North Shore Dragon Boat Festival and we ended up spending too much on motel rooms for the night. But the motel owner guy was super nice (as they are in that part of the country) and the beds were comfortable. We grabbed some expensive Summit EPAs at a local rooftop bar and watched the dragon boat teams practice in the bay on the night before we disembarked.
Bright and early the next morning we headed up the Gunflint Trail to Hungry Jack Outfitters to rent a solo canoe for our odd-numbered group, a couple of sleeping bags, and some other odds and ends. We shoved off from HJO’s dock and did our first portage to Bearskin Lake. Husband and I had never portaged before. I have been camping on the Gunflint, but that always involved driving back into the woods and being able to haul useful things like coolers and boomboxes with you.
Portages are measured in rods, where each rod is 16.5 feet, which is completely nonsensical and useless until you are actually hiking the portage with 85 pounds of gear strapped to your person. That first portage was around 20 rods and crossed a road and a parking lot. It had some rocks and roots but was relatively smooth. Since we had five people and had to haul in all our tents, kitchen gear, food, and clothes, we had to make two trips each at each portage. I carried the kitchen pack, which was probably around 50 pounds, and our clothes pack, which was around 25 pounds, on the first trip. Then I went back and got the food pack, which was probably around 70-80 pounds. I was feeling good and barely broke a sweat. Bearskin lake was absolutely still and like glass and had the clearest water I have ever seen. Unfortunately there are a bunch of cabins on that lake that were grandfathered in when the BWCA boundaries were decided, so motors are allowed there. Douchy McDoucherton was driving his Doucheboat around (Husband has a way with words) while we were paddling to the next portage point to our target, Daniels Lake.
I had checked the weather that morning and it said there was a 30% chance of scattered strong storms in the area. But the sky was blue and the lake was calm as we started off on the second portage of the day. This one was 60-some rods and was quite a bit more hilly and rocky than the previous cupcake portage. The theme of the weekend was "Don’t Get Eaten By A Bear" so we made sure we made a lot of noise along the path as we went. The first trip down the path was a lot longer than I expected. I was wearing my steel toe work boots that were nice in that I didn’t turn an ankle or gash myself on the sharp rocks (something that happened to one of our companions last year), but they sucked in that getting back into a canoe absolutely requires you to wade into the water. I wore my sandals for the remainder of the trip. By the second trip back and down the trail I was seriously winded and wheezing slightly.
Another thing I was not prepared for was the sheer number of people we saw. Campsites were filled and canoes were everywhere in the BWCA. Shit is busy. There is, thankfully, plenty of space on the water but not a ton of places to park your tent. When I go camping I kind of expect to not see or hear anyone, ever. I’m told we have to go to Quetico for true isolation in the BWCA. So I guess we’ll need to work on getting our passports for next year if we go that direction.
Stairway Portage. It involved paddling back into a windblown tree graveyard area and hiking 90 rods over hills, roots, rocks, and down a ton of stairs. This is not anything I would ever consider portaging gear and canoes in either direction, though two of our group did it last year. We chilled out on the shore of Rose Lake for a while before reluctantly heading back up the 90 rods. By the time we got to the top of the stairs my legs were burning and I was gasping. I was wearing a dorky fanny pack with a couple pounds of emergency supplies and even that seemed overwhelming by the end. Carrying 80 pounds of gear up that trail? I’m usually up for a challenge but this is just not for me. Unfortunately the wind that was at our tails for the trip over was now a vicious headwind that was whipping up small whitecaps (“think of them as lake kisses!”) and it probably took 3 times the time and effort to get back to our campsite. Our friend was in the solo canoe and I was seriously concerned for his safety. We all made it back in time for a delicious dinner of chicken and gravy over English muffins before the sun set and I had a quick swim to cool off after the hard paddle.
All in all the trip was satisfying, if a bit expensive. The rental sleeping bags were great (super warm and they packed down to nearly nothing) but a bit steep at $6/day each. Each person had to pay a $16 entry fee. And gas in a truck hauling hundreds of pounds of gear and a canoe was painful. But we had a good time -- fish were caught (nothing edible), good food was eaten, much whiskey was drunk, and sun was soaked up.