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BWCA Round Lake loop

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Odyssey: As I've gotten older, I've realized the truth in the idea that our only regrets are usually the things that we didn't do. I'm not sure I will ever spend months in the BWCA but trips (with and without canoes) are going to be a much larger part of my life now that the nest is emptying out. By the time I'm too old to do it, I hope to have many, many stories to tell.
 
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Day 9

The wind roared around and through my shelter all night but the nylon held out until morning. One of the grommets ripped out (second one I’d lost on the trip) as I was cooking breakfast and that made the “tear down or wait” question a little easier.

Around 7, as I was finishing packing, it started sleeting which helped answer the question of “how cold IS it?”... It felt freakin’ COLD and I could see my breath...ugh! During the sleet, however, the sun shone through and I was treated to a beautiful rainbow. The sleet stopped, the sun and wind stayed and it was time to cross Gabimichigami.

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Even early in the day, conditions were only marginally better than the night before and, with whitecaps along the Eastern shore I was again hesitant but, the decision to leave was made and I wanted to get at it. I paddled along the lee of the Western shore headed North until I was across from, and slightly upwind of, a long point of land which formed the Northern shoreline of the bay that was my target. The object was to make the crossing as short as possible, tuck into the lee behind that point and hug the shoreline until the portage into Peter lake.

Unable to watch the compass, the shore, the waves and wind direction all at once, I opted for keeping the boat upright and not allowing it to get turned broadside to the wind. Kneeling down and paddling like hell, I made it to the Eastern shore while still seriously questioning my judgement. Those waves, while not as bad as they had been the previous night, were as close to “beyond my ability” as I care to come.

Once again safely tucked out of the wind, I set about trying to determine exactly WHERE on the shoreline I was and it turned out that I had been blown about half of a lake South of my intended destination. I had missed the bay completely and was just West of Rattle lake. With no desire to attempt paddling upwind in the mess I’d just left, it was time for Plan “C”.

I ported into Rattle, looped around the Northern end of Little Sag, briefly mistook a game trail for a portage (honestly, sometimes I’m a slow learner), retreated to the boat, found the real portage and carried into Virgin lake from the South.

(Interesting side note: There is cell & wifi service at the top of this portage. On the first carry my phone blew up with texts & messenger alerts but, because it had been functioning as a “camera only” for so long, it didn’t even register with me what all the noises were until I went to take the next picture.)

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From Virgin through West Fern, Powell and French, I saw no one and only a few on Gillis. This area was burned in the Cavity lake fire in 2006 and I was amazed by both the amount of regrowth and by the desolation that must have remained after the fire.

In researching the trip, I had read that the Forest Service views fire as a natural part of a healthy ecosystem and allows naturally-occurring fires to burn themselves out whenever possible. After the first couple of days, I was surprised that fires were not more common as the woods seemed to be filled with dead white birch and small dead cedars.

I was unfamiliar with Birch trees as my home state of PA is blessed with thousands of acres of hardwood forests but I’ve only ever seen a handful of White Birch. Frankly, I was shocked by how volatile that tree appears to be. A peel or two of bark from the nearest deadfall would roar into flame as if soaked in lighter fluid and there was no need for other firestarters.

I never did cut up a log to see how quickly it burned, although I should have, if only out of curiosity. I felt that the cedar made a nice cooking fire and, while it didn’t last like the oak, cherry and hickory with which I am familiar, it didn’t burst into flame & evaporate like I suspected the birch would.

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I portaged into Bat and debated about grabbing a site (all were open and the middle looked really inviting with its cedar grove) but it was early so I pushed on reasoning that, if nothing was open on Brant, I would just finish out and probably reach the truck by dark.

The Brant entry point must be made for mountain goats. Every portage was rocky and uphill and it felt like I gained 200 feet of elevation that afternoon. From Flying lake to Gotter, there was a set of wooden stairs and, with no good place to lift at the bottom, I unloaded onto the lowest step and slid the canoe to the top.

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The carry from Gotter to Brant was particularly rough as it was up & down with treacherous footing at times. As I was headed back for the canoe I met a young couple, Aaron & Jamie. She was particularly friendly and chatted away as Aaron stood, smiling, holding the canoe. She was well spoken, very pretty and very personable… With such a companion, I suppose I’d have been smiling too.

The second site on Brant (#545) was open and while I was checking it out, I found a stuff sack full of garbage along the trail to the latrine. My first thought was “how did someone forget that all the way up here?” but then I realized it was nothing but garbage and had been left there so that it was sure to be found and someone else would have to clean up after them.

I hauled it back to the launch, looked through it briefly in hopes that I could find anything to indicate who left it, made a quick wood run (although I always gathered what I would use, this was the first site I’d been to that there was none left from previous campers), set up camp, made supper and hit the sack.

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Day 10

The morning was unbelievably cold again and when I went to the clothesline to see which pair of socks was driest, I found that yesterday’s were almost frozen and the other wasn’t too bad... No contest there.

The moon had been full and spectacular the night before and I wished the camera would work because the cell phone simply wouldn’t capture the images well enough. The moonrise past the point of land opposite camp, the reflection off of the water… honestly, one of the prettiest sights I’ve ever seen.

This is the best that the phone could do:

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I had run out of coffee the previous morning and was reduced to the backup supply of instant. Two thoroughly terrible cups later, some frozen socks and my daughter’s elderly pet sick enough to be at the vet’s… It was time to go.

The rest of the trip to Round lake went as expected… paddle, carry, repeat.

As I was leaving camp, four young men paddling tandem passed by, both paddling on one side of the canoe then both switching to the other, disjointedly zig-zagging their way down wind, while chatting loudly and seeming to thoroughly enjoy what was likely just the start of their trip.

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Staged for the final portage

The only others I met were on the final portage into Round lake. As I finished the first carry, there was a young couple unloading who said they were headed to Gillis for a few days. We chatted a moment and, as they had a TON of gear, I wasn’t terribly worried about meeting them on the trail with both of us carrying canoes.

(I never did figure the exact protocol for portages… seems canoes should have right-of-way over packs and packs over people returning for the second load but then you add in uphill/downhill, apparent age, sex, etc… oh well… I wasn’t likely to have that issue…)

I shouldered the boat and started back when, lo and behold, about ¼ of the way into the trip, here comes this young man, wearing a large backpack on his back, a portage pack on his chest, canoe over his head and paddles in one hand. She was loaded down about as heavily and they were loping down the trail as if they were going for ice cream. Luckily, there was a wide(ish) area where I was so I stepped to the side of the trail to let them pass. Not that I’m “old” yet but… ah, to be young again...

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I paddled my craft upwind (of course) across Round lake to the landing at Tuscarora Canoe Outfitters where I promptly purchased the one item that I could not stop thinking about for the past two days.

It had been years since I’d taken an extended break from civilized society and, as tastes change, I had wondered what I would miss the most… Turns out that, at least this trip, it was dry socks. I happily paid the young lady behind the counter, put them on right there on the front steps and walked the half mile or so to get my truck. (Andy had previously offered his facility as an alternative to the Forest Service take-out. Otherwise, the hike would have been about 1 1/2 miles)

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The trusty, rusty Ranger fired up on the first crank of the engine, just like it had for the past 290,000(ish) miles and, just as I was ready to back out, I heard “Hey, Steve! I thought that was you…” Chris and Jack from Chicago (and the Ogish to Mueller portage) had pulled in beside me and Chris returned the charge cable I had given him. We chatted a bit about how the rest of our respective trips went and Jack assured me that his 16th birthday present was everything that he’d hoped it would be.

I drove back to the landing, hoisted the Sawyer and the pack one final time and, after a quick stop at the Marathon Station in Grand Marais for a large cup and a thermos full of unremarkable yet completely delicious coffee, I was Southbound down 61.

A few gas stops later, I holed up for the night in Tomah, WI.

A hot shower, a comfortable bed, climate controls right there in the room… Life was indeed good.

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Quite an adventure, and you report it so well! Birch is very common where i live, and we never use anything else but birch bark for fire starter, I can't imagine being deprived of it. I have cut a lot of birch for firewood, as it is the only sorta hardwood we have in this area. However, you will be hard pressed to find dead, dry birch in the wild. When it dies, it tends to rot very quickly. Choice canoe trip firewood up here is standing dead jackpine, when the bark is coming off, it is prime.
 
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Very nice trip report, well written, great pictures too. Some of those portages looked tough what with the hills and such. I got a kick out of that first map, good for you sharing one of those "oh, s@#$" moments.

Thanks, going to miss my morning read.
 
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Loved your report! I last did the Frost River in 2015….We took a different exit route than you, but I have been through most of that area. You did mention a couple lakes that I am not familiar with…..I will have to dig out my maps and take a closer look at your route.

Mike
 
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...going to miss my morning read.

One final installment (but not as picture heavy) coming tomorrow. When I first wrote it and I saw it was 10,000 words (final count is almost 12K), I thought "I'd better break this up a bit when I post it"

I'm glad you've enjoyed it and I appreciate all of the kind comments.
 
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Gamma,
Great report, and I especially enjoyed the serialized approach.
Beautiful pics and descriptive text, with a wry sense of humor.
Just my style...

Having done this trip, in retrospect, what if anything would you do differently?
 
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The wrap-up:

While I fully understand the “it’s not WILDERNESS” criticisms, I thoroughly enjoyed my BWCA trip and will likely return once I renew and save my vacation time at work.

While I was concerned about it during planning, I found that I really did like the fact that there were no signs to mark portages or campsites. Not only did it add to the wilderness feel but it made the experience feel like a one million acre scavenger hunt with maps & compass for clues. Sure, I got turned around a few times but the mistakes we make are often the most interesting parts of our stories...

I will bring less gear next time and I resolve to pack as if I’m backpacking.

I will certainly take a lighter canoe. The old Sawyer served me well but I’m sure I can build a stripper significantly lighter than it is and, because I built it, I would consider it more disposable and not stress out about the scratches as much. (rocks were omnipresent and every campsite and portage seemed to require you to leave a little paint to mark your passing.)

I would probably spend a little more time exploring the areas and make doubly sure the trip had a little less of a “checkpoint-to-checkpoint” feel. While I tried to be fairly loose about schedule, there were a few times that it seemed like I was pushing to the next “checkpoint”. Perhaps a third week or a full month to complete the trip would lessen that feeling. I suspect that, if I can get total weight, with the canoe, low enough to single carry, this issue will resolve itself. (I have NO idea why one would want to complete the loop in 6 days as Andy suggested was possible but I certainly would not want to even if I could).

I will take more coffee... While I was close with my “this should be enough for 10 days or so” estimate, the instant that I took as backup was nothing short of foul. I can offset the weight reduction of the lighter canoe with additional coffee and consider that trade to be the best since the Detroit Tigers acquired Max Scherzer.

I will take less fishing gear. I took two spinning rods (which still seems right) and a ton of different plastics with which to fish various techniques (drop shot, ned rigs, wacky worms, etc). All I really needed were a handful of lead head jigs and a package of green pumpkin Mister Twisters. If fishing to reduce pack weight by living off the land, I’d bet you could catch fish with this set-up by tossing into the tailrace of almost any beaver dam you came across.

Note: If you’re after walleye or trout specifically, you may want to take something else. I did not catch either but I did have success with smallmouth, rock bass, yellow perch and northern pike. (I released the pike as, being solo, I did not need nearly that much food and they’ve never been a favorite any way... I really would have liked a walleye or two).

I would not hesitate to go solo on a return trip. With the InReach as a security blanket of sorts, I never felt that I was in any danger (well, at least not after I learned that wolves were unlikely to chew on my face while sleeping) and not having to worry about anyone else’s enjoyment but my own was very liberating.

At the same time, I would also not be opposed to a partner if we were on the same page about trip agenda/goals and I was certain we could spend 24/7 around each other regardless of circumstances. We each remember things a bit differently and, I feel that reminiscing a shared experience with someone might enrich my own memories (added benefit: it would lessen the amount of times my kids have to hear about the trip).

I will absolutely activate and carry the InReach. I didn’t use it much for navigation (although one could) but I liked being able to give those at home a little peace of mind and I cannot believe how many customers / family members checked multiple times a day to see where I was. Most tell me they had a ball living vicariously through me. It was also good that the kids could reach me if they needed to.

On the next trip I will share the mapshare link on this site so that any interested parties may follow along as well. Honestly, I’d thought about it prior to the trip but thought, if it kicked my butt and I bailed on day 3 of a planned 10 day trip, it would be a bit embarrassing. (funny how social media works like that… worried about disappointing or being embarrassed in front of people that I am unlikely to ever meet in person… welcome to the 21st century...)

I will continue to hang bear bags wherever suitable trees are found. I liked the extra security of an odor proof bag but I’m not sure I trust them completely just yet. I’d much rather throw a line and hang the bag than to (potentially) go hungry for days.

I will, most likely, take a tent.

I’ll certainly take a tent if it’s early or late in the year as the additional windbreak of the tent walls would have been welcome on multiple nights. If I were to take the trip later in the summer, however, I might just go with the tarp. Weighing both when I got home, the tarp weighed in at 1 pound 6 ounces while the tent is listed at 3lbs 8oz but, for whatever reason, tips my scales at 4lbs 6oz. Most likely, I’ll use 3 pounds of the canoe weight savings and cut into the coffee stash a little by carrying the tent but one never knows…

I’ll let you know after the next trip. Until then… Be well, keep your head between the gunwales and, by all means, get out!

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Awesome trip report, loved it all.

BTW the Freedom Solo is awesome, have built 2 of them and they are great for tripping IMO, it's a build you will thoroughly enjoy

Brian
 
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Without a proper ten. I'm sure I'd have turned around and went back the first day !
Going on like you did, proves your Metal !
Thanks for such an interesting TR !

Jim
 
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Without a proper tent. I'm sure I'd have turned around and went back the first day !

Thanks Jim. In the same situation (only 2 weeks of vacation a year, I'd waited 2 years and just drove 2 days to get there), I'd like to think you might have at least given it a chance as I did.

Trust me, I was far from convinced it was going to be ok and I was fully prepared to pull out at Mora but it turned out alright. I was surprised at how much of a sense of security those thin layers of nylon provide but other than that and the windbreak, I didn't miss it.

In hindsight, if I'd have bailed after the first night on Ham (trust me, I almost did), I'd have missed one of the best vacations of my life and one that may even alter the course of my career.

I'm thinking of tackling a 300+ mile backpacking trip next summer and a fall canoe trip somewhere (to do both will require unpaid leave from work) and, for the hike, I'll probably go in June and just carry the tarp to save the 3 lbs.
 
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I would be more likely to go without a tent during the shoulder seasons than I would in June. It's not the big critters that concern me but the little ones, like mosquitoes, that are more apt to disturb your sleep.

I know you are thinking of lightening your load for your next trip hoping to single carry portages. I would balance how important the time savings of a single carry is and how it affects the comfort of the carry and the comfort of your trip in general.

I would caution you about turning your canoe trip into a " backpacking trip with a boat", unless the goals of the trip absolutely require it. The beauty of canoe tripping is that you can bring more stuff and be more comfortable than backpacking.
 
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