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Whelp and John Ek Updates

8/23/21 – We spent our day yesterday contacting Sawbill customers, fielding phone calls, and talking with the Forest Service. At the moment, the John Ek (renamed after confirming it was a map error that led to the name John Elk) and the Whelp fires are holding steady at about 800 and 50 acres, respectively. A relatively quiet day of fire activity allowed for more accurate measurement and mapping of the fire boundaries.

We are keeping track on this map in our office, updated based on maps from the USFS. Neither fire showed any growth on August 22nd.
A closer look at the Whelp Fire, which is holding steady about four miles from us.
The John Ek fire, the different color outlines show the fire’s growth over three days.

We are still safe, and are not under any imminent evacuation orders at this point. The Sawbill campground is still open, and the south end of Sawbill Lake is still available for paddling, fishing, and swimming. It’s eerie to have these beautiful, warm, sunny August days with so few visitors to share them with. Air quality has been very good, all things considered. Occasionally you can smell smoke on the air and things get hazy, but it seems to blow through pretty quickly. Today you can’t even smell it.

The Sawbill parking lot, looking a lot more like late October than late August.

We are expecting the Forest Service to make a decision whether to extend the BWCA Wilderness closure for the week of August 28th – September 3rd either Tuesday or Wednesday of this week. As soon as we know what their determination is, we’ll be sure to post it here.


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BWCA Wilderness Closure

8/21/21 – We have just received the official closure notice from the Forest Service. Below is the news release we received and a map of the closure area.

“The Superior National Forest is closing the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, effective August 21, 2021, due to active and increasing fire activity, extreme drought, limited resources. The closure will be in place for seven days, and may be modified or extended as conditions allow.  

This closure includes all lands, waters, trails, portages, campsite, canoe routes and Wilderness entry points in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. The Forest has notified permit holders and outfitters and is cancelling permits today through August 27. Permit holders will be fully reimbursed. At this time, all overnight paddle, day use and motorized day use is cancelled. The Forest will reopen portions of the Wilderness and/or some uses when it is safe. 

We understand that this will have a significant impact on our visitors, cooperators and communities near the forest. This emergency closure is necessary for the safety of our visitors, our wilderness rangers and our fire-fighters. It allows our fire crews to focus on responding to existing fires and new starts.  

Northern Minnesota is facing severe to extreme drought conditions. Active and increasing fire across the landscape. Yesterday, the John Elk Fire grew from 3 acres to 1600 acres and the Whelp Fire grew from 30 acres to at least 80 acres. The Forest has ordered a Type 3 team to respond to the John Elk Fire. Although the Greenwood Fire is being managed by a Type 2 Eastern Area Incident Management Team, forest resources are working with and assisting the team with the 9,000-acre fire. There are additional fires on the Superior and Forest staff are responding to initial fire starts and monitoring fires that are in controlled status including the Bungee Fire, Fourtown Fire, Sundial Fire, Moose Lake Fire, and the Clara Fire. Additionally, the Forest is monitoring the fires in Canada, which continue to show movement towards to the US border. The Forest is coordinating with Ontario counterparts on these fires.”

The closure extends to the entire BWCA Wilderness.

If you had a trip planned to begin in the next week, you have some options if you’d like to still salvage a camping vacation. The Sawbill Lake, Crescent Lake, and Temperance River campgrounds that we manage are still open. Crescent is not within the BWCA, so it is entirely open for paddling (it’s also a great walleye lake). The southern portion of Sawbill, outside of the Wilderness, is open for paddling.

There are a few other options for remote camping and paddling in our vicinity in the Superior National Forest, including the Timber Frear loop, Cascade Lake, and Lichen Lake. If you’d like to talk about any of these options we are happy to help you make use of those vacation days.

In the event you would like to cancel your reservation for canoes or equipment with us, please give us a call or an email and we will process it as soon as we are able.

Thank you for your flexibility, your well wishes, and for hanging in there with us!


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Avoiding Misinformation

8/21/21 – We know there’s lots of news swirling around right now about the expanded closure of the BWCA Wilderness. We have been notified that there is a forthcoming closure order, but we do not have the official notice in hand yet. As a general rule, I won’t post about the details of an order until I see it in writing and signed by the Forest Supervisor. Things are happening quickly, and there are many considerations and changes taking place up until the moment an order is signed. In an effort to circulate only accurate information we will wait until we can see for certain what the details of the closure are. Once we know, we will be sure to post about it here.

Thank you for hanging in there with us! Stay tuned…


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Lady Chain Closure

8/20/21 – Official orders have come from the Forest Service expanding the closure within the BWCA in the Sawbill Area (see map below). Due to the high-traffic nature of the closed area, overnight paddle permits for the Sawbill Lake Entry Point (EP38) have been cancelled through August 23rd. If you had a permit for Sawbill Lake Entry Point (EP38) for August 21st, 22nd, or 23rd your permit has been cancelled and you will receive a refund directly from the Forest Service. It is possible that this closure will extend through the 26th. Stay tuned for that update should it happen.

What are your options? At this point, there are no overnight paddle permits available at the other entry points in our area for those dates. These entry points are not closed they are just sold out.

  • Option 1 is to cancel your trip altogether. If you had a deposit for a canoe rental with us we will waive our usual cancellation policy and refund your deposit in full at your request.
  • Option 2 is to come to Sawbill, camp in our 50 site campground on site here and take day trips into the BWCA. Day trips on Sawbill Lake are still allowed, as well as day trips north of Sawbill and east of Sawbill. Day tripping into Smoke and Burnt or up towards Cherokee, in other words, is still fine. Day use permits are free, self issued, and unlimited. At this time, the Sawbill campground has plenty of open campsites.
  • Option 3 is to come pick up your rental canoe(s) and head to an area of the Superior National Forest outside of the BWCA. Canoe routes outside of the Wilderness, such as Timber Frear, Cascade Lake, Crescent Lake, and the like are all open and do not require a permit to access. You can call us or the Tofte Ranger Station to discuss these alternate route options.
This is the current closure area. All travel in this area is currently prohibited.

It is my understanding that this closure was prompted by some growth on the Whelp Fire. It was around 15 acres at last report, but had grown by 10 more acres as of this morning so it is somewhere around 25-30 acres in size right now. With the hot, dry, windy days ahead the fire conditions are critical for the next 48-72 hours. The Forest Service is continuing to attack the fire from the air with water drops from planes and a helicopter. The fire is not currently burning any established routes or campsites. Again, safety of people is paramount, so the prudent thing to do is get the area clear of visitors so the firefighters can focus all their efforts on containing this fire without worrying about the potential for evacuations.

We so appreciate everyone’s flexibility and kindness. This is not an ideal situation for any of us. We regret the cancellations for those of you who have been planning and dreaming of your 2021 Boundary Waters trip. We hope we can help you salvage a vacation, or else catch you next year. Please accept our heartfelt thanks as well to everyone who has reached out to offer help, moral support, and who is sending us all the heavy rain vibes from afar. We can feel the love.

We will update as we know more, so keep your eyes on this space over the next few days.

– Clare and the Sawbill Crew

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Fire Closures

8/20/21 – Hi folks. We just got word that there will be more closures affecting Sawbill and the surrounding area due to increased activity with the Whelp Fire last night and this morning. We are waiting to hear the specifics of the closure and will be posting here as soon as we know. Please refrain from calling us at this point, we will post to this newsletter as soon as we know more.

Thank you!


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Louse River Closure

8/17/21 – This evening, the US Forest Service issued an order closing a portion of the BWCA Wilderness in our vicinity. In this post I’ll share some information about why it’s closed, what area specifically is affected, how campers who are out there are being notified, and some tips for Boundary Waters tripping during this dry wildfire season.

Why is this area being closed? One of the main priorities of the Forest Service when dealing with wildfire management is safety of people. Primarily, fire fighters and the public. The Whelp Fire, which is 4 miles west/northwest of Sawbill, is in a remote part of the Wilderness. No fire-fighting cress have been sent in due to difficult access, limited aircraft resources, and safety concerns. The Louse River is a particular challenging route, with only one way in and one way out. Winds prevailing from the south have the potential to push the Whelp fire towards the Louse River. While the Louse River is not currently burning, it has the potential to, and an evacuation of that area would be particularly onerous. The area is, therefore, being closed out of an abundance of caution.

What area is closed exactly? The closure affects Hub Lake, Mesaba Lake, Dent Lake, Chaser Lake, Bug Lake, Louse Lake, Louse River, Poe Lake, Mug Lake, Wine Lake, Frederick Lake, Hug Lake, Duck Lake, Zenith Lake, Trail Lake, Boze Lake, Frond Lake, Lujenida Lake, and all other lands, waters, portages, and canoe routes within the Wilderness as shown in the map below.

The official closure areas.

My family entered out of Sawbill recently, how do I know if they are safe? Two Wilderness Ranger crews are currently paddling the entire closure area notifying campers. The Whelp fire is currently about 20 acres and burning deep in the forest, not along any easily accessible canoe routes or near any campsites. No one is going to happen across this fire as it is right now, unless they bushwack miles into the dense woods. The Louse River is a very challenging route, even more so due to the drought. We have sent very few groups that direction in recent days. Those who are affected by the closure are not in imminent danger, but are being asked to move out of the area to create a “people-free” buffer should the fire spread to the north, thus saving precious fire fighting resources from potentially complicated evacuations. To the extent anyone is having to exit the Wilderness at an unplanned entry point due to the closure, we are working with the Forest Service to identify those groups and planning to pick them up and get them safely transported back to Sawbill.

Is the smoke terrible up there right now? No. The smoke isn’t any worse, generally, than it has been this whole season. There’s almost always a slight haze way up in the atmosphere, and occasionally the winds will shift and we will smell smoke for several hours to a couple of days.

Do you anticipate any more closures of the Sawbill area or surrounding entry points? At this time, I don’t foresee any additional closures unless conditions change dramatically. If the winds were to shift and come from the West, we might see increased fire growth in our direction. We are in daily contact with the Forest Service and are hopeful that we will get as much notice as possible when and if there is any increased risk to our area.

If you are planning a Boundary Waters trip anytime between now and the end of the 2021 paddling season there a few things you can do to be better prepared given the dry conditions and heightened risks of wildfires.

  1. Plan to cook over a pressurized fuel cookstove with an on/off switch. The current fire ban prohibits campfires, charcoal grills, twig stoves and most alcohol stoves. If you are a smoker or someone who enjoys a cigar while in the BWCA, be extremely cautious about where your ash falls and how you extinguish your smoke.
  2. If you encounter an area that is burning, do not engage with it or try to extinguish it. Your best bet is to exit the area, travel away from the fire, and inform the Forest Service as quickly as possible as to the exact location. Fires can become volatile very quickly and your safety is paramount.
  3. Bring maps that cover the area around your intended route. If you find yourself suddenly needing to reroute due to a closure, it’s helpful to have the correct maps on hand.
  4. Leave a route description with someone back home or with your outfitter. Make sure someone knows where you are planning to enter and exit the Wilderness and give them as detailed description as you can of where you plan to travel during your trip.
  5. Check in with an outfitter or a Ranger Station before you head in. We will be posting here with any updates relevant to the Sawbill area.

That’s the update for tonight, stay tuned to this page for further updates as we navigate the rest of this paddling season!


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Tofte District Ranger Fire Update

8/17/21 – Communications during wildfire season can be challenging. There are many stakeholders to inform, fires are dynamic, and the situation is always changing. We are very lucky here in Cook County to have good working relationships between agencies, and are additionally privileged to have an exceptional local radio station. WTIP (90.7) has been staying up to date on fire conditions in the area, with a number of key interviews providing insight.

This morning WTIP interviewed the Tofte District Ranger Ellen Bogardus-Szymaniak. Click here to listen to her update on the fires in our area.

We are expecting to receive an order closing the Louse River route today. We will post details when we know what the exact boundaries of the closure are. It is important to note that these closures are done in an abundance of caution. The Louse River is not currently burning. Because of the difficulty of that route and the limited exit options, closing the area is the prudent thing to do. A Forest Service wilderness crew is currently sweeping the route to inform any campers in the area.

The Greenwood fire, near Isabella, continues to make headlines as it grows quickly. None of the closures or evacuations from this fire are in our immediate area.

I highly recommend listening to the WTIP story linked above. It is a succinct and clear description of the situation as it stands this morning. If you are so inclined, you can donate to our small local radio station here. This valuable local resource is certainly worth the support, in my opinion!


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Wildfires Update

8/16/21 – It’s been some time since we had any fire news to report in this area, which was nice while it lasted. As of this morning, there are two fires now burning in the Tofte Ranger District (more details on those fires below). Of note, there are no closures in our area at this time, and there is no imminent threat to anyone canoe tripping in our area. It is hard to overstate how dry things are up here though, and the reality is that there is quite a bit of fire season still ahead of us this summer and fall. If you are in the BWCA and a closure is issued for the area you are in, Wilderness Rangers will paddle through and contact you.

At this time, we are recommending that folks avoid doing the Louse River route. The Whelp Fire (details below) has the potential to grow into that area, and given the low water conditions travel is very difficult along that route, making re-routes and possible evacuations difficult.

The following updates are from the Forest Service as of the evening of August 15th:

John Elk Fire: Detected late on August 14, the John Elk Fire was started with a lightning strike. It is in a remote area 2.5 miles south of Little Saganaga Lake in the Wilderness on the Tofte Ranger District. No fire-fighting crews have been sent in due to difficult access, limited helicopter resources and safety concerns. A helicopter with water drops is being used to knock down flames and limit the spread. It is currently two-acres. On August 15th, a 2 person wilderness ranger crew paddled in from Little Sag to make contact with BWCAW permittees to inform them on the Joh Elk Fire, and update them on fire conditions.

John Elk Lake, just south of Little Saganaga, west of Sawbill.

Whelp Fire: The Whelp Fire is another lightning-caused fire that was detected late on August 14th. It is four miles west/northwest of Sawbill Lake. Similar to the John Elk Fire, this fire is in a remote area of the Wilderness on the Tofte Ranger District. No fire-fighting crews have been sent in due to difficult access, limited helicopter resources and safety concerns. Aircraft will perform water drops to suppress this fire as we continue to gather information. On August 16th, a 2-person wilderness ranger crew will paddle the Louse River to contact permittees near the Whelp Fire. It is currently five-acres.

Whelp Lake, just north of Phoebe Lake, west of Sawbill.

The other big fire making the news right now is, thankfully, further away from us. The Greenwood Fire was detected on August 15th near Greenwood Lake on the Laurentian Ranger District. It is approximately 15 miles SW of Isabella (the town.) The fire is moving very quickly due to strong gusts of wind and dry vegetation and is estimated to be several hundred acres. Fire crews are suppressing the fire on the ground and from the air. The McDougal Recreation Area is closed, including the McDougal Lake Campground.

We’ll keep you posted on any updates as we receive them.


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Perseid Meteor Shower

8/13/21 – Mid August is prime time for watching the night sky, with the Perseid meteor shower as the main attraction.  The past couple nights have been mostly clear leaving us no choice but to get out and take advantage of the light show.  According to NASA, these meteors appear to radiate from the constellation Perseus in the north, although they actually originate from leftover debris from the comet Swift-Tuttle burning up in our atmosphere.  In fifteen minutes last night, we seen at least a handful of meteors (also known as shooting stars) making it well worth the late night out. -Jessica

Perseid meteor over Sawbill Lake, taken Brian Henry (AKA Mongo).
Milky Way over the south end of Sawbill Lake courtesy of Brian Henry.

Last year the Boundary Waters was designated an International Dark Sky Sanctuary by the International Dark Sky Association. According to a 2016 National Geographic article, only 20% of Americans can now see the Milky Way as a result of light pollution.

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Late Summer Wildflowers at Sawbill

8/11/21 – As late summer quickly approaches, many changes are happening with the flora around Sawbill. One of these changes is a shift in which wildflowers are blooming. Late spring and early summer bring spring ephemerals — small, delicate flowers that typically bloom close to the forest floor. As the summer progresses, taller flowers, ferns, and other undergrowth shade these small plants. Late summer wildflowers are typically taller and showier than early summer flowers. They often bloom on long, sturdy stalks, with a cluster of many flowers together on the same stem.

Large leaf aster blooming in the Sawbill Campground

Even though the peak wildflower season (June to early July) has passed, there are still many flowers blooming around Sawbill and on the edges of the Sawbill trail. The most common bloom right now is the large leaf aster, which produces clusters of light purple flowers with yellow or brown centers. The large leaf aster is a common plant in Northern Minnesota, with large, fuzzy, heart shaped leaves carpeting the forest floor. Although many people are familiar with these common leaves, they often don’t realize that the lavender flowers come from the same plant.

Fireweed is commonly found along roadsides and in open areas. It is also one of the first flowers to return after wildfires.

Other common flowers around Sawbill are common yarrow (white flower clusters with feathery leaves), fireweed (tall spikes of pink flowers), goldenrod (fluffy spikes of yellow flowers), and creeping bellflower (many purple bell-shaped flowers on a tall stalk). Other blooms include black-eyed Susan, ox-eye daisies, and Joe Pye weed. While some plants are still blooming, others have already started producing fruits. These include bunchberries (a cluster of red berries in the middle of four to six leaves), raspberries and blueberries.