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BWCA Round Lake loop

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The background:

One of my primary reasons for joining this forum was to get information to help plan a trip to the BWCA. I’m an experienced backpacker but the last time I tripped with a canoe was as a kid in the Scouts.

I decided, as I’ve gotten older, that I should transition back to canoe tripping so that the canoe could carry gear and the trips might take less of a toll on my body. While looking for places to go, I ran across the BWCA and decided that it would be my destination but, without any experience, I was at a bit of a loss about how to plan, where to go, etc. so I bought both of Robert Beymer’s BWCA route books, scoured the internet, read a bunch of trip reports (here and elsewhere), poured over paddleplanner.com and, once I had a little bit of direction, contacted a couple of outfitters and even a few people on this site for insight & advice.

I have 3 kids and several friends who enjoy the outdoors and I talked to those whom I thought I could enjoy being around 24/7 for a couple of weeks but none had the same vision for the trip that I had. My fishing buddy wanted to go a day or so in and base camp but I wanted to explore, my kids had other commitments (pending weddings, college internships, etc) and it seemed most thought it was too much “roughing it” to have much appeal.

I saved an extra week of vacation, laid out a preferred route and promptly got grounded by covid (the travel restrictions and an overabundance of caution, not the disease). Another year of hoping, fine tuning route and researching online and, finally, in 2021, I decided it was time.

My youngest daughter (the only one who could easily just pick up & join me) was concerned about a solo trip so I bought a Garmin InReach for my family’s peace of mind, learned how to set it up, programmed my 3 preset messages as well as their intended recipients, got my entry permit, two 26,800mAh power banks, took 2 weeks’ vacation and told the boss that, if I wasn’t back in two weeks, to use my 3rd week before considering me AWOL.

Prep:

As so often in my life, I’ve got way too many irons in the fire so I did little to prepare beyond thinking “I need to take that” and buying a few freeze dried meals. I did take time to flip the bow seat around in the Sawyer so that I would have better trim adjustment options.

I had planned to build a dedicated solo strip canoe for the trip but I had way too much going on and my options turned out to be a We-no-nah Jensen 18 (fiberglass) which weighs around 60 lbs and is very quick on the water or a 16 foot Goldenglass Sawyer (model unknown) whose predominant attribute was stability but wasn’t a burden to paddle either. I’ve never bothered to weigh the Sawyer as I did not want to know but it felt lighter than the Jensen while in the backyard yet seemed to get heavier every time I picked it up in Minnesota.

In addition to worrying about my safety in the woods, my family was concerned about the reliability of my transportation. My daily driver is a ‘94 Ford Ranger with 290,000+/- miles and, although I assured all interested parties that it was mechanically sound and would make the trip, my father was concerned enough that he bought me a AAA membership that covered towing up to 300 miles (I did not bother to tell him that it was around 1200 miles each way). I’ve worked around cars & garages most of my life and always thought that if you didn’t think a car would make it to California and back, why waste the money to change the oil? Likewise, as I’m unafraid to put my money where my mouth is, I had no problem strapping the Sawyer to the roof and striking out.

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My entry permit was for May 18th (Tues) and I figured it was about a 16 hr drive from my home in western PA. I procrastinated a bit with packing and finally started throwing things in a bag on Sunday afternoon. My camping gear is usually stored in or near my backpack so it was unlikely that I would forget anything (famous last words, right?)

The trip:

Early Monday morning, I hopped in my trusty, rusty Ranger, grabbed my usual large coffee plus a thermos of extra coffee, filled the (somewhat small) fuel tank & pointed myself toward I80 West. (deliberately avoiding the PA turnpike… if you ever travel through PA, do not, repeat DO NOT, travel the turnpike unless you simply have too much money.)

The plan was to try and knock out 12 hrs on the first day so that I could enter the BWCA around noon on the 18th. PA, Ohio, Indiana & then Illinois faded into the rear view as I headed West and, somewhat surprisingly, traffic was light coming through Chicago. I turned North and made it to Rice Lake, Wisconsin by 8pm, grabbed a hotel and sent the first “Just checking in, everything is OK” message from the InReach.

On the way up, I remembered that I hadn’t packed an actual camera (just my phone), so a quick Google search, a few reviews and I decided that I would take a 20 minute detour into Duluth for a point and shoot at the Best Buy.

GPS programmed and thermos refilled thanks to the generosity of the hotel, I was back on the road the next morning. I found the Best Buy and acquired the camera but I did not seem able to make good time.

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I had decided on the Frost River as Beymer’s books assured me that it was “one of the most remote and lightly travelled areas of the BWCA” and afforded some of the best opportunities to see wildlife. I’ve seen elk in the wild but never a moose and I was hopeful. I’d also heard there were wolves in the BW but I was just as hopeful that they would not be as plentiful as the moose and I would not be terribly disappointed if they were, distantly, heard and not seen.

One of the outfitters I had contacted several times and had found very helpful was Andy at Tuscarora Canoe Outfitters. I had laid out my intended trip and he assured me that it was easily done in 6 days (more on this later but beware taking advice from someone that is easily half your age) but that Cross Bay was a gentler introduction to portaging than Missing Link would be. I had the entry permit changed to Cross Bay and would pick it up at Tuscarora with the intention that I would also be able to pick up a zip lock map bag as well as anything that I’d forgotten.

I finally arrived around 3pm, grabbed my permit, the map bag and Andy once more reviewed the maps and the planned route. He again assured me that the route was do-able and I was off to the parking lot.
 
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Day 1 (ah, arrogance... thou art not merely for the young):

Arriving at the entry point parking area full of optimism and excitement for the adventure ahead, I wrapped the aluminum center thwart in pool noodle & duct tape as a poor man’s portage yoke, carried the canoe and entirely too much gear to the water, loaded up, glanced briefly at the map and pushed off downstream to look for my first portage.

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I navigated the first set of riffles without losing TOO much blue paint, but when I got to the second, it didn’t seem right… I couldn’t imagine outfitters happily loaning canoes to scrape along this rocky stream, so I figured I’d missed the portage. The banks, at this point, were about 15 feet high so I exited on river left, scrambled up the bank to the road and proceeded to make my first portage an unscheduled one that took me back above the riffles.

Reloaded, relaunched and looking around, I spotted a faint trail leading up away from the stream. Analyzing the situation as: “Well, it IS a wilderness, and it IS Spring” though ignoring the fact that there were at least 10 other cars in the parking lot and 10 cars full of people would leave more of a trail, I unloaded and began my portage. The trail was little more than a bushwhack which suited me fine as I was hoping to see few, if any, people for a few days. (I mentioned the 10 other cars, right?)

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Portage trail?

After about 300 yards, the trail joined another, much more heavily travelled trail and I (in my infinite wisdom) decided that this must be the actual portage, so I put down the canoe and went back for my pack.

I carried this pack around the woods for an embarrassingly long time before it dawned upon me that I should probably put some effort into figuring out exactly where I was and what I was doing wrong. I know how to use a map and compass, I had just neglected to actually do it to this point so, after a little study, I decided that I was actually on a snowmobile trail North of where I should have been.

Back through the bushwhack (actually a game trail) I went, double-portaging the pack and then the canoe in order to return to the launch and start over so that, somewhere in the neighborhood of 3 ½ hrs later, I was right back where I’d started, sitting on the dock but actually looking at the map this time.

I discovered that I should have gone upstream instead of down and, although it may be hard to believe... This makes a difference.

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I pushed off, paddled around a small point and, lo and behold, there was a path through the woods that had seen the soles of many shoes and looked far more likely to be the portage that I had been looking for.

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The notion of this being the actual portage was confirmed by a gentleman coming out carrying a Bell Wildfire who seemed surprised that anyone was coming in this late. I neglected to inform him that I had actually launched a few hours before and had "spent an inordinate amount of time exploring the area immediately surrounding the launch".

He indicated that all sites on Ham lake were unoccupied and that the 2nd one was particularly nice so, without further ado, I set about the task of portaging again with every confidence that this one would be significantly shorter than my last attempt had been.

I arrived at the campsite (#551 on paddleplanner) around 8:30, emptied the canoe, flipped it over for the night (because I think that’s what canoe trippers do) and carried everything else up the hill to set up camp. I scouted the tent pads, found one I liked and then the slow motion train wreck that this trip was developing into continued...

As I mentioned previously, I brought entirely too much gear thinking that the canoe would carry the weight most of the time. Setting up camp, I discovered that one piece of gear that I had forgotten... was my tent. (yep... I didn’t bring the effin’ tent!)

In anticipation of this trip, I had purchased a used MSR Hubba Hubba from another canoetripping member and it came with a vestibule attachment called a gear shed. In the little time that I had used the tent, I discovered that I agreed with the previous owner: the gear shed is a pain in the butt and is not needed as there is room enough in the 2 man tent for a solo camper without the vestibule. When I pulled the “tent'' out of the pack, however, I found that I had brought the gear shed and the tent was still at home in my closet.

Luckily, the excess gear I was carrying included a 9x12 tarp (that I thought would be useful covering the camp kitchen if it rained) so I set it up as a shelter and turned in. I will admit, at that point, I was seriously considering heading back to the truck in the morning with the thought that maybe the outfitter would have tents and I did not sleep particularly well wondering if I would awaken to a wolf chewing on my face (Then, as now, I know little about wolves).

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Home for the night

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Makeshift tent

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Map reading skills are only useful if you take time to use them.
 
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Loved the TR! And your resourcefulness! On a trip with me hubby and a dog on an October week on Flagstaff Lake I grabbed the blue bag that I thought contained the three man tent. Completely forgot that I had a one and a half man tent of the same color. The size of the bag did not evoke any alarms. Got to camp, pulled out tent and yep it was the small one for two of us. I figured the dog could sleep in the vestibule. The dog had other ideas. It IS possible to fit three in a very small two man tent. The dog was on top. The dog was a Golden not a toy! Our multi day trip turned into a one nighter!

I have also convinced myself I was somewhere I wasn't and a map would have shown me the errors of my ways!
 
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I'm liking this story so far! I once did pack my tent but of course left the tent poles lying right on the floor where I was packing! Made for an interesting 2 day trip!
 
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I am really enjoying your trip report. About fifty years ago my college girlfriend and I paddled the Frost River, started a Sawbill Lake, went West & North into Kelso River, then to Kelso, Lujenida, Frederick, Zenith, Duck, Hug and Mesaba Lakes. Eventually to the Frost River, East to Frost Lake. Turning South through some lakes to exit at Sawbill Lake.
This was the first year that cans and bottles were first banned we didn’t read the small print so, did not take any mosquito repellent. The girl I was with was eaten alive by the skeeters, had some lovely bug bite’s. We did see lots of moose, ruffed grouse, wood ticks and heard wolves at night.
I once left the pole to my pyramid tent at home on a trip down the Tangle and Delta Rivers. Lashed my Shaw & Tenney, six foot Guide paddle to the shorter Guide paddle to make a pretty good replacement. My travel companions have never let me forget the oversight.
I eagerly await your next installment.
……..B Birchy
 
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As train wrecks go this one's not too bad, keep up the good work Gamma. Can't wait for Day 2 and breakfast. Things can only get better, right?
 
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YC, as you may have guessed, your gear shed made the trip but I cannot show photographic evidence that your Hubba Hubba is still tripping (until next time... maybe... we'll get to that...)

Thanks for the kind responses so far, I've really enjoyed writing this and I'm very pleased that I can share it here.
 
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Day 2

I managed to survive the night and awakened with decisions to make. A return to the outfitter’s might result in the acquisition of a tent but would also require another entry permit and I was not hopeful that another would be available.

The route I had planned led South to Long Island lake then turned Northwest down the Frost River and into Mora and Little Saganaga lakes. When I reached Mora (estimated day 3 or 4), I would be what I’d estimated to be about ½ a day’s travel West of the truck and I had planned it this way to give myself an escape route. If I had bitten off more than I could chew, I could bail by heading East, getting in the truck and heading home with the knowledge that “I came, I tried, it kicked my butt”.

I decided to proceed on the planned route using the tarp as shelter and re-evaluate my situation when I reached Mora in a few days; so I packed up, looked carefully at the map (lesson learned) and headed for the portage to Cross Bay lake. It is during this portage that I officially entered the BWCA (a day late but I felt that was splitting hairs… either way, no one yelled at me)

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Throughout most of the BWCA, camping is permitted only at designated sites and they are defined by cast iron grates over the firepits and the presence of a “thunderbox” in the woods nearby. For the uninitiated; the thunderbox, as one might guess, is a latrine. Here they are made of fiberglass, originally equipped with lids, though only a couple that I saw still had them, and are placed above a shallow pit. There are no walls or roof but it does save one from digging cat holes.

Both portages and campsites are marked on the maps but, unlike some other parks, there are no signs or other indicators in the forest.

As I moved south I was surprised to find all of the sites on Cross Bay lake occupied and on the portage between Rib and Lower George I ran across an older gentleman fishing for smallmouth. He assured me that the well kept secret of the BWCA was no longer a well kept secret and, as he was a veteran of these parts, I asked him how worried I should be about wolves. He chuckled and said that, if I even saw a wolf, I should consider myself very fortunate indeed. In hindsight, I’m not certain why I trusted a total stranger’s opinion when hanging in the balance was my face being chewed upon by wolves but I did and I slept the remainder of the trip without any fear of becoming wolf chow.

I also quickly learned the secret to finding portages and campsites... One simply had to paddle directly into the wind.

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I made my way through Karl, Long Island and Gordon lakes all the while running into more and more people who were headed to the Frost River. A couple of times we joked that we all must have read the same book during the covid lockdowns and I was starting to get legitimately concerned about the availability of campsites on Frost Lake. There are only 5 there and by the time I reached Frost, I had little energy left with which to backtrack.

I needn’t have worried however as a few of the groups must have gone on and I found a really nice site (#878 on paddleplanner) near the portage out and it became home for the night. I was thoroughly exhausted and was asleep long before it was dark.

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YC, as you may have guessed, your gear shed made the trip but I cannot show photographic evidence that your Hubba Hubba is still tripping (until next time... maybe... we'll get to that...)

Thanks for the kind responses so far, I've really enjoyed writing this and I'm very pleased that I can share it here.
the one piece of gear that should have stayed home the most!

Yes the wind is always in your face. Now you know the secret. Find the direction of the wind and paddle into it if in doubt of where to go.;) What did you use for food containment? Barrel,Bear Canister or Hang? Thunderbox history is always nice. I cannot however look at my blue barrel the same as prior to going to La Verendrye in Quebec( which you should try sometime) Thunderboxes are made of....blue barrels. In La V case they may be green.
 
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What did you use for food containment? Barrel,Bear Canister or Hang?

Patience... we'll get to that. :) (I mostly hung as I always have)

I missed an added section this morning which I felt should be included here as it may benefit someone in the future (and may provide additional topics for discussion):

As with any new venture, there is a learning curve and portaging was no different. Up to this point, I had been carrying the canoe through first figuring that it’s weight would not change but the pack would become progressively lighter with time so my 2nd carry would become easier throughout the trip. Solid reasoning, I thought, until I found the portage trail between Karl and Long Island partially blocked by a fallen tree. I was apparently the first person through since it had fallen as all of the branches were on it. It was at the perfect height to provide maximum inconvenience and my saw was, of course, in my pack at the other end of the portage.

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I parked the canoe in a nearby tree, went back for the pack, cut enough of the tree to make it passable (while wishing I had a chainsaw) and from that point on, the pack went through on the first carry and the canoe afterward.
 
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Day 3

I had decided to keep a journal to aid in writing up a trip report and my morning entry may not need to be edited or rewritten to adequately illustrate where I was physically and mentally at this point. It reads as follows:

“5/20 Woke up to rain. Not terribly hard, so after dragging my feet through breakfast (and due to a lull in the precipitation), I’ve decided to move on. I’ll check Bologna lake and, if it’s empty, I’ll take a lay-over day tomorrow. I’m pretty certain I’ll be pulling out at Little Sag… I’ve simply brought too much gear and too heavy a canoe”.

There are not many options for decreasing the weight of a pack while in the field but the most obvious is the food pack. I had brought a few freeze dried meals and some oatmeal but mostly rice or noodle side dishes which were intended to be supplemented by fishing. I had also cooked up about 4 pounds of bacon (fun fact: it’s able to be stored at room temp for 6 weeks!), some freeze dried eggs and soft tortillas for indulgent breakfast burritos. In rooting through the food pack, I found that the tortillas were, by far, the heaviest item in the pack so they simply had to go.

I’m not at all a picky eater as I view food as fuel and whatever fuels the engine is fine by me. I fried up some freeze dried eggs (actually pretty good) and, with a few slices of bacon wrapped in tortillas, breakfast from now on would be a tasty exercise in pack weight reduction.

In what would become my norm, I loaded up, paddled out and, on the way to the portage, my shoulders loosened up and felt good. I arrived at the portage and, somewhere during that first carry, my body started to feel invigorated and the wanderlust that had brought me here returned as all thoughts of a layover day vanished.

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The only humans I saw on this day were a pair that had offered to double up on a campsite if all were full on Frost (they were tandem paddling & single portaging so they flew by me on both days) and a group of 9 that were coming up the Frost River in which one of the group said that they were training to be guides. They also said that they had encountered a group that had camped at Bologna lake the previous night so it seemed likely that the campsite there would be unoccupied. I located the portage and checked it out… Bologna lake was gorgeous and, although I hadn’t travelled far that day, I decided to hole up for the night.


Remembering the uncertainty of campsite availability the previous night and knowing that: (at least this Spring) the Frost river was far more heavily traveled than I had anticipated, that the tandem paddlers were planning to camp on Afton lake and that paddle planner had the site at Whipped lake marked as potentially closed, I left the following note at the end of the portage. (If Whipped was indeed closed, the next site was all the way to Mora)

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It continued raining lightly (not hard enough to warrant rain gear IMO) pretty much all day and with the wind (...still...always...) blowing, fishing was difficult and I came up empty. I gathered firewood along the shores, checked out a moose skeleton (the nearest I would get to a moose this trip, unfortunately), putzed around and enjoyed the solitude. (Although the offer to share the site was genuine, I was not disappointed that no one took me up on it).

There was a pair of loons there that seemed relatively unafraid and had a definite preference for “my” end of the lake. While I think we have loons in PA, these were far more vocal than the ones with which I am familiar and I was surprised by the variety of sounds that they made. I was also somewhat surprised that they kept up the chatter all night (not that I cared; they had to put up with my snoring so I’m quite certain that they got the short end of that stick)

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One of the most surprising things thus far in the trip were the blackflies. I had heard the stories, listened to the funny songs and had the gas station attendant where I bought my fishing license as well as the waitress at my lunch stop had said that they hoped I’d brought lots of bug dope as the blackflies were particularly bad this year.

I did find them irritating as they seemed to swarm in areas and would get into your eyes, ears, etc and I can honestly say that I did not appreciate it when I inhaled some of the pests but I fully expected them to be more voracious and “bitey”. Perhaps, like mosquitos, they simply preferred other food sources but I stopped wearing deet for flying vermin and reserved it exclusively for spraying my pants legs to ward off ticks (Who, seemingly, have no issues with my flavor... I’ve always been a bit of a tick magnet) and I picked up my first tick at this site. I had gotten up in the middle of the night and it felt like something was crawling on me when I returned to the sleeping bag. Flashlight on and there it was crawling along & looking for a nice spot to bite.

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That was a good day with wrinkles smoothed out and a little serenity now.
Being both haunted and entertained by loons all night is a tripping wonderment most people miss once they get back home. I know I do.
And the unfathomable perpetual motion of rooting thru and rethinking the food choices of every trip keeps the same old same old at bay.
Biting bugs are a frequent tripping companion; isn't it pleasant when they don't show up?
 
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Gamma I am thoroughly enjoying this trip report. Well written and detailed. I am looking forward to your next installment.
 
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Biting bugs are a frequent tripping companion; isn't it pleasant when they don't show up?
I've never been a favorite food of mosquitos and I'm hopeful that the blackflies have a similar distaste for me. Perhaps we'll find out as time goes by...

There were many people out there in full body bug nets and I felt (a little) weird when one of them asked what bug repellant I use. I typically replied that I suspect only the females bite as I seem to naturally repel females of any species. :D
 
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