My First "Real" Wilderness Trip


By Riley Smith Print Icon Print Report View/Leave Comments (0)
Dates:May 30, 2014 - June 4, 2014
Entry Point:55 - Saganaga Lake (BWCA)
Type:Canoeing
Lakes:Bitchu, Cullen, Kawnipi, Kenny, Mack, Munro, Ross, Saganaga, Saganagons, Sea Gull

This was my first true wilderness canoe trip. The man that had led our trips when I was a little kid invited me to join him and his four sons on a pretty sizeable expedition. The miles covered, the bad weather, and the nature of portaging in the Quetico tested our group's resolve, patience, and strength but we were rewarded with incredible memories of visiting places we had only dreamed of seeing.

Our trip started on Seagull Lake where we paddled the Seagull River to Saganaga. Our trip leader had done this route many times before during his guiding days, but never with his sons. The day started out fairly pleasant as we picked up a few extra items at the outfitter before heading to Sag. Once we hit the open water of Saganaga though, all bets were off. We found ourselves fighting a might tempest directly into our bow. To this day, this is still the strongest wind I have ever paddled in. We were taking a good number of waves over our bow, thouroughly soaking both the front paddler and the unfortunate duffer (who was already suffering greatly in the "Woodswoman" because of a leaking rivet.)

Before I go further, I should probably make something clear. The man leading our trip is very old school. He ownes nothing but Aluminum canoes (and in fact, he has kind of a brand snob thing towards Grummans.) He now ownes four Grummans I believe but recently bought his first Alumicraft (and one of his Grummans was lost in the Ham Lake fire for that matter!) His packs are all also ancient Duluth Packs: heavy canvas with a pack liner on the inside and leather strapping. As such, I followed that trend when I bought gear, and I own an 18 ft Aluminum Grumman and three old canvas Duluth Packs myself. Anyway, back to the story. On this trip we had two old Grummans. One was the trusty "SS Kawnipi." The Kawnipi is a storied canoe. It was the canoe he had guided with back in the day. He bought it after the original owners crushed it like a tin can in rapids in their first trip in their new Aluminum canoe. Well what is a little rapid damage to foil some good fun? He bought it and pounded the dents out and made it sea worthy again. And there it stayed, taking many dozens of trips into the wilderness, including my first trips as a kid. The Kawnipi, of course, is named after his favorite lake from his guiding days (we actually visited that lake on this trip.) Now it was a trusty canoe to be sure, but its legend and lore grew one year because of an incident far from the BWCA. It was sitting near the driveway one day when a great windstorm brought down a tree directly on top of his prized Aluminum beast. But once again, what is something like a tree to sink a Grumman? He simply pounded out the dents and made it float again. The second canoe in our group was named the Woodswoman. He had recently purchased it from someone and it hadn't been tested in the wilderness much. Unfortunately, this was the trip that we learned that a few rivets below the waterline leaked, all but guranteeing of a wet duffer.

Anyways, so our first day was spent fighting the wind on Sag. We were beaten and battered by the time we made camp near American Point. It was a good site all in all, and we got our first fishing in for the trip. We started out fishing for lakers till I tired of no action and moved my canoe into shallower water for smalleys. I made the first hit of the trip with a giant smalley near camp.

Day 2 we headed to the island ranger station to pick up proper Canadian permits, we headed for our day's destination on Sagangons. We portaged past a very full Silver falls and made the paddle towards our evening campsite. What was most amazing to me, and this would repeat itself throughout the trip, is how good my friends' dad's internal map is. He hadn't been on many of these lakes since the 1980s, and a lot of the acreage had burned since he was there last, but he remembers where every portage and every campsite is supposed to be. It's incredible. We spent the night at the little campsite at the channel between Saganagons and Bitchu. Fishing was incredible. Two of the boys each caught 35 inch Northerns and we ate our first Walleye of the trip. The site was a little choked because of the fire, but it wasn't too bad. Better than some of the really heavily burned ones. We were all so tired after the battle on Saganaga that we could have slept on a rock.

Day 3 was another day of adventure. We paddled into Bitchu where we made our first questionable decision of the trip. The portage into Ross is a long one, but the elder remembered a shortcut by paddling up the creek. We paddled the creek, skipped a couple beaver dams, and then ended up in a major league log jam. No bueno. We started bushwhacking stuff overland, getting royally beaten along the way, and earning quite a few scars. We made it to Ross only to find a nice blazed portage back to the start of the log jam. Well at least we know that's there now! Ha! Paddled across Ross, took the portage into Munro, and had a little lunch. Only one of the group knew what lie ahead. The portage from Munro to Mack is hell after a rain, especially with a couple of us double packed. The hill out of Munro took a tole, at least one of us stumbled and fell. And then there was the bog. The Mack end finishes in quite the peat swamp without a way around. We did what we could, but there wasn't an alternative. We pushed through on the portage route, many of us sinking to mid calf or even to our wastes. And then the inevitable: our lead for the portage, carrying one of the heavy aluminum canoes, hit a drop off and sank to his chest. Well this keeps getting better and better. We patched ourselves up and headed out into the magical lake called Mack. We had heard stories of the phenominal fishing here, even nursery rhymes such as "Four men went to a lake called Mack, they found the fish and didn't come back" since we were little kids. We stayed at the campsite #221 on the Paddle Planner maps and took to the water to fish. We actually didn't have that great of sucess on Mack, but the site was nice. A crosswind kept away the bugs and we got some good sleep, dreaming of more adventures ahead.

Day 4 brought us out of Mack and into Mack Pond. We almost got washed over a waterfall, but didn't thanks to some frantic back paddling, on our way to the Wawiag. Oh the Wawiag. Now embedded in my soul as one of my favorite wilderness experiences I have ever had. It is an ecological wonder, incredibly scenic, and unlike any other place I have ever been. I was duffing for most of the Wawiag stretch, and took in as much of it as I could. It was heaven. After the Wawiag we hit big water again with Kawnipi lake. This is where our elder's guide sense kicked in. Even though the whole area burned since he had last laid eyes on his favorite lake, he still knew nearly every campsite and fishing hole. It was incredible! We caught two sizeable Walleye for dinner and made for camp. We found numerous sites that were either full or unsuitable, and ended tucked back into one of the bays. To this day, I still can't point out on a map which site we were at, but I wasn't navigating. The site we ended up in was beautiful though and had an incredible fire pit. It had nearly a five foot tall stone backing to it and a chimney. Very nice. We stayed up a little longer this night just enjoying the time together. The next day would be more of a relaxing day.

Day 5 was a short jaunt down Kawnipi and into Kenny. Kawnipi is a good sized lake and getting anywhere takes time. We took a nap at the portage into Kenny, and got the nice island site (#614) after crossing. We spent the day fishing the various bays and holes in Kenney, and caught lots of fish. It's a pretty little lake, and it was good to take it a bit slower.

Day 6 sent us through the falls chain. There was lots of short portages, but all in all it wasn't too tough of a day to this point. We ended up back in Saganagons and crossed the Dead Mans portage. Just off the trail I found the largest White Pine I have ever laid my eyes on. It is likely dead now as it was quickly fading when I visited. It was even larger than the storied tree on the Munro to Mack portage that survived the last fire. I can't imagine how much history it has witnessed, and most people don't even know it is there as it is back from the trail a ways. We crossed back over the Silver Falls portage and back to the Canadian Ranger Station to pay a visit to an old friend. One of the rangers who was there when my friend's dad guided up here, who he was good friends with back in the day, is still a ranger there. As we paddled across Saganaga however, we noticed a canoe a few hundred yards behind. Little did we know that two of the Canadian Rangers wanted a talk. My Lord, I have never seen anyone paddle a canoe like that. They went from 300 yards back to with us in what seemed like an instant. It's also the only time I have been pulled over by canoe so far (usually I see the rangers on portages.) They just wanted to know how the portages and sites looked, and we were on our way. We spent some time reminiscing at the ranger station and they turned us on to a dreamy island site nearby. This site was awsome (I don't know which one it was) but it had an amazing overstory of pine and flat tent pads. Fishing this night I hooked into the largest Northern of my life, now dubbed the "Great White Pike." I never did get it in the boat, though I had it next to the boat for awhile. I fought it for sometime, but it was always in control and eventually broke the line. 40" of raw muscle never let me be in control. We ended up getting no fish in the boat that night and settled in for our last sleep on trail.

The next morning we were woken up early by my friend's dad. He had gotten out of bed early and noticed quite the storm front rolling in. What followed was quite the eventfull morning fighting the storm all the way back to Seagull. We finished the trip beaten, battered, but with smiles on our faces from the amazing trip we had accomplished. If my young childhood trips had given me a taste with a longing for more, this trip placed the BWCA/Quetico deeply into my heart, leaving me longing for it whenever I strayed too far.