It was 3:00 in the afternoon as we dipped the canoe into the water, loaded our gear and paddled into a stiff headwind. 3:00pm is a terrible time to start a BWCA trip.
But let’s back up a second…
Three days earlier, on a Monday in September, my wife and I were sitting in the dim light of a lamp, watching as twilight dipped toward night.
Summer was over, but we’d decided to make it happen. We had an open weekend, and were going to go to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness one more time. Besides, September is one of the best times to go, crowds are down, temps and bugs are moderate and the sunsets last longer.
The whole trip was last minute.
We hadn’t had our route laid out for months. We’d be doing the trip by the seat of our pants, no frills, just the right gear, and an open mind. We were flexible on where we’d be going in, when we’d get there and when we’d get out, which made getting a permit easier. We had only two constraints: we wanted to start out of Grand Marais and we had a limited amount of time…
48 hours— two nights and three days in pristine borderland canoe country.
On Tuesday, we identified our entry point and reserved our permit for Brant Lake. On Wednesday, I picked it up at Frost River Trading Co. and got some last minute BWCA gear and Cache Lake food. On Thursday, we tied the canoe to the roof and headed north.
After two hours along Lake Superior we were in Grand Marais enjoying fresh-made cinnamon sugar donuts at World’s Best Donuts. We drove for a long way up the Gunflint Trail, past endless woods and winding roads that brought us into the remains of the Ham Lake Fire and on the road to the landing at Round Lake.
I wouldn’t recommend starting a canoe trip that late in the day. It’s a risky proposition: First, there’s the worry of campsite availability. Second, there’s the possibility of bad weather. Third, there’s eight hours less sunlight to work with than if you’d started at 7 or 8 am like normal.
Caveats aside, part of the beauty of a September Boundary Waters trip is that there are far fewer visitors to the wilderness in its last permitting month than at its height in midsummer. The wilderness feels more remote, the portages less busy, the horizon dotted with fewer boats and the lakes just that much quieter. It is a magical time to visit the northland.
There are risks involved any time you’re traveling into wilderness, and going late in the season is no different. Visiting the BWCA in autumn and the shoulder seasons requires that you be prepared for temperature extremes. It can be hot and it will most likely be very cold. If you’re prepared for any weather though, you’re likely to have a positively unforgettable trip.
I quelled the thoughts of running out of daylight, full campsites or getting snowed on and looked around. Half of Round Lake had been burned, and half was spared: restoring forest on one side and spared shorelines of old cedars, birch and aspen on the other. Much of our trip would be the same as we’d make our way west and then loop south, running along the border of the Ham Lake Fire to the north and further west the Cavity Lake Fire area. Areas of burn are bittersweet; on the one hand, it is a renewal and new start for an ecosystem—on the other, the destruction and sense of loss is hard to bear. What once was, and the forest now, are two different places. And yet they’re the same.
The portages were wet, the leaves along them just barely turning from their summer greens as they donned the changing of the season. Puffs of cumulous clouds, bright sun and wind made the foliage dance in the textured light. The breeze was refreshing on the trail too, keeping us cool as we hauled our gear in one short trip over each portage. We paddled, portaged, paddled, portaged. It was quiet. There was no one else around.
As we made our way to the portage at Brant Lake, we found the old weathered sign informing us we were entering the Boundary Waters. It stood there like an old sage, its paint peeling in an old-cabin sort of way, the etched and carved insignia and words now home to moss and lichen. We smiled at it as we hoisted packs and canoe and began the portage. Soon we’d rounded corners on Brant and were deciding whether to make camp and string up the hammocks, or to push west. We left the campsite behind in search of adventure further on.
At the next portage, we came upon the first group we’d see, a group of girls from Duluth’s own Marshall School on an orientation trip through YMCA Camp Menogyn.
On Gutter Lake, we paddled between tall rocky outcrops, carved long ago by an ancient river. Now it was a narrow lake, a swamp, with floating grasses and sections of bog. Pines and birches stood tall on shore, but in the swamp were stands of dead trees, killed by flood and charred by fire.
I turned the map, which seemed to hardly resemble the otherworldly scene. It’s easy to get turned around in the backwaters of canoe country. It’s important to keep a good eye to where you are, and equally important to trust the map. The portage looked to be in the far corner of the lake, beyond the floating bogs, tree graveyard and a flotilla of autumnal lily pads. I’d never considered that the lily pads would change as well, and the colorful layer was laid out before us like a street cobbled in agates, emeralds and amber.
I forced myself to trust the map and we paddled past flotsam up a narrow channel near shore. It looked less promising the further we went, and as we pulled the boat through swamp muck, we grew ever more skeptical. At the corner of the lake, the channel opened and there was the open landing, a beautiful slope of glacial rock. The map had been right and we were relieved. We were in the right place.
After portage, paddle and portage, we walked out of the swampy upland we’d been traversing and arrived at Green Lake. It was deep, the water nearly glacial blue and undoubtedly home to scores of meaty lake trout. The sun reflecting off its surface was brilliant, and schools of little fish darted in the water at the landing.
We made camp for our first night on Bat Lake, happy that we’d pushed on. We were alone on the lake and basked in the quiet solitude as we cooked a dinner of curried cranberry cous cous and Cache Lake Sweet Potato Au Gratin. The rich September sunset bathed the lake in golden hues, and the deep night brought a refreshing chill to the air.
On day 2 we woke and unpacked the kitchen gear from the pockets of the Nessmuk to make mochas and oatmeal. The Nessmuk was perfect for hauling our little canister stove, pots, pans and cups, Bent Paddle steel growler, water filter, first aid kit, rope and rain gear. In the Grand Portage we hauled our tent, sleeping and cold weather gear, tarp, shoes, hammocks and all of our food. The pack was perfect for the load, and would cinch down as we continued to eat our rations. Both packs held a surprising amount. The Voyageur carried our cameras, technology and backup filter and fit in well with the two traditional packs. Packing up was easy with the three and soon we were on the water.
We’d be paddling a chain of lakes, taking the long way around to get to Crooked Lake. As the crow flies, it was only 2 miles and 2 portages away. We wanted to cover some distance though and see more sights, so our route went west, through the islands of Little Saganaga and south to the outlet of the Frost River, before coming back north toward Crooked Lake.
We made quick work of Gillis, French, Powell, and West Fern Lakes. Soon we were paddling past bonsaied cedars growing impossibly out of lichen-crusted rocks on Little Saganaga. Huge puffs of cumulus clouds drifted through the sky in foreboding columns. It looked like we’d get some weather before the day was done, so we pushed on. Loons silently fished as we paddled past, and the wind came and went. We scooted past islands and bays, layers of wilderness and water.
We found the narrow end of Little Saganaga and the quiet outlet of the Frost River. It was a narrows, almost a canyon, covered in rich moss and canopied by the bent trunks of leaning trees. The portage was short and steep. I imagined paddling further upstream, into the sinuous channels of the Frost River. It wasn’t only that it was the namesake of our packs and where we’d picked up our permit, but there was something more. The map showed a winding stream, banked by swamp and steep stone. The lines on the map pulled at something deep within me, something very human. I yearned to discover the meaning of those lines, the mystery and adventure of unknown backwaters that had been hinted at on paper… but it would have to wait until another trip when we had more time.
We set the canoe down on Mora Lake, and it was eerily calm. The wind had died. There were no more loons. The water bugs had stilled. The sun was veiled by the edge of cloud and darkening by the second. We both thought about the silence, but didn’t mention it for fear of breaking it. Soon the silence was broken by a distant rumbling, a long plaintive sound like that of a jet. I watched the sky warily. We were still two lakes from our destination at Crooked Lake. On the map, I traced the shoreline and two small portages between us and our goal. The sky was darkening quickly.
The unmistakable boom of distant thunder echoed from the cloud.
We turned the canoe and headed for shore toward a campsite. I was suddenly worried it would be occupied. We hadn’t seen a soul the entire day, paddling through lakes that were filled with campsites and very busy during the summer. I was relieved to find the campsite empty. We beached the canoe on the rocks and hopped out. Cracks of thunder were getting sharper, coming closer. We heaved packs out of the boat and pulled it up on shore. In a moment, we were climbing away from shore with the daypacks and tarp. We made quick work of stringing up the shelter, and the rain started. Lightning flashed. Thunder roared. The lake sputtered with the downpour. We hid under the tarp, crouched on our lifejackets in a lightning drill. The din of the rain, the bright flashes and the echoing cracks continued. Soon, rain turned to ice as hail joined the fray.
We waited under the tarp for three hours as the storm grew and ebbed. We cooked dinner and stared off into the trees, having forgotten to bring any books, games or playing cards. Gradually, the storm receded and the sun returned. A full double rainbow drew colorful across the sky.
We still wanted to make Crooked Lake, and with thunder now a memory, we were safe to get on the water. It was 7 o’clock and we had one hour of this golden light left. We weighed the options and estimated an hour of travel time. It was hard to tell if we’d get caught in another wave of storms, but the sun was shining and we would only be on small bodies of water, with ample opportunity to pull off if the skies let loose again.
By the time we’d packed the daypacks and the Grand Portage and were pushing off, it was almost 7:30. The sun was golden, low, just a few fingers’ distance above the horizon. We paddled hard. On open water, I looked behind us to see a wall of bubble clouds, shining bright orange in the sunlight. Behind them was the deep purple of storm clouds. It was headed our way.
The first portage was at the back of a bay. As we entered the narrows and hauled over beaver dams, I pictured the tree graveyard from the day before and again hoped we were headed in the right direction. The storm clouds loomed silently behind us and I double-checked my navigation. We’d left the untouched forest and were back in the burn area. Skeletons of burnt trees loomed over a tangled mess of fallen limbs, branches and trunks, wrapped in the fresh vines of undergrowth that had returned first after the fire. The colors of the clouds shifted as the sun continued its downward path. I hoped we were on the right track. We reached the end of the bay and thankfully found our portage. We hauled our gear as quickly as we could, out of breath as we hopped onto the next lake. We were paddling hard, not talking, looking over our shoulders every few strokes to see how the storm clouds had grown, now threatening to swallow the last few rays of sunlight.
I searched for the subtle signs of the next portage, finding it under drooping cedar boughs. Panting, we hauled our gear, thankful for the strategic packing and the capacity of the portage pack that let us make the trip in one go. When we reached the end of the portage at Crooked Lake, the sun had set. We took a chance and turned left to find an island campsite in the trees outside the burn. I hoped the sites would be available, ever-worried that people would suddenly appear and the sites would be occupied.
It was open. Again, we beached the boat, hauled our gear and pitched the tarp. We set the tent up underneath and waited for the storm. It didn’t come until the middle of the night, quietly dropping huge amounts of rain.
We woke to partly sunny skies and dry sleeping quarters. We drank our mochas, stowed our cooking gear in the Nessmuk, packed the Grand Portage and filled the Voyaguer with camera gear for our final push back out to Round Lake. The sun came out, but the winds had shifted, and though we were now retracing our steps back from Gillis, we were paddling into another headwind.
In a few hours of paddling, portaging and trail lunching, we were waving goodbye to the peeling paint on the old mossy sign at Brant Lake.
We’d spent 48 hours in the wilderness, and were refreshed. It was time to go home.
By Alex Messenger