Ashley / Phil / United States

Boundary Waters Canoe Area – Round One

After we said farewell to our last wedding guests Ashley and I took a trip, not our honeymoon, up to the Boundary Water Canoe Area (BWCA) in the Superior National Forest. It was supposed to be a short three-day trip between Seagull Lake and Saganaga Lake but we wrapped it up a day early because apparently you need to claim your campsite before noon in the BWCA. This was Ashley’s inaugural trip to Boundary Waters, first real canoe trip, and our first camping trip with just the two of us. Despite paddling into gale force winds on the first day, all and all it was a really good trip.

Welcome to the BWCA

Welcome to the BWCA

The first day of paddling actually started two hours from our put-in at Gooseberry State Park. Our original plan was to leave the cabin the morning of and drive all the way to the outfitters and start that same day. The catch? It’s seven hours between Cushing and Sea Gull Lake. To compromise for our sanity, and because I wasn’t going to make it into the car at 5:00 in the morning, we decided to spend a night camping along the North Shore.

Gooseberry Falls is a small state park located off Highway 61 about an hour north of Duluth. Having extra time on account of leaving early, Ashley and I decided to coast along the Scenic Highway which runs parallel to Lake Superior. For those who haven’t been Lake Superior is massive. A friend of ours from Ohio and his wife pointed out calling it a lake only belittles the fact that smaller bodies of water are given the title of “seas.” A fun little fact for anyone doubting its size – Superior is the second largest body of water by area at 31,700 sq mi (82,100 sq km).

Maybe it’s because of the Scandinavian heritage of the area and maybe it’s because of the abundance of wild game and fish, but dotted all along Highway 61 you can find fantastic smoke houses. If you decide to take the scenic route north of Duluth stop at Russ Kendall ‘s Smoke House. Because our decision to leave a day early was made last minute we did not have a dinner planned for that evenings. So we stopped at Russ’s, more out of curiosity than anything, picked up the a couple smoked cheeses and a slab of their Lake Trout, added a loaf of Scandinavian rye in Two Harbors, and that was dinner.

It was amazing!

Possibly the very best smoked fish along the North Shore

Possibly the very best smoked fish along the North Shore

The next morning we quickly packed up, shoveled down breakfast at the Vanilla Bean Café and drove up to Tuscarora Outfitters – the outfitters we rented our canoe and some gear from. (A side note – if you’re headed up to the BWCA and need to rent gear talk to the good people at Tuscarora. They were really helpful and flexible with our changing plans.) By 13:00 we were on the water and going nowhere. Tuscarora is located on Round Lake and from their office they could tell we were headed out into a fierce headwind. Our reservations were later confirmed when a boat coming in off of Seagull Lake laughed and said we had a tough paddle ahead of us. Unfortunately they were both right. Whenever we were exposed to open water our canoe was battered by wind and whitecaps. To get to our campsite, which was actually our third backup site, we had to pull a 180 in some dicey waters. We might have had a wave or two come over the side but don’t tell Ashley. By the end we had paddled hard for three straight hours and had gone half the planned distance.

But all was not in vane! For our effort we were rewarded with wild blueberries and raspberries bushes. There is nothing better to eat on a camping trip than fresh, wild berries.

Ashley Smiling

Day One Campsite

Morning Spread

On Day two the weather cooperated much more so than the first day. The day started overcast but by the end it was sunny and beautiful. The initially cloudy but calm weather made the morning easy to paddle across the lake. Once on the western side of the lake Ashley experienced her first portage. We drew straws and I lost – I had to portage the canoe. I always feel like a tank when I through an Alumacraft canoe on my shoulders; everything smaller than a proper tree is easily pushed aside as you march down the trail.

Doing the BWCA Thing

The first portage, and all along Seagull Lake, is located within the 2007 Ham Lake Fire burn zone. Some ignorant camper tried to burn their garbage and what started as a campfire roared into a full-blown forest fire. Before the fire was contained 40,000 acres and 200 structures were burned down. Since then the forest has started to recover but the scars of partially burned down trees remain.

Big, Bad and Bald

Ashley and the map

One and half more portages (we pushed our canoe over a beaver dam at one point), two lakes and we had arrived at our campsite. Before setting off the guides at Tuscarora had recommended the north campsite on Englishman Island and rightfully so. The campsite was large, flat and spacious with tree trunk benches and a fantastic and unobstructed view of Lake Sage into Canada. There was just enough wind to keep the mosquitoes and flies from bothering us without being overwhelming. And the view at sunset was awesome.

Canoe and Sunset

We set off our last morning fully expecting to stay one more night in the park but when all the suitable campsites were occupied before 13:00 we decided to wrap up our trip a day early. We didn’t want to spend a night at a buggy site and we had friends, who were actually on their honeymoon, staying in Tofte. So we traded our last night out with the loons for spending a night with friends. (We crashed their honeymoon – that’s what friends are for).

All and all it was an awesome trip and a good introduction for Ashley. Needless to say when Ash said she wanted to return because she didn’t see a bear or moose I was a little surprised – but hey, any reason to go back is a good reason.

Two Thumbs Up

And with that I will leave you with a couple of parting shots from our drive back to the cabin.

Temperance State Park

Temperance State Park

Palisade Head

Palisade Head

MN Barn

MN Barn


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