BWCA 2017 – Endurance and Slight Excess from Seagull to Saganaga

Saganaga sunset

Sunday, July 29 – Saturday, August 5, 2017

Length: 7 days, 6 nights


Route: Sea Gull Lake (Entry Point 54) to Saganaga (near Grand Marais, MN)


-          Day 1: Sea Gull Lake (no portages)

o   Campsite 466 on Sea Gull Lake, a.k.a. Pink Thunderstorm Island

-          Day 2: Sea Gull Lake to Alpine (100) to Jasper (45) [2 portages]: 145 rods

o   Campsite 800 on Jasper Lake, a.k.a. Beaver Point

-          Day 3: Jasper Lake to Kingfisher (25) to Ogishkemuncie (38) to Annie (15) to Jenny (15) to Eddy (15) [5 portages]: 108 rods

o   Campsite 1428 on Eddy Lake, a.k.a. Chipmunk Docks

-          Day 4: Eddy Lake to South Arm Knife (25) to Toe (15) to South Arm Knife (15) to Hanson (120); float to Ester, float back to Hanson [4 portages]: 175 rods

o   Campsite 326 on Hanson Lake, a.k.a. Hanson Haven

-          Day 5: Hanson Lake to Ester (float) to Ottertrack (80) to Swamp (80 – Monument Portage along border, and a 5-rod mini crossing) to Saganaga and back to Swamp [3 portages]: 165 rods

o   Campsite 339 on Swamp Lake, a.k.a. Creaky Hollow

-          Day 6: Swamp Lake to Saganaga (no portages)

o   Campsite 2074 on Saganaga a.k.a. The Four Seasons

-          Day 7: Saganaga (no portages) – campsite to pick-up, a.k.a., Moose Latrine




TOTAL RODS: 593 rods (9.784.5 feet; 1.85 miles)

            593 rods x 3 (incl. repeat trips) = 1,779 rods (29,353.5 feet; 5.6 miles)


Participants: 4 adults (early-mid 30s)

Katie (1 of 1).jpg


a.k.a., The Veteran

J canoe (1 of 1).jpg


a.k.a., Parvum Sed Potens (PSP)

TB Canoe (1 of 1).jpg


a.k.a., The Howdy-Doer



a.k.a., The Geologist


-          Two Northstar Northwind, 17’, Kevlar, approx. 40lbs (rentals)



-          (1) CCS Hybrid

-          (1) CCS Deluxe Food Pack

-          (1) Duluth Pack #4 (rental)

-          (2) Large Duluth Style Packs

-          (1) IceMule Pro Cooler


Picture this: Bunkhouse #6 at Tuscarora Lodge and Outfitters, four friends huddled around a cot. Bret takes three coins and puts them into the palm of my hand. I blow on the coins and place them into Katie’s hands. She blows on them and gives them to Taylor, who also blesses the coins with her breath. Taylor gives them to Bret, completing the circle and he blows on them. He proceeds to flip them onto the bed, one by one, and makes notes and draws hexagrams from the results. Then he refers to his I Ching book for a reading.


How will our trip go? What will characterize our trip?


The I Ching translated our chance flipping of coins to the themes of ENDURANCE and SLIGHT EXCESS. The “endurance” part of the equation was obvious: the trip consists of large lakes and portages across seven days in the wilderness. The “slight excess” served as both an allowance and a caution: small excesses were permitted – a little too much food, a little too much fun (is there such a thing?) – but some excesses need to be limited. Our hubris may need some checking, and nature itself must be respected according to our own limitations.


With that, we went to sleep, looking forward to the trip ahead.



After breakfast the next morning and some last-minute packing, we embarked on our journey at Sea Gull Lake. The outfitter told us repeatedly that we had “so much time” to complete this route. With this in mind, we paddled leisurely. We stopped and made camp on Sea Gull a little after noon, without even sniffing the opening of a portage. Andy, the outfitter, truly overestimated our abilities. He thought we could be at Ogishkemuncie on the first night! (We did not make it to Ogish until day 3.)


Stopping early ended up being a blessing. As soon as we set up camp, a storm blew through. Luckily, we had our tarp to shield us from the rain. Jessamine, Taylor, and Bret waited out the storm with a game of DC Comics while Katie read. After the rain subsided, we cooked up a satisfying chili-dog dinner.

DC Comics camping


Day 2 began with a slightly excessive breakfast of bacon and scrambled eggs. As a result, we didn’t get out of camp until 11 AM. Totally worth it though! We had a bit of paddle against the wind to get to our first portage into Alpine. Then a short paddle to get to the portage into Jasper. Once on Jasper, the waves picked up quite a bit. We were tired of paddling and hoped to stop at Campsite 801, but it was already taken. It was a nice elevated spot with good views. Instead, we hung out with all the beavers surrounding Campsite 800. Night 2 ended with a steak dinner. Excessive?

Canoe sleeping


The endurance portion of the trip started on Day 3. Outfitter Andy and all of his “YOU HAVE SO MUCH TIME” comments led us to believe that we could take it super easy. On Day 3 we realized that we needed to cover a bit more ground. We set our sights on Eddy Lake and aimed to traverse six lakes and five portages.



Ogishkemuncie provided a beautiful lunch stopping point. Most of the burn areas subsided by the time we hit Ogish, and I wished that we could have camped on this lake. Next time. Speaking of lunch, we totally slightly excessed when packing our lunch food. At the end of the trip we had two bags of trail mix and a can of easy cheese that we didn’t even touch. Note to self: Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches on bread rounds with a side of REAL cheese (we brought aged Gouda and Manchego) and crackers is the way to go! And maybe a bit of beef jerky as well.


Flank steak camping

We were lucky to find a campsite on Eddy Lake. Our route was super crowded in general and campsites were sometimes hard to come by. We realized that the groups of canoers passing our camp at 8 AM were on to something. In the busy portions of the park it is necessary to get an early start so that you can stop early and get a site! Night 3 dinner was flank steak with tortillas and refried beans (always a hit).


Our Day 4 goal was to camp on Ester. We got an early start (by our standards) and took the portage into the South Arm of Knife Lake. Knife is a giant lake, so we chose to take the shortcut across Knife by portaging into Toe. Toe was a swampy uneventful lake, but we were quickly at the next portage back into the next portion of Knife. We were told that the next portage into Hansen would be the toughest of our trip, so we stopped for lunch on Knife before the portage.

canoeing morning


The portage was long with uphill portions that made for a strenuous trip (we dubbed it the Long Bastard). At this point we were worn-out enough that we looked forward to finding a campsite on Ester. Unfortunately, that would not be in the coins for us. As we floated into Ester it soon became clear that EVERY SINGLE CAMPSITE WAS TAKEN! Canoes and campfires everywhere we looked.

Katie and Jessamine


And at this point, we were all very much ready to stop. This was probably the low point of the trip. None of us wanted to risk taking the 80 rod portage into Ottertrack because there was only one campsite before the next portage essentially into Saganaga. And it was becoming very clear that we were in a very populated portion of the park and many campsites were likely occupied. We considered taking the short portage into dead-end Rabbit Lake because it contained two campsites. Bret even walked across this portage to see if the sites were open. He reported that at least one site was full. Exhaustively we debated what to do. Take a gamble and portage into Rabbit, make our own campsite on Ester, or backtrack into Hanson? We had seen an open site on Hanson and begrudgingly turned back. Our endurance came in handy and we finally caught a break when we paddled back to the Hanson site and found it free! This would be our Hanson Haven for the evening. Freeze-dried Mexican Styled Rice and Chicken never tasted so good!



After the campsite fiasco from the day before, we learned our lesson and started earlier on Day 5. We wanted to camp on Saganaga, but we were concerned about afternoon wind on the open portion of the lake. Therefore, our goal was to paddle to Ester (again), portage to Ottertrack, portage into Saganaga, and camp on one of the (only four!) US campsites located before the open water. We divvied up lunch rations to avoid stopping for lunch, and we hoped to be at a campsite by midday.


We hit the water early and quickly navigated back to Ester and to the portage into Ottertrack. Despite our bright and early start the portage was CROWDED. What’s with these people? A bit of survival instinct kicked in as we began to wonder if everyone had the same plan as us. There are only four campsites that we are competing for, and we make good time portaging into Ottertrack.

Bret canoe (1 of 1).jpg


It was a quick paddle through Ottertrack and we arrived at Monument Portage. Monument Portage zig-zags across the US-Canada border and each country’s border is marked with large monuments. Surprise, surprise, this portage was very crowded as well. We began mentally counting groups to gauge our chances of scoring a campsite for the night.



After Monument Portage there is a small carry-over to get into the Rainy River District of Saganaga. It was still early and we had our eyes on one of the last two campsites before the open waters of Saganaga. No one would stop before noon we thought, and one of these sites would be open. As we rounded the bend to the first site smoke from a campfire drifted to the sky. Off in the distance the second site became visible as well. A hammock hung in the trees. Both sites were taken! We turned back into the Rainy River District, certain that one of the groups behind us had taken the other two spots. Why had we not stopped at them before?


We paddled back as fast as possible. To our delight and surprise one of the sites was open. We stopped and set up camp as a light rain began to fall. This campsite was a bit eerie. The logs surrounding the fire ring made loud creaking noises throughout our stay. We named the site Creaky Hollow, after what we later learned were the serenading sounds of the pine beetle.



The next morning we got another early start to try to avoid strong winds on the open portion of Saganaga. We were to be picked up at American Point the following day and we wanted to camp at one of the two campsites close to the takeout that were recommended by the outfitter. Maybe, just maybe, we could stay at a recommended site this trip.

Canoes Saganaga


The wind picked up as we reached the open water. This was by far the largest lake any of us had ever paddled on. We tried to stay as close to the shore as possible, but had to zig and zag to keep from getting sideways to the waves. It was a hard and stressful paddle. We pulled up to the first campsite on American Point and IT WAS OPEN! I guess when you stop around ten in the morning it increases your campsite acquisition chances.


Cards (1 of 1).jpg

The site was gorgeous. It had a large, elevated area for camp and a panoramic view of the lake. As we set up camp the weather cycled from hot to cold; from sunny to rainy. We called it the Four Seasons. This day was essentially a layover day since we got to camp so early. We made a big lunch of leftover freeze-dried eggs and lounged around camp. Multiple games of DC Comics were waged and the hammock was finally used for reading in the breeze. It was a relaxing final full-day of the trip, and it ended with a beautiful sunset over Saganaga.



Our last day involved a quick paddle to our 10 AM pick-up at American Point (aka Moose Latrine, for obvious reasons) and a tow through a good portion of the lake. Then it was back to the outfitter for showers and celebratory beers. All in all we had a wonderful trip! The I Ching’s prediction of ENDURANCE and SLIGHT EXCESS proved accurate in the very best ways possible.

Group shot