Boundary Waters Canoe Trip

When Sara and I left Colorado we had a couple weeks before we had to be back in Massachusetts. Our plan was to meet our friends Mike and Heather in Minnesota and spend 10 days paddling around in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area(BWCA) on the Minnesota/Ontario Border. These two had recently flown home to New Hampshire from a multiple month trip in Alaska where they spent their time pack rafting, hiking, biking, and fishing. They were driving out west from New England to carry on with their trip and met up with us along the way. When Sara and I left Colorado we drove north through Wyoming into South Dakota then North Dakota. We stopped in Theodore Roosevelt National Park for an evening then found a place to park for the night. Driving east the next day across NoDak and into Minnesota we reached our destination and got a room for the night in Ely, MN. After a day of errands and prep or whatever we got on the water.

Sara in TRNP

Campsite 1534…Basswood Lake…9/23/20

Last night the 4 of us car camped in Ely. This morning we drove to Boundary Waters Outfitters and had them slap a couple canoes on our roofs in exchange for a few bucks and the promise to return 10 days later. After gathering our canoes we went into Ely and enjoyed our last town meal for awhile, a couple of manhole cover sized pancakes each then picked up our fishing licenses at a gas station. From Ely it’s about a 15 minute drive to our put in spot, Fall Lake. We got a permit for 10 days and all you need to confirm is where you’re putting boats in. There’s a couple thousand campsites in the BWCA and I guess they’re all fair game once you get in the water. We started our day on the water paddling across Fall Lake a couple miles to the first portage; a quarter mile walk between Fall Lake and Newton Lake. Sara and I did it in two trips but planned on getting these portages down to one. A couple miles later on the other side of Newton Lake we got that chance and succeeded on another quarter mile portage to the Pipestone Bay portion of Basswood Lake.

Canoe head

This was a long narrow bay with a handful of islands. A father/daughter team told us about their previous nights campsite where they left a bunch of firewood. We found the island, stopped and scooped up the wood before paddling another couple miles to Basswood Lake. There’s a kidney shaped island out in the middle with a sweet campsite on the eastern side where we’re making our home tonight. Saw 5 eagles, a fifty pound beaver, and some of the most stunning peak season foliage I’ve ever seen in a deciduous forest.

D2…..CS 1547…..9/24/20

We were slugs this morning and weren’t feeling 100%. Some of us worse than others. Probably eating 3 day old unrefrigerated Walmart chicken yesterday didn’t help, but we rallied and in a couple hours were on the water. I used that time in camp wisely to narrowly defeat Sara and Mike in Cribbage and explore some of the island we were living on for the last night(had I lost you wouldn’t have been reading about a cribbage game). We had a short paddle across Pipestone Bay and then a long 1 mile portage to avoid being swept away in Basswood Falls. This time we took all the bags down first then Mike and I jogged back for the canoes. These canoes are 17 feet long made of Kevlar and weigh only 45 lbs, they aren’t unreasonable to carry solo by flipping them up on your shoulders. Just a little awkward and not super fun to do for a mile. When we got back to the put in the girls had made lunch and Heather had caught a fish. I threw a line out there and also caught a fish but Sara and Heather claimed it was the same smallmouth bass Heather just caught and she weakened it for me. We were now in narrow water, in Basswood River I believe, and on the northern bank was Canada. There was a short paddle and then a short portage to get around another set of falls, this time Sara went beast mode and hauled the canoe on her shoulders. I went for a nice swim and we all did some fishing. After swimming I caught a gigantic smallmouth bass then Mike caught an even bigger one. Probably Canadian fish.

After awhile we moved on to our last set of falls that we had to portage around and then another 20 minutes of paddling to the campsite we selected. This peninsula we’re camping on was protected by a large bald eagle and a giant beaver. Typical of a piece of land right on the US/Canada border. Mike and I paddled over to the Canadian side to gather firewood and the girls got dinner going. Because we don’t have everything on our backs the whole time we can carry a little more. Tonight Sara sautéed up peppers and onions and cooked quesadillas on the fire pit and somehow Heather baked gingerbread in the fire.

Heather with the first fish of the trip

D3…..CS 1863 …..9/25/20.

This morning started off well enough. We paddled across the river from our campsite to a short portage that brought us around Lower Basswood Falls. The rest of the morning we spent slowly paddling and fishing down the narrow Crooked Lake. There were some pretty beefy cliffs on the American Side that had ancient pictographs drawn on them. Probably could have found a spot to jump those cliffs but it just wasn’t swimming weather. Around noontime it started to drizzle. I wanted to press on because I figured it would let up soon(it did not let up soon). The four of us quickly pulled over on a narrow spit of land as it started to downpour. Mike packed a small tarp so they set that up quickly and we all jammed under it for awhile. Once the rain relaxed a bit we started towards an actual campsite that wasn’t too far away and waited out the weather. It pretty much poured until about 6pm. It took me awhile to commit to this being a half day of paddling but it was out of my hands.

This evening when the rain had stopped and the sun was shining across the lake it gave the world a very cool look. I wet a line and caught a couple of northern pike. Sara and Heather somehow got a fire going with some very wet wood and birch bark while Mike and I went out and gathered a bunch of firewood. It was very nice to hangout by the fire and dry some stuff out instead of being confined to our tents all night.

Day 4…..CS 1860 Iron Lake…..9/26/20

The skies didn’t look good this morning but fortunately it didn’t rain all day until just as we were going to bed. We had a great day of paddling and spent most of our time on calm water crossing Crooked Lake. The bays are named after the days of the week and we went by island after island crossing Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday bay. We stayed mostly along the border but a couple times dipped into Canada going around islands. At the end of Crooked Lake we reached Curtain Falls which had a 30 foot drop and also a half mile portage that avoided the 30 foot falls. On the other side of the falls we were now in Iron Lake.

The first couple of campsites we tried were occupied even though we saw barely anyone the last two days but eventually we found a great spot on an island in the middle of the lake. At camp I started a campfire with Mike’s flint and steel, a super primitive toy that was probably left over from his Boy Scout days. I caught a northern pike gutted and cleaned it under Mike’s tutelage, cooked it over the fire then we all ate it with a little salt, pepper, and lemon juice. Delicious! Sara then made Gnocchi with Pesto and Heather baked gingerbread in the fire. It was a great night.

Mike living off the land

Day 5…..CS 170 Lac LaCroix…..9/27/20

We woke up to crisp air and bright blue sky. From our campsite on Iron Lake we continued paddling west along the US/Canada border and eventually came to a very shallow rocky area that led into Bottle Lake. Today this required a minor portage but it definitely doesn’t when there’s deeper water. We paddled across the short and scenic Bottle Lake to Bottle Portage which is a half mile long muddy trail on the Canadian side of a set of rapids. Normally I think you can go back and forth between Ontario and Minnesota but because of Covid and the border being closed you’re currently not supposed to. That being said, Bottle Portage is in Canada but this is the only way to go. It started to get very windy and suddenly we were in big water, Lac La Croix. For the next hour we paddled hard across a big section of the choppy windy lake to campsite 170, an absolute gem of a site.

We got here in the early afternoon and planned on calling this place home for 2 nights, spending the rest of the day here today then taking a day trip from here tomorrow. The rest of the day we just chilled. Sara and I swam and took a short hike exploring the island. Heather and I paddled the shore collecting fire wood and Mike came with me on a fishing expedition. While we were out we got chased back to camp by some thunderheads. Luckily we made it back but it got super windy and a bit stormy while we were trying to catch dinner. I got skunked fishing today, not for the lack of trying, just wasn’t my day. Sara made quesadillas over the fire that were delicious so I guess just as well.

Day 6…..CS 177 Tiger Bay, Lac La Croix…..9/28/20

Last night Sara and I were terrorized by a mouse at our tent. The gd thing was doing laps around our tent at a million miles an hour then climbing up the screen and running above us between the screen and the fly. This went on until 3 in the morning when I finally fell asleep. Up until now I had been sleeping like a rock out here on these islands. Mike and Heather also got some attention from a mouse last night. The four of us decided to pack up and find another place to camp for tonight instead of spending 2 nights here.

Sara, always smiling

We paddled across a windy section of Lac LaCroix to a small island within Tiger Bay. Our new campsite was on a corner of this island. This was the smallest island we stayed on yet and I easily walked around the rocky shores of the whole thing. Sara and I then Mike and I took exploration and fishing paddles around Tiger Bay and again got shut out on the fishing front, it must be the lake. I did find a big mussel So Heather cooked it over the fire then her, Mike, and I split it up. A bit gamey otherwise I would have gone back for a bunch more. And who knows with shellfish, that’s a gamble I don’t want to lose. We gathered a bunch of firewood then all had a relaxing afternoon and evening out here by the fire. Tomorrow we’ll start slowly backtracking then looping back towards Fall Lake.

Day 7…..CS 1867, Friday Bay, Crooked Lake…..9/29/20

I woke up to the pitter patter of rain on the roof of the tent this morning. Luckily it didn’t last long and we were able to get out on the water. Over the next handful of days we don’t have an insurmountable distance to go but it’s significant enough that a day or half a day lost to lousy weather will put the pressure on us. We moved a few miles from within Tiger Bay north to the Ontario side of Bottle Portage and walked all our stuff and canoes up to Bottle Lake. Sara threw one cast out into Bottle Lake and caught the biggest Northern Pike so far and her first fish of the trip. It was exciting.

Sara and her fish!

We quickly crossed the lake then picked our canoes up over some rocks and were in Iron Lake. In Iron Lake we paddled through Canadian waters to stay protected from the wind and got ourselves back to Curtain Falls where we had another half mile portage up to Crooked Lake. We ate lunch here then paddled about 6 miles across Sunday and Saturday Bay to campsite 1867 on a small island at the mouth of Friday bay. This is a pretty sweet spot on a rocky coastline with a nice view of the brightly colored trees on the American Side of Crooked Lake. After a cloudy and chilly morning the sun was out for the rest of the afternoon and after collecting and chopping a bunch of firewood, Sara and I went for a cold swim. I’ve been struggling to catch a fish the last few days so Mike and I took a little trip around the island to try. I got skunked again but Mike caught a massive smallmouth bass and we brought it back to the fire. I gutted and cleaned the fish and the girls had sharpened sticks in order to splay the thing across the grill on top of the fire. A little salt, pepper, and lemon juice and the 4 of us had a feast while watching a killer sunset and lightning storms in the distance. An excellent day.

D8…..CS 1106 Fourtown Lake…..9/30/20

Today was challenging but we made a lot of progress. First thing we did was move south away from the Canadian Border through Friday Bay and portaged out of Crooked Lake onto Papoose Creek. This felt like we were off of the big water and onto smaller lakes and creeks. With all the wind it’s much more comfortable on the small stuff. Papoose Creek was boggy and cool looking and brought us through Chippewa then Niki then Wagoosh Lake. From there we continued onto Gun Lake, Fairy Lake, Boot Lake then finally across Fourtown Lake to our home for the night, campsite 1106 next to a rocky creek into a smaller part of the lake. Most of these lakes have portages of varying lengths between them. In all we had seven portages with the longest being a mile.

Sara and I have got it down to just 1 trip which makes the portages super quick. She’s been taking the bulk of the gear and I carry the canoe and a small backpack. The canoe, although light for a canoe, is still a chore to carry. The portages are a nice change of pace to the paddling. I don’t mind getting out and stretching my legs once in awhile. When we got to camp the wind was still whipping and kept it pretty chilly here. We’ve got into a nice camping routine of setting up tents, collecting firewood, chopping it, going fishing, playing cribbage, starting a fire, cooking and eating then eating more. Basically in that order. Tonight right after we put the fire out we all heard something crashing through the woods but none of us saw it. I’m guessing either a bear or a moose but Sara thought maybe a beaver dragging a log. We did see a couple beavers or otters swimming nearby so probably.

Day 9…..Ely, MN

Today was heartbreaking. We spent the morning and into the afternoon paddling across windy lakes and made it to a campsite on Pipestone Bay for the last night of the trip that was within striking distance of our take out spot. Throughout the Boundary Waters, none of us had cell service, I never even bothered to check. When we got to this spot we were only about 7 miles from our cars and not much further to the town of Ely. After setting up our tents, Heather turned her phone on and got the tragic news that her mom died. Suddenly, and unexpected.

I can’t write down what Heather and Mike went through that day. It was devastating to witness and be a part of. We knew being out in the woods, miles from the car and half the country away from home wasn’t the place to grieve. We needed to get moving. Sara and I packed up and the four of us paddled and portaged 7 more miles to our cars. To get off the water, everybody had to paddle, there was no automatic transport home. They had a very long way ahead of them to get back to their family. Heather realized the situation and didn’t flinch. It wasn’t easy either, there were multiple portages where we had to again unload the canoes, then carry them through the woods, load them back up, and resume paddling. After a full day on the water too. I couldn’t believe the strength Heather and Mike had. I can’t imagine doing anything but crawling into my tent and wishing it wasn’t true if I had been in their shoes. A couple hours later we were back in Ely. We returned the canoes, said tearful goodbyes, then separately started our drives back to New England.

I had met Trisha Ballestero a couple times. She was awesome, full of life, the kind of person that wanted to get to know you, made you feel welcome in her home, fun, funny, outgoing, happy. And I only met her twice. I feel I really got to know her during the canoe trip, Heather talked about her everyday. The two of them told us all kinds of stories, mostly about Heather’s family, and most of those centered around Trish. A truly devastating loss for the Ballestero family.

A couple weeks later, after Sara and I returned home, donning Aloha shirts and bright clothes we went to Trisha’s celebration of life. On a beautiful fall day in New Hampshire, we listened to best friend after best friend(everyone that met her was Trisha’s best friend) tell us stories about her life and her passion for living it. I’ve never left a funeral feeling so inspired to live and enjoy every day of my life.

2 Comments on “Boundary Waters Canoe Trip

  1. Wow, what a remarkable blog post. I’m taken by the photos, the beauty of the Fall foliage in my home state, and how you all powered through with the portages and ultimately, the loss of a beloved family member. It truly is a reminder to “go for the gusto” and clearly you all live by that motto.

    Liked by 1 person

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