6/30/21 – On Friday the 25th there was quite the excitement when a Forest Service Beaver floatplane touched down on Sawbill. Dating back to the 1930s, Beaver planes were initially used for fire detection and response. Now, they’re used for wildlife surveys, search and rescue, aerial seeding, and more, in addition to fire management and response. This particular flight was part of training for a new Forest Service pilot. Sawbill is a popular place for these kinds of trainings because of the tricky landing it requires. Although they’re allowed to fly under the designated flight allowance for the area, Forest Service Pilots try to avoid flying low over the wilderness if they can. Seeing as most of Sawbill Lake and the surrounding area lies within the wilderness boundary, landing on the lake can prove to be tricky. However, this landing proved to be no problem for the pilot as all went smoothly. When they pulled up to the dock, the pilot and her co-pilot were greeted by curious paddlers and some of the Sawbill crew. The crew got to check out the plane and Kit and Sig even had the special honor of sitting in the back seat. When it came time to take off, crew members Sawyer and Ben helped hold onto the plane while the pilots untied the ropes, and then they were off and on to the next!
6/27/21 – Every year, once the crew has arrived, it is Sawbill tradition to celebrate the season with a Guys and Ladies Night. It’s one of the many highlights of the summer. Friday night marked the 2021 Ladies night and Guys night is still on the way. The gals celebrated with dinner and a paddle on a picture-perfect evening in Grand Marais.
The day started like any other. In the morning and most of the afternoon, we worked our normal jobs, but when 4 o’clock rolled around, the ladies signed off and left the boys to hold down the fort. We put on our best, loaded up some gear and canoes, and piled into the transportation van. We drove to the Grand Marais Harbor, where we put in our canoes, and marveled at the deep blue waters of Lake Superior. The conditions could not have been more perfect. The water was still as glass, the sun was shining, and the sound of live music traveled across the harbor. We Stopped for dinner at The Angry Trout Cafe before paddling back across the harbor. We ended the evening on the beach skipping rocks and taking in the cotton candy sky. Needless to say, the ladies had a blast and the boys were a little bit jealous.
6/22/21 – This year for my annual father/daughter canoe trip with Kit (5), we decided to do the Cherokee Loop, beginning and ending at the landing on Sawbill Lake. Kit has been eyeing up the Cherokee Loop since our return from 2 nights on Wine Lake last summer. Clare and the Sawbill crew graciously gave us a few days off, so we went for it.
We launched at about 8am on Thursday June 17th. We loaded our moderately packed Granite Gear Superior 1 pack along with Kit’s small backpack and another day pack into a Northstar B16. The B16 is a great option for paddling with kids because it has symmetrical rocker so it can be paddled “backwards”, turning the bow seat into a stern seat that is closer to the center of the canoe. Without a thwart behind the front seat (as is usually in place with larger canoes), this is an easy adaptation. Kit is a good paddler for a 5 year old, but only takes strokes occasionally, so I effectively solo paddle us around.
Our plan was to do the loop backwards (counter clockwise), so we headed for the portage to Smoke Lake and made it there in good time with a light tail wind and warm sun. We met a group coming off the portage who had just left camp on Burnt that morning. We proceeded across the 100 rod portage and talked to two more groups on the Smoke side who were also exiting from a stay on Burnt. With this intel, we felt good about our prospects for finding a campsite.
We decided to do the loop backwards for this exact reason – give ourselves the best chance at a campsite on Burnt by arriving early in the day. You see, there has been a trend toward folks base camping on Sawbill, Alton, Smoke and Burnt, causing some congestion on those lakes and more campsite pressure. (Folks traveling a bit farther rarely ever have issues with campsite availability).
The paddle across Smoke was pretty quick, aided by a stiffer west northwest wind. We gathered our gear for the 90 rods to Burnt. We checked out a few sites and ultimately decided to stay on the site on the north side of the narrows as you enter the lake.
With plenty of daylight left, we ate lunch, set up camp and spent the rest of the day swimming and fishing from shore. We didn’t catch any fish, but maybe the bald eagle soaring above our swimming hole did. We had a nice campfire with roasted hot dogs and smores for dinner. It was a fun quintessential camp experience. Despite a relatively easy travel day, we were in bed by 6:30pm for some book reading.
Up at 5am the next day, we packed up camp as we had a breakfast of ramen noodles and coffee (for me). The day started calm and beautiful, with long morning shadows cast across the lake and vibrant green canopy blanketing the far shore.
On the water by 6:30am, our day was off to a good start. The short paddle across the middle of Burnt brought us to the first portage of the day, 230 rods into Kelly.
I hoisted the Superior 1 to my back and caribinered the day pack to my front, paddles and life jackets strapped inside the canoe that came up onto my shoulders. Kit shouldered her pack and off we went with all our gear. We have a pretty good system down allowing us to single portage every time. Our not yet acclimated muscles had us take a quick break midway across the portage.
As we shoved off onto Kelly Lake, the breeze had started to pick up, coming out of the south. It aided us along as we made our way up the lake. We stopped and drifted toward the north while I treated (steripen) a couple of bottles of water. The stiff tail wind was welcome during the remainder of our paddle through the narrow meandering section of Kelly. A couple of groups passed by heading south, offering perspective to our good fortune of the wind direction.
A quick 65 rods and we were on Jack. Much to our surprise our nice tail wind was now blowing into our faces, swirling on Jack, as we readied to launch. A short ways up the lake a beaver dam formed a barrier that needed negotiating. Wind gusts beared down hard as I paddled toward the dam. A gust shoved us off kilter and spun the bow of the canoe to the side. I couldn’t back paddle quickly enough to get us turned before the bow slammed sideways into a rock, rattling my partner. Spinning around for a second attempt, I was able to nose up to the dam. I climbed out onto the dam and pulled the canoe up and over, avoiding the need to unload anything or anyone else. Now on the other side, a strong kick and we were navigating into the swirling and gusting wind, thankful that the lake was too small and narrow to produce any significant waves from the stiff wind.
The campsite on the north side of Jack is slightly mis-placed on the Makenzie map. It appears right next to the narrows that lead you out of the north side of the lake. In reality the campsite is farther to the east. As a result, we were lured over to the site, creating a minor detor and backtrack into the wind. Once we were on track exiting through the narrows to the north, we decided to land on a rock outcropping for lunch. We dined on peanut butter tortillas, string cheese and cookies.
Making our way up through this boggy section toward the portage into Weird Lake, a cow moose appeared around the bend. We slowed and watched as she ate and marfed around. When she sensed our presence she gently walked back up onto shore, delicately lifting and placing her long gangly legs,back into the woods. Continuing on, we looked toward the west as we went by the spot she was in and sure enough she was standing in the woods with a calf at her side. The calf saw us and skittered under her mom. Kit and I exchanged smiles and thumbs up – and plodded on toward the portage, gusts bearing down on us.
A short portage into Weird and another beaver dam to scale up and over welcoming us to this next body of water. This time we were able to approach without issue, making the transition quickly. The single campsite on the lake appeared on our right as we passed by. It was available and looked kind of like a nice one on the small lake. Turning toward the northeast, the wind was now at our backs carrying us to our next portage. Nearing the portage, a strong gust blew Kit’s paddle from her hands as she switched sides. Quick reflexes from Dad and the paddle was rescued without detour or incident. Another quick 80 rod portage and we were on a small unnamed zig zag.
Despite its small size, this was the biggest paddling challenge so far of the day. As we proceeded out of the northeast pointing section, turning back to the west, the wind was hammering us. I made three attempts, each time getting blown back requiring me to back paddle and spin around in order to try again. With some help from my bow paddler, we were finally able to get across the east/west section and turn back toward the south before swinging around to the north and into the landing at the portage.
Coming down the 240 rod portage from South Temperance was a group of Sawbill customers with three canoes – two tandems and a solo. The solo paddler was soaking wet having just capsized on South Temperance. We compared notes for a few minutes about open campsites to the south and conditions on South Temperance. The group was a little rattled from the conditions they had just navigated. Because they were double portaging and now had empty hands, they graciously offered to carry a couple of our things as we all headed north across the portage. Kit got to saunter across unencumbered and I only had to carry the canoe along with the Superior 1 pack on my back.
Arriving at the landing on South Temperance, the wind was gusting hard out of the northwest, pummeling the portage. Large white caps covered the lake while waves crashed on the portage. Kit and I decided to sit tight and wait for things to improve while the other folks headed toward the south. We sat windbound for a couple of hours, watching the choppy lake, planning how to proceed. If I wasn’t effectively solo paddling and had an adult in the bow, we would have launched right away and I feel confident we could have navigated the conditions without issue. When traveling the Wilderness, making safe decisions is a priority in any case. Traveling with your small children really brings that priority into focus.
While we waited we watched another group come down the lake and then helped them land at the portage. I held their canoe so they could unload and clamber to shore. They were completely soaked and there were a few inches of water in the canoe from a recent capsizing.
Once safely on shore, we quizzed them about open campsites, in particular the site just across the southeast bay from the portage. They mentioned that it appeared to be open, although it is high up on a cliff so they couldn’t be sure.
We continued to wait and watch the lake while they completed a double portage toward the south.
The lake seemed like it was calming a bit and we were both getting anxious to get off that portage and across to that campsite. We decided to gear up and get ready for a window without big gusts.
I’m not sure that window ever came, but we felt ready. Launching the canoe faced straight into the wind and waves, my resolute 5 year old paddling partner and I shoved off. We both dug in and made good progress out into the lake. I plopped down on my knees in the middle of the canoe to give me a bit of leverage for turning as we strained forward. Our progress across the bay was good, but we were losing ground on making the point where the campsite was. I set my sights on a large exposed rock along the shore, but we came up a little short. Instead we came into a thicket of sweetgale lining the shore. I was able to grab onto this woody shoreline shrub and hold the canoe facing directly into the wind and waves, waiting for the heavy gust to abate. After several minutes of white knuckled grip while the canoe bucked and bounced, we decided to paddle forward again and try to make the rock just up ahead. However, once I let my grip of the sweetgale go, we were immediately blown backwards and sideways. I was able to quickly back paddle to turn a 180 with the stern now facing into the wind and draw us toward a different big rock and break in the sweetgale thicket. As we neared the shore, I jumped out of the canoe to land us and to avoid smashing in. The water was about chest deep due to the steep shore line. Immediately after I was in the water, I noticed the gunwale going under and Kit heading over the side, following me. I steadied the canoe and hollered for her to climb back in. I then clambered up the rock and hauled the partially submerged canoe, gear and Kit up onto shore. Quickly securing things and dumping out the water from the canoe, we were safe and sound. Kit was a little freaked out – and wet – from the ordeal, but otherwise fine. Once we gathered our composure, we bushwacked into the woods to seek out the campsite, quickly picking up a small trail that brought us right to it. Thankfully it was not occupied so we decided to end our day there at about 4pm.
That evening we dried out the gear and clothes that got wet and enjoyed the views from the cliftop site. We decided against a campfire due to the wind, opting for hanging out on the rocks and reflecting on the long day. Oftentimes a hallmark of popular campsites are the habituated critters that hang out on the periphery and dip and dive into the action whenever possible. In addition to the standard squirrel and chipmunk duo, we happened across a large painted turtle pawing at our tent door. When I noticed the rustling and headed over to check it out, the big lumbering animal sauntered off into the woods leaving a startled trail of water (pee?) in its path. I’m glad we didn’t leave the door open or we might have been crawling into an incubation chamber that night!
The wind did ultimately die down that evening, and by 6 pm things were pretty calm. We headed to bed by 8pm knowing that the following day – our third and final day – was going to be a long one to complete the loop up north to Cherokee and then back down to Sawbill.
Amidst an overcast sky, with a threat of rain that never materialized, we set off from our beautiful respite site after another breakfast of ramen and coffee. On the water by 7:30, conditions were quite different than the last time we were paddling. We headed northeast to the 55 rod portage into North Temperance, our first of 7 of the day (8 if you count the walk back home from the landing on Sawbill). The quick jaunt put us onto the scenic waterway with a long arm leading us to its western edge. A patch of sun filtered through as we paddled close to shore, our eyes peeled for turtles.
Another 105 rods of portaging and we were on the small Sitka Lake which we traversed in calm winds and grey skies. The following portage is tucked in a small bay that I wasn’t sure was the right spot, but Kit insisted we check it out. She was right. The 140 rod portage between Sitka and Cherokee is reminiscent of a mountain trail out west. Lots of elevation gain and loss in a somewhat rollercoaster fashion. Our leg muscles straining a bit more than normal, we cruised across without any breaks, taking the stone staircase down to a calm and grey Cherokee Lake.
Open campsites abounded, and we ached a bit knowing that the two hours of travel we just completed had been planned to take place the day before. Conditions are always changing in the Wilderness, so a degree of flexibility is prudent to ensure a safe and enjoyable experience.
We skirted the south east shoreline with a light head wind that was swirling around the islands. Knowing the wind was coming from the north, we anxiously paddled on looking forward to our turn to the south. We stopped to drift and refill water one last time. Pulling into Cherokee Creak, the long east/west finger that usually welcomes people to Cherokee, presented us with a glassy surface and beautiful reflections. My partner in the bow was tickled for a calm opportunity to dunk lilly pads as we glided up the narrow passage. The water levels are a little low, so we were unable to make it all the way to the portage, a short mud slog and we were at the landing.
Readying ourselves for the longest portage of the day, and what really feels like the transition point from the interior of the Wilderness back to the fringe, we strapped on our gear and started walking straight south on the 180 rod portage. Arriving at the Skoop, Ada, Ada Creek complex, the map becomes a little less reliable regarding exact portage location and length. This section is pretty dynamic, constantly changing from the beaver activity and water levels. It’s prudent to take the portages where you can, and the places where you are able to paddle seem to be clear. A final 80 rod portage from Ada Creek and we were back on Sawbill Lake.
We took the opportunity to finally break for lunch before settling in for our long paddle down the entire length of Sawbill. We had our final lunch of peanut butter tortillas, string cheese, cookies and a few bonus pieces of Lindt chocolate.
We had only seen two groups since our time windbound on the South Temperance portage, but now that we were back on Sawbill, groups started appearing here and there as we wound through the islands on the north end, making our way through the narrows, and down the 4 mile corridor.
With a full stomach and cozied into her one-piece rain suit, Kit began to nod off as I paddled us south toward home. I suggested that she slink down to the floor of the canoe in front of her seat so she would have a backrest (and also not tumble out of the canoe). As she slept with her head on the gunwale, I enjoyed the mild tail wind below dark and dramatic cloud formations.
We made the landing about 9 hours after we began early that morning on South Temperance. Mom (Clare) and little brother (Sig) were just coming down to check our progress. Everyone was happy to reunite after our fun Wilderness adventure.
6/18/21 – This week saw the return of a Sawbill generational crewmember. Emma Nelson arrived on Tuesday ready to hit the ground running. She started working here in 2014 and did a few seasons until 2016. She then left the Sawbill bubble for a real-world job until last year when she came back for round two. Emma is the daughter of Scott Nelson, who worked here for four seasons, from 1982-85. His favorite jobs were working at outfitting and doing canoe orientations, cleaning cookkits, and cooking brunch/dinner for his fellow crew members. His favorite memories are of evening paddles and trying to catch fish. Similar favorites have been passed down from father to daughter. Emma likes working outfitting and cooking dinner. She also likes transporting customers to other entry points. Her favorite pastimes are going to beach club and taking night swims with the crew. -Sawyer
6/16/21 – I’m happy to report the black flies seem to be about done for the season (knock on wood). They generally stick around for two to three weeks each spring trying their darndest to push us to the edge of our sanity. I’m hopeful that this season’s bumper crop of flies translates to a bumper crop of blueberries. According to Mark Sparky Stensaas, in Wildflowers of the BWCA and the North Shore, we can thank black flies for pollinating the tiny white bell-shaped blueberry flowers in the spring. We had a good three-week onslaught of the pesky bloodsuckers, but I’m happy to say they seem to have subsided substantially. Now we just have to cross our fingers for a little rain to plump up those berries! -Jessica
6/14/21 – A couple of nights ago a pack of moths showed up to throw a dance party around a floodlight that had been inadvertently left on. It must have been one heck of a shindig because they hung out for most of the next day looking exhausted. -Jessica
6/11/21 – With permits filling up and the busy season shifting early and hard into gear, I’m reminded of an article I came across while exploring the Sawbill archives this past winter. “In Search of Campsites,” written by Jay G. Huchinson and David W. Lime (autumn and winter 1972 edition of Naturalist), discussed common travel patterns that still ring true today.
After digging into the data from a Forest Service “BWCA Trip Diary” survey of about 1,100 groups of campers; Hutchinson and Lime found that only a few groups break camp as early as 8am, almost two-thirds were gone by 10am, and pretty much everyone else by 1pm. They also make note that “crowding is seldom seen farther back on the canoe trails.”
For best campsite availability I recommend getting an early start to your trip and traveling at least a few lakes away from the entry point. Finding a place to land by early afternoon is preferred, as things really start to fill as the day wears on. This also gives time to deploy a backup plan if your initial destination is already full. Personally, I like to move camp most days of my trip in order to explore more of the Wilderness and put even more distance between myself and the crowded entry points. -Jessica
Over the past couple of weeks, new canoes have been rolling in and it seems only fair to introduce them. While we’re at it, it seems like a pretty good time to introduce the older ones too. Folks are often curious about what canoes we carry and what the pros and cons are of each model. At the end of the day, there is no canoe that is “the best.” Canoe selection and performance is subjective and what might be the right fit for one group might not be the best option for another.
Our canoes come in different sizes, forms, and have varying personalities. They can be clustered into a few different groups. The first group, and oftentimes most popular, are our wider, dependable kevlar boats. We have solos, tandems, and 3-person canoes of this variety. Similarly, we have kevlars, also of the 1 to 3-person varieties, that are a little sportier, a little sleeker, but also require a more technique. The one kevlar boat that gets a category of its own is the B16. This boat has versatility and excels at day trips. Our final category consists of our plastic and aluminum canoes; the old reliables. They can be a lot to carry at times, but their rugged and durable nature make up for it. We recommend different canoes for different reasons, but at the end of the day each of our boats is flexible in its abilities and is up for the task at hand.
Each boat listed below has its standard length, weight, and gunwale width in its description. The image below indicates the points on the canoe from which these measurements are taken.
Our first group to introduce is made up of our wider kevlars. From smallest to largest, we have our Wenonah Wilderness (solo), Northstar Seliga (tandem), and the Northstar Northwind 20 (triple). These boats are stable and predictable. They’re kind of like the minivans of the canoeing world. These boats tend to be the most popular and are great for beginners. They’re easy to handle and won’t throw you any curveballs. They’re a great all around boat whether you’re fishing, doing a day paddle, or are going out for a longer trip.
Wenonah Wilderness: L 15’ 4”, GW 27”, Weight 30 lbs
For those looking for something a little sportier, this second round of boats has you covered. The Prism (solo), Minnesota II (tandem), and the Minnesota III (triple)- all made by Wenonah- focus more on performance, but also take a bit more care and attention. They’re well suited for folks who are ready to take their paddling to the next level. They’re more to handle but have your back if the waters get rough. They’re also well-known for holding a straight line, tracking well in the water.
Wenonah Minnesota III: L 20’, GW 34”, Weight 55 lbs
Our final kevlars are in a league of their own. The Northstar B16 weighs in at 39 lbs and measures 16 ft long by 35.5 inches wide. This boat can be a solo or a tandem, depending on which way you paddle it. It’s great if you have kids or if you want to go out fishing for the day. It’s small, but mighty and you can count on it to be predictable and dependable.
Northstar B16: L 16’, GW 35.5”, Weight 39 lbs
The final group consists of our Alumacrafts and Wenonah Spirit IIs. These are the boats that have been through it all. They’ve been there for the highs, and with you through the lows. They even forgave you when you didn’t see that rock as you were pulling into the portage. No doubt about it, they’re tough and hardy. There’s a lot of reasons to like this canoe. They’re wide, stable, and hold their ground. A lot of folks like them because of their dependability. They’re heavy and not ideal for lots of portaging, but they are still trip worthy. An added bonus: they’re great for early and late season paddles when the lakes run the risk of icing over.
6/5/21 – In addition to the weather, visitors are often asking about the current bug reports. Bugs, to no surprise, are very much a part of Boundary Waters trips. From mid-May to September it’s some kind of bug season. Knowing which bugs are active at certain times of the year and knowing what to do to prepare for them can be key to having a pleasant and successful canoe trip. Tuscarora Lodge has a great article about the summer bug season which can be found here: https://tuscaroracanoe.com/whats-biting-me-a-guide-to-boundary-waters-bugs/
Right now we are seeing black flies and mosquitoes. Wearing baggy clothing and bug nets are a great way to protect yourself against them. It can be tempting to dwell on the bugs, but they are just as important to this area as the loons and the moose. It’s always a good idea to plan ahead and prepare, that way you can appreciate every aspect of your trip, bugs included!
Sawbill has seen a large increase in visitors over this past holiday weekend. The campground was full for the first time this year and lots of folks were getting out on the water. We had brief periods of thunderstorms and Sunday’s storm even brought hail! Despite the short squalls of inclement weather, the rest of the weekend had mellow temperatures and an abundance of sun. All in all, it was a pleasant weekend.
Customers weren’t the only ones visiting our store this weekend. A friendly Red Squirrel came and visited crew members at our store-front window.
Whether you spent time out in the Boundary Waters or close to home, we hope you had a pleasant holiday weekend!