Seagull Outfitters Paddler’s Tales
Solo Down the Kawishiwi
By: Philip McNealy
“The world, we are told, was made especially for man a presumption not supported by all the facts.” This quote from John Muir, previously just a pithy observation, suddenly became cold, hard fact for me that September afternoon as I paddled in a persistent, biting rain, searching for a little-used portage on Trapline Lake. Rain, fog, exhaustion and frustration were making route-finding increasingly difficult. I checked and re-checked my map, thinking: It has to be here. After paddling around the same little bay three times without seeing any sign of a portage, I was beginning to question whether I was even on Trapline Lake. I tucked the map away, spun the canoe around and there it was, not 20 yards away; just the slightest hint of a clearing in the trees near the base of a cliff. If only I’d stayed in my cozy goose down bag. Instead, I’d paddled away from my camp on the Kawishiwi River during a break in the rain, hopelessly optimistic that it wouldn’t last all day. My intention was to reach Kekekabic but by noon it was clear that I wouldn’t even come close to making it that far. Paddling through fields of reeds and water lilies in search of shy portages in this less-trammeled area of the Boundary Waters had slowed me considerably. I was wet and tired and the day’s worst was yet to come. But this isn’t the story of a miserable wilderness trip. For every cold, rainy day there is a warm, sunny day. For every sore muscle there is a sunset or a laughing loon to make you remember: Oh yes, this is why I came here. The difficulties of wilderness travel are more than offset by the rewards, and this trip was no different.
These are only a few of the memories from my six-day solo trip in September 2000. Starting in Seagull you can make a nice loop through Ogishkemuncie, Little Saganaga, then through several smaller lakes to the Kawishiwi River. From there you can wind your way down the river, up to Kekekabic, then back to Seagull. The loop will take you through a wide variety of Boundary Waters landscapes; through popular lakes and some less-traveled areas; through areas affected by the 1999 blowdown as well as areas untouched by the storm; through large lakes, small ponds and through the sinewy beauty of the Kawishiwi River, one of the most beautiful areas I’ve seen in the Boundary Waters. If you’re looking for wilderness solitude, this is the place to find it. From the time I left Ogishkemuncie on Monday afternoon, I didn’t see another person until I arrived back in Ogish on Friday. This loop can be done in six days, but I would recommend using seven to account for weather delays and to allow a more relaxing pace. Also, I double-portaged the whole way, so your travel time may be faster or slower depending on your methods.
Day one of this trip began at the east end of Seagull Lake and ended at Gabimichigami. Thankfully, Seagull was smooth as glass as I paddled my Bell solo canoe past the Palisades, Miles Island, and into the open lake; paddling west on Seagull can be a trial if the wind is blowing. Seagull is a large and stunningly beautiful lake that you could easily spend a week exploring. I met a man at the Seagull entry point who had driven all the way from California just to spend a week kayaking on Seagull. The damage from the 1999 storm at the Alpine portage is startling. Very few mature trees are left standing along this well-used trail, but many saplings survived. Alpine is a beautiful lake with a bewildering array of islands and is a popular destination for weekend paddlers. Paddling through this lake brought back fond memories of some of the first canoe trips I took with my son years ago. The portage between Alpine and Jasper follows a trail through a grove of old cedars and maple undergrowth alongside the falls that tumble into Alpine. A single red maple leaf on the trail caught my eye and I stopped to snap a picture of it and relax next to the rushing water of the falls.
The inviting sound of the falls faded as I paddled into Jasper, past some of the last blooming water lilies of the summer near the portage. Soon I reached the Kingfisher portage, where a ruffed grouse kept a wary eye on me and strutted through the old cedars.
A strong wind kicked up by the time I entered Ogishkemuncie and I knew I had a workout ahead of me. Thankfully, on the east end of Ogish there are some small islands that make it possible to “island-hop” to avoid paddling into the full force of the wind. Halfway through Ogish I reached the narrows that divide the lake’s west and east ends, which gave me a break from the wind before heading west again. As I left the narrows I again faced the full brunt of the wind near what I have personally named Windy Corner. Anyone who has paddled west on Ogish on a windy day knows the place I’m talking about. By now the wind was really blowing and I was soon paddling into slow rollers with hissing whitecaps. With great effort, and even greater relief, I made it past Windy Corner and turned south, which allowed me to tack into the wind and then coast into the secluded bay where the portage to Mueller is located.
The portage to Mueller has a steep uphill climb near the south end that will make your knees protest. But I was rewarded at the top of the hill by the sight of several bald eagles gracefully circling close overhead. The lakes between Ogishkemuncie and Gabimichigami, Mueller and Agamok, are small, narrow lakes. They are protected from the wind by the surrounding hills and make for very nice, secluded paddling. The campsites appear to be very little used. Through the crystal-clear waters of Agamok I could see the jumble of huge boulders ten feet below the surface.
Late in the afternoon, blissfully exhausted, I finally reached my goal: a campsite on the tip of an island on the south side of Gabimichigami. The nearby cliffs, great views of the expanse of Gabi and the nearly constant breeze off the lake make this one of my favorite campsites. The sharp light of the low afternoon sun brought the colors of the landscape into relief and left a red glow on the granite cliff across the bay from my camp. Two paddlers made their way into Gabi from the Agamok portage. They picked a campsite far across the lake from me and soon had a fire going. I could see their flickering shapes as they moved about camp in the gathering dark. Only at the end of the week would I realize that the flickering firelight far across Gabi would be the last sign of other people I’d see for four days.
The next morning I crawled out of my tent to a heartache sunrise; a wispy Milky Way of intense pink and red cotton candy covered the top of the sky from north to south. Within minutes it faded. The sight left me feeling energized and eager to push further into the Boundary Waters, into the unknown. From here the route would be new territory to me. I wanted to reach the Kawishiwi on day two, a place I’d been eyeing on my map for a year.
After coffee and a quick breakfast I packed up camp and paddled around the south side of my little island to the portage to Rattle Lake. South of Rattle is not-so-little Little Saganaga. You could easily spend several days exploring the archipelago of islands and countless nooks and crannies in this gem of a lake. But I stuck to my schedule and pressed on. From Little Sag I went through Elton, Makwa, Panhandle, Pan, Anit, Kivaniva, and a few small ponds to the head of the Kawishiwi River. Once you reach the west end of Little Sag, you pretty much leave the 1999 storm damage behind and enter areas of the Boundary Waters that fewer people visit. Portages are lightly used and may be partially grown over and hard to find, but you will find true solitude here and beautiful Boundary Waters scenery.
The further I left Gabimichigami behind, the more I felt a growing sense of isolation. I felt torn between a need for human company and the desire to explore the wilderness alone. Because of the pace I followed on day two, my trip from Gabi to the Kawishiwi is a blur of portages, sun, water lilies, granite cliffs, bald eagles, turkey vultures and increasing sense of being truly in the middle of nowhere: just what I was looking for. On a portage I met a tiny painted turtle stubbornly making his way down the trail, but he paid no attention to me and kept forging ahead. I too forged ahead.
By the time I reached the Kawishiwi it was late afternoon and I took the first campsite after the portage from Kivaniva. I set up camp, made a cup of hot chocolate and found a warm, comfortable granite seat to watch the sunset. A family of beavers swam back and forth across the river, keeping a wary eye on me. A pair of loons circled a nearby island, drifted far apart, then called to each other and soon met again. Their haunting calls echoed up and down the Kawishiwi. Though exhausted, I was finally at the place I’d dreamed of visiting for a year. The work to get there was well worth it. Being alone in the wilderness puts an edge on life. You must be very careful to not get hurt so you tend to do everything with great mindfulness. After a few days you really begin to leave civilization behind, along with the incessant stream of worries and thoughts running through your mind. Soon life is reduced to its fundamentals and you’re simply left with a cup of hot chocolate, a sunset, and complete happiness.
Next morning, day three, I woke to a steady drizzle pattering on the tent, which soon stopped, except for the drops falling off the cedars overhead. After breakfast the clouds started to break up, so I packed up and paddled into the river, hoping to reach Kekekabic (a goal I would later discover was far too ambitious). The Kawishiwi River is actually more of a narrow, slowly meandering stream, without much current to pull you along. This area was not damaged by the 1999 storm so the trees and foliage are still thick and crowd in from both sides of the river, making for a beautiful, relaxing paddle with few portages.
I rounded the first corner and found myself 40 yards from an enormous bull moose standing knee-deep in the water and munching water lilies. He stopped chewing and regarded me with extreme disinterest, then turned his rear end to me and continued his snack. After a few minutes he stepped out of the water, rubbed his massive antlers on a tree, snorted at me, then wandered into the woods. I could hear branches snapping under his feet long after he disappeared.
Apparently the moose knew what was coming. A heavy rain soon started that didn’t end until the following morning. Day three took me down the Kawishiwi, then north through Trapline, Beaver, Adams, Boulder, and ended at Cap. On the unnamed pond just south of Cap is the most magnificent beaver dam I’ve ever seen, a masterpiece of rodential engineering skill that costs canoeists a long, painful detour portage into Cap. I finally reached Cap after a long day of paddling in the rain and searching through reed-choked lake-ends for seemingly hidden portages. Because of the rain and fog, but mostly due to exhaustion and foggy thinking, I could not for the life of me find the portage out of Cap. It was almost dark, so I called it a day and took the only campsite on Cap. It was still raining but now the temperature took a steep dive and severe lightning storms and high winds were headed my way. During a serendipitous break in the rain, I quickly threw up the tent and piled in, too tired to eat or even filter water. Lightning flashed and wind and rain battered my tent all night during what was without a doubt the loneliest night I’ve spent in the Boundary Waters. Even my friends the loons took cover. You know it’s bad when you start to believe Mother Nature is out to get you personally. I finally decided that she was merely indifferent. Neither idea was comforting.
By morning the storms stopped. I poked my head out of the tent only to immediately see the lost portage out of Cap. It was only 100 yards away across the bay from camp. Patches of blue sky appeared and the wind kicked up, chasing the remnants of the storms away and lifting my spirits. After a breakfast bar and an infusion of caffeine, I cheerfully crammed my soaked gear into the backpack, loaded the canoe and paddled to the portage to Sagus. On day four I started from Sagus, followed Fraser, Gerund, Ahmakose, Wisini, Strup, and ended at Kekekabic. It was a warm sunny day that more than made up for the previous day’s rain. A family of beavers on Sagus sunned themselves on a boulder as I paddled by. Startled, they sprang off the rock and swam right under my canoe.
By the time I reached Wisini I was well back into the storm-damaged area. The portage from Strup to Kekekabic is a devastated area and the Kekekabic Trail appears to be gone for good under fallen trees. With neither the energy nor desire to battle the waves on Kekekabic, I paddled east with the wind and coasted to the nearest campsite.
I spent the afternoon relaxing in the sun and drying my gear. Fallen trees had the campsite pretty much hemmed in. I noted with amusement the two trees that had fallen within inches either side of the potty seat. The sunshine and relaxation were exactly what I needed to recuperate. This campsite has great western exposure and the sun put on a spectacular show as it set. I could have stayed here for a week. The twilight slowly faded away and stars appeared over the western expanse of Kekekabic. I crawled into my goose down bag and quickly fell asleep as the haunting calls of the loons echoed around the lake.
The lake was smooth and calm the next morning as I paddled to the east end of Kekekabic, one of my favorite lakes. The soaring cliffs and fantastic campsites make it well worth your time to linger for a day or more at Kekekabic. Several portages and paddles through Kekekabic Ponds, Eddy, Jenny, and Annie finally brought me back into Ogishkemuncie, where I’d been four days earlier. A strong following wind allowed me to coast the length of Ogish all the way to the Kingfisher portage, where I finally saw two people. Having not used it for four days, my voice cracked when I said hi. The wind was so friendly to me on day five that I easily paddled all the way back to Seagull and camped on an island near the Alpine portage. I felt rather sad that my adventure was nearing an end, but the responsibilities of civilization were calling me back (as was the idea of a fat, juicy mushroom Swiss burger and chocolate shake at the Trail Center restaurant.) The next morning I reluctantly paddled to the east end of Seagull and handed my paddle and canoe over to the fine folks at Seagull Outfitters, ending my trip.
Traveling solo deep into the wilderness is not for everyone. You must accept the risks of becoming seriously ill or hurt in a very secluded area. Be prepared and don’t take chances. If you accept the risks and give soloing a try, you will find it exhilarating to push outside the aura of comfort and relative security that we live in every day and face the wilderness alone, on its terms.
I drove down the Gunflint Trail, feeling like I was leaving home instead of going home. Those who have traveled through the Boundary Waters understand. Another year would pass before I could return; another restless year of poring over maps and dreaming of visiting unexplored territory. More words from John Muir, another solo wilderness traveler, came to mind: “I wish I knew where I was going. Doomed to be ‘carried of the spirit into the wilderness,’ I suppose. I wish I could be more moderate in my desires, but I cannot, and so there is no rest.”
Thanks to the preservation of wild places like the Boundary Waters, today’s wilderness traveler may discover the same transforming love of nature that Muir wrote of so eloquently. To go solo in the Boundary Waters is to sever your ties to safety and abandon yourself to the lightning, wind and waves; to lose yourself amid the cedars and pines and soaring cliffs; to leave everything behind only to rediscover something you may have lost sight of: yourself.