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

2021 - What a Year

By Riley Smith Print Icon Print Report View/Leave Comments (0)
Dates:January 1, 2021 - December 31, 2021
Entry Point:62 - Clearwater Lake (BWCA)

A quick sweep across the forum will find a wide range of topics discussed by knowledgeable people who love this wilderness, and it’s obvious that a good number of them don’t just think “well the Boundary Waters are pretty cool,” no, they’re genuinely crazy about the place. I hope to count myself among them. As I look back at 2021 and the trips I took, it’s incredible to relive the places I got to visit, the people I was able to share them with, and all the time I was able to spend in my favorite wilderness. I was blessed to live on the Gunflint last year and guide a ton of really cool kids on trips last summer. Because of this, I have always had a tough time picking and choosing what to write about for trip reports. Do I post just the really weird ones: the canoe trips through ice and snow, the trips that end up in the dark, the unusual and different routes? I can’t really share a lot of the cool stories about my campers on a public forum out of respect for their privacy. It’s also tough to pick and choose just one or two trips. So instead though I know the trip reports aren’t specifically designed for this, I am summing up the whole year’s worth of trips into one big trip report that covers the highlights, the good/bad/ugly memories, and a general reflection of probably my best year’s worth of time spent in canoe country. The orange lines in the map above cover most of the routes from this year (sans the far western ones.) Also, one more note. I have withheld doing this in the past because talking about living on the gunflint or taking all sorts of trips sounds like bragging. A lot of folks posting their trip reports are posting about “their one trip” for the year and that’s awesome.So part of me is apprehensive about posting about a bunch of trips, but part of me is also saying these trips reports are important for the folks who can’t get up to the BW for whatever reason. So that’s the mentality I am going with. Here are my reflections:

First time in the BWCA for the year: January 1st, exited from Daniels Lake at 12:35 am after celebrating new years in the wilderness.

Last time in the BWCA for the year: December 31st, entered at 11: 33 pm to celebrate new years on Daniels again.

First overnight trip of the year: January 23-24th: A snowshoe trip entering at Clearwater Lake exiting from Daniels Lake via Mountain/Rove/Watap and setting up camp at a place I had always dreamed of: on the lake at the base of the Watap palisade.

Last overnight trip of the year: November 30th-December 1st: Topper Lake campsite via Mahew Lk Rd. A little mid-week escape out to enjoy the early winter and get some cold hammocking camping in and a meal on a campfire.

First overnight canoe trip of the year: April 17th - April 18th: Early ice out means early canoeing. The cabin fever was hitting hard even though I had been getting out a decent amount. Went for a fairly relaxing solo trip out of Baker Lake. I was set to launch when a ranger pulled into the lot to voice his concern over the water temperatures (valid.) I was able to reassure him.

First multi-night canoe trip of the year: April 30th (10:00 pm) - May 2nd: Cross Bay to Brant via the Frost River. So there may be some legal repercussions here, but my reading of the BWCA rules says that an entry permit is valid from the date of your entry until the date of your exit. So if you enter before the quota season (say April 30th) and stay in, your self-written permit remains valid. The extreme version of that was tested on this trip with some old guiding buddies leaving the Cross Bay landing sometime after 10 pm and nighttime navigating to the entry, trying to make the BWCA line before midnight (yes, pretty ridiculous.) Mission successful. I would like to stop and reassure folks here that the issue is not paying for permits. I am an enthusiastic supporter of anything that can help manage the BWCA well and care for a wilderness that sees more visitors than any other. This was more just a proof of concept and a rather crazy “I wonder if this is possible.” Also, work on Fridays.... Anyways. We made a Cross Bay campsite at 2:30 am and tucked in. The next day was a monster. We worked to Frost Lake for a snack and then chugged through the Frost River. We actually spent a fair deal of time exploring the rapids and falls and sites along the way. At about 10:00 pm (yay night navigating again?!?!) we pull into a campsite on Little Sag. The next, day we exited late at Brant to end the trip.

There weren’t really any late-season canoe trips. My scheduling became tight so there wasn’t any snowstorm trips on Brule this year and there wasn’t any ice-breaking with the canoe. And, unlike last year, I didn’t curling myself across 200 ft of ice past some ice skaters to canoe on Gunflint Lake on December 1st like last year. My loss I’m afraid.

Some broader numbers: Number of overnight trips: 20 with at least one night spent in the wilderness every month of the year. My outfit does a lot of shorter outings, so between my guided trips in the summer and my personal weekends, those trips only range from 1-night to 5, but I’m not complaining. Still plenty of nights in the woods!

Entry Points Utilized (Entry or Exit): 23ish. Daniels, Clearwater, Duncan, Eagle Mt Trail, Baker, Cross Bay, Brant, Snowbank, Bower Trout, Lizz/Swamp, Saganaga, Seagull, Missing Link, South, E Bearskin, Homer, Sawbill, Sioux Hustler, S Hegman, Brule River (not an entry point currently, explored it), Morgan, and Border Route Trail W (via Topper Lake, Crab Lake Spur, and Mucker Lake Cutoff).

Best Campsite: So many options. The Moose walking down the beach on Frost was nice. The horrible campsite on Otto actually had a magical quality about it that makes it one of my new favorites. The middle island campsite in Gabi is dreamy. But so many nice ones that it’s hard to choose.

Worst Campsite: Round Lake Entry Parking lot. Yep. After a group of leadership students and I suffered through a grueling drag through the already-low-in-June water of the Frost River (arriving at our Mora campsite at 9:45 pm which was a new latest with a group for me.) We encountered completely full campsites from Gillis on. So we spent the night in the parking lot (not ideal.) They were old enough and mature enough for it not to be a big issue, but chalk that up as a new experience for me too.

Trip Least According to Plan: I will start this with a preface. I believe trips not going according to plan is what makes them really memorable. We all tell stories about things going wrong. That said, this was my least-comfortable night spent in the BW this year. Of the trips that actually happened, I am giving that title to a miserable little winter trip to Eagle Mountain. It was a solo weekend adventure. I was packed pretty heavy with a hot tent with the plan of camping on Whale, hiking up to the peak the next day (which I had never been to), and then possibly spending another night before heading out. After a late afternoon entry, I arrived at Whale Lake near sundown in nearly white-out snowing conditions. In one of my more amusing interactions in the BW this year, I encountered another individual traveling across the lake. In the sunset-blizzard we have a nonchalant conversation about campsites and then he makes a break for the exit while I start campsite setting. Well, I never was able to get any of my four fire-starting means to work very well that night, the iso-butane stove froze up, the wood never really got going in the stove and, to add insult to injury, I soon realized that no sleeping pad had come along either. So in my heavy canvas, unheated tent, I ate my cold, barely rehydrated and crunchy chili, and generally froze my butt off as the temperature free-fell 25 degrees to 10 below. Usually, 10 below wouldn’t worry me even cold camping (I had a -20 bag,) but the lack of a sleeping pad, wood stove, or hot food really made it a night. I ended up skipping out on the hike up the mountain the next day and headed out instead for hot food in Grand Marais. Another memory in canoe country.

Trip that went the most according to plan (and beyond): My sister decided she wanted to go on her first BWCA trip. I was always the outdoorsy one and camping was never “her thing,” but she decided to give it a go this year. If I only had one chance for her to love the BW I had to do it right so I pulled a Duncan permit knowing the east-side scenery was my best chance. And boy, the trip couldn’t have gone better. The Gunflint Trail itself seemed hell-bent on convincing her. Night one in a cabin sees a wonderful sunset on honeymoon bluff, a moose crossed the road on Hungry Jack Rd in front of the car, and incredible stars that night after a summer of smokey skies. From there, we get Rose falls the next day, a hike to the west Rose overlook (in my opinion one of the best views in the whole BW), the nice site within earshot of Rose Falls, and then otters swam up to the campsite that night. The next morning sees beautiful fog as we head for the long portage. Check off some points for pride by conquering the long portage. She catches a real nice smalley on Rove before we enjoy the Watap palisade. Then it’s on to Mountain and the US/Canada landmark. A nice campsite in view of the Clearwater palisades rounds out the trip with a post-rain sunset. The moonrise over the cliffs is also wonderful. Then she sees a bear on the drive home the next morning. I can’t really script that better.

Favorite Traditions Honored: Though I didn’t get an ice-breaking canoe trip this year, our Halloween Costume Party weekend backpacking trip was on for its second year. Last year saw us hike the PowWow in our Halloween costumes. This year, we added a member, donned some awful onesie costumes, and hiked the Sioux Hustler over Halloween weekend. I also was able to celebrate new years on Daniels again. First off, why not welcome new years in my favorite place? Second, there is something cool about being one of the last to enter the BW for the year in the last half hour and then one of the first to leave shortly thereafter. And finally, Daniels is where my dad first brought me into the BW so it remains super sentimental that way.

Personal milestones: This was my biggest mileage year in the BW. Without any of the trips being that many nights, I still was happy to make the most of it. Also, I just love sharing the wilderness with kids who haven’t gotten to experience it before. Being a super huge BW geek, I have this crazy spreadsheet that tracks any personal number that I can track. I’m closing in on a “lakes visited” milestone that I am super happy with. It’s just so rewarding in the “off-season” to pour over the memories.

And finally, a few tidbits learned: Your gear can always be worse. I guided all summer in aluminum. It’s old-school, it’s heavy, but like the gear at many youth camps, it gets the job done. (Though I personally turned down the royalex canoes that the rest of the staff used out of personal disdain for the particular model.) Passing that group of kids on the Kiskadinna/Muskeg portage this summer without yoke pads and carrying wood boxes on Tremplines reminded me to be grateful for my “super hi-tech, lightweight aluminum” (their words, not mine.) haha!

Old Portages: I pride myself on getting a group to explore some obscure spaces from time to time. I keep records on my maps of former portages and old routes and sites for the sake of knowing. Some revelations this year. The old route from Gabi to Little Sag via Vierge is non-navigable. At least, most of the old Gabi to Vierge portage is gone. There is a beaver pond in the middle and I could get through on a personal trip, but the old portage has so much blowdown it’s untraceable. That said, the moss-covered moose skull was a treat and the group found some character building. Speaking of former portages, back in the early 80s maps (maybe earlier) there was a portage marked from Clearwater to Rove. Why anyone would want to carry gear over that ridge is beyond me, but that trail is now part of the BRT. I had a group of high school boys that were good for some physical challenge and humility. We portaged our aluminum canoes over that spur from Clearwater to Rove. The elevation gain is something else and that trail certainly doesn’t cater to 18 ft of canoe very well anymore. Following it up with the long portage a half-mile later seemed borderline cruel, but they left with something to be proud of and have a route map that I am sure no one else had this year. With a different group, I spent the night on the Otto Lakes. It’s interesting in a busy season to get off the route with one, semi-treacherous portage. Of course, the one “nice” site on Otto was taken (who else goes to Otto!?!) so we found ourselves on the special site. All the better I guess. And finally, the Paulsen portage lives up to the hype. I was guiding a group of gap-year students who unanimously decided to take Paulsen out of the gate from Seagull. With aluminum canoes and heavy packs, it really gave them something to brag about. From there, we did 12 more portages that day, spending the night on W Fern (what a day!) The trip ending was one where the leader and guide sneak out of the campsite and let the students find their own way to the exit (all on the same lake, we camped on the west end of Seagull the last night.) Navigating Seagull in the dark via the north star was a point of personal pride for me as we pulled into Blakenberg without a single wrong turn. And man, what an amazing time to see the lake. There were plenty of other out-of-the-way adventures and stops made simply to “see it and enjoy.”

All in all, it was an amazing season with so many stories. Even if I never get the chance to spend this much time in the BW again, I was blessed beyond measure to guide these past few years. Here’s to another year.

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