Thursday, September 29, 2016

BWCA Little Indian Sioux North, EP 14, August 21-28, 2016

For our third annual Boundary Waters trip, we decided to do a more ambitious trip than our previous years and found ourselves rewarding with a challenging and beautiful trip. We took the LISN loop counterclockwise through Shell, Hustler, Gebeonequet, Little Beartrap and Loon lakes, adding up to more than 60 miles including the double portaging. We didn’t see much impressive wildlife, but we encountered some needed solitude and no obtrusive weather. I came back feeling recharged and still in love with the Northwoods, so I don’t think I could ask for much more.

Day 0

As customary of our Northwoods trips, we all got up early and were on the road around 6 am for an uneventful first-ever drive to Ely, MN from our home in S. WI. The drive to Ely was not nearly as scenic and inspiring as the drive along Lake Superior to the Gunflint Tr, but I had no complaints as the drive went quickly and we arrived at VNO early in the afternoon. The VNO owners and staff were extremely pleasant and helpful, and John took some time to mark up our map with points of interest and desirable campsites. We checked into our bunkhouse, the common areas of which we soon discovered we would have to share, but fortunately we were not on the same schedule as our bunkmates. We explored Ely a bit, deciding on dinner at Rockwoods, mainly because it was the closest escape from a cool evening rain. After dinner, we returned to VNO to get our rental Souris River Quetico 18.5, which we totally ended up loving, before catching a few minutes of the Olympics before bed.

Day 1

I woke up sometime after 4 am, surprised to see my daughter following my wife around, so I begged my wife for a quick back rub before taking my last shower for a week. To my surprise, we ended up being the first customers for breakfast at Brittons, which totally hit the spot. The drive on the Echo Tr to the entry point was quick and eventless, although we did spot some sort of canine that we still aren’t 100% sure about. Despite the near solitude on the Echo Tr and arriving shortly after 7am, we found the parking lot at the EP to be quite busy. As we were unloading, we must have seen at least seven or eight canoes carried down the initial portage. It takes us awhile to get going, so fortunately we squeezed in during a lull in the activity. Still, we had an audience for our first portage landing, which is not exactly an easy sure-footed landing. Without embarrassment, we successfully loaded and launched, but it really felt like a carnival atmosphere with so many people buzzing around.

Portage along Little Indian Sioux River
Little Indian Sioux River
The paddle down (Northbound) the Little Indian Sioux is pleasant but only exciting because of the anticipation of 8 days in the bush. Having decided to do our loop counterclockwise, we headed through Upper and Lower Pauness Lakes, across the 220 rod portage into Shell Lake where we would stay for the night. I only wanted to stay if we could get one of the “good” sites, but after finding them occupied, I was outvoted as we took the Eastern and only open site on the Northern island (marked “Con Island” on one of my maps). The site was adequate but full of garbage and vandalism. The fire grate was ripped out of the ground with burnt logs, garbage and burnt plastic spread around the fire area. I wasn’t really motivated to enjoy a fire after seeing this, so we just collected the garbage.

Considering that rain was not forecast, I decided to forego the tarp for our short stay only to be awoken by rain in the middle of the night. I became irrationally upset over this and vowed if it didn’t stop raining, I would never camp again. Finally, I couldn’t take it and got out of the tent to cover our gear with the tarp. Lorraine got up early the next morning as usual and started drying out some of our gear, and by the time we got off to a late start, we were mostly dried out.

Water travelled: LIS River, Upper Pauness Lake, Lower Pauness Lake, Shell Lake
Miles travelled: 9.6 miles

Day 2

 Although waking up at 8 am on a vacation is normally pretty early for me, it became quite clear that getting in miles and sleeping late are incompatible on a canoe trip. At least most of our gear got dried out before we took off, but we didn’t get on the water until 10am. In addition to the late start, we started out at the wrong spot on the Shell-Little Shell portage. There’s a boulder field to the left (West side) of the small bay that we started to use until we eventually found a better landing through the weeds on the right, which was obviously the correct portage location. By the time we got through all that chaos, I think an hour had passed and we had traveled less than a mile. Fortunately, the next portage into Lynx was not necessary to take as we paddled right through the channel with no difficulty. The 280 rod portage into Ruby was probably the hardest of the trip, and we got to do it in the heat of the 80 °F day.

Afterward, it was clear we weren’t likely to do another mile-long portage for the day, so we decided if a nice site was available on Hustler we would stay there. The late start combined with slow portaging meant that we had only covered about 6 miles by the time we got to Hustler Lake around 3 pm. The upside was that we did not see anyone else on Hustler lake and believe we had it to ourselves the entire time. The site was beautiful and spacious, with a lot of views and countless large pine trees. Although there are not a lot of flat tent pads, the site could accommodate quite a few people and offered many options for hammock hangers. One of the first things I did at the site was to rig a tarp to avoid a repeat, but of course the rain did not come as we were ready for it.

Water travelled: Shell Lake, Little Shell Lake, Lynx Lake, Ruby Lake, Hustler Lake
Miles travelled: 6.3 miles

Day 3

On the third day, we were determined to get back on schedule as I had mapped out some mileage we needed to make in order to enjoy a couple layover days. Although we were only one lake away from my master plan, a mile portage (which turns into three miles when making a second trip) separated us from the next lake. We were on the water by 7:30 and were certainly glad to do that portage in the morning before the sun warmed up the day to an 82 °F high. We continued on through Oyster, Rocky, Green and Gebeonequet Lakes in near solitude, just the way I like it to be. Our goal was the campsite with the chairs, and to our delight, it was open. The site itself is not much to write about and could be cramped with a large group. There are a few small tent pads, one of which has a large tree leaning over it, but mostly the site feels closed in, which wasn’t helped by a tall fallen tree blocking views from the fire grate area. Nonetheless, the novelty of the nearby stone chairs makes the campsite a worthy stop.

I was so relieved to be on schedule and nearly half-way through our planned route after only day 3 of our 8 day trip. I was also pretty exhausted and enduring severe chafing by the time we arrived at this site, so it was clear that we would be taking a layover day. I don’t think I did much more than the basic chores for the remainder of the evening, and even those chores I did in slow motion and with a lot of breaks. I know that I didn’t have any problem sleeping that night.

Water travelled: Hustler Lake, Oyster Lake, Rocky Lake, Green Lake, Gebeonequet Lake
Miles travelled: 11.5 miles

Day 4

With a layover day planned, Amber and I slept until about 8 o’clock, giving me close to 11 hours of sleep, which did a lot for my fatigue. Still, a day off was just what the doctor ordered. We explored around a little, charged our batteries with the solar charger, baked some cornbread in the reflector oven and just enjoyed a beautiful day on the lake.

Water travelled:
Miles travelled: 0 miles

Day 5

What a difference a day makes! I was totally ready to head out on Day 5 and we were on the water just after 7 am. The day started out great with only a short portage and an opportunity to get some quick paddling miles in early. The weather was cool with at least 50% chance of rain, which was a reprieve from some of the earlier hot days. We had the place to ourselves for most of the day, the only exception being a group heading toward Finger Lake from Slim. We exchanged information about campsites and portages, and they told us that the Slim to Fat portage was “a bear.” We’d been contemplating whether to take this unofficial portage, but hearing these guys who appeared to be light footed and practically skipping down the 240 rod portage say it was difficult, solidified our choice to avoid it. Famished and tired, we promised ourselves a lunch break at the completion of the Thumb to Beartrack portage.

Earlier, we had started encountering some light rain and and a bit of wind dark clouds, so we wrapped up a lunch break on Beartrack and headed toward Little Beartrack hoping to secure the only campsite on it. The campsite on Little Beartrack is visible from the portage, so we knew it was open and that we had the lake to ourselves. It also happens that this site was the one I had mapped out as getting us enough miles to be on track for completing the loop in six days. With the dark clouds approaching, it was an easy decision to grab the site. The site is pretty nice as it offers nearly 270 degrees of views and is the only site on the lake. There are numerous trees down around the site, which really limits the number of tent pads. We had to rearrange the location of our tent after we set it up to give enough room for the vestibules to be staked out, so a big group would probably find this site undesirable without removing some of the deadfall.

After quickly setting up our shelters, we decided it would be nice to have some reflector oven biscuits, so I built a fire and Lorraine mixed the dough right before a huge downpour started. For awhile, it looked like we might be packing out uncooked biscuit dough, but the rain died down before completely extinguishing the fire. The Bisquick just add water biscuits turned out great, and it didn’t hurt that Lorraine brought a tub of butter.

Water travelled: Gebeonequet Lake, Gebeonequet Creek, Pocket Creek, Pocket Lake, Finger Creek, Finger Lake, Thumb Lake, Beartrack Lake, Little Beartrack Lake
Miles travelled: 10.7 miles

Day 6

We awoke on Little Beartrack to an intense fog that prevented us from making out the shoreline even though most of the lake is less than 1,000 feet across. We figured it would lift by 8 once the sun comes over the trees, so we continued to prepare for a long travel day while occasionally grabbing some photos of the lake. Fortunately, just as we were finished packing up our wet gear, the fog lifted enough to at least see across the lake. It was both an eerie and soothing picture of life in the backwoods, witnessing the awe of mother nature, knowing we are at her mercy and relishing being alone on this beautiful lake…
Times like this are what draw me to backcountry, and the obscurity created by a phenomenon as simple as fog felt as pure and natural and enveloping as any act of a mother. I don’t know if I would have similar feelings on the first morning of our trip, but by the sixth day, it’s clear I am different than a week ago. This must be about the time for me to begin feeling part of nature and feeling nature as a part of me. By now, senses are enhanced, my body is adjusting to the hard work of portaging, paddling and camp chores, and the stresses of modern life are no longer forward in my thoughts. This is when it becomes clear that 8 days is not enough.

But our immediate concerns are putting some additional miles behind us as quickly as possible, especially since we decided not to take the Fat-Slim shortcut portage. By my estimates, the portage would probably save about two hours of travel, but hearing that it might be narrow, difficult, possibly with false trails and followed directly by another long portage, we chose the path more traveled. The longer route involves two additional portages and probably a couple miles of additional paddling, but the total portage length is probably a bit shorter. Still, the additional time of paddling and loading/unloading at portages meant that we wanted to get going in earnest. Our general sense by this point of the trip was that the terrain in this area was a bit more rugged and less used than closer to the entry point, so with six portages, we knew we’d have our work cut out with the hope of getting in about 12 miles for the day.

This segment wasn’t overly challenging (and cool weather helped), but I think it was practically our only sense of exploration and adventure on the trip as at least one of the portages was not where indicated on the map. The portage to Slim from Section Pond was about ⅔ of the way up the channel from Slim Lake, but we weren’t sure, and I even got out of the boat at a spot at which beavers or other critters had flattened the grass. We even got a little stuck approaching the creek from the shore where the portage was marked on my maps. After a second attempt, we decided to just give the creek another try but this time we searched out slightly deeper water and found the creek mostly navigable with one beaver dam pullover until you can essentially see Slim Lake, along with a couple muddy footprint laden landings. We made decent time (for us) but we were pretty beat by the time we finished the Slim Lake to Little Loon Lake portage. We decided the next decent vacant campsite between us and the entry point would be ours with our sight set on the southern site on Little Loon. Unfortunately, it was taken, as were the next three. As it was approaching 4 pm, we began to get a little nervous, and with our arms and back turning to mush, we were elated to see the beautiful site by Heritage Creek was open.  

Hungry, tired and hot, the trek up the hill to the campsite seemed like another unwelcome portage, but the relief of having found a sprawling site on a gorgeous lake when we needed it the most dominated all other emotions. At this point, the weather was just about perfect for camping. The sun and wind quickly dried out the wet gear we had packed that morning, and once the shelters were erected, chores done and dinner eaten, the evening was nearly over. By this point, my good mood and love of the Northwoods could not even be diminished by the awkward presence of motor boats. How amazing it felt to see no one all day long on our trek through the woods until shortly after emerging from the last portage to be greeted by motorized crafts. I am amazed that I wasn’t really bothered by them and am pretty sure I would have had a different outlook on day 1. By now, though, I felt like we had already earned and received our reward of solitude for our hard work. This beautiful site with panoramic views didn’t hurt either.

Water travelled: Little Beartrack Lake, Eugene Lake, Steep Lake, South Lake, Section 3 Pond, Slim Lake, Little Loon Lake, Loon Lake
Miles travelled: 12.4 miles

Day 7

After five hard(ish) days with only one off day, I was quite ready for a layover, and we had earned it by making it (nearly by coincidence) to the exact site I had planned in my quest to divide up the mileage. Knowing we were a manageable distance from the EP, really melted any remaining stress off of me. We had a free day to enjoy camping, and so we did. I can’t really point to anything specific we did, and the weather wasn’t hot enough to enjoy a swim, but the day seemed to epitomize the emotion and experience I love about camping. For the first time all week, I kept a fire going, and it was fun to saw and split wood. And I felt strong; I felt stronger than I have felt in some time; I felt like this was my place, like I belong in the Northwoods. The sensation is indescribable, and I know that I must return.

Water travelled:
Miles travelled: 0 miles

Day 8

Bittersweet is the only way to describe the last day. By now, I feel like I found what I came to find. I feel ready to say goodbye, but I also know that it would be easy to stay. I doubt that in planning for next year we will consider 8 days to be enough. But the worries of modern life are beginning to return, and home is a long ways away. My family doesn’t believe we can travel the 11 miles in five or six hours since it took us 8 hours to travel that many on some of the other days, but we made it back to the car with all of our gear in 5.5 hours even with a couple breaks. It became clear watching people come in that we had become hardened and efficient over the 8 days. Fortunately, there were not as many groups coming in as we encountered the previous Sunday, so we weren’t held up by crowds.

Devil’s Cascade is nice, and there are several side trails that offer up close views, but it wasn’t as impressive as I had built it up in my mind. I thought it might be the crown jewel of the trip, but honestly it felt just another feature of the land that we were part of for the week. Maybe it’s just that I was in exit mode or maybe it was the makeshift camp left at the end of the portage, but I wasn’t moved. I would like to get back to the area sometime and explore the Sioux Hustler trail and visit this section in a different frame of mind because it is beautiful country.

We packed up our gear, headed back to VNO to return the boat and take showers, enjoy the complimentary soda and buy some shirts and stickers. After getting advice from the locals, we decided to give Insula a try. Upon looking at their (lunch?) menu, I began to have doubts, but we were hungry, so we gave it a try. And we certainly were not disappointed. After the basket of fries appetizer, I had the braised short ribs, and it was delightful! I worried it was a mistake to be so gorged right before a 7 hour drive, but I managed to stay awake until we arrived home just before midnight.

Water travelled: Loon Lake, Little Indian Sioux River, Lower Pauness Lake, Upper Pauness Lake

Miles travelled:  11.1 miles

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for your blog posts, looks like so much fun. I saw some of your backpacking ones- what kind of pack did you get for your daughter? We're a Madison family with two girls about your daughter's size and are just considering getting some backpacking packs for them. May end up getting REI ones (we're members), but wondered if you had any ideas/suggestions. Thanks!