I’ve been canoe camping in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness three times before this year. There was the family trip in May, 2016 to the Kawishiwi River Triangle. Then there was the May, 2017 family trip to Clearwater Lake and the Border Route Trail. And finally the May, 2018 family fishing trip to Wood Lake out of Ely. These trips fulfilled my dreams of taking the family camping in the BWCA. I have also done four winter camping trips in the Boundary Waters. Every one of these trips has left me hungry for more. Even hungrier than when I was just at the dreaming stage.
This summer I wanted to take my BWCA canoe tripping to the next level. But with Inna pregnant, it wasn’t going to be a family trip. I had previously been writing back and forth with my friend Kris Ekelund for half a year about a potential extreme trip together in Europe or Asia. Then I found out Inna was pregnant, and suddenly going to Mongolia or Mt. Elbrus didn’t look possible. I couldn’t leave my wife alone with the kids for long, and it doesn’t make sense to go halfway around the world for a few days… I proposed to Kris back in February that he come to Minnesota and we do an epic camping adventure in my own backyard – the BWCA. I was thrilled when he said yes to the Cherokee Lake Loop, a 32-mile route with 14 portages! This was always going to be a physically challenging, difficult route. Kris was game!
Kris arrived in Minneapolis from Stockholm on Friday, June 21 – the Summer Solstice. We drove back to Duluth together and had supper with the family, and then continued our way up to Two Harbors for the night to avoid the crush of Grandma’s Marathon traffic in Duluth on Saturday morning. We made it to our friends’ Cindy and Jeff’s cabin about 12:30 a.m. to spend the night, and were up the next morning at 6:30 to head north.
It’s an easy drive up Highway 61 from Two Harbors to Tofte, MN, and from there we took a left turn and headed up, up, up the Sawbill Trail from Lake Superior to some of the highest territory in Minnesota, gaining about 1,000 ft. in 10 miles. Our whole trip took place at an elevation of 1,700 to 1,900 ft., which is about as high as it gets in Minnesota. We were so high, in fact, that we crossed the Continental Divide twice: the point from which water either flows north to the Arctic Ocean, or south to Lake Superior and into the Atlantic Ocean.
We had the canoe packed and ready to go by 10:00 a.m., and set off on sunny and serene Sawbill Lake. What a feeling to be off on my biggest canoe camping expedition yet! It was awesome having Kris as my paddle partner, and we had no trouble cruising up Sawbill, taking a quick break at one campsite to tie on our fishing lures. We were getting back into old rhythms together, and it felt good.
We did some fishing in the northern half of Sawbill without catching anything, and eventually reached our first portage, which parallels rocky Ada Creek for 80 rods. A funny thing happened here – we met three young day-trippers at the end of the portage who had carried their canoe and paddles across the portage, then decided to go right back. They had essentially carried the portage for nothing. They didn’t have camping gear with them, but still… I suggested to them, “If you carried all the way here, you might as well go check out Ada Creek. You never know, there could be a moose around the first bend.” I couldn’t seem to get my logic across. Just go for a quick paddle if you’ve done all the work to get there! Kris and I set forwards, while the young threesome went back to Sawbill. We paddled for maybe five minutes, around the first bend, when Kris saw a small water snake on the water’s surface. It slithered under some rocks, but made us aware of the wildlife around us. We turned our heads back to the creek (quite wide in this spot), took a few strokes, and boom! There was a beautiful cow moose with two calves on the shore!
The cow spent a good ten minutes feeding on underwater vegetation at the water’s edge while Kris and I watched from the canoe. What a sight! The moose was not phased by us in the least. Her two calves were much more cautious, and hung out behind some trees the whole time. They never came down to the water’s edge. Clearly they were obeying mommy’s orders to stay back!
Kris and I were both stunned and thrilled to see our first three moose. Little did we know it was going to happen all over again a couple hours later.
We continued on our way once the moose and its calves walked up the bank and out of sight. We quickly came to the end of Ada Creek, and portaged the 80 rods into Ada Lake. I’ll admit, I was still taken aback by the moose, and it was hot out, and I somehow took us down the wrong arm of Ada Lake. No matter though – it was a beautiful, scenic backwater, and we got back on our way again in 5 minutes. We immediately came to the muddy 90 rod portage to Skoop Lake. This is the one people were telling us to dread. Frankly, it really wasn’t that bad.
Skoop Lake took just minutes to cross, and then we were on to the fourth portage of our day, the long one (180 rods) over the Continental Divide and into Cherokee Creek. I’ll admit, I was happy to be done with the portaging when we finally got to Cherokee Creek.
Did I mention we had to double portage each carry? We had three packs, the canoe, fishing poles, a fishing net, and other items, so there was no way we could carry it all across the portage in just one carry. That’s why we had to walk back and get the second load of stuff on every portage, all 14 of them. We walked over five miles in 4 days just portaging.
Cherokee Creek is incredibly beautiful. There were bright yellow lilies everywhere in the shallow water. There are steep wooded hillsides on both sides of the creek.
We also carried the canoe over a beaver dam.
Then we came around another bend, and…
There was another moose! When it spotted us, the big cow calmly left the water and started working its way up the side of the creek. Still, we got to admire it for a few minutes before it decided life would be better on the other side of the creek, where it could scamper up the hill easier and get away from us. It plunged into the creek and swam across, right in front of us! We were so lucky to witness this swimming moose.
Cherokee Lake is considered one of the most beautiful lakes in the BWCA, and when we finally made it there after 8 hours of paddling and portaging, we weren’t in much of a mood to go hunting for campsites. Fortunately, the owner of Sawbill Outfitters had told me earlier that morning that there’s a great campsite on the west shore very close to where the creek flows out of the lake. When we approached the site, there was an enormous golden eagle sitting on the rock ledge, right by the fire grate. A good omen, if ever there was one.
Sure enough, this was a campsite where you feel like a king just sitting in your chair. There’s a commanding view over the lake from the beautiful rock ledge, and there was a nice breeze blowing from the east to keep any mosquitoes away. It felt awesome to cook a huge supper of grilled lamb and wild rice, and just soak in all the good fortune we had this day.
The first night of sleep was fantastic, and then we were off and ready for the next adventures on day 2. We packed up our whole camp and loaded the canoe before setting out to explore Cherokee Lake. It’s quite a large body of water, but canoeable in half a day. We explored campsites, checked out beaches, fished in the very deep north end, and even caught a burbot (also known as eelpout) – a rare catch.
About the time we caught the fish, the sky turned a little darker, and we decided to head for our first portage of the day – the “rollercoaster” from Cherokee to Sitka Lake, over the Continental Divide again. The winds picked up and it started raining steadily while we were still on the north end of the lake, so we pushed hard for 20 minutes to reach our portage. We were soaked by the time we reached shore, and there was no sign the rain was going to let up.
The rest of the day was a slog through the rain on wet portages from Sitka to North Temperance Lake, and then another one to South Temperance Lake. We had been planning all along to camp on South Temperance, and we were fortunate to find an open site. The one we found was not the one we were originally looking for (some canoeists on Cherokee recommended the wide-open site they had left on South Temperance), but in the end it was just as well. The site we did find had plenty of places to rig up a tarp, and it continued to rain all evening, and well into the night.
Dinner our second night was an awesome clam sauce and pasta meal with olives, garlic, and fresh parsley. Cooking and eating under the tarp was cool in its own way. We knew by this point we were two tough guys. When you get through the wet, rainy days and you’re still having fun, you know you have what it takes to tackle wilderness tripping.
I slept our second night without a mattress pad, since mine had gotten soaked on the outside of my pack all day. The ground was hard. I learned my lesson.
Day 3 dawned misty and overcast, but not so rainy. Kris got up early and went fishing solo, but to our surprise the fish weren’t biting. We did fry up the previous day’s eelpout for breakfast, which was mighty tasty. We tried fishing some more together after we broke down camp, but not even a bite. The lack of fishing success was a little troublesome, but not really, because it felt so good just being together in nature. Who cares about fish when the world is yours? We pushed ahead, and explored the headwaters of the Temperance River (more beaver dams), then did a long portage (240 rods) to Weird Lake.
The portage to Weird parallels the rocky river, although you only actually see the river in a few spots. From Weird we paddled into Jack Lake (both of these are just wider sections of the Temperance River), and then a light rain came back. We didn’t give up on the fishing, and while we were trying our luck on Jack, we got lucky in a different way – another moose was feeding in the water!
The moose was alone, as far as we could tell, and very docile. It watched us fish and had its water vegetation dinner for about 10 minutes. Then it slowly walked into the woods.
One of the cool things about moose is that you get to study them for a while. They’re so calm. They bring a hushed effect on canoeists as well. You just feel at peace inside.
Once the moose left, we caught two small northern pike, then did the last, short portage of the day into Kelly Lake. We were ready to set up camp by the time we got to the southern end of Kelly. There we had great luck finding a perfect campsite right as the sun started coming out for the first time in a day and half. It was 7:00 p.m. now, and we were dying to eat supper after paddling, portaging, and fishing all day. Despite the absolute barrage of mosquitoes, I was able to boil egg noodles on my camp stove and mix in a lot of butter and beef jerky for our dinner. Protein packed meal! Kris had plenty of Swedish chocolate and even cookies with him for our dessert. The bugs at this site just wouldn’t quit, and we were in bed by ten. As I lay in my sleeping bag (on my dry mattress this time), I got to hear wolves howling twice across Kelly Lake! It was my first wolf howl experience, and it was impressive! It sounded like five or six wolves, maybe 3 or 4 miles away.
On our final, fourth day we felt like triumphant wilderness warriors. The rain was now gone, the bugs were gone too, and we had just three portages left to get back to Sawbill Lake.
We made the long carry to Burnt Lake, and prioritized that lake for our day’s fishing. And did that ever pay off! We found a hot spot and a hot lure, trolling a yellow and purple crankbait about 30 yard off two points on the north end of the lake. We caught three walleyes and a nice northern in less than an hour. Finally, we were catching ’em! We had plenty of fish for dinner back in Duluth that night.
We had to keep moving though, and when we made it to Smoke Lake, dark clouds were forming on the horizon. Kris caught one more pike as we trolled across Smoke. A stiff west wind picked up, and it was tough paddling across the lake. We had to paddle into shore to be able to land Kris’ fish. We had to really work for the final portion of our trip, but that’s what this trip was all about from the beginning!
We made the last carry into Sawbill, and made a mad dash in the canoe straight south down the lake with the wind perpendicular to us now. The wind was blowing the storm straight at us, and there were lightning bolts flashing in the distance. We were determined to make it back though, and we reached Sawbill landing just as the brunt of the storm passed south of us. As soon as we got the canoe out of the water, it started raining.
What can I say about this Cherokee Lake loop trip with Kris? It was one of the defining moments of my life. We were a great team, and we worked our butts off. We covered 32 miles in 4 days, walking 14 portage trails 3 times each. We brought a lot of gear, but I didn’t have many regrets. We were able to enjoy awesome food, great wildlife sightings, and fabulous fishing our last day together. This was the real thing, and the pride I felt inside was as electric as the lightning bolts we saw crashing down as we pulled into shore to wrap up our epic trip.