As part of our continuing series on the “route planning game,” we are creating routes using randomly selected entry points, exit points, and number of days to create unique and fun BWCA routes. This week highlights a route across some of the busier routes on the eastern BWCA but, in using some creative strategy, allows a person to find quiet evenings amongst the chaos. It does so through hard work and challenging portages. Let’s check it out!
Total Mileage: 70.4 miles
Paddle Distance: 54.3 miles
Portage Distance: 16.1 miles
Target Campsite: Zenith Lake
Description: Baker Lake Entry Point, which launches off from the Baker Lake campground, is a quaint alternative to Sawbill. They end up leading to similar places, but Baker has fewer entries per day. Starting from the landing, paddle west to a short portage around a scenic rapid set. From Peterson, one might not even need to portage to cross into Kelly. At Kelly, the real portaging begins with a 200 rod portage from Kelly up into Burnt. A couple more medium-length portages come next before pulling into Sawbill lake. Cross over from there into the Kelso River and into Kelso. Follow the swampy river into Lujenida and brace for your main challenge of the day. The long portage from Lujenida to Zenith has a decent collection of ups and downs, but it’s mostly just a long trail. Refreshingly, the hard portage keeps traffic low on the north end and it should be easy to find some quiet on Zenith.
Things to See: Dolemen on the Kelso River
Target Campsite: Fern Lake
Description: Head north out of Zenith into Duck Lake and then on to Hug. Next comes Mesaba which acts as a route intersection for this relatively remote stretch of the BWCA. After Mesaba comes Hub and a just-shy-of-a-mile portage into the Frost River system. This portage doesn’t see a ton of traffic and can have down trees or brush overgrowth depending on the season. Head west to finish out the final stretch of the river and head over the beautiful portage into Mora. From Mora, continue north through Tarry and Crooked. After Crooked, you’ll pass the same ruined cabin as a previous Map Monday route. On Gillis, it’s a short portage through a cedar grove into Fern. The campsite on Fern is not a good one, but the lake is beautiful with steep ridges jutting out of the recovering burn zone.
Things to See: Mora portage; cabin ruin
Target Campsite: Paulsen Lake
Description: The day’s plan is a fairly short one with numerous small lakes on the way up to Paulsen. French Lake is a pretty yet burned-over lake which is an intersection of the area. After portaging out of French, there’s a series of narrow, pond-sized lakes. The portages are short but small and challenging depending on the season. After heading north, the topography picks up and the portages become steep and hard to pass. Once on Paulsen, try for the island campsite first. Neither site is that great after the fire, but Paulsen Lake is special. It feels like a high alpine lake with tall ridges and clear water.
Things to See: Small lakes; exposed rocks; evening fishing
Target Campsite: Grandpa Lake
Description: Tighten up your bootstraps, this is a day for portaging. First thing’s first, the Paulsen Portage. It’s been said that this is “a wonderful walk and a terrible portage.” The long portage from Paulsen to Seagull is one of the more infamous trails in canoe country, and for good reason. It’s steep, the footing is awful (alternating between knee-deep grassy swamps and open rock faces), and there are numerous beaver pond fake landings to dash the hopes of the passerby. Alongside that though, it’s also one of the prettiest portages in the BWCA with high expansive overlooks and windswept rock knolls. Heading to Seagull is more downhill than the more common northbound direction. Enjoy the views and take your time. Cross over Seagull Lake from there to the half-mile long Grandpa Portage. Generally speaking, this little chain of lakes is the least visited of the routes between Seagull and Sag and should provide some solitude for the evening.
Things to See: Overlooks; challenging portages
Target Campsite: Marabouf Lake
Description: After a short previous two days, made more challenging by the portages, the mileage opens up some this day. Head north into Roy and Sag. Hopefully, the weather cooperates on Saganaga! Head east all the way until Sag Falls and the mouth of the Granite River. Continue south into Marabouf Lake and the Ham Lake burn zone. Take one of the many campsites.
Things to See: Sag Falls
Target Campsite: Larch Lake
Description: Take a leisurely day to enjoy the numerous rapids along the river. This is a historic route and signs of the past can be observed along the way.
Things to See: Historic routes
Target Campsite: Exit
Description: The final day involves a stop at Little Rock Falls. In high water, this can be an impressive cascade with a challenging portage around it. Enjoy the rugged cliffs and tumbling water as you head south into Magnetic Lake and out via Gunflint Lake.