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Paddling in the Wind

The BWCA is no stranger to windy conditions, but every season there are some days that are windy enough to force paddlers off the water. Last Thursday was marked by high winds across the Boundary Waters with gusts reaching up to 30mph near Clearwater Lake and gusts on Sawbill clocking in at 17.2 mph. Wind is perhaps one of the more challenging weather events to navigate because there is no one answer on how to paddle in it. One’s response to paddling in the wind depends heavily on personal comfort, experience, wind speed, gear, and a myriad of other factors. Below are some items to consider when paddling on a windy day along with some tips on how to paddle in it.

First and foremost, before I dive into the nuances of paddling in windy conditions, I cannot stress enough that personal comfort is a key factor in the decision making process when paddling in suboptimal conditions. If you or your partner are not comfortable with the conditions at hand, do not paddle. Gut instincts and personal comfort are an important and valid consideration in the decision making process.  

Tips for paddling in the wind-

An empty canoe can be less stable than one loaded with gear. Those who are going on day trips usually don’t have 70lbs of gear with them. There are a few things that I like to recommend for folks going out for day trips on windy days:

  1. Bring a backpack with extra water bottles or heavier weighted items. A day pack loaded with heavier items might add to what you have to carry on portages, but the extra weight is appreciated on windier days. Set your pack on the floor of the canoe and stack it in such a way that the weight of your pack is centered and your canoe is well balanced.
  2. Consider carrying extra dry bags with you. When I’m solo paddling I always bring at least one empty dry bag just in case I run into choppy conditions. If the wind picks up and the canoe feels unstable, simply fill up the dry bag with water from the lake and close it properly. This instantly gives you extra weight and you don’t have to carry it with you on portages. Simply return it to the lake from which you got it once you make it to your portage/exit and are done with it. Rocks can also work in the same way, but there are a few additional things to think about. Consider the impacts of relocating rocks (think if everyone did this) and also think about whether it will cause damage to your canoe. This method requires extra caution when placing them in the bottom of the boat. Kevlar canoes especially are at risk for getting scratched up.
  3. Lowering the weight in the canoe can also help to stabilize it. Place packs flat against the bottom of the canoe. Additionally, you can lower your legs or kneel if the conditions get choppy. If you typically sit with your knees bent while paddling, you can straighten them out, thus lowering their position in the canoe. In especially windy scenarios, you can kneel on the floor of the canoe as well. This method gets more of your body below the gunwales (providing increased stability) and still allows you to have a wide range of mobility for paddling. 
  4. Paddle with the direction of the wind if possible. In some instances this may change, for example if the waves run the risk of going over the bow or the stern (a scenario in which I would advise newer paddlers to get off the water), but in most applications paddling with the wind will help to keep you and the canoe feeling stable. Depending on your destination, paddling in either of these directions might not be reasonable. In this case, you can cut across the waves at a 45 degree angle. You may have to zigzag across the lake to get to your destination, but it is much safer and much more stable than paddling perpendicular to the wind and waves where things can go wrong quickly.
  5. Choose where in the lake you want to paddle. Oftentimes, close to the shoreline is best. If things get worse you can make it to shore quickly and get off the water. Additionally, in the event that you capsize, it’ll be easier to find your bags and gear. Another thing to consider is the direction of the wind. If wind is coming straight from the west, then the western part of the lake will likely be the calmest portion for paddling. It will be the most sheltered from the wind and it won’t have the accumulation of waves and chop that the eastern side will. Additionally, landmarks such as islands or peninsulas can offer respite from rough conditions.
  6. Solo paddlers- consider bringing a kayak paddle with you. Ultimately, this comes down to personal preference, but I like using a kayak paddle in windy conditions for a number of reasons. With a kayak paddle I find that I have a faster reaction time to gusty winds and rough waves. I am able to quickly switch paddling from one side to another without having to take the extra second to adjust as it would with a normal canoe paddle. Additionally, I feel I can paddle faster and have a higher turnover rate, thus decreasing the amount of time I spend out in windy conditions. 

What to do if conditions get worse-

If conditions get worse while you’re on the water, consider your options. A lot of times the best thing to do is to get off of the water and wait for the conditions to improve. There is nothing wrong with waiting it out on shore. It’s much better to wait on land until you feel comfortable with the conditions, than risking your safety and gear by paddling in adverse conditions. Whether that’s a campsite, a portage trail, or the closest point you can get to, feel free to wait it out. Others may continue to paddle if they’re comfortable and experienced, but just because others are doesn’t mean your group should. Use your judgment, express your comfort levels with your group, and consider everyone in your party when making decisions. The wind won’t last forever and taking a break can serve as a good opportunity to rehydrate and refuel.


The wind starting to die down on Pine Lake after a windy day of paddling. Taken on 6/16/2022.

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6/16/22 – This summer we are fortunate to have former Sawbill crewmember Jesse Bergeson living in the area. He’ll be spending the summer exploring the BWCA and surrounding forest, and entertaining the rest of us with his stories in between trips. He’s also been writing up some trip reports and we thought they might be of interest to folks headed to similar areas this summer. The following is Jesse’s report from a trip he did out of Brule last week with his partner Mira.


“The parking lot was less than half full and we didn’t paddle half the lake but we only saw maybe 6 occupied sites on Brule.  The ones we peeked a look at were as widely reported on entry lakes very picked over for firewood.  In just a minute or two walk past the latrine or anywhere outside of an established camp there was tons of down dry wood.  

From Brule we paddled North from Cone bay into South Cone Lake.  Some maps show the portage beginning at the nearby campsite but that is just a faint user trail and the portage landing is about 100 yards past the camp.  At current water levels most of the portage is under a foot of water, you can also paddle the creek it bypasses easily.  Once the water drops about a foot it might be a tight paddle.  

Heading North the portages into Middle and North Cone lakes are easy to find and travel.  

The portage to Cliff lake is a bit long but really nice and seems well maintained. 

Once you leave North Cone to portage into Davis lake you start to see less maintenance.  The portage is easy to follow and find but has some down trees and could use some brushing.  

Davis into Kiskadinna is pretty difficult right now.  Again, easy to find and mostly easy to follow but it is long and has all the features.  Uphill, downhill, muddy areas, tight turns and rock hopping. 
There is a beaver dam across a creek approx 100 rods into it that is a bit tricky.  The subsequent flooding makes it hard to find the trail for a second, but it clearly continues on the other side and you can walk across the dam right now.  The water behind the dam is about hip deep at the moment.  
I saw at least one map that showed the portage split into 2 separate portages with a paddle across the little unnamed pond.  This is no longer the case, it is definitely one 300+ rod portage not 2 separate ones.  

Kiskadinna to Omega is short but surprisingly steep up and down.  

From Omega down through Winchell, Wanihigan, unnamed (on my map at least), Mulligan, Lily, and back into Brule are all maintained, easy to find and follow, nothing special to report.  Same with Wanihigan into the other side of Cliff.

We also walked the portage from the north bay on Brule over to Echo and had nothing to report.

We could not find the campsite on the very NE corner of the north bay on Brule by the creek.  If anyone has been there or knows anything about it I would like to hear it.  Maybe we just missed it somehow.  

Mira caught a bass in the North bay of Brule and we saw a lot of beaver action.”

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Who Cooks For You?

Summer is in full swing here at Sawbill, and there are all sorts of signs of life to prove it. The mosquitos have hatched to join the blackflies in what is likely the buggiest two-week stretch of the entire season, and after almost a full week of low-70s and sun we had a full day of rain today to give us a respite from the insects and to quench the thirst of the forest. We’re expecting a few days of consistent sun coming up, so we hope to see you up here at the campground or heading out on trip!

The wildlife sightings are certainly evidence of summertime. The fishing is picking up, particularly on the fire lakes (Smoke, Burnt, Flame) to the East of Sawbill. About 10 miles down the Sawbill trail (16 miles or so after turning up the trail from Tofte), a young bull Moose has been spotted a number of times in the past week grazing in the moose pond to the East of the trail. If you’re heading up the trail in the coming days, keep an eye out – it seems to be a favorite spot for the yungin’. Here at the campground, though we haven’t had reports of black bears bothering anyone at their sites, there are signs that they’re exploring the food options (pictured below). Luckily, our bear-proof dumpsters seem to be discouraging any further exploration.

Perhaps most interesting of all our recent wildlife encounters has been an unusual uptick of Barred Owl activity around Sawbill Lake. Numerous Owls have been heard by crew members and visitors alike on the south end of the lake, echoing their distinctive “who cooks for you” hoots around the campground around dusk. The other night, crew members Jessica, Katie, and Owen heard a loud cacophony of Barred Owls just meters from the crew lodging, before watching as three distinctive shapes swooped across the trail and over towards the Sawbill store.

Last but not least in the list of evidence that the summer season is underway, our last remaining full-season crew members arrived this weekend! Diana arrived this afternoon as she prepares for a second consecutive season, and Evan arrived from Northfield on Sunday and has quickly plunged into his first ever days as a Sawbill crew member. If you make it up to Sawbill this week, make sure to say hello! After you stop to see the moose, of course… — Owen S.

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Violets and Lilies and Mushrooms, Oh My!

6/4/22 – It’s official folks! Summer has arrived here at Sawbill. Daytime temperatures are in the mid to upper sixties and the recent thunderstorms created a verdant landscape for visitors and residents to enjoy. The warmer weather has also coincided with the return of our favorite summertime friends, the black flies. Despite their unwelcome arrival, we are thoroughly enjoying the buds on the trees, young plants, and beautiful wildflowers that are starting to spring up. The water is also warming up, leaving all of us hopeful for comfortable swimming in the near future!

Crewmember Katie and Sawbillian-turned-campground host Jesse went for a quick foraging trip late last week, keeping their eyes out for ramps and morels in the maple forests down the trail. Though they returned empty handed, they did see some other notable species during their frolic through the woods. Spring Beauties (Claytonia virginica), lilies-of-the-valley (Convallaria majalis), and wild violets (Viola sororia) speckle the floor of the Superior National Forest.

The marsh marigolds were in full bloom this past week, brightening up the swampy, low-lying areas with their colorful yellow petals.
Something has been munching on this wood ear mushroom! Do you see the resemblance to its namesake?

Additional species will continue to pop up throughout the spring and summer here, so keep your plant ID books ready and your eyes peeled! What kind of new growth have you noticed in your neighborhood this year? – Katie

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Beaver Sign on Sawbill

Happy memorial day, one and all! The holiday weekend has historically marked the beginning of the Summer season here in the North Woods, and this year is no exception – the canoes are out on the lake, the ice machine is churning, and the aroma of pan-fried walleye is wafting through the campground. Much remains the same around here, though it’s fun to note the new happenings as well. One exciting new development has been a friendly beaver frequenting the south end of Sawbill lake. If you look hard enough, you can notice beaver sign in a variety of places, such as the chewed-up log pictured below. The Sawbill crew has noticed our beaver buddy swimming around the lake a few times over the past week, including a close encounter where crew and beaver startled each other during an evening paddle! Keep an eye out if you’re paddling Sawbill in the near future, you just never know what you critters you may see! – Owen S.

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Early Season Wildlife Sightings

5/22/22 – This week we’ve been visited by a number of forest friends who seem just as excited as we are that Summer is on its way. We’ve received reports of moose, bear, and owl sightings on the Sawbill trail over the past few days, and have been lucky enough to spot some rare wildlife of our own! A rose-breasted grosbeak hung around at the crew house during our lunch hour on Friday, and a pine marten caused some excitement when it ran into the outfitting porch Saturday afternoon. — Owen S.

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Spring Has Sprung!

This year in many places like the Twin Cities, it’s felt like the seasons have changed unceremoniously from Winter to Summer without any Spring weather to allow folks to acclimate to the heat — but up here on the edge of the Boundary Waters, we’re enjoying a more extended transition to warmer weather. The ice is out on the lakes, the spring peepers are croaking, and the forests are becoming tinged with hints of green as low-lying plants and deciduous trees begin to bud. It won’t be long now before leaves expand and flowers unfurl, adding their hues to the color palette of the North Woods! — Owen S.

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Swimming season is here!

5/16/22 – Yesterday, the 2022 crew continued the tradition of opening the swim season (nearly) as early as possible. Credit for the true first swim of the year goes to the group from Lake Superior College who jumped in a full week before us!

From left to right: Sawyer, David, Owen Jr, Matthew, Owen Sr, Katie, Autumn, Dan, Kit, Clare, Sigurd

To round out the weekend, we sat around the campfire Sunday night looking to the southeast sky as Earth’s shadow slowly engulfed the moon during the blood orange lunar eclipse. Living on the edge of the largest dark sky sanctuary in the world has some perks. – Matthew

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Ice Out!

5/14/22 – Today’s the day! There’s still a little ice persistently hanging on as of this post (11:30am), but a lot of progress has been made even since this morning, so it should be out by the end of the day. -Jessica

Picture taken 11am today by Owen Slater.
First crew paddle of the season yesterday evening. The south end of the lake was still iced in, but we were able to launch further up the lake. From what we could see just past Boundary Island the majority of the lake was ice free. Photo credit: Katie Kelley
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Ice report – May 11 2022

5/12/22 – Last night, after a long day of prepping the store for opening, the crew measured our waning ice coverage. Owen was eager to get his hands on the auger, recording 16 inches total with about 6 inches of rotten ice on the bottom, the rest consisting of a slushy mixture.

Owen measuring the slush.

With about an inch of rainfall overnight, sustained warm temperatures, and constant wind, the lake looks considerably darker and less icy by the hour.

Ice fog blowing across the south end of the lake. 9:30 am 5/12/22
Looking north from the canoe yard. 9:30 am 5/12/2022