Paddle - BWCA, Quetico, Sylvania, and other paddling places

Canoeing in a Winter Wonderland

By Riley Smith Print Icon Print Report View/Leave Comments (1)
Dates:October 12-13, 2019
Entry Point:43 - Bower Trout lake (BWCA)
Lakes:Bower Trout, Brule, Dugout, Gaskin, Horseshoe, Kroft, Lily, Little Trout, Marshall, Misquah, Mulligan, Ram, Rum, Skidway, Swan, Unnamed, Unnamed, Vernon, Vista, Wanihigan, Winchell

The idea for this trip ended after the two of wrapped up this last guiding season. A fall canoe trip to the BWCA had always intrigued us, but we just never had gotten the time before. Our tripped was pushed back until the 12th of October, and little did we know what kind of adventure was in store!

We drove up from the cities on Friday night and slept in the back of the car. After 4 hours of sleep, we rolled out of bed around 5:30 to start our adventure.It had snowed overnight, and there was a light dusting across our canoe.

We unloaded our gear, packed our bags, and ate a quick breakfast. The forecast called for snow in the morning, and possible rain by afternoon, with 1-3" of snow accumulation throughout the day. We knew we didn't want to be out in freezing rain, so we were trying to make up mileage in the morning to avoid as much of that as possible. We started our portage into Bower Trout at about 7:30 am. As the sky begin to lighten with the sunrise, and the first large snowflakes were starting to fall, we began to grasp how incredible this trip could be.

We paddled across Bower Trout and stared in amazement at the golden leaves that still clung to the Birch trees under the fresh blanket of snow. A large flock of ducks took off in front of us and flew to a different lake. Apparently they were not expecting visitors today. It was such a strange contrast of fall and winter at the same time. We reached our first portage into Marshall, making sure to plant our feet soundly on the boardwalk. A spill in this weather wouldn't be a very welcome surprise. We took one more look back at Bower Trout, before a nice portage walk to keep the blood flowing.

We reached Marshall by about 8:15 after slipping and sliding through the portage. There was an inch or two of snow on the ground at this point, and it was just getting started. By the time we got to Marshall, the large soft snowflakes turned into ice pellets: stinging our faces in the breeze that was just starting for the day. We made slow and steady progress through Marshall and Dugout, pulling into Skidway around 9:00. Right before the portage out of Skidway we encountered a large Bull Moose. He was standing in about chest deep water and had a huge, snow covered rack on his head. We watched each other for about five minutes before he lumbered off into the forest. Sadly, I didn't have more than a landscape lens along, so I couldn't get much in terms of pictures to document the magical experience.

We continued struggling through the portages as the snow deepened, and footing became harder to find. Many of these portages on this stretch are rocky and a little overgrown, and the snow added a new level of hazard. We reached Swan by 10:16. The snow was getting stronger with a wind out of the South/South West. Little did we know that once we landed at the portage to Vernon, our toughest challenge of the day lay ahead of us. This portage is not marked with a distance on our McKenzie map, and so we were truly in the dark as to how challenging this portage would be. When we started the portage at about 10:40 there was approximately 5 inches of snow on the ground. I set off with the pack, the paddles, and my camera to hopefully blaze a trail for my buddy who was double packing a pack and our canoe. I scared a grouse up midway through and had to clear some down trees off the trail to provide clearance. This portage seemed to just keep going and going, with another inch of snow falling in the hour or so it took for us to cross. We were grateful though for the long walk as it helped warm our extremities which had begun going numb by this point.

We reached Vernon by 11:30 and paddled across the lake to the campsite by the portage to make a lunch stop. The weather seemed to be changing every 20 minutes at this point, with all sorts of different kinds of snow hitting us with breaks in between. It didn't seem to be warming up though, which we deemed to be a good sign as we were really hoping for no rain. We ate lunch at the site, and enjoyed the sites and sounds of our winter wonderland.

Our group took the steep portage out of Vernon into Brule. With the 6 inches of snow we had on the ground, the hills acted as ski slopes. I had the canoe and slipped and slid on more than one occasion! We reached Brule a little after 1 amidst small snowflakes blowing in an ever strengthening wind. We fought the SSW wind as we worked our way towards Lily. By the time we had reached Lily, I was struggling pretty bad with the cold (the wet clothes combined with the strong wind really drained my heat.) We took a snack break and I jogged the portage a few time to get the core working again. Lily and Mulligan passed without too much difficulty. By the time we reached Grassy, it was becoming tough to find the portages. We found the landing, but it was difficult to follow the trail for very long. In the end, the portage into Wanihigan ended up being a wet mess in the morning snow. We reached Winchell by about 4:30 in the afternoon and made a beeline for the site south of the Omega portage. When staring at the map, we predicted it would be the most sheltered from a SSW wind. The site looked great to us after a long, hard day. After briefly enjoying the view from our new front porch, we set up camp. We prepped ourselves a well deserved warm dinner and changed into dry clothes before buckling down for the night. Another day lay ahead.

We woke up to a new layer of snow on the tent that had come in overnight. The trees were caked with the fallen snow. It took us awhile to eat breakfast and pack up all the wet gear, but we were on the water by 9:00. We made a stop at the waterfall on our way down Winchell, and then portaged into Gaskin. At a little before noon, we had an early lunch on the island site near the East end of the lake. Today's weather was much more tolerable than Saturday's, though it was still snowing off and on. Horseshoe Lake was incredibly beautiful. There were wolf tracks on the portage into Vista that were very fresh. They had to have been less than an hour old as they were very defined and hardly had any snow fallen in them (even though it had been snowing plenty today.) This made us wonder how often we get close to wolves and other wildlife during the summer that we don't even notice because the signs are just not as obvious as they are in the snow.

The portage into Misquah was steep and slippery as some of the snow had begun to melt off, making it quite slushy. Misquah was an incredibly beautiful lake with amazing topography on the Eastern shore. The portage out of Misquah was our most difficult of the day. It was long, steep, slippery, had a couple really slick boardwalk sections, and had uncertain footing most of the way. We both fell plenty of times on the 2/3 of a mile to Little Trout though, once again, we were rewarded by an incredible view on the far side. There were also some Moose tracks that had crossed this portage. They were larger than my outstretched hand. After the long, hard portage, it was on to Little Trout.

There was very dramatic sunlight on Little Trout as wave after wave of snowstorms rolled in, separated by blue sky and sunshine. All of the lakes on this chain were incredibly pretty. We portaged into Rum and paddled across. We struggled to find the Kroft portage for a little while since it was in a very different place than our map had it. From Kroft we headed on to the portage to Ram where we found another set of Wolf tracks. So much wildlife sign to see today! From Ram, it was on to our exit. The Ram portage was amazing with the intricate stone staircase and stunning views. We took the walk back to the Bower Trout landing for the car, and enjoyed seeing stream alongside the road plunge into a pretty nice waterfall along the way. We drove back to the Ram landing and loaded up the gear and the canoe. After a brief dinner and change of clothes, we were on the road by 5:00. What an incredibly unique trip! I cannot wait to be in the Boundary Waters again.

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