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

Big Moose and a little girl ~ A river less paddled

By TuscaroraBorealis Print Icon Print Report View/Leave Comments (0)
Dates:September 23-27, 2011
Entry Point:8 - Moose River South (BWCA)
Lakes:Big Moose, Cummings, Duck

Friday, September 23, 2011

We had driven up to my parents and spent the night before at their place on Lake Esquahgamah just outside of Biwabik. Not getting the earliest of starts; we headed for Ely after a big breakfast. On the drive up Vickie checked the latest fire restrictions & gleefully informed me that the burning ban had been partially lifted that morning. Fires allowed from 6-12 p.m.

It was an overcast gloomy morning, but it was supposed to clear off later in the day. Picked up our permit and some last minute supplies at Spirit of the Wilderness outfitters. Soon we were motoring down the Echo trail where the vibrant fall colors were just starting to hit their stride. Our turn off (FR 464)was south just past the Portage river where the Echo trail finally starts to straighten out. On our way to the landing we passed by the heliport clearing & Big Moose lake hiking trail on a narrow, but very driveable, road.

The Moose river south lot has parking on both sides of the road. Room for about 8 vehicles. There was a lone truck parked there when we pulled up. Shouldn't have any trouble finding a campsite?

Kiosk sign

We would be bringing our 3 month old daughter Aurora along on this trip. Hoping to impart our love of the out of doors by introducing her to the wilderness experience at a young age. Without getting into the whole debate; we lean more towards the base camp point of view towards tripping anyway's. So that approach should be conducive to us bringing Aurora along. Our great hope was that this route would not be overly taxing getting to, and setting up, our base camp on Big Moose lake. Yet still provide enough challenge to give us a sense of accomplishment and, perhaps, solitude as well.

The landing to the river was just off of the parking lot. While not large, it was servicable for our one canoe. Vickie fed Aurora while I got the canoe loaded up.

Loaded canoe ready to go

Even during this extremely dry period, water levels were more than adequate to float our loaded canoe. The 7-8 yard average width of the river at this point also made it fairly easy to paddle around the turns without continuously bumping off the banks of either shore. The absense of any wind also aided in this regard. And saved us from having to worry as much about Aurora getting chilled. Just before the confluence of Bezhik creek we encountered our first obstacle. A small beaver dam ran across the river. I dropped Vickie & Aurora off on shore while I pulled the canoe up over the dam. From here we pushed on unobstructed to the first portage.

precious cargoPortage landing

This was one of the nicest landings I can recall coming across. Grassy and open with a few large jackpines providing a quaint cover. Although they were but a mere trickle, the rapids of the river were running nearby. The portage started off with a moderate climb up a rocky hill. Soon it leveled out and became a, somewhat surprisingly, open well worn trail. Also, at about the mid point of the trail, we officially entered the BWCAW. There were a number of precipices along the trail. The steepest dropping some 15 feet or so. At these areas the granite had been exposed along the trail and it seemed like walking along Mother Natures very own sidewalk. Fortunately the trail sloped slightly away from the steep drop offs at these points.

Moose river portage

By this time of year we are normally well oiled portaging machines. Or, at least, better than in our current state of disrepair. With the birth of Aurora earlier this year, our portage legs had not been given the opportunity to get "up to speed" yet. I couldn't complain as Vickie had not even done a portage all year. This was not an overly difficult portage. Still, for me personally, I looked within for motivation. Simply walking through a deciduous forest absorbing autumns aromatic indulgence provided all the invigoration that was necessary to get me through. Vickies' main complaint was a fairly minor one. While carrying Aurora, their body heat became trapped in the pouch Vickie used to carry her across in. But it had been reasonably cool so it wasn't a major concern. But, it was good to have this "in the field" test for future trips. Especially for next spring & summer if we have a hot day. The insulated pouch won't be used. Just the outer straps. It was reassuring to get that first, and we presumed, most difficult portage behind us.

taking a break

After a quick break and snack we loaded up the canoe. At long last it looked like the sun would be accompanying us. Vickie implemented our redneck sprayskirt (tarp taped over the front)on the canoe to shield Aurora from the sun. And, once again, we were on our way.

There is a large, long standing, beaver dam maintaining paddleable water at this end of the portage. In fact there were some sizeable trees growing out of it. Upstream the river was slowly narrowing as we paddled & there were now lily pads and various aquatic vegetation choking the water. But there was sufficent depth to get through. The occasional mud turtle plopped into the river just ahead of us as we paddled along.

The river narrowed still further, to about 4 yards. Looking at the expanse of marshy grass that lay ahead, we still had a fair distance to paddle. For now the water level was enough to float our canoe. But, we were gonna need some help from the industrious wilderness engineers if we hoped to be able to paddle all the way to the portage. Came upon a small dam that was more of a hindrance than anything. Just high enough that we had to get out & pull over. But, it did very little to raise the water level upstream. Apparently that one was just for practice? A short paddle later we came across one that undoubtedly took quite a bit more effort to construct.

After crossing over this monstrosity there would be more than enough water the rest of the way.

Even though there was still paddleable water ahead; we came to an area that looked like a landing. I got out and surveyed the situation. There was clear evidence that people had been here, but this trail was no where near as well worn as the previous portage. I walked on ahead and made an interesting discovery. Apparently the large beaver dam just downstream raised the level of the water to the point of submerging the early portion of the original portage trail. This new branch of the trail hooked up with the old trail after about 10 rods & proved to be quite the slalom with the canoe going through the pines. Then an option of either using a steep 2-3 foot drop, or take a more gradual drop and have to walk through a portion of the old trail which was very mucky with standing water. Once past the mud on the old trail, it proved to be an excellent path all the way to the shores of Big Moose lake. I tripled this one. Saving Vickie from having to cross back over this tricky section with Aurora.

The local squirrel population had absolutely polluted the trail with freshly cut pine boughs & cones. There was also some wolf scat clearly visible as well. While at once it would be neat to see a wolf, with Aurora along, it would be a little unnerving as well. As we approached Big Moose lake there were several large rocks deposited about the shoreline and just beyond. The lake itself harbored quite a few as well. In fact, we found that a constant vigil had to be maintained watching for them just below the surface whenever we paddled near shore.

Big Moose landing

According to the information we'd gathered; the site just north of this portage was supposed to be the cream of the crop on Big Moose. As an added bonus, at least for our minds being able to relax as much as possible, it was the closest to the portage back out to our vehicle. Just in case we had to make a quick exit? We could avoid, or at least minimize, having to paddle across a large expanse of open water in possible adverse conditions.

While the sun had finally popped out earlier, it was still a bit cool out. Even more so once we hit the open water of the lake versus paddling up a narrow stream. Basically a nice typical fall afternoon. Fortunately our target site was unoccupied & we pulled up to the excellent landing to get out and investigate further. We both quickly agreed that it would serve us well as our base camp for the next few days.

cozy camper

The first order of business was to make sure Aurora was warm & comfy while we set about unloading the canoe, then setting up camp. The site was littered with boulders (as were all sites we stopped at on this lake) making finding a premo tent pad a bit of a quandry. Had to be a little creative, but we found a serviceable spot near the rock shelf at the back of the site. Later, we discovered there were a few very nice pads back aways from the firegrate area just off of the trail to the latrine. In fact walking back into the woods revealed a terraced type of condition. Every so often there was an abrupt 2-3 foot rise then it would flatten out again. A unique phenomenon.

After camp was setup I noticed a couple of peculiar things right off. Even though it was late September there were still a few stubborn flowers hanging on.

Red pine was the predominate tree of the surrounding forest. But, white pine, jack pine, maple, birch & the usual various small underbrush were also prevalent. Furthermore I couldn't help but notice this entire area was devoid of a BWCAW trademark tree. The cedar. But what really caught my eye was a small oak tree right in camp. At first I thought that someone had transplanted it here. But later, while scavenging for firewood, I noticed several other oak trees back away from camp as well. All were small trees and I did not come across any mature, acorn bearing, trees. Which contributed to my puzzlement of how they got there. Perhaps squirrels??? At any rate, in my experience, it was certainly a very uncommon occurence to run across these trees in canoe country.

Big Moose campcamp

This was by no means a fishing trip. But I couldn't resist bringing the poles along. I had grabbed a small container of leeches at Spirit of the Wilderness and figured once camp was setup It wouldn't hurt to throw out a slip bobber from shore. Maybe I'd get lucky? Unfortunately it wasn't meant to be? As I had no luck fishing on this trip.

Before entering we had checked the web to see if anyone had reserved the permits for the preceeding days for Moose river south. They hadn't. The relative unpopularity of this entry point, only one vehicle in the parking lot when we arrived, and knowing the fact that Big Moose lake was well guarded with long tough portages from other lakes..... I had visions of complete solitude dancing in my head. Those hopes were soon dashed. A canoe coming from the east end of the lake was headed for what appeared to be the northern most campsite. Ah well? We'd enjoy our time here regardless.

With supper time at hand we kinda kicked ourselves for not picking up some steaks in Ely once we found out the fire restriction had been lifted. Never the less, the brats we had along proved to be very tasty. For dessert, my Mom sent along a loaf of banana nut bread. And since it was my birthday? It served as my cake as well. Afterwards we would be afforded an incredible view of the chain of small islands just out in front of our site. It was a very calm, peaceful evening. We just lapped up the serene atmosphere, and let the wilderness tranquilty we'd achieved work it's magic, soothing our souls.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

A cold, very foggy morning. Our little alarm clock had us up early today. No fires allowed in the morning, so I linger in the tent and entertain Aurora for awhile. The lantern is put to use keeping the inside of the tent warm. We brought a few extra propane tanks along for just this purpose. Vickie braves the crisp morning air to get her coffee brewing.

After a late breakfast I begin the search for firewood. One nice aspect of a red pine forest is that exploration is unimpeded by the underbrush which doesn't grow well in the pine duff. Of course finding legal firewood is the drawback. Unfortunately red pine & birch are the predominate candidates. Downed red pines are the polar opposite of downed birch. Birch retains moisture and rots, while the red pine will dry rot and turn into useless powder if allowed to sit too long. The trick is to find them before they start to rot. I have to wander a fair distance back into the woods before finding some suitable wood.

The fog & mist are hanging tough yet this morning keeping the sun at bay and a chill in the air. So once I drag my findings back to camp I begin to employ the old adage, "If you cut your own firewood it'll warm you up twice." Even though we can't legally start a fire until 6:00 p.m. I get things ready to go in the firegrate.

It's nearly noon before the sun finally overtakes the fog. Vickie wants to explore the chain of small islands just out from our site. We set Aurora in her pea pod out on the rock shelf while we pack up a few things for our day trip.

camp view

The pea pod is essentially a mini collapsible tent. Complete with it's own air mattress. It fits inside our tent at night & we can set it up about camp during the day. If it's too chilly we throw a couple of blankets over the top to help retain heat. Otherwise when it's warmer it has plenty of screen to permit free air flow. Really an indispensable item.

Paddling conditions are excellent as we make our way over to the island. We find a decent spot to land on the east side. Exploring the whole of the island is quite easy as it is covered in mostly pine duff, moss, and plenty of exposed rock.

Aurora & I

As anyone who has traveled in canoe country can attest; plants & trees find the most unlikely, seemingly inhospitable, places to grow. Their root systems seem to grow around the rock much like an eagles talon clutching a fish that it has just extracted from its watery haunts. I never cease to marvel in wonderment when running across this scene.

As we pressed on to some of the other islands, it was impossible not to notice the numerous, incredibly large, rocks scattered about. Some on shore and many in the water above and below the surface.
Coming around the last of the islands we noticed a canoe at the portage landing coming in from the Moose river. They wound up heading south. Since the weather was ideal for paddling we decided to loop east around the northern bay then head back to our campsite. Along the way we stopped to check out the 2 campsites there. Both had rocky landings and were situated in nice groves of red pine with excellent views to the south. The northern most one even had a neat rock ledge which provided seating around the firegrate. It appeared the people we had seen last night did not camp here. They must've taken out at the Big Moose lake hiking trail and portaged out from there.

Around the perimeter of the lake there were alot of other enticing spots that looked like inviting areas that be could easily explored. The varied colors of autumn also made staying out on the water a memorable experience. And our stomachs were telling us it was getting to be about supper time so we kept paddling on towards camp.

northern campsite

Enjoyed a hearty meal of wild rice soup supplemented with some chicken. Later the ambiance of a nice fire warmed us as the temperature dropped after the sun disappeared over the horizon.

We use a blue barrel to haul & store our food. We don't hang or drag it away from camp. But, we do put our pots & pans on top of the lid after sealing it up for the night. Thinking that the noise will likely scare the animal away that knocked them off and, also, alert us to their presence in camp. Not long after we retired for the evening there was a commotion outside. One of the lids had slid across a pot. There wasn't even a trace of wind so we knew it had to be an animal of some sort. Of course in my mind I naturally presumed it was Sasquatch or something even more vile. Of course it wasn't all that horrifying? As it ended up being our resident mink just curiously nosing around. Apparently he found nothing of much interest? And left camp without disturbing us any further.

Aurora in tent

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Neither as cold or foggy this morning. After breakfast we decide to try and make it to Cummings lake today. The lake has a bit of walleye chop cutting across from the south so we plan on keeping the canoe very close to shore in the event things worsen. The interminable large boulders just below the surface close to shore keep us on our toes. After we pass the last campsite on the western shore there is a succession of small bays. The wind & waves have diminished so we deviate a bit from out original plan and cut across from point to point. Peering into one of the bays as we paddled by we notice something in the bay that will require closer inspection. It's a young bull moose feeding on some aquatic vegetation. He is quite skiddish and retreats towards the sanctuary of the surrounding spruce forest before we can get a really good look at him.

A short time later, we scare up a couple of whitetailed deer but only get a glimpse of white flags dashing through the woods. Though it doesn't stick out like a sore thumb? We find the portage to Cummings without any trouble. Other than the 2 mile length we really don't know too much about this portage. While being in good shape is a definite plus. I am a firm believer that overcoming portages is more about having the proper mindset & keeping a positive attitude. We went in through Morgan lake last fall and conquered the Misquah ~ Little trout & Kiskadinna ~ Davis portages amoung others. Feeling confident that those tough portages tempered us enough to overcome whatever challenges this trail might present. We had no one to disappoint but ourselves, so if we had to turn back? So be it.

I grabbed the canoe & our daypack while Vickie carried Aurora across. The trail starts out with a long moderate gradual climb. Intermittant rays of sunlight would penetrate through the canopy of multi colored leaves to the forest floor. I imagined the leaves floating to the ground in front of me were rose petals being thrown up in the air from a basket by a flower girl walking just in front of me.

Cummings portage

I half expected this trail to be a little used, overgrown death march. It came as a pleasant surprise to find a wide open well worn trail with a minimum of troublesome roots & rocks usually associated with most portage trails. There were a few particularly scenic spots atop some rock knobs where the forest opened up. Rock cairns were placed to show the way, but weren't really necessary. Almost seemed as if someone had shot the moss up in the air & then it landed in globs on the granite. Making the scene even more picturesque was the reindeer moss that was growing on top seemed to "frost" much of the green moss.

At about the mid point there was a long boardwalk to negotiate. Some of the boards were a bit loose & in a few spots the ground beneath was unstable. During high water, I guessed this area might be underwater.

Naturally doing a portage of this length we were inclined to take a few "poses" along the way. Aurora was a bit warm & hungry but otherwise was doing just fine. Of course she is too young to really know any better? But, seeing her taking such great pleasure while in the out of doors filled my heart with unspeakable joy. I wouldn't trade her smile for gold. Hopefully we were laying a solid foundation of outdoor enjoyment for her?

Daughter & daddy

In the final analysis the portage was across an excellent, very scenic, trail. There are some small hills & the mentioned boardwalk. But, in the end barring windfalls, overall length is the biggest obstacle to overcome.

Certainly it was a relief to finally see Cummings lake. But, peering out between the 2 large red pines, that serve as a gateway on the Cummings end, it was a bit unsettling to see the sky had clouded over & wind has a renewed vigor.

Cummings landing

We hadn't come this far just to turn back now. The campsite on the east side near the exit to the bay we were in was supposed to be a 5 star? We decided to pull in there and hope the weather didn't worsen. Unfortunately it was occupied as was the island site straight south. We paddled west across the entrance of the bay to check the island site there. Hoping we wouldn't have to paddle into the main body of the lake. Fortunately, it was unoccupied so with a sense of relief we paddled up and claimed it as our lunch spot & safe harbor if the weather worsened.

Cummings camp

The long portage had seriously depleted our water supply. Our new Sawyer gravity filter was back in camp on Big Moose. Not being totally comfortable dipping from the shallow bay on Cummings, Vickie set about boiling some water. We even stumbled across a live well someone had constructed to set our water bottles in to cool.

The kitchen area at this site was exquisite. In fact our temporary island sanctuary proved to be beautifully accomodating. Vickie & I took turns exploring the island while the other keep an eye on dinner & Aurora. I found that the entire island was easily explored and offered pleasing vistas in all directions.

Fortunately the wind had calmed and the sun was back out. Aurora picked a bad time to have a blowout. Is there ever a good one? Vickie had packed an extra outfit but, only one. We figured it was better to be safe than sorry. Not wanting to take any chances on the weather turning on us again we decided to curtail our exploration of Cummings lake. We finish off our soup, the remainder of the banana nut bread, grab our water bottles, and paddle back towards the portage to Big Moose.

I thought we did pretty good coming back? Aurora slept the whole way. Even though we took 3 breaks, we still made it back across the portage in just under an hour. It was an idyllic evening to paddle. We contemplated heading back to camp up the east shore in a counter clockwise direction. But, Aurora had awoken and was beginning to fuss. So we retraced our route from this morning.

Once back in camp Aurora was constantly wanting to eat. For the first time on this trip she was becoming inconsolable. This went on for about a half hour or so? Looking back now, I think she was telling us it had been a long day and, she was tired and needed to eat extra. I guess I couldn't blame her? Although both Vickie & I felt the eventual tradeoff had been worth it. For one of the first times in her young life, Aurora had slept through the night once she was put down. The wonders of wilderness!

While Aurora slept through the night, Vickie was awoken by some strange noises outside. It didn't take her long to wake me & I quickly agreed there was "something" out there. After being awoken it took me a few moments to regain my "bearings" as we each speculated on what was making that awful noise. It turned out to be a bull moose snorting & bellering just up the shoreline from our camp. Neither of us had the will power to go out and investigate further. We just hoped it wouldn't come trapsing through our site and inadvertently trample or rip things apart. He didn't, and we slept peacefully the rest of the night.

Monday, September 26, 2011

While we may have forgotten the steaks? One meal that didn't get neglected on this trip was breakfast. Vickie had brought one of those plastic cartons full of eggs. Those coupled with plenty of bacon, breakfast sausage, & potatoes ensured that we ate like royalty each morning.

Today we wanted to do some hiking. Yesterdays adventure had taken quite a bit out of Aurora. We didn't want to over do it again today. So a choice needed to be made. Hike the Big Moose lake hiking trail, or the portage trail to Duck lake. Since the hiking trail was accessible by vehicle we choose the portage to Duck, reasoning that it would be easier to revisit the hiking trail at a later date without having to paddle in.

Aurora was sleeping after breakfast and we waited for her to wake up before heading out. I tried casting a small rapala from shore to pass the time. This tactic proved no more effective than the leeches were a few nights earlier. Of course our resident mink was quite active and I spent more time watching him.

Fishing from camp

Once again it was a great day for a paddle. We trolled on our way to the Duck lake portage. Vickie hooked into a decent bass that put up the classic fight smallmouths are famous for. She got it up to the boat a couple times but since we hadn't brought the net it eventually spit the hook. We got a good look, it was a 2 plus pound fish that we would've let go anyways. Though, Vickie lamented that she would've liked to have gotten a photo. Especially since it was as close as we came to catching a fish on this trip.

The landing for the Duck lake portage was quite a contrast to what we'd been accustomed to seeing around the perimeter of this lake. A beautiful sandy beach stretched out along the shoreline. There were fresh moose tracks on the beach & out in the water. Also, a beaver had evidently been here as well, & had partially chewed through a nice sized birch tree.

Big Moose beach

Wisely Vickie had brought extra water along today. She stashed the extra water bottles in the woods near the canoe before we left. That way we would have water upon our return.

This path in no way resembled the Cummings trail. There was an immediate gradual incline. But the trail, throughout much of it's length, was riddled with roots & rocks. On the bright side, the fresh spruce boughs and brush cuttings indicated that a portage crew had just been through. We deduced that was who we seen on our first night on Big Moose.

There was a nice mix of trees along the way, but pines were the dominant species. The trail had several short rocky ups & downs. Moose & wolf tracks could clearly be seen at the muddy spots. At about the half way point we crossed Duck creek. The creek was bone dry and we essentially had to hopscotch from boulder to boulder to get to the other side. Fortunately it was only about 12 -15 feet across and the boulders were stable. There was a little pond just downstream from the crossing, that provided a scenic contrast from the forested wilderness we had just passed through.

Big Moose ` Duck portagepose

Once past the creek the trail reverted back to much the same as previous. Then, about 70 rods before Duck lake, the trail dropped down steeeply to a mucky bog. Vickie insisted we press on to the lake, so forward we went. The trail was wet and mushy but, could have been alot worse if not for the recent dryness & lack of rain. The closer we got to the lake the more you could tell we were walking on floating ground. Finally we were at the shores (if you want to call it that?) of Duck lake! I think we did bogwalker proud?

Duck Lake

There were a few small rock knobs across the way, but Duck was mostly a weedy, swampy lake. By the lakeshore it felt as if we were standing on only a few inches of roots & grass. It was interesting to see & experience a whole different ecosystem.

It seemed like 3 times the work trying to walk across the bog. We climbed the hill at the far end before stopping for a break. It was good to be on terra firma again! Vickie complained that was tough on her calves. I had to agree. Having now walked this trail in it's entirety; I say with confidence that while this portage is incredibly scenic, it is absolutely involved in the discussion of what qualifies as the toughest portage in the BWCAW. We were glad to only be hiking it.

We stopped near Duck creek on the way back so Vickie could feed & change Aurora. While I explored the upstream side of the creek.

Diaper change

On the way back we passed by a few grouse without them flying up unexpectedly and stopping our hearts. All in all this was a wonderfully scenic hike with varied terrain and ecosystems to negotiate & contemplate. About as nice of a hike as one could hope for. But, once again I believe as a portage, this would make most anyones list of toughest maintained trails in the BWCAW.

Back on Big Moose there was a canoe out fishing the point near where Vickie had hooked one earlier. Also someone had claimed the campsite nearest the portage and were still setting up as we passed by. We followed the contour of the lake back to camp.

Chicken fajitas for supper. Once Aurora is down for the night we sit out and enjoy our last fire. By this point in the trip we have figured out where & when the night sky will light up. A beaver occassionally shatters the silence with a not too distant tail slap on the water. Although a welcome surprise greets us tonight as we are watching the northern sky; being treated to a brilliant display of aurora borealis. Vickie & I share a warm embrace as we marvel at our daughters' namesake displaying it's grandeur. Unfortunately our crude photography skills don't allow us to capture an image that will do them justice. But it's a very special, if all too brief, final evening to our family trip.

Pea pod

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

It appears it is setting up to be yet another glorious day. Aurora sleeps in her pea pod while Vickie & I begin to tear down and pack up. We set out to retrace our route back to the entry point. Thankfully it is a mostly uneventful, yet pleasant, journey back

After loading up and changing into some dry socks and shoes, we head for The Boathouse in Ely for hot sandwiches and cold drinks. Later, we browse some of the downtown shops before heading back to my parents place for the night.

In the final analysis this trip did not provide the greatest fishing, best campsite, most solitude, stunning scenery or wildlife encounters. But, I can say with confidence, we still created lasting memories for a lifetime. For me as a parent, seeing Aurora enjoying herself in this setting is beyond description. Certainly there were bumps in the road along the way. But, none that came close to shaking our confidence in our approach. Aurora has proven to be a real trooper. I mean, how many people can honestly claim to have crossed a 2 mile portage before they were 3 months old? If I have to do some triple portaging for awhile? I feel it is a small sacrifice to make for a hopeful lifetime canoe tripping partner. Perhaps, one day in the not so distant future, Aurora will be taking us along on her trips? And changing our diapers & feeding us! Needless to say, we are looking forward to planning our trip for next spring.


New Messages