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

2021 Trip Report - The Hard Nights Trip

By Riley Smith Print Icon Print Report View/Leave Comments (0)
Dates:June 22-22, 2021
Entry Point:50 - Cross Bay Lake (BWCA)
Lakes:Afton, Bat, Brandt, Chase, Crooked, Cross Bay, Edith, Fente, Flying, Frost, Gillis, Gordon, Gotter, Green, Ham, Karl, Long Island, Lower George, Mora, Octopus, Oriole, Pencil, Rib, Ron, Round, Tarry, Time, Unload, Unnamed, Whipped

When the day came to head on our canoe trip, we were dropped off at the Cross River for our entry. Each day, two of the youth would be “guides of the day” making big group decisions and generally leading the group with one taking charge in the morning and the other in the evening. I also was rolling out some activities that I planned to do with my groups throughout the summer which was really fun to see put into practice. From the Cross River, we worked our way south. It was obvious that the water levels were much lower than they had been since I last visited a month prior. At the Ham Lake narrows, I pulled the group over and started my first educational activity. We sat for a couple of minutes in silence after I prompted the group to pay attention to their surroundings and their senses. Afterward, we discussed what they saw as I told the story of the Ham Lake Fire that started here and the dramatic changes it brought to the landscape. I also talked about the ecology and how the boreal forest is born out of fire. After paddling further down the lake and crossing the portage, we took a celebratory group picture for our official entry into the BWCAW.

We made great time traveling southbound stopping for lunch at a campsite along the way. Despite being strangers to begin the week, no one would ever know. These teens now seemed like close friends as they laughed and talked and generally built a community together. We portaged west out of Gordon and through Unload until we reached our destination for the day: Frost Lake. The first campsite was open, but I knew the second was better. We took the northern site on the eastern shore with the large beach running north out of camp. The evening was spent on the sand having community time together and enjoying the sunset.

The next morning, the group woke up before I did (a rare occurrence.) They discovered a cow moose with two calves on our beach and, rather than waking me, borrowed my camera to snap a picture. What a magical experience for them. As we headed out for the morning, I became a tad nervous that the water had dropped too far for the Frost to be navigable. Only time will tell.

After the first portage, I was pleasantly surprised. Everything seemed fine and we made decent time despite the generally tedious travel conditions normal to the Frost. That all changed after Pencil. The portage from Pencil has a wonderful waterfall in the middle of it and is a very scenic location. On the far side of the portage, the water was noticeably low. So low, in fact, that my canoe beached mid-river just 50 feet off the landing. This is a bad sign. We are nearly halfway through and travel just became much harder. We spent the next couple of hours walking the canoe for stretches and paddling for others. The group was tired but persevered through the hardship. I gave them the choice on Whipped, based on what I knew lay ahead, of taking the portage or heading through Time. Time is a splendid little lake, but the rapid sets on this day were magnificent boulder fields. The going was cumbersome and challenging as we made our way through time nearing sunset. By the time we hit Mora, the sun was down and we would be finding our campsite in near darkness. The first campsite was open, but the group was fine checking the next too. The site on the island was occupied so we backtracked to the big cliff site. By this point, the Mosquitoes were at biblical plague proportions. As a charitable gesture for the difficult day, I made dinner and allowed the group to stay in their tents. It was a challenging end to a challenging day, but group spirits were surprisingly high.

The next morning, we headed through the beautiful narrows heading up into Tarry. At the portage, we ran into a group from Widji with a guide I kept running into throughout the summer. It’s a long way from the Ely side, but that’s what two-week trips get a person! We made nice time through Crooked, stopped at the old cabin ruins on the way to Gillis, and headed out into the lake. On Gillis is when it became painfully apparent that my canoe had sprung a leak from some abuse it suffered near Time Lake the night before. It wasn’t a huge leak, but a separation in the keel panel (aluminum canoe) let in about 5 gallons of water by the time we crossed Gillis making portage lifts substantially more difficult. Here, I allowed the group a vote. If we proceed past Bat, there are only three campsites on Brant. Those may very well be full and then we would be in a jam. We were scheduled to be picked up at 1 the following afternoon and probably had time to get out if we stayed on Batt. That said, the group wanted a more relaxing morning and the vote was cast: we were going to try our luck on Brant. It’s a leadership trip, and I want to empower them to make choices, even if they might have consequences. We headed through the tough series of portages and eventually into Brant. As I looked out from the landing and noticed the first site full, I knew we were in trouble. The first site is definitely the worst on the lake. If it’s full, I can’t imagine the others are not! Once the group was all gathered, we paddled down with nervous anticipation. The second site was full. We paddled down and around the corner and..... the third site was also full. Darn! Now what? We can’t backtrack. The first option I presented the group with was that Edith and Little Round and Round are all outside of the BWCAW in the national forest proper. In theory, that means dispersed camping is allowed. Despite our best efforts though, we found no such options as that area burned hot, and what areas didn’t burn were dense thickets of balsam. In the end, we took the hard loss and camped in the parking lot, a new for me as a guide. In fact, the late-night before was the latest I have been out with a guided group and this was my first time completely skunked out of a campsite with a guided group. I am aware that camping in the parking is frowned upon, but with little other option, we took it.

The next morning, we packed up gear quickly and put our stuff off to the side to stay out of the way. We had checked in with the Spot Gen the night before, so our leadership knew where we were camping. (In fact, unknown to me, one of them drove to the end of the road and snuck into the parking lot the night before to make sure we weren’t in an emergency situation.) I had little idea if they would be coming for us in the morning or at our scheduled afternoon pickup, so I set the group up with some reflection time about the week and the lessons learned. In the meanwhile, some of the group became the morning welcoming committee, talking to groups that were showing up for the trip. One of them really cracked me up as she was using, line for line, and some of the questions I had asked other groups throughout the trip (where are you going, how many nights, we came from...., and so on.) We ended up sitting in that hot and dusty parking lot until 1:00 in the afternoon when, right on schedule, the van pulled up for us.

It was an interesting week with little going according to plan, but it was a marvelous adventure and my crew of kids went home with plenty of newfound leadership experience and bragging rights in spades!

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