100 mile Ely to Gunflint side and back


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This trip was a bit longer, colder and wetter than normal. It was our third bwcaw trip for the season. It began on moose lake on sept 9th and ended at lake one on the 17th. We paddled in excess of 100 miles with our longest day being 20 miles and most portages was 13 in a day. We paddled 41 lakes and crossed 44 portages. The weather was cold, blustery and rainy. We had close encounters with a wolf and a bear, saw otters, eagles, beavers and lots of beautiful scenery. In the end it was a great trip with some challenges and plenty of rewards.

day 1

it began at moose lake entry point sept 9 at 7:45 a.m. The morning was calm and cloudy. We paddled and portaged steadily on into knife lake - 7 portages gets you into knife from moose. We do a single carry method. I carry the canoe and a kondos portage pack and my wife takes the larger ccs pack and loose gear like pfd's and water bottle. We move through pretty quickly this way. We entered knife lake at 11:45.

we would have kept moving along nicely if the wind had not picked up upon entering knife lake. It was coming out of the east (direction we were heading) so for the remainder of the day we were bucking a strong head wind. As the day wore on the wind speeds increased to the point where it finally forced us off the water to camp down in the south arm of knife. We had hoped to push a bit further to the camp site just beyond the portage into eddy lake because we knew the winds and weather were predicted to get worse (possible snow) and wanted to be close enough to this portage that we could make the short crossing even if the winds were up and then be in smaller lakes awhile, protected by them. No such luck however.

just as well. We had paddled over 20 miles this first day and most of it against very strong winds. While coming across the portage into carp we encountered a man that had camped on the island in south arm - the one with the 3 camp sites on it and he gave us a heads up that a bear had been in his camp and he had to chase it away. Yet another party of paddlers told us the same thing - camped on this same island and had bear activity. These are reportedly good sites and we would have liked to stay in one of them but after hearing this we wished to avoid the hassle.

We ended up forced to camp in this vicinity anyway due to the wind we encountered in the bay when we rounded the point and went thru the narrows formed by the southern end of the "bear island". The crossing over to the site near the eddy portage was out of the question so we ended up at the site on the point on the mainland right across from the island. Arrived in camp about 3:45. 8 hours of steady paddling and portaging.

This is a nice spot with flat tent pads and open, grassy area looking east into the big bay. On this day there was a horrendous steady wind coming across a three mile fetch off that bay into camp and the temps were in the 40's so we made an early night of it. Violent winds raking the tent all night and very heavy rains kept me awake most of the night.

day 2

This continued the next day - rain and very strong winds. We were wind bound. We didn't even bother getting out of the tent to cook breakfast until noon. It was 45 degrees with sustained strong winds. The rain stopped for awhile off and on but the winds were up. This day was spent walking around exploring a bit and reading in the tent. There were snowshoe hares in camp taking advantage of the green grasses.

while laying in the tent reading in the early evening - still light out, we both sat up and looked at each other when we heard something outside the tent. Presently there was a deep, long, menacing growl about six feet away. Couldn't have been anything but a wolf. Bears don't growl and in fact don't make much vocal noises of any sort other than clacking teeth and some chuffing sounds so we narrowed it down to wolf. After thinking about it we surmised this camp was probably a favorite hunting spot with the hares grazing out on the lawn and pictured a wolf trotting along his usual path to get to the rabbits, turning the corner and running smack into our tent in his path. He must have been startled, stopped and gave us his opinion about screwing up his dinner plans.

knowing that wolves pose no danger - they avoid encounters with humans like the plague (or in their case, mange), we simply enjoyed the moment and went back to reading. In the late evening the skies began to clear and the wind to slow. This meant a cold night approaching and sure enough it got into the 30's during the night.

day 3

in the morning we were greeted with absolute calm waters. We broke camp and headed across the bay to the eddy lake portage. Before we made the portage crossing we paddled a few more feet to the east where the stream dumps in and left the boat there while we walked in a short distance to the series of waterfalls there. If you come this way don't pass thru without stopping to take them in, they are quite beautiful. Larger than most falls you encounter along portages and composed of various levels of rock ledges giving them a stair step effect in the tumbling water. They are worth the stop. You needn't go thru the effort we did of beaching the canoe at the rocky outlet of the stream and scrambling up the uneven sides to see it. When you make the portage there are a couple of spur trails to the left (east) that bring you to viewing spots. Just please, use good portage etiquette and make sure all of your gear and canoes are well out of the way of anyone coming across the portage while you are away. This is not intended as a lecture but rather an opportunity for education, I hope. There is nothing worse than carrying a canoe and big pack across a portage and suddenly coming across someone's stuff blocking up the trail. Unfortunately we encounter this all too often.

once into eddy, we decided to take a tour of the kek ponds. We found the portage into them, stashed our packs off in the brush so we wouldn't have to portage everything several times and headed out. These little ponds are scenic and fun to paddle thru. The portages are short and straight forward. We observed otters and beaver along the way and enjoyed lunch on the shore of one of the ponds with a view of fall colors surrounding us.

we backtracked thru the ponds, retrieved our packs and continued on our route to ogishkemuncie thru jenny and Annie lakes. We were into ogish by about noon. We made a heading east northeast to the island camp across the lake that is located relatively close to the next day's portage into mueller - again, if the wind were to be up we could make a quick crossing to the portage.

the camp site on the island is a good one. Flat pad, good views and nice kitchen area on a small island that you can walk around on to see different parts of the lake. We went out exploring the lake in the afternoon, paddling most of it and checking the portage. We returned to camp in the late afternoon. While sitting around a fire that evening I heard odd noises below along the shore. When I got down there I saw a beaver sitting in the water methodically chewing/eating bark from a stick. He would start on one end and roll the stick around as he stripped the bark and advance it until he came to the end and then toss it and fetch another. He looked like he was eating corn on the cob. The noise I had heard was the sound of his non-stop chewing that produced a unique scraping rhythm.

once again while in the tent we had a nocturnal visitor during the night. We had fallen asleep, it was dark, about 10 pm when I was suddenly woken by noise right outside the tent. I knew it was a large animal by the sound. I woke my wife and we listened. Suddenly a few feet from her head a violent tearing sound began. We both yelled "get outta here!" and we heard a crashing thru the brush as what was obviously a bear went scampering away. In the morning we found what he was up to. Out of all the hundreds of thousands of dead, decaying trees laying around in the forest to choose from, this bear decided to swim over to this island and find a rotting log to tear into looking for grubs and such! The thing was three feet from my wife's head. He must have been going at it pretty intense with his claws cuz he made a heck of a racket and the thing was all torn up when we discovered it in the light of day.

days 4 & 5

This day brought us to gabimichigami lake via mueller and agamok. While crossing the portage to agamok from mueller you encounter the kekakabic hiking trail about half way across. We off loaded our gear on the side of the trail and walked to the east on the kek trail to go see the agamok bridge. This is a unique and worthwhile detour. The wooden bridge is high above a crashing river with a set of waterfalls upriver a short distance and a tranquil pond that it flows into. A beautiful spot. Along the way you pass thru one on the hiking trail's camp sites. The spur trail trip doesn't take very long and is a quick glimpse into the kek trail system.

after entering gabi we headed southeast across the lake to the camp on the small island that lies north of the portage into rattle lake. once again our site is chosen in part so that we can make a run for the portage with ease even if there is a wind. this island has a nice camp site and there is another located nearby across a narrow channel to the mainland on the east side. it too looks like a decent site tho the tent area is in a low spot and could be wet and swampy at times. our stay here on gabi was nice - we had a layover day so we toured the lake and portaged over into peter lake as well. the tours of both gabi and peter were well worthwhile even tho these areas are bare due to the 2006 cavity lake fire that burned this area out. many campsites are affected dramatically by this event so you must choose wisely to avoid the ones that are treeless and bare. our island camp was spared and has trees so i recommend it. over on peter lake the camps are almost all burned out. we found one that had some minimal cover of trees on the north shore about 3/4 down the lake from the portage (the last camp on the lake in this direction). peter is a lovely lake, 120 feet deep, big cliffs and the portage in is rather beautiful walking amongst the big boulders that are now exposed after the fire. we observed partridge, loons and eagles in this area while we stayed for two nights.

day 6

this morning we packed our things and began a very long day - 13 or 14 portages and about 13 miles under windy conditions. winds were already significant early on. our first portage into rattle lake was fine and we quickly crossed it in a pretty stiff wind. next we portaged into little saganaga or what is labeled as vierge lake on this paddle planner map for some reason. we knew we were in for a complicated paddle thru little sag (which is a large lake, mind you) because the wind was picking up to the point of being dangerous and we were once again headed into and amid ships of it. additionally, little sag is a lake where you want to keep your map and compass close at hand - it is full of islands, peninsulas, twists and wrong turns. in high winds this was compounded and dangerous. our plan was to come out of the protected bay that the entrance portage is located in and make a run for the west shore by following the north shore over there, hoping there would be some respite along the way. as we rounded the first point and struggled to reach the next lee behind the following point we could tell this plan was going to have to be altered - there was way too much big wave open water to cross with nowhere to hide. this left us with the option of making a dash across to the nearby group of islands with the intention of slipping behind consecutive islands to find shelter from the wind until we could get to the portage on the south west side of the lake. this is what we did while trying to stay on a bearing and find our way to the next lee side. we would sprint across open water in high waves, arrive at a calm spot, map a bearing to the next stop and thus hop scotched across little saganaga bit by bit. we made a couple of errors and had to figure out which way to proceed but in the end did fine.

we portaged into elton lake where we met a group of six in three canoes that were making a dash to get out this same day on lake one!! i’m not sure that they ever made it - i kinda think not. they had maybe 20 plus portages to go and many miles. I have no idea where they had started from that morning. the last time we saw them they were ahead of us going up kivaniva lake with thousands more strokes to go. these guys overtook us on makwa lake after elton so we stopped pulling out our map to locate the portages and just stayed behind them letting them show us the way. this turned out to be a mistake. yes, they were taking the same route we were but they were in such a hurry that they were not looking at their map either and as a result they guessed at where the portages were and guessed wrong. instead of locating the portage on the right on the far side of panhandle lake they simply made a bee line for the furthest point where a small creek led out of the lake. they got out and unpacked and proceeded into the woods with their gear and boats. we followed. not long into this portage we realized we were on a very difficult trail. there was no visible path, the way was choked with brush and boulders and mud and swamp water. the maneuvering of the 17 foot canoe in the trees was beyond challenging - it was downright impossible. i had to do three and four point turns backing up and getting the stern around one tree while getting the bow to go where it needed to go in the brush and trees in front. climbed over big boulders, walked onfallen trees like a balance beam with a canoe and pack on my shoulders, snapped branches, fell down, got up, slogged thru a trackless forest and finally emerged onto pan lake. my wife and i looked at each other and gasped. while standing on the shore i looked around and discovered another trail coming in a few yards away. i followed this groomed portage trail back to panhandle where it was easily accessed from about 100 feet up stream from where we followed the little creek to the end of the lake. the trail was flat, open and groomed on a sandy trail. bullocks!

then, on the portage from pan to anit there was a huge beaver pond that had covered the trail in thigh deep water. we eventually put the canoe in the water and tried to paddle but it was difficult to follow the trail and there was a lot of brush to push thru. we ended up putting the boat in and out of the water repeatedly. the next obstacle going from kivaniva into the kawishiwi system was a large flowing creek across the portage and another small mucky pond to walk thru. we crossed the creek by putting the canoe in with the gear back in it and us wading across the swift current. we made it thru all this in rain, wind and cold weather and were very happy when we arrived at malberg lake to stay the night. along the way we ran into TWO MORE FALSE PORTAGES that we almost ended up bushwhacking because once again there was a premature take out that looked well used but was not the trail. the actual portage was located a short way further up. BEWARE THESE FALSE PORTAGES IN THIS AREA! there are a number of them between elton and alice and they are strenuous and can be dangerous. if you find yourself on a very bad portage, stop, go back and see if it is possible you missed the actual take out nearby.we spent the night at the camp site on the west end of the long narrows on malberg. it turned out to be a very nice site with good kitchen area, tent pads, nice view of the lake and narrows. we worked very hard this day.

day 7

from malberg we paddled north to the kawishiwi river system and followed it to fishdance lake where we had a picnic and went to see the pictographs located on the cliffs on this lake. we highly recommend a detour into here to experience the place if you happen to be passing by. we continued on over the portages into alice lake where we once again encountered extremely high winds coming out of the north. this lake is a huge fetch for the winds to build momentum so it was quite a challenge on this day to simply cross the bottom of it on the southern end to get to the portage going over to insula lake. By the time we reached insula the winds were threatening to keep us windbound so after emerging from the safety of the sheltered bays in which the portage dumps you, we quickly sought the refuge of the first camp site in striking distance after exiting the narrows into the big lake. This camp site in a cove just to the east of the narrows turned out to be ideal - open, norway pine, park like camp with jutting boulders into the lake, rock ledges and a high tent area above the kitchen with a west facing view. This camp was so nice we planned to stay here for a rest day but in the morning it was quite cold and very windy - with the wind coming straight into camp from far across the bay. We waited, hoping it would improve but in the end we packed up and moved on.

Day 8

Insula lake can also be challenging in terms of navigating. It is large and has a lot of confusing features - keeps you on your toes. Because of the high winds we were forced to play tag with islands and land masses that gave us shelter once again. The southern part of this lake was burnt over by the pagami creek fire as was much of everything else west of here to lake one so when planning your route thru here consider your camp site with this in mind - most of the camps for a long way in this direction have been recently devastated by intense fire. We ended up, oddly enough, at fire lake before we found a place to bed down that wasn't scorched. The portage going from insula to hudson, by the way, is dramatic. You walk along the top of a gorge on this portage and can see down into the boulder strewn crashing river below more clearly because of the lack of foliage in the way after it was removed by the flames. One of the more scenic portages i’ve been on by far.

As we paddled up the north end of hudson in the gloomy, cloudy afternoon the burned out surroundings were eery. It was calm and quiet - the restriction of the narrows damping the winds. All the trees were dead, standing like gray ghosts of their former selves - thousands of them. The wind had stopped and there was no sound but a few ravens cackling somewhere out there. We took a detour into one of the ponds off to the east, lazily drifting thru the little creek taking us in. We found no critters but there were plenty of carnivorous pitcher plants along the floating bog edges.

We paddled on into fire lake and made camp there. During the day we had seen otters and eagles while traveling along and this evening when we went out paddling after establishing camp we came across a mink swimming around in the lake. Fire lake is a serene little place with just four camps on it. They all looked decent. We took the one furthest east and found it to be quite adequate. We paddled the entire lake in the evening and went up the small creek at the east end as far as we could.

Day 9

We had food and time leftover to continue our trip and fully intended to but while we were camped at fire lake we began to hear distinct sounds of civilization. From our camp we could hear the boats on snowbank lake and also the sound of traffic somewhere - fernberg road, snowbank? Loud trucks, boats and motorcycles can be easily distinguished from this far out in the wilderness. It was disconcerting to us. We no longer felt we were out in the wilds. We made a plan to continue on and camp somewhere along the way - maybe in the north kawishiwi river after lake one. We were headed to our cabin that is a half mile portage from south farm lake where we could take out from and just walk home. That was the original route end. We ended up paddling thru more burned out lakes - four, three, two and then one. It was raining, the noise from the roads was there, we were no longer inspired to go on. We called a friend to ask her to drive our truck out to pick us up at the lake one entry point.

Thus did our west to east loop trip come to an end - not with a bang but a whimper. We had done a 100 mile long swing deep into the gunflint territory of the wilderness and back to the ely side. While planning this trip we were uncertain how grueling it would be - turns out it was not bad at all. We had a couple of long hard days but they were self imposed so to speak. We did not have to go 20 miles the first day but decided to take advantage of a good travel day before bad weather hit. It turned out to be a long but rewarding and not overly strenuous haul. The other abnormally long day was going from gabimichigami to malberg with 13 or 14 portages along the route. Again, we pushed it but it was quite doable. We even had a couple of rest days thrown in so in the end this long route was not nearly as insurmountable as we anticipated. If you have a chance to plan such a trip don’t be intimidated, it is rewarding and fun.

Gear Notes:

  • Swift Keewaydin 17 canoe (36 pounds)
  • Two Gillespie paddles and one lightweight spare (made in ely)
  • Kondos and Cook Custom Sewing portage packs with 6 mil liner bags
  • One small duffel type dry bag used for quick access to select gear and food
  • Opsack odor proof bags for all food items (bear deterrent)
  • Big agnes 3 person tent
  • Marmot and Mountain Hardware down sleeping bags
  • Big agnes and Exped sleeping pads
  • Various clothing items to keep us warm and dry in this season
  • Rubber boots - the calf high kind with insulation for warmth
  • Camp shoes
  • Streipen for water purification (tho we only used it a couple times - we drink straight from the lakes when they are large enough and conditions are right)
  • Headlamps
  • Thwart mounted and handheld compasses
  • Mix of different maps - mckenzie, fisher, voyageur
  • Bear spray
  • MSR Reactor stove
  • Mountain House freeze dried foods
  • Meat sticks from Koshers in Gilbert and some from F&D meats in Virginia (these are fully cooked and partially dried so travel well for days. You can find similar at Zups in ely)
  • Cheese and crackers
  • Boiled eggs (we boil them before departure, they last around three or four days)
  • Energy bars
  • Coffee

This is not an exhaustive list of our gear but contains most of the specifics. There’s really not much more - knives, toiletries, journal etc but you get the picture. No ax or hatchet, no saw. It is fairly simple to break wood into sizable pieces to make a fire or forego one altogether. If absolutely necessary you can split wood for kindling using your fixed blade knife by starting it and then pounding it through with a chunk of wood. Usually there’s plenty of kindling available if you make a search around for it. We don’t carry any sort of bag hanging ropes and devices as we don’t subscribe to hanging food. We use the method of stashing it away from the camp site. When this method is used it is essential to keep a scrupulously clean camp and bag all food and smelly items using an odor proof method (we use OPSacks). If you want detailed information regarding this method of camping - i.e. NOT hanging packs, see articles and books by cliff jacobson about it.

We travel as light and simple as possible. I carry the canoe with paddles strapped on and one pack and my wife carries a second larger pack and loose gear. We make the portages in one crossing. When I travel solo I carry the canoe and one pack so I can do once across as well.

Many people enjoy bringing a lot of cooking gear and food in order to make gourmet meals out in the wilds. Thats great for those that get a kick out of it. We don’t. We do the gourmet cooking at home where we have access to everything we need. When traveling in the wilderness we tend to want to spend time seeing the beauty around us and not be burdened with extraneous gear and tasks. I’d much rather spend my time paddling around a lake in the evenings and early mornings than putting together, cooking and then cleaning up after a meal. For the short time that we are out in the woods we make do with simple fair that actually tastes quite good. No muss no fuss.

However one chooses to do it, getting out into the boundary waters is a joy and should not be missed. See ya out there!

brad