Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness – Gunflint Lake to East Bearskin Lake

A person carries a canoe down a narrow path surrounded by green plants

Ah, the quintessential Minnesota adventure — canoeing through the clear, calm waters of some of the over ten thousand lakes that dot the Minnesota landscape. Despite growing up here, I had never ventured into the Boundary Waters (to be honest, I hadn’t heard of it until Aaron mentioned it) but I was immediately intrigued. I’m not a huge fan of canoes, but how could we skip this adventure?! It had everything to recommend it: outdoors, lakes, camping, mosquitoes, canoes, humidity, what’s not to love?!

Working off a recommendation from a friend, I called Rockwood Lodge and Outfitters and confessed myself to be a newbie who was eager to paddle on Fathers’ Day weekend, what were my options? The folks there were kind enough to walk me through the process and send me some potential routes that could be easily completed within our short timeframe. In an attempt to avoid a there-and-back-again route, we went with the “Route 6 but backwards” option, which would have us crossing the mighty Gunflint Lake and traversing 22 miles over three days, we felt decently up to the challenge. On advice from the lodge we called an outfitter located on Gunflint to see if they would offer to tow us across Gunflint Lake, canoeing the seven miles would be difficult and it seemed prudent to get a lift and not have to worry about wind. Unfortunately the outfitter wasn’t currently doing tows so we prepared ourselves for the paddle and started collecting gear.

As our first backpacking-style trip, we had fun choosing backpacking meals from REI that we’d never tried before including a vanilla ice cream sandwich, strawberry cheesecake, scrambled eggs, and a stir-fry. Who know backpackers ate so well?! We felt confident in our cooking supplies having recently won a fancy backpacking stove, and I was excited to use our sleeping pads and pillows again, but I knew we needed a new sleeping solution. Our backs had been hurting even on the folding foam mattress we’ve been bringing camping and we certainly weren’t going to be dragging a foam mattress onto the canoe. After hearing me express interest in the values of hammock camping, a friend lent us a pair of hammocks and taught us how to put them up and take them down so we could give them a test run before deciding whether or not to invest in our own airborne sleeping accommodations. He also lent us a water purifier, map of the area, and other handy camp gear to complement our supplies.

Given the seven hour drive, we planned to camp overnight near the outfitter so we would be able to get an early start. Unplanned was the MN Scoop ice cream challenge that allowed us to turn our seven hour drive into an extended ice cream crawl as we ventured from Mankato all the way up to the Boundary Waters. Our final stop in Duluth was our key to MN Scoop tee shirts and complete ice cream overload. We look forward to our hard-earned shirts arriving sometime in the next week or so.

The next morning I felt like a kid on Christmas Day — we had to get up and go get the canoes! We rolled into the outfitters just past 7am to find a line forming for folks who also wanted to get their canoes and get out on the water. One of the workers was busy spooning leeches into bait boxes and handing them out to groups carrying fishing poles. When it was our turn we watched the final video by the Forest Service, were given a portage pack, our permits, life jackets, and paddles, and off we went to drop our car off at the end of our route. The outfitters kindly dropped us off at the entry point into Gunflint Lake, giving us a quick lesson on proper canoe handling procedures and sending us off into the sunlight and relatively calm waters with a wave.

Not ten minutes later the calm waters were not so calm and I was struggling to steer in the back of the canoe. Aaron and I “pulled over” and switched spots to allow him to use his strength to wrestle with the steering while I took the bow and steadily paddled. As we switched, a worker at the dock we’d pulled up to informed us that the winds were working their way up to 50 mph and we’d want to be off the lake by noon when those hit; it was about 9:30 at the time.

We felt like we had a good chance of making it across Gunflint by noon, we had the wind at our backs, but far too soon it was too much wind at our backs. We steered like a sailboat zig-zagging across the lake using the waves to push forward and towards the shore before wrestling our way back out away from the shore. But the waves continued to grow and soon the swells were much higher than the canoe. We had one terrifying moment were the canoe tipped precariously far, the canoe started filling and both of us leaned hard in the opposite direction and managed to stabilize it. At that point we were filled with water and being blown to shore and we realized that we probably shouldn’t keep fighting the inevitable. We ended up being blown to shore right in someone’s backyard and we carefully extracted our stuff from the canoe and our canoe from the water and as Aaron sat and made sure the canoe didn’t blow away, I went up to the house to see if someone had a phone.

The kind woman who came out of the house offered me her landline phone, which I haven’t used in about 15 years; I had to ask for help to make the call which felt reasonably embarrassing since I had grown up with landlines, but this one looked different! The outfitters answered and let me know that there wasn’t much we could do, the winds were supposed to die down by seven pm that evening; and then the line cut. I called back and asked what they thought our options were and they mentioned somewhere else 12 miles away that we could enter through, but maybe we’d need a ride, or we could wait it out. As I hung up, the nice neighbor came out and asked if she could give us a ride somewhere, she was about to leave for work and would be happy to drop us off.

She said that we weren’t the first canoers to be stranded in her backyard.

Feeling incredibly grateful, I showed her the spot the outfitters had mentioned and she said it was totally fine, that it would be on her way. We quickly loaded our gear into her car and Aaron strapped the canoe up top and made conversation with our new friend as she drove us to a safer lake for paddling in high winds. She dropped us off and we began to load our gear for our first portage to the lake. We had about a quarter mile to walk and we knew we wouldn’t want to make two trips so each of us took a bag, I loaded the paddles into the canoe and strapped the life jackets to my bag and Aaron put the canoe on his head and we began walking. That lasted about 10 minutes before we realized that that configuration wouldn’t work. We shuffled gear around and had the canoe on my head and the paddles with Aaron and began walking again. I made it about 50 steps before my neck tensed and I started getting light headed. The weight from the backpack straps plus the added canoe weight was too much on my shoulders and I practically threw the canoe and backpack down and starting chugging water. Try number three had Aaron carrying both backpacks, front and back, with the paddles looped onto one of the packs; the canoe was situated once again on my shoulders and this time we had a successful configuration. We made it to the lake shore and were back on the water.

This lake was much smaller and the wind barely affected us as we crossed the lake, in no time we had reached the other shore and were portaging once again. This time we had no problems as we traveled through the woods which let us back into South Lake and back onto our original itinerary. In total, our detour had skipped about seven miles of paddling, we had made it three miles across Gunflint Lake before being blown off course; a feat that we were impressed by, given the wind.

South Lake is not much smaller than Gunflint and we were once again faced with the same waves we that had just bested us in Gunflint. Luckily the waves were smaller than those in Gunflint and our zig-zag paddling brought us to the far side of South Lake, and almost to our next portage destination. The lake’s east end had two fingers, with one skinny tree line that was so densely packed that we couldn’t carry the canoe through. Unfortunately for use, we were blown into the southern finger which was not where the portage was; and now we would have to fight the wind and waves to get back into the northern finger where the portage trail was.

On try number one we very carefully hugged the shore and used our paddles to push ourselves along the shoreline and towards the base of the finger, when we got close to the top and were about to turn the corner, the waves grabbed the canoe, spun us around and the wind pushed us back to where we started. Resigning ourselves to the inevitable, we got out of the canoe and walked it up against the waves and around the end to get to the correct finger. The rocks were slippery and the waves were constantly slamming the canoe into our legs as we walked making it a challenging journey but we finally made it around the finger and once again had the wind at our back. Now we just needed to cross to the portage trail and get off the lake. With a little island serving as a wind break, we hopped back in the canoe and paddled furiously towards the portage trail, arriving just as another group was leaving who informed us that the campsite at Rat Lake was empty when they had passed by it. This was good news to both of our ears as it felt like it must be incredibly late in the day and we were both exhausted. We completed the portage and paddled across the very small and incredibly clear Rat Lake. Its size allowing us to paddle with ease — no waves, less wind.

Up until this point we took almost no pictures — getting phones out in high waves or even considering taking pictures wasn’t happening with all of the excitement going on.

We arrived and quickly found the campsite; located on a slightly raised area between two lakes which meant that there was lots of wind to send the bugs packing. Aaron pulled out the freeze dried vanilla ice cream sandwich (it tasted amazing) and I set up the hammocks.

Wrong texture, but the exact right taste!

The hammocks were just as finicky as promised but after a few adjustments I had them set up so comfortably that I knew I better not get in them or I would fall asleep and then not sleep that night. Aaron doesn’t tend to nap as long and he immediately went to take a nap in his hammock while I read a book on my phone. We had thought we were arriving at five or six pm, but it was actually only about three so we had a long evening of relaxing in front of us. We thought about continuing on, but the thought of potentially facing the wind and having to pack up the hammocks felt like too much work so we enjoyed the quite and the wind and eventually we made ourselves our backpacking dinner, enjoyed the cheesecake and turned in for an early night.

The next morning I woke up, after the most restful night of sleep I’ve ever had while camping, to Aaron calling out “Oh my gosh I made a friend!” I thought maybe the chipmunk from the previous evening was back. I thought about going back to sleep, but then I realized that he was up so I might as well get up, we wanted to cover the other 6.5 miles that day so we could be off the lakes when the storm rolled through the next day. I stumbled out from my hammock to find the ‘friend’ Aaron was talking about — a giant snapping turtle had planted herself in the dirt patch next to the canoe and was laying her eggs. Knowing that we weren’t going anywhere until she was done, Aaron started making a fire and getting my scrambled eggs ready while I packed up the hammock, both of us keeping an eye on our new friend in case she decided to lunge at us.

As I finished packing up, she finished burying her eggs and verrrryy slowly walked towards the water, walked directly over a four foot cliff, and then continued walking herself right into the water without a backwards glance at us. We finished packing up, I ate my breakfast and we loaded the canoe back into the water. As we climbed in, a loon popped up next to us with a fish in its beak, that had to be a sign of good luck.

The water was completely calm as we paddled along Rose Lake, we made excellent time and very soon found ourselves at the dreaded Rosa Lake portage, a staircase aided our climb up 60 or so feet past Rose Falls. Deciding to play it safe, we carried our gear up in two trips, pausing halfway to enjoy the waterfall and to pull a tick off my lower back that had decided to hitch a ride.

At the top of Rose Falls, we left our gear by the side of the trail and hiked up another hill to a lookout that was recommended to us by the outfitters, the view looking over Canada was spectacular and the climb was a nice break from the endless paddling. Returning to our gear, we made our way to the end of the portage trail where we were greeted by a Trumpeter Swan couple and their two babies.

The view over Rose Lake

We continued our paddle and too soon found ourselves at the entrance to our last portage. Wanting to extend our adventure a little, we ate lunch on a rock and reflected on our tumultuous journey, agreeing that we would 100% come back to the Boundary Waters, but only in a kayak(s).

As our journey drew to a close, we loaded our gear back into our car and drove our rented gear back to the outfitters. With a day left, we decided to find a campground and go hiking and drive home the next day. Forgetting that it was Father’s Day weekend we dismissed the first campground we found and headed towards the next one which was located in a state park. Going from the gravel road to the highway, we soon heard a screeching coming from the car. It was utterly unbearable and we pulled over quickly. As we tried to call to find out the logistics for a tow, we spent twenty minutes calling dealerships and roadside assistance to find out how to handle the situation. When Aaron explained that he thought he knew what the problem was but didn’t want to do anything to void the warranty, the dealership service-person told him to go ahead and bend the piece to get the rock out. We pulled out the jack and Aaron removed the wheel and eventually fished a rock out of the brake that was causing that awful noise, crisis averted.

Utterly exhausted by all of the bad luck we seemed to be finding on this trip, we decided maybe we should just head home. Three and a half hours from home, with White Castle in hand, we decided we weren’t ready for the adventure to end and we found a campsite in a recreation area. I set up a hammock for me so I could try each hammock and Aaron slept in the car. I’d thought the previous night was a good night, but the quarter dome air hammock showed me a true night of sleep could feel like. Waking only once when rain started hitting the fly, I stayed nice and warm all night and woke up feeling refreshed in the morning. Who even knew it was possible to wake up feeling refreshed while camping?! Clearly I need to get a hammock.

We stopped at one final state park and did a 3.37 mile loop on their main trail, participating in the park’s scavenger hunt as we went. With that, our legs were tired, our hearts were full, and we returned home so we could spend the day lazily unpacking and getting ahead on homework.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: