Sunday, July 15 – Saturday, July 21, 2018
Length: 7 days, 6 nights
Route: Little Indian Sioux River (Entry Point 14) to Moose River (Entry Point 16)
- EP 14 to Little Indian Sioux River (40) through LIS (60) into Upper Pauness into Lower Pauness (40) [3 portages]: 140 rods
- Campsite 43 on Lower Pauness Lake, a.k.a. Windy Patio
- Lower Pauness through Devil’s Cascade to Loon Lake (54), paddle through East Loon Bay into Little Loon Lake, to Slim Lake (168) [2 portages]: 222 rods
- Campsite 81, a.k.a. Cloud City
- Slim Lake through the abandoned bushwhack trail into Fat Lake (265) to Eugene (73) to Little Beartrack (37) to Beartrack (19) [4 portages]: 394 rods
- Campsite 93, a.k.a. Bone Alley
- Beartrack to Thumb (197) to Finger (20) to Pocket Lake (67) to Pocket Creek (20) to Ge-be-on-equat Creek to Ge-be-on-equat Lake (26) [5 portages]: 330 rods
- Campsite 120, a.k.a. Root Grove on Leech Bay
- Root Grove campsite on Gebe to Lake Furniture point of interest (a.k.a. Alien’s Landing) on Gebe, to Green Lake (124) to Rocky Lake (68) to Oyster Lake (71) [3 portages]: 263 rods
- Campsite 1774, a.k.a. House of Earth and Pine
- Oyster Lake to Oyster River (67) through Oyster River (20) into Nina Moose River (93) through Nina Moose River (71) into Nina Moose Lake [4 portages]: 251 rods
- Campsite 1789, a.k.a. Storm’s End
- Nina Moose Lake to Moose River (25, 25) to take-out on Entry Point 16 (160) [3 portages]: 210 rods
TOTAL BODIES OF WATER PADDLED (LAKES, RIVERS, CREEKS): 25
TOTAL PORTAGES: 23
TOTAL DISTANCE PORTAGED: 1,810 rods (29,865 feet; 5.66 miles)
1,810 rods x 3 (double-portage) = 5,430 rods (89,595 feet; 16.97 miles)
Participants: 6 adults (3 women, 3 men) in their 30s
- Katie (veteran)
- Jessamine (3rd year)
- Taylor (2nd year)
- Bret (2nd year)
- Benson (rookie)
- Chris (rookie)
- (3) 17’ Quetico Souris River Kevlar canoes (40-42 lbs.)
- Endurance (Katie & Jessamine)
- Slight Excess (Taylor & Bret)
- Youthful Folly (Chris & Ben)
- (1) CCS Hybrid Guide
- (1) CCS Hybrid Pioneer
- (1) CCS Deluxe Food Pack
- (1) Duluth Style Food Pack
- (3) Large Duluth Style Portage Packs
- (2) IceMule Pro Cooler backpacks
Katie and I began planning our annual expedition during the previous winter. When we researched the routes and trip reports, we learned of an abandoned 265-rod portage trail between Slim and Fat Lakes. The trail is not marked on the map, but some kind souls posted the GPS coordinates on the BWCA forum. Reviews of this trail were mixed – “it’s a bushwhack! It’s not so bad! One of the hardest in the BWCA! I got lost!” After some consideration, we decided that this is the kind of adventure we want to attempt. And so, the trip came to be known as Operation: Bushwhack!
The trip itself started on shaky ground. On the night before our group was to get together, we found out that Ben came down with strep throat. The good news was that he was asymptomatic and had already started his antibiotic regimen. After 24 hours of medication, he would no longer be contagious. Well, we were all scheduled to meet before that 24 hours was up, so my mind convinced itself that my throat was feeling scratchy. This all wound up being a non-issue (no one got sick) but I was edgy for the first day. I did not want to have to change the trip name from “Operation: Bushwhack” to “Illness in the Wilderness,” especially on this difficult route we were planning.
Our first day was easy, going up Little Indian Sioux River and camping at Lower Pauness Lake, on the campsite on the point peering over to the portage to Shell Lake, the more crowded route option on this entry point. The site had a roomy, flat rock ledge from where we could all post up with our chairs. The winds were very strong, holding the mosquitoes at bay for the most part. Hence the name, Windy Patio.
That evening, Katie got up around 2:00 am to try to take a photo of the tent against a backdrop of stars. Little did she know that she would capture something even better. In her groggy state of mind, she was peeved that maybe she got some light pollution in her shot of the stars. Only later did she realize that what she had actually captured with her camera was the Aurora Borealis, or the Northern Lights!
Every day thereafter, we would typically break camp and have paddles in the water by about 8:30 or 9:00 at the latest. And we would often stop by about 2:00 or 3:00. Breakfasts consisted of “Uffda Muffins,” made by Taylor’s friend Jess (a.k.a. “Uffda”) in Minneapolis. These were dense, protein-packed cornbread muffins with a lot of sustenance. We also each packed our own lunch rations, usually PB&J sandwiches on little round breads, a handful of beef jerky, a CLIF bar, dried fruit, a Snicker’s mini, a Babybel cheese, and crackers. We don’t stop for lunch, and everyone just eats along the way.
On the second day, we took the Devil’s Cascade Portage (we called it Root Beer Falls) into Loon Lake. Gusty winds made for a challenging paddle on this large lake, even in the morning, and we had to dig on the right side pretty much the whole time. More like Lunacy Lake! We finally got to Slim Lake, our stop on the eve of the bushwhack. Our campsite that night was on a high rocky platform overlooking the lake with a view to the gorgeous clouds above. One cloud looked like an Imperial Destroyer from Star Wars, so we called the site Cloud City.
That afternoon, we were lucky that the Forest Rangers paid us a visit. They switched out our latrine! One of them also said that he checked out the bushwhack trail from the Fat Lake side, and it was still there. Though he only looked into it for about 20 yards or so. Sounds promising. Aside from these rangers, we didn’t see a single soul on the two days we spent from Slim Lake to Ge-be-on-equat Lake.
Finally, the morning of the bushwhack arrived. We had to use the GPS coordinates downloaded online in order to even find the entrance on Slim Lake. The entrance itself was blocked by a large fallen tree, so we had to make do with a narrow and tricky boat landing down the shore. A giant fish skeleton marked our entrance. How ominous!
We decided that instead of going through with our canoes first as we normally do, we’d leave them behind at the entrance. Instead, we’d grab some packs and go together as a group so that we can see the trail clearly. We put Chris in the vanguard with a hatchet and a walkie-talkie, and set Ben as our “rear admiral” with the other two-way radio we brought. Katie and I had the marked trail on our Garmin watches, so we could check our progress. The six of us made our way through. The trail itself is still very much existent and easy to stay on once you’re on it. Finding it in the first place, on the Slim side, was the hardest part; it would have been near impossible without a GPS unit, because it was blocked by the fallen tree. There was growth encroaching on the trail in some parts and Chris hacked at it. A true bushwhack! There were also LOTS of treefall to go over/under/around. Getting through with packs was fairly easy, though at some point some of us were actually crawling on the trail on hands and knees.
Getting through with canoes was a technical challenge. We had three canoe carriers, each followed by three canoe spotters. At points we had to do two-person carry-overs or carry-unders. But ultimately, we all got through to the other side with all our packs and canoes. I’m not sure if 265 rods is an accurate measurement. My watch measured the distance to be closer to one mile each way, so maybe it’s more like 300 rods. In any case, Fat Lake greeted us with the clearest waters I’ve ever seen in the BWCA. We did it! We completed the abandoned, unmarked trail! We called it the Bogwarts Bushwhack.
We trudged through the next few little lakes and portages – all beautiful, especially Eugene Lake – then settled in at a site on Beartrack Lake. There were animal skull fragments next to the grate, and the site itself was laterally laid out with many flat tent pads. Bone Alley became its name. Katie and Taylor were on dinner duty that night, noteworthy after such an arduous day. They made some excellent flank steak, grilled veggies, beans, and tortillas, a fitting last meal of fresh food. This was also the day I started making hot toddies, an excellent addition to camp life. Zubrowka bison grass vodka is especially good with apple cinnamon tea and a short squeeze of honey. Whiskey and ginger peach tea was also yummy. At the end of the night, Taylor and Bret were kind enough to invite us all over into their “grand pavilion” (a 4-person tent) to play a round of DC Comics Deck Builder.
All of the lakes in this remote region were beautiful and full of clear water. I would love to come back and spend much more time up here. The following day’s paddle was largely uneventful, except when we got to Ge-be-on-equat Creek. This little water way was just full of lily pads, large and small. Paddling through them, beautiful as they were, required a little bit more effort. We finally got to Ge-be-on-equat Lake, where we saw other campers for the first time in about two days. Chris and Ben caught a couple of fish and we ate a smallmouth bass at camp as a snack.
Our campsite was spacious but gnarled with tree roots. Just off the shore was a small island, which we called Benson Island. Ben swam over by himself and upon his return nonchalantly announced that he got a cut on his big toe. It didn’t seem like a big deal so I told him where he could find the first aid kit. A few minutes later, as the rest of our group lounged in our chairs by the water, we heard a throaty bellow (or was it a yip?) come from Ben’s tent. We all yelled out, “Ben! Are you okay??” A resounding “NO!” came back to us. Ben stormed out of his tent, calmly but swiftly, in nothing but his skivvies. “Get the first aid kit!”
I ran for the kit as Ben plopped down on a chair to announce that a leech had SLITHERED INTO HIS OPEN WOUND ON HIS BIG TOE.
A field hospital scene ensued. I returned to the group with the first aid kit. Taylor somehow got ahold of a packet of salt, which we later found out she keeps on hand in her fanny pack at all times (???). We knew that in order to detach a leech from your skin, you could try igniting a lighter next to it. Or pouring salt on it. But this was a different circumstance. The leech was INSIDE the open wound somehow. We’ve all heard of the expression about pouring salt on an open wound, so that was a last resort. Putting a lighter to an open wound also seemed like a bad idea.
Instead, we brought some bourbon over. Ben took a swiggle-swoggle for himself and then poured some on his wound. The leech did not like that at all. He shriveled up a bit. Then Katie took the venom extractor and started trying to pump the leech out of Ben’s wound as Chris and I took turns holding Ben’s foot. Eventually, the leech came out and that was that. To Ben’s credit, he stayed calm the whole time. No yelling, no tears. Strictly matter-of-fact bravery in the face of a slithery alien-like creature entering a wound on his body. Damn. What a scout! The whole saga probably lasted just two or three minutes, but it felt like decades.
We finished the evening on Root Grove at Leech Bay in Ge-be-on-equat Lake with slop (freeze-dried Mexican style rice and chicken with tortillas, and a pouch of breakfast southwest hash freeze dried food). Then Bret treated us to a reading of a short story, “The Death of Ojig,” by Marcel Schwab.
The next morning, before leaving Gebe, we stopped at a campsite across the way that has “Fred Flintstone chairs” made of slabs of stone put together by previous campers. The outfitter also told us that the chairs were an alien abduction point. Hah! “Alien’s Landing” it is! There were six “thrones” for the six of us. Perfect! This is where we took our “expedition photo.” Cool site to visit, but probably not to stay to camp overnight.
For the rest of the trip, we began to see more people, though the region was never quite as busy as last year near Saganaga. We sent ahead Chris and Ben with a walkie-talkie to secure a good campsite amidst the rush of the crowd, while the rest of us double portaged and saw the sites. This day’s route was once again picturesque. Rocky Lake was especially breathtaking, with all its steep rock faces. We found the pictograms of crosses and hash marks on Rocky, and it was very cool. That evening, we wound up on Oyster Lake on an excellent site marked by a giant white pine that had fallen over, its overturned shallow roots creating an earthen shelter for various little creatures. Many of us being Game of Thrones fans, we called the site House of Earth and Pine.
The campsite also had a nice ledge from which to jump into the deep water. Chris and Ben did some jumping, while the rest of us maybe were a little skeeved out by the leech incident and decided to remain on shore. Those guys spent the afternoon fishing, while Taylor, Bret, and I played two rounds of DC Comics using the custom board and saddlebags I made from last year. Meanwhile, Katie explored the site with her camera. It got pretty windy that evening, and it threatened to rain, but never did.
Our last full day of paddling involved some tricky navigation through the reedy swamps from Oyster Lake to Nina Moose Lake. Once again, Chris and Ben went ahead to secure a site, though on two occasions they nearly wound up on Lake Agnes due to navigational errors. The first time, they almost took the 188-rod portage to Agnes, but turned back after 10-20 rods once they realized that this was the wrong route. Then the second time, they took a wrong turn when Oyster River fed into Nina Moose River, and practically got to Agnes before they turned back. Nonetheless, they remained ahead of us. There were beaver dams to cross on Oyster River, but none too difficult.
We encountered a young boy scout troop on the portages along Nina Moose River, and they were so cute. They were huffing and puffing, and keeping their game faces on. We called the portage “Yard Sale Avenue,” for all the loose items they were dropping along the way.
Finally, we got to Nina Moose Lake – and since it was so close to the entry point, there were more people. And the water was once again root beer colored because of the tannins from the trees. (The lake waters on our route from Slim to Oyster were pretty much nice and clear.) We set up camp in the nick of time. Right after the tents and the tarp went up, a storm headed our way. We all huddled under the tarp, watching the rain pound our campsite as occasionally some poor souls traversed the lake, caught padding in a thunderstorm. Taylor, our camp historian, took the time to jot down some “Travel Tips and Action Items.” The storm kept raging, so we wound up cooking dinner under the tarp. Freeze-dried “homestyle” chicken noodle casserole, supplemented with some instant hash browns, wasn’t so bad especially with some extra steak seasoning and some drops of lemon juice. For many reasons, we called this site, “Storm’s End.”
On our last morning, we woke up at 5:00 am and had our morning coffee and broke camp. We had paddles in the water by 7:00 am. Paddling through Moose River to the takeout was uneventful, except for all the deer flies buzzing around. The mosquitos were also bad. The portages were very well maintained, and of course, crowded. We met a large, friendly family – a cheerful cast of Home Alone – on its way to Lac La Croix. I hope they didn’t leave Kevin behind!
We got to the entrance by 9:45, with 15 minutes to spare before the outfitter picked us up. We celebrated with early morning shots of whiskey, I’m a little ashamed/proud to say. Then the outfitter came and gave us some ice cold Hamms out of the cooler for the ride back. After a hot shower, a last “yard sale” of our things, and a delicious burger from the Ely Steakhouse, we headed back to Minneapolis. And from there, we all went our separate ways – Austin, Boston, Chicago, and San Francisco. Until next time, BWCA!