and perhaps the rain would let up – to no avail. The rain locked in and remained for the rest of the night. We settled in knowing that our departure was set for morning and drifted off to a long evening in the tent.

The day’s totals: 5 portages, 193 rods and 8.5 miles of territory. Started the day at 7:45AM and arrived at Seagull Lake at 2:00PM.

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

We broke camp at 6:00AM and made the 3 mile paddle back to Seagull Outfitters at 7:00AM in still, quiet waters. The trip covered 1,392 rods in portages and approximately 36 miles round trip. As we made our leisurely morning paddle back to the dock at Seagull, I would focus on the whirlpools of water from my paddle stroke and imagined the water pulling/calling us back into itself. I have a great deal of pride in my two boys – their effort and work on this trip. I would look to the front of my canoe at my boys and could visualize time also being drawn into the whirlpools. The moments we can spend like the week in the BWCA with my boys are fleeting and brief. I have a melancholy memory of that morning. Time marches by and doesn’t wait for us. Times like these with my two young boys will soon end, but the good time we made on this adventure into the woods will last beyond me in their memories. The time spent brings me a joy beyond description – a legacy is left.

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