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

Sylvania Wilderness

By cycle003 Print Icon Print Report View/Leave Comments (1)
Dates:July 4-6, 2014
Entry Point:3 - Helen Lake (Sylvania)

Having spent so much time car camping in close proximity to other campers, I was ready to get out to the relative solitude of the wilderness. Our family’s first trip to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness is all set for August, but I didn’t want to wait so long to get out canoe camping, and the Sylvania Wilderness seemed to be the perfect opportunity for a test run of our gear and packing strategy. Also, campsites for Sylvania can be reserved in advance, alleviating any worries about fighting potential holiday crowds for a campsite, so I reserved campsite Birch on Clark Lake for the July 4th weekend.

My wife repeatedly asked me if I was sure it would only take four hours to get to Watersmeet, and if I knew how bad holiday traffic could be getting “up north”. I took that as a clue to get an early start and promised to wake up around 5 am, which is several hours earlier than my normal weekend waking time. Having packed and loaded the car the night before, we were on the road by 6 am, which I think surprised us all. The early start really made a difference as traffic was light, and we had plenty of opportunities to make some stress-free stops, including breakfast at McDonald’s in Plover, WI. We continued on to Watersmeet with what was supposed to be a brief stop at Sylvania Outfitters for some fishing tackle and licenses. The tiny outfitter was packed with only one or two employees to handle all the rentals and fishing licenses. Fortunately, the crowd at the outfitter was not indicative of our experience in the wilderness.

Sylvania Helen Portage.jpg

After checking in at the ranger station and watching the video, we headed to the put-in at Helen Lake. Because the parking lots at Clark Lake were closed for construction, someone would have to drop our gear at Helen Lake, park 1.3 miles away at Snapjack Lake and walk back to the landing. My wife volunteered, and since, unlike me, she gets joy out of walking, I readily complied. After getting organized and waiting for Lorraine, we were on the water by 1 pm, which was an hour earlier than I was hoping to start paddling. Helen Lake was a very short paddle, and the portage to Clark Lake was easy to find, and since it was a temporary portage not marked on any map, I was glad we found it right away. The portage was literally a walk on the beach and was a piece of cake at supposedly 24 rods (400 ft), which is shorter than many of our trips from the parking lots to the landings. The only part of the portage I didn’t like was walking through the beach sand, but it was easy enough there were really no complaints. For reference, our route from the Helen Lake landing through the portage is shown on the map. By the way, the BackCountry Navigator app is awesome and works like a charm on my Samsung G3. In airplane mode, it doesn’t drain too much battery, less than 10% per hour. I brought along the Goal Zero Nomad 7 and Guide 10 plus, which I successfully used to charge some batteries and my phone. Anyway, we were prepared for double portaging, but being our first portage, we were a bit combobulated and had to go back for the paddles, making it a triple portage, which is about 9 trips fewer than we make back to the car when we’re launching at a boat ramp ;). We’re pretty slow paddlers, especially with a full load, so we covered about 3.6 miles in right at 2 hours including time at the portage. We had no problems navigating Clark Lake, and we reached Birch campsite around 3pm.

I was pleasantly surprised at how nice the campsite was, and immediately knew that I would be comfortable there. There were limited options for placing our 4 person tent, but we found a couple places that were suitable. It would be tight with a large car camping type tent, but I think one could manage a large tent here. As usual, we immediately set up camp by putting up the tent, getting the sleeping mats and bags ready, rigging a tarp and setting up the chairs. I collected a bit of firewood, of which there was plenty. I could have gotten by without bringing the saw or hatchet, but it was nice to be able to saw and split some 3-4 in. logs. The mosquitos were not very friendly, and they seemed to love hanging out under the tarp, so we mostly did not. I had been a bit worried about the water quality, but we found the water to be pretty clean. I went out and got some water later Friday evening and filtered it with my Sawyer 0.02, which I got for Father’s Day. The water came out perfectly clear and tasted good. Amber and I fished from the shore for a little while, but we saw no signs of any fish in the area. We decided we’d try again from the boat after supper, but Amber proved a bit nervous with her first time fishing from the boat. Supper was delicious tortilla pizzas. These are a total success, and I see them on many trips to come. We were out about a total of an hour before she became completely discouraged and didn’t want to try any other locations. I was a bit disappointed as I had heard that there was some decent fishing in Clark Lake. We paddled around alone at first, but we went back and got Lorraine. I was glad to get back to shore because I needed to cover my legs as the black flies were biting me like crazy. Friday was a beautiful day, and everything went incredibly smooth. We went to bed to the sound of fireworks nearby. Happy Independence Day!

Amber and I slept in on Saturday until about 8:30, and it felt wonderful after waking at 5 the day before. We had our usual oatmeal and pre-cooked bacon for breakfast. As long as there’s plenty of brown sugar, I could probably have this for breakfast everyday camping. We couldn’t seem to decide what to do for the day, so I nudged everyone toward exploring the trails that connect our site to the beach, along the west side of Clark. We finally found the trail, but there was a bit of “bushwacking” (well, walking around where we felt there should be a trail according to the map, compass AND GPS). The trail was even buggier than our campsite, so Amber was ready to turn around after 0.6 miles. Based on everything I read about Sylvania, I expected the trails to be like a road, and maybe they are elsewhere, but they aren’t between Birch and Cedar (well, we didn’t quite make it to Cedar, but I didn’t see any wide-open trails ahead). I was game for walking all the way to the beach but was not disappointed to turn around. We had hash browns, apples, and turkey sausage for lunch. The sausage was not very good but I was glad to have some protein. Later, Amber asked if we could go to the beach to swim, so we got changed and headed out in the canoe. We didn’t get very far before the wind was pushing us around, and Amber began asking to go back. It wasn’t dangerous, but there were some 6-12” waves rocking us, and we were expending quite a bit of energy to move incredibly slowly. We decided instead to swim at camp, which wasn’t actually bad. The open area near the landing was fairly small with some weeds on both sides, but once I got out about waist deep, there was some room to move around. Amber swam around with her life jacket on for about 45 minutes, which was enough to satisfy her. We dried off, then I flaunted around naked for a couple minutes in between changing before decided I better get dressed before the mosquitoes found me. Amber seems to love dehydrated meals, so after her begging, we had Mountain House beef stew instead of the planned cheese quesadillas with salsa. Storms began rolling in later in the evening, and Amber became a bit anxious wanting to go to bed. She finally got her way around 8 or 8:30, and her and Lorraine retreated to the tent. I played with the fire for another hour and went to bed with some signs of light still on the horizon.

Lorraine woke me just after six asking what time it was since we were planning to get an early start to beat the predicted storms. Reluctantly, I hobbled out of bed, got started with the morning routine, skipped breakfast and started packing up. The rain started before I could even begin packing, and the mosquitoes were brutal. It always feels like chaos when we’re packing up, but the rain made it even worse. We mostly managed to keep our sleep stuff dry, although some water got into the tent because we left part of the fly open and because we didn’t set up the tent perfectly. Maybe we should use an innie. Although we are incredibly slow at breaking camp, we were on the water by 8:30 am with a wet tent and tarp. My rain gear seemed to work well, but I was pretty wet from sweating, so I need to think about some way to keep dry without overheating. Maybe I need to drop some coin on Gortex, but that won’t happen this year after all the gear we already bought. We got out of the wilderness without incident, had lunch at Brew’s Pub (or something like that) in Land O’ Lakes before running into traffic on our way home. The four hour drive took more like six hours, but we made it back safely with a mess of gear that I had to hose off.

Final thoughts: I had a great time with the solitude in the wilderness and definitely hope to get back to Sylvania Wilderness in the near future. We saw a fair amount of wildlife, although not as much as I had hoped. We saw three eagles, numerous loons, turtles, squirrels, chipmunks, and deer. We didn’t encounter very many people except at the portages. Everyone was friendly and courteous, although we did encounter some guys fishing while carrying metal beer cans, which is clearly against the rules. The area was clean and a nice balance between the wilderness and civilization. I expect, though, that if the campground was open that it would be much busier on Clark. Our gear worked out well, and I can’t think of much we should have left behind, although there are some things we *could* do without. We packed enough food for 5 days, so our food pack (60 L blue barrel) weighed 40 lbs including stove, dishes, fuel and carrying pack. Our gear pack with tent, chairs, first aid, batteries/charger, tools, etc. was 30 lbs, and the bag with clothes, sleeping bags, mats, etc. weighed in at about 35 lbs. I also took a small pack, which I did not weigh, with fishing tackle, reels, a gallon of water, and weather radio. I wet-footed with some old tennis shoes in which I drilled holes. I don’t think they really drain, so I might be on the lookout for some shoes like Quetico Trekkers. I don’t think we would have packed or done much differently for a 5 day trip, so I’m feeling ready for our BWCA trip in August.

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