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

Border lakes

By Bradford Print Icon Print Report View/Leave Comments (1)
Dates:June 16-21, 2014
Entry Point:16 - Moose/Portage River North of Echo Trail (BWCA)
Lakes:Agnes, Basswood, Basswood River, Bottle, Crooked, Fall, Horse, Iron, Lac La Croix, Moose Bay, Nina Moose, Sandpit, Tin Can Mike

This solo trip took me thru the beautiful lakes along the border. Entry on the moose river at this time of year was muddy and buggy as was the entire trip really. This is the wettest spring in Minnesota history so things were a bit different. My solo boat was a bell magic which is well suited for tripping up here. One kondos outdoors portage pack weighing in at under 40 pounds held all my gear and food. I made all portages in one carry. The canoe with a couple of things strapped to it also weighs just under 40 lbs.

there is at present a makeshift portage on the moose do to a downed tree blocking passage. Get out river left at a sand bar. Otherwise the way in was as expected. I was able to avoid one portage by easily floating thru the rapids.

i crossed Nina moose and up thru Agnes and then portaged into the boulder river and paddled around to boulder bay rather than take the other portage. This adds about an hour and a half of paddling that can be avoided if you choose to portage. I then paddled into the bay and around to tiger bay finding all the sites occupied until I reached the island site across from warrior hill where I camped the first night.

in the morning it was a relatively short paddle to reach bottle portage on the Canadian side. This portage has a low trail and high trail. I got some bad advice from an outfitter/guide and took the low road which was very muddy. I fell twice on this trip. Luckily there was no damage to my boat or me.

after entering bottle lake I detoured up to Rebecca falls to see them. They were very impressive as the water volume is extremely high so the flow was intense. There are two quetico campsites on the island that separates the two sets of falls with a trail that takes you around the island.

from there I crossed iron lake across the north section and portaged around curtain falls. There is a trail extension to accomodate high water conditions. You find it in the small bay just south of the narrows you would normally enter to find the trail. Once again the falls were roaring and quite stupendous.

from curtain I proceeded down to the large island to the south that is reported to have pictographs located on it ("magic on the rocks") but could find no sign of them. I continued on thru crooked lake to the top of Friday bay and camped on the island site located in a cedar grove. I lucked out with the weather so far on these big lakes - no wind! The surface of the lake was like glass and there was no rain - in fact it got rather hot. I went swimming a few times off the campsite landing to cool off. In the early evening I toured around the area sightseeing and visited with a group camped on an island nearby. The scenery along these shores is impressive with great rocky cliffs, stands of red and white pines and large expanses of water.

on day three I took a route thru crooked that was challenging at times do to moving water and some headwinds. I had to paddle up some small drops/rapids in some narrows - "little current". I intentionally avoided the northern route - "big current", figuring it would be a more prolonged struggle. The entire stretch from Thursday bay to Wednesday bay along the narrows was moving pretty good so paddling upstream added to the effort required.

i stopped at table rock to see the place - it was occupied so I couldn't stay overnight but I had a nice visit with a group on an outdoor rec class outing from university of Illinois Carbondale. I pushed on a ways further and camped at the site near the pictograph cliffs on the basswood river. This was a limited site in terms of accomodations but well suited for taking a spin around after establishing camp. I spent time at the pictographs and then paddled up into moose bay and beyond to the first portage on the river up there. I discovered a beautiful quetico site located on a hill overlooking moose bay.

in the morning I ran into a couple of guys who had come thru the upper basswood falls area where my planned route was headed (one happened to be my neighbor!). I inquired about the conditions and they advised against going that way. These very seasoned paddlers in this country said they had experienced a rough go of it because the water volume made the approach and launch from the portage very dangerous - standing waves, whitewater, dangerous currents and so on. They also said the make shift portage that has been extended to go around all this is approx a mile and a half or longer and messy with knee deep mud. They advised me to go up the horse river instead and get to basswood lake via the range river. This I did. When you are traveling solo in the wilderness you best not take unnecessary risks if they can be avoided. Things can go very wrong very quickly. A few days before I began this trip eight Boy Scouts had to be rescued from the upper falls after they were swept into them, lost their gear and were trapped on an island, becoming hypothermic. It was a massive operation involving float planes, helicopters, motor boats and s.a.r. personnel called in from around the region. Other reports from the u.s.f.s. also indicated canoes overturned and people in trouble.

i portaged the lower falls and headed up the horse river. The horse was flowing pretty good of course and I was forced to paddle up a number of drops and rapids nearly breaking my paddle more than once on the rocks in the shallow waters. The last rapids I had to portage as it was too big of a drop. From there I quickly reached the source at the lake and grabbed the first campsite available around the corner on the point. This lake fills up routinely so I felt fortunate to get a site and a good one at that. I ended up staying a layover day there as well.

at 5:30 p.m. I saw a large group rafted up out in the lake and figured they were trying to figure out where to go because there were no sites left open. I called out to them and they made their way over to me. I offered to share my site with them as I was solo and the site is very accommodating to a large group. The adult leader said they were an outward bound group (a group of 8 girls around 14 or 15 y.o.) and have a policy not to share a site. She asked if I would go to the next site over and ask to intrude on them to stay there so they could have my spot. I told her no but again they were welcome to stay at my place well away from me if they so chose. She said they would simply paddle and portage back the way they came to tin can mike and camp there. I urged her to reconsider as the hour was late, the other lake was likely full and the girls looked exhausted. No thanks. So, she proceeded to paddle them to the next point over and camp illegally! In my opinion, if she was going to bend a rule it should have been to overlook the not sharing policy rather than impress upon these young people a wilderness ethic wherein you camp wherever you feel like.

the next day I ended up sharing my campsite with a family that found themselves in the same situation. They had nowhere to camp and were not really prepared to go on. I paddled out to them and explained I was alone and they took me up on the offer and stayed the night. I enjoyed the company and they were nice enough to share food and drink with me. By the way, the leader of this group, while out collecting wood seriously injured his eye - didn't know exactly what happened but something flew into his eye or he scraped it - at any rate he got hurt rather badly and ended up with an eye patch and spent the next 16 hours in the tent. You never know what can go wrong out there - reduce your risks whenever you can.

the next morning I departed horse lake and went down the chain of lakes toward the mudro entry point but then veered east on the range river over to jackfish bay on basswood. I started hearing the motorboats buzzing around half way thru that river and started to feel like I kinda wanted to just keep going and get out that day so that is what I did. I went up jackfish to the portage thru to pipestone bay which was a float thru the water was so high. No portage necessary. From there I worked my way down to fall lake and got picked up at the entry point there at 5:45p.m.

a curious thing happened along the way. I ran into a group of four entering the range river as I was exiting. They all had their bent shaft paddles backward. This I have found is a common sight when running into beginners who have never used a bent shaft before and figure the bend is to get a better scoop on the water and hold it in the reverse of its intended design thus negating the entire reason it was engineered the way it was. I made some small talk with them and then mentioned that they were holding their paddles backward. The leader said, "no, we are not" I told him they are intended to be used the other way and he insisted they work better to increase the thrust the way they had them. I let them go on their way. The family that stayed in my campsite used their paddles the same way - backwards. I showed them how they were supposed to be used and explained the dynamics of a forward stroke and so on and they were very appreciative. On fall lake I came across yet another group that had backward bent shaft paddles! Wow. Just for the heck of it I turned mine around and tried using it backward. Well, first of all the palm/pear grip immediately feels awkward and wrong - it seems so obvious. But beyond that the blade does not feel stable in the water - constantly fluttering and fighting you on every stroke. You cannot get a good lock on the water and propel yourself the way the paddle is intended - bent shaft or no bent shaft! It is beyond me how anyone could keep up that stroke for very long. When you consider you execute anywhere from 10,000 to 30,000 strokes per day you are talking about a lot of wasted, inefficient effort. This brings me back to the point that when you are traveling out in the wilderness it is wise to do things safely, efficiently and wisely. There is little room for error when you are on a long strenous trip with many risks involved. I would think the friendly advice/sharing of helpful information to someone who is obviously a novice would be gladly welcomed. In this case it was spurned. I hope they eventually figured out what they were doing and are back out safely.

overall my trip was a very good one. I had fortunate luck with the weather and wind, I had no incidents of any consequence and I enjoyed fabulous scenery. I have posted photos from the trip not here in this trip report but at the campsites and other places along the way if you want to see them you can check my profile and they are there.

gear used:

  • MSR hubba hubba two person tent
  • mountain hardware down bag
  • kondos portage pack
  • big Agnes sleeping pad
  • thermarest fleece lined stuff sack for pillow (turn it inside out and stuff with clothing)
  • MSR reactor stove
  • NEOS over shoes worn over keen sandals for wet footing
  • bug shirt - "the original bug shirt elite" made in Ontario
  • REI paddle hat
  • fit-over sunglasses
  • spare pair prescription eyeglasses
  • 1st aid
  • titanium spoon - extra long model for getting cleanly into the freeze dried food bags
  • gsi cup
  • rat sac
  • opsaks
  • Katadyn camp filter - this large sack filter doubles as bow weight to adjust trim if needed
  • empty gallon water container - acts as ballast up front also, pee can and if needed a bailing device
  • suunto compass
  • thwart mounted suunto compass designed for mounting on a kayak - modified to strap onto thwart in front of me
  • survival reflector mirror
  • bell magic solo canoe
  • solo yoke put together from a yoke frame bought on line, pads bought separately and clamps purchased from a woodworking site
  • gillespie bent shaft paddle
  • spare paddle - custom paddle made in ely


  • Fresh sandwiches for the first couple days
  • boiled eggs for first three days breakfast
  • instant oatmeal
  • dried polish delights from koshars meat market in Gilbert
  • various freeze dried meals (commercial, not home made)
  • assorted "energy bars"
  • nut goodies and salted nut rolls
  • coffee
  • wasa crackers
  • string cheese
  • peanut butter


the NEOS boots work for me to keep feet dry while wet footing out of the canoe at portages etc. they are very packable and light weight and 100% waterproof. They slip on over whatever foot gear you choose to wear - warm, heavier hiking boots in shoulder seasons maybe and lighter stuff in warmer weather. This allows me to have dry feet/shoes in camp rather than slogging around in wet stuff.

the rat sac by "outsak" - this item is unusual up here but handy. I got it originally for hiking in the Grand Canyon and the surrounding canyon lands/desert because it is needed to keep rodents and ravens from tearing into your food stuffs. It is very likely your food will be scavenged if you do not take this precaution. Since I have had mouse/rodent problems in the bwcaw with them gnawing thru packs and such to get to food I now use this metal mesh bag. It seals with large Velcro at the top and is lightweight. They sell an ultra light version and different sizes.

opsaks - these handy bags are both 100% watertight and 100% odor proof. They come in various sizes. I use the stash your food rather than hang it from a tree method so I am rather methodical about keeping odors to a minimum. These do the trick.

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