Sawbill Paddleboard Loop
Trip Plan: Launch paddleboard at Sawbill Lake BWCA Entry, paddle in a loop. The loop looked to be about 27 miles, and I hoped to finish within a full day’s light.
Start Time: Monday, September 14, 2020 – 7:11am
GPS Data: Stand Up Paddleboard 29.9 miles
Total Time: 11:55:40
As most cool adventures go, I was thinking of a big paddleboard loop in the BWCA for a while. It was kind of on my summer checklist, but I’d never really put pen to paper, so to speak, until September rolled around and I realized my window for a trip was kind of closing rapidly. I noticed a warm day in the forecast and figured I should pull the trigger and just do it. Well, the warm day looked windy, so the day before was on on my target. It looked like 60s. Well, maybe 60. That’s warm enough… I thought.
I pulled out the maps I had and first thought about Kawishiwi Lake, because I knew there was a campground there and I could camp the night before then hit it bright and early. Well, I couldn’t figure a loop. I maybe had a 40 miler. Yikes, that is too long. I looked at other maps in my arsenal, and saw the Sawbill map, with a campground at the entry point, AND the campground was open! I started plotting, and found a pretty good-looking loop. I did some measurements, it looked like 25 or 30 miles, which was right on target for a really long day, but not impossible given the limited daylight. Perfect. It’s a go. Gotta go for it.
Sunday night rolled around and I just couldn’t get out in time. I decided I’d wake up around 4 and make the 2 hour drive the next morning, with hopes to arrive around 7am to start paddling. I woke up early and got there right at 7. Perfect timing. That was nice, because I slept in my own bed, and was able to enjoy oatmeal and coffee on the drive up. I saw the sunrise over Lake Superior heading north on Highway 61… beautiful. I burned my tongue on the coffee, though. That was not beautiful.
When I got to Sawbill, I knew there was an outfitter and rather large campsite, and I thought I remembered looking at a map or satellite image and seeing a launch and parking lot. Well, I saw the launch but no parking lot. I thought maybe there were several docks… maybe a public one with parking nearby. I drove around the campground area, which was interesting to see… and looked like a really fun place to camp… but felt anxious that I was burning daylight. I took a wrong turn–no public access beyond this point. Crap. I figured I’d just go back to the launch I saw and drop the board and park at the big parking lot next to the outfitters that I saw. If there is another option, I missed it and I don’t care because this will work.
So I pulled up to the landing, took out my board, my paddle, my lifejacket, my tote and dropped them nearby. In my tote bag was a gallon ziploc bag stuffed with various food items, and another gallon ziploc stuffed full with various survival items. I though it smart to bring an emergency blanket, headlamp and batteries, lighter, small screwdriver, a piece of foam for random flotation, fingerless gloves, water filter, microfiber towel, and a small safety kit, at least. I might be forgetting to tally some of the items… I just threw a bunch of random crap that I figured I may need, especially in the case of an emergency, in a gallon ziplock bag and it barely all fit.
I drove my car to the lot, which said PUBLIC PARKING, so I figured I was in a great place to leave my van. When I locked the vehicle, the honk echoed so loudly in the dead quiet morning. I noticed metal grating over the trash dumpsters, to discourage bears. On my back was a small pack with two water bottles on front, and my phone in a baggie in the back, plus the all-important map. In my hand was my dog leash and on the end of that was my dog. I grappled with bringing Diamond. Em and Jack told me that I by all means should not do it. Why? Why take her? It’s a huge risk to have her out there. What if she gets injured? Or what if I have an issue? It’s just a big risk to have her, not to mention the weight on the board, which would inevitably slow me down. I figured that it’d be fun. She’s so good on the paddleboard, and loves running through the woods on a trail so would probably love the portages. But 12 hours doing both over and over? Meh, who knows. But she likes being with me, too, so she’d probably enjoy it. And I could use the company. Just having her out there with me would be nice, to share the experience. I don’t know, it just felt like Diamond had to come, despite the obvious downsides. So as we headed away from the car towards Sawbill Lake, she was yankin’ away, excited to get on the water.
It was cold. My car thermometer dropped steadily as I drove away from Highway 61 and Lake Superior and I definitely saw frost on the way up. The last reading on my car’s thermometer was 31. It was a little precarious setting the board in the water, carefully placing the lifejacket and my crucial supplies under the bungees, and stepping on. Then to get Diamond to carefully hop on! With Diamond carefully aligned in the center and fog everywhere, we were off!
The lake was glassy calm, with low visibility due to the fog. I was wearing running shorts, socks and low profile trail shoes (Altra Superior), a tanktop and 3/4 zip running long sleeve, plus hat. I wasn’t cold, surprisingly and luckily. I knew I just had to paddle straight up Sawbill Lake for the first several miles, one of the longest unbroken paddles of the day. I was pretty scared to somehow fall in or get wet, or for Diamond to jump in in excitement, or to get any of the water surrounding me on all sides on me in any way. That could be devastating in this cold. We neared a land mass up ahead and I had to check my map, even though I knew I just needed to keep the land to my close right for a couple miles. I knew I’d eventually get a really good sense of the scale of the map and the shape of the land, but for now I was unsure what I was looking at.
While shuffling around on my knees to get my phone and map out, my paddle dipped into the water, and I got water on my hands, and they got really cold. I was breathing trying to get them to warm up, it didn’t work. I pleaded with the sun to rise higher and burn off some of the lake fog and warm up the air. In between a narrow strip of water between and island a loon popped up. Diamond was locked in… she would have jumped in. I held her back, then made her sit down and tried to paddle away quickly. It was cool to see a loon super close up, though.
I cranked away further and further down from the Sawbill entry point and was amazed by the beautiful lake in the morning mist. I finally made a turn and got into a bit wider area dotted with islands. Looking at the map, I thought I knew where to get to, but I second guessed myself every 100 feet. The sun was burning off the fog, as I’d hoped just a quick hour before, and it was becoming a beautiful day.
I neared the final bay of Sawbill Lake before our first portage to Ada Creek and Ada Lake. I saw a campsite with people at it, stirring about and enjoying the perfect morning. I paddled by and neared the portage, finding it with ease. I took a moment to relax and let Diamond wander, then contemplated my strategy for portages. I left my lifejacket strapped on the board and grabbed the tote and paddle, then took off with the board down the 80 rod portage. The board was hard to keep level. We made it through to Ada Creek in no time, and put back in to paddle down the narrow waterway leading to the more open Ada Lake.
After another portage, I made it to the beautiful Ada Lake. The sun was out and shining bright, it was warming up and I took my long sleeve shirt off. I saw something to my right swimming along. As I wondered if it was a beaver, it slapped its tail and swam under the water. Cool! Luckily Diamond didn’t see it, but we were far enough anyways, where she probably wouldn’t try to chase it. The third portage was hard to find. It was getting narrow and swampy. The map said a one rod portage and a 12 yard portage with a swamp in between. I was paddling where I could, which was a narrow river-like stretch of water. It was really shallow. I had to get out after getting stuck on logs. The big fin on my paddleboard made it tough to glide over obstructions in the 6-inch water.
I got to Skoop Lake easy enough, and knew that I had a pretty long portage then a questionable paddle down Cherokee Creek. If Cherokee was as shallow as going through Ada, it would be a long, long stretch. I knew that there were two route options at Cherokee Lake, which is at the end of Cherokee Creek, and told myself that if I got to the lake after noon, I would take the shortcut. It was still really early, though.
The long portage to Cherokee Creek wasn’t terribly difficult, although pretty overgrown. I made it without too much trouble and was excited to check out the creek. It was nice and deep! Great! I stood up, and me and Diamond enjoyed the narrow waterway with a different vibe from the lakes. There was one beaver dam that was challenging to get around. Lots of mucky mud. A few more bends in the river and there was Cherokee. I was there way before noon, so we paddled right out into the lake, and stayed left to take the long loop. Cherokee Lake had a lot of islands, lots of bays, lots of campsites so I had to check the map frequently. I saw several campers right away. The wind was increasing a little bit, there were a bit of choppy waves on the big Cherokee Lake. It was good paddling, though. I was generally going with the wind, so we made good time. I was cranking.
There were a couple of paddlers on the lake, too, and those were the first people I’d seen on the water all day. When I got past an island I knew it was the last one and I was close to the portage. The lake narrowed then opened to the final bay before my portage to Town Lake. I couldn’t see the portage, but paddled right towards shore. I pushed Diamond off so she could swim in to shore a little bit and wash off some of the mud from the beaver dam back on Cherokee Creek, and paddled closer into shore but couldn’t find the portage! I circled around a bit, getting frustrated. I figured I could just go straight in then bushwhack. It’s a 10 rod portage… but decided not to bushwhack and quickly found my portage shrouded in shrubbery, then schlepped my board and dog right through. I was getting hungry, and decided to stop for a bite to eat after that portage, on the banks of Town Lake. I hadn’t eaten anything, and barely drank any water all day. It was tasty to eat some potato chips, hazelnut uncrustables, gummi frogs, some candy. Diamond was looking around and sniffing and exploring. I was enjoying the sunshine. But not for too long, and we set off onto the beautiful Town Lake after just 15 minutes. Town Lake was short, and we got to the next 90 rod portage quickly, then a series of short lakes and long portages. The portage to Vesper Lake was brutal. Lots of rocks, terrible footing.
My hand was getting a little sore from carrying the board, and I noticed that my forearms were burning after getting to Vesper Lake. It was all worth it, though, because that lake was incredibly beautiful, with cool exposed rocky slopes with trees precariously hanging on the hill, no soil to be seen.
It was around noon once I got up and over the next challenging portage from Vesper Lake to Gasket Lake. Gasket was a tiny lake, but with huge rocky cliffs jutting up from the shores. Then another tough portage to Cam Lake. These portages were frequent and tough, but also getting the board in and out of the water was tough. At the shore of Cam Lake, there were no rocks, no sandy beach, just a shallow landing. I put the fin-end in first, but the board wouldn’t budge. I figured that my shoes were pretty much wet as could be anyways, I’d just put my feet in and push off. I jumped in and sunk into the mud up over my knees! Oh MAN!! I hoped I wouldn’t lose a shoe, but the sucking muck let me free and I coaxed Diamond on the board just after I clamored on. I was getting frustrated with Diamond because she wasn’t as prompt as I’d hoped, and when we did get all on and all ready to hit the lake, legs coated in black specks of mud, I had to paddle really hard because the wind was blowing straight onto us. It was a tough go, and seemed so, so windy all of the sudden. I was really looking forward to getting to the end of Cam Lake where the land would block the wind. When I got closer, a less risky area for the wind to blow me around, I took off my wet shoes and dunked my legs into the frigid water to wash them off. That answered my question about if I’d want to jump into a lake. Nope. Luckily I’d taken my socks off hours and hours ago. Also, I luckily wasn’t cold. Perfect temperature, in fact. When I got to the opposite shore of Cam Lake, I was a little frustrated. Oh man, how am I way out here? I’m not going to get back until after dark, I thought. I miscalculated. I’m going so slow, it seems like the wind is blowing directly from the south, and I have to travel many miles practically straight south! This will be an arduous journey to complete. Nuts. Dang wind. I finally turned a corner to go south, then this. A south wind right in my face.
My arms were getting really tired. Mostly my hands and forearms. Luckily paddling wasn’t too difficult yet, besides having to rely on my hands to grip the paddle. I think the paddling and portaging were having a dual impact on my hands more than anything. I thought about grabbing my fingerless bike gloves to lessen the impact, but skipped it. I psyched myself up for the long 100 yard portage to big Brule Lake. I was excited that I’d be paddling west for a while once I got out into Brule, given that the wind seemed to be coming straight from the south. I made the portage with no incident, but was so frustrated once again with an extremely shallow and difficult launch into Brule Lake. Diamond had to go way around, and I shimmied for 100 feet to get out of the swampy shallows. The blowing wind did not help at all, and I was yelling and swearing at it. There was more wind now than ever. Just more time lost.
When I finally got Diamond on the board, I had to look at my map. Even 30 seconds was enough for the wind to push me backwards, sideways a little bit. It is so much easier to move with no wind, or downwind. This was terrible. Luckily the waves weren’t bad, just seemingly the wind itself. I tried to kneel, but that didn’t strike me as a good method right away so I stood back up. Oh well, what can ya do? I just utilized my legs and hips to try and stroke as powerfully as I could, making my way little by little, excited to see a campsite on my left which meant I could turn westward. It seemed like forever, but I got a big view of the Brule Lake to my left, an island with a campsite, so then I could turn in between these wonderful blocking islands and head towards a small portage onto South Temperance Lake. That was a relief, and I immediately felt better turning from the south to the west, especially because the wind seemed to be not just a cross-wind, but actually pushing me towards my destination. I decided to try and make up some time and really crank. It was easy navigation, just aim for the back edge of the lake with a small island nearby. I definitely made good time, thanks to the wind that I’d just been cursing. I was nervous about after Temperance Lake, because it’s really all south from there. Maybe the wind would change direction, or die down…
I saw a paddler from afar, then when I got closer and closer to the portage I noticed packs on shore. I saw a person, but before I landed on the big slab of rock to start the next 10 rod portage they were gone, schlepping another load of gear. I coaxed Diamond off and quickly grabbed my things to sneak past this party. When I turned the corner, it was by far the shortest portage of the day. 10 rods? Yeah right! I asked if this was it, just this little portage, in a friendly tone, and he angrily said yes. He had Diamond by the collar and said that he’s grabbing her because they have fish in a bag back there and he doesn’t want this dog getting in there. Whoops! I apologized profusely and said we’d be out of here in a flash. He let her go, they left to get their fish and packs, and Diamond and I were out of sight onto the South Temperance Lake before they rounded the short corner again. Yikes. Oh well, no harm done.
Getting into the fair sized South Temperance Lake first meant navigating a meandering river-like waterway. It was great! It seemed to be flowing in our favor, or at least the wind was pushing us in the right direction. Hmm, I thought, maybe it’s more of an east wind than a south wind. The river opened up to the lake, and I saw several paddlers fishing. One canoe was filming me, and we got close enough where the guy hollered about Diamond being such a nice doggy on the board. Yep! Yahoo!! I saw one other group, plus campers at a site, and a canoe right by the mouth of the Temperance River itself. Cool! I saw a bald eagle hovering high in the air, and made it to the portage in no time. I stopped for a while here, and contemplated my biggest portage of the day of 240 rods. I, for once, unfolded my map fully and looked at where I was in the grand scheme of things. I figured that I was at least 2/3 done with the route. The next few lakes would be the crux, for sure. After Kelly Lake, it’s a pretty straightforward route back home. 3 portages, 3 lakes. Boom. They seemed to be right in my favor, wind-wise, as well. So if I could make it down Weird Lake, Jack Lake, and Kelly Lake in good time, I’d be home soon. That is still a lot of paddling…. I also filtered some water. I was feeling parched, and realized that it was probably a deficit from earlier in the day and that I should actually focus on drinking water. The water was crystal clear out of my filter. Tasty and cool. Mmm. I ate a few bites of food, too. Then on to the portage. Diamond was chasing around a small critter, a chipmunk or squirrel. But when I was ready to go, she bounded in the woods ahead of me on the nice buffed out trail alongside Temperance River. What a relief, to have a trail that wasn’t completely strewn with rocks.
It was a long portage. My hands and arms were getting really sore, and I banged my paddeleboard on several rocks because my grip was slipping. My fingers hurt so bad, and I was constantly scanning the ground for a nice spot to set down my board, and had to rest every couple of minutes. I would count the number of steps before I could stop, or pick a spot up ahead, like over a hill or past a rock garden. I tried to grip with the tips of my fingers but that hurt, so I’d dry to curl my fingers under my board but that hurt my palm and the board would slip around. Gah. I would hoist the board up and try to tuck it under my armpit and against my hip, but my shoulder would burn so I’d drop it down and let my arm be fully extended, and my forearm would burn. I switched hands half way through, but needed several breaks. The whole time, I could see the Temperance River to my left. It was cool to see this iconic river so far inland, in such a remote place. To think it flows all the way from up here down to the visitor-strewn state park was pretty neat.
I was happy to see an opening, and I launched my board as the river opened up into a marshy area filled with lilly pads. The map showed a short, sweeping bend and then another 80 portage. Ugh. I made it through, then more carrying of my paddleboard, then on to Weird Lake, which was full of lilly pads and vegetation. There almost was no open water at all. I saw people at a campsite at the end of Weird Lake as the lake narrowed. I wondered where the next portage was, and figured I should hop over a beaver dam instead of trying to carry my board even further. I saw open water ahead. It was an easy carry-over on top of the dam, and I was glad to be still paddling and not walking. The next brief portage led to Jack Lake, which was super shallow for a long long ways. I had to get off of my board, and luckily found hard ground below my feet, in a foot or less of water, instead of sinking muck. I lifted Diamond and my board so the front could float and the back fin was out of the water, hopped back on, then had to do it again 100 feet down before the water appeared to deepen. Luckily I didn’t have to do that again, and luckily my feet weren’t too cold and seemed to dry out OK.
Jack Lake was full of vegetation. It was this angel hair-like weed, with clumps of tangled strands of vegetation floating on top of the water every now and then. The wind was a light steady headwind, and I was going so slow. Just keep paddling, I told myself. I was pretty sore, my hands and forearms the worst off, but I still had a lot of energy to paddle, which was good. I had to just belt out this Jack Lake, and the narrow and snaking Kelly Lake, and I’d be pretty much home free. But it was a major struggle right now. There were beaver dens left and right, and I wondered if I’d see one. Whyyyyy am I going so slow? I yelled out. I looked behind me and a huge mass of weeds caught my eye, I was dragging an armful of vegetation that was trapped on my fin. Ugh, that’s worse than a parachute. No wonder I was slowing down so much. It was actually relieving, that I had a reason why I felt like I was going so slow. I leaned over the back of my board and tried to reach under my board to shake off the weeds. It worked and I kept going. Then, I was really sensitive to what I was paddling over, and spent too much energy trying to avoid weeds. They were unavoidable in Jack Lake. The narrow lake narrowed further, which meant that the next 65 yard portage was next. It was nice to have a little break from portaging, despite generally hating Jack Lake, and I was ready attack the big, long Kelly Lake head on to the waning wind. There were rocks everywhere, I scraped the bottom of my board on a few. I slowed way down trying to navigate the boulder field, and again hit shallow water and had to get off my board to shimmy over. Then Jack Lake opened up a bit more before the actual portage. I stopped there and ate a bit of food because my stomach was rumbling. Then on to the portage to Kelly Lake.
The portage went well enough, but they were becoming by far the hardest part of my life. I was losing time by having to stop, and my arms and forearms just killed. I still had the second longest portage of my trip upcoming, plus a 90 rod and 100 rod portage to finish it off. Not easy. But before that is Kelly Lake, a long, narrow seemingly endless paddle. I was hoping that the roughly southwest travel would help with the wind. I got to the other side of the portage and just started hammering on Kelly. There was still a lot of vegetation, and it was getting caught on my board. That was frustrating. The sun was starting to get lower and lower, and there seemed to be a haze in the sky, perhaps from widespread fires in the western US states. I was getting cold out there. My long sleeve was wet, being at the bottom of my tote bag all day. I tied it around my waist in hopes it’d dry a bit.
It was slow going, but I was on a mission. Eventually the Kelly Lake opened up and I was happy to turn ever further westward and go with the wind a little bit. I stuck to the right-hand shore, aiming for a point up ahead. I thought maybe the portage was before the point, but it was not. I rounded a corner and saw a canoe and a couple of guys looking at a map. I got closer and closer and then hollered, wondering if I’d spook them. I didn’t. They told me to sneak on in. I chatted with them a little bit. They said I had a long way to go, as they came from Sawbill earlier in the day. I kind of knew well enough where I was… and had been through so much. So I took their comment of being really far away with a little grain of salt. I told them that if I got to Smoke Lake in an hour, then I could make it back to the dock in another hour. It was 5:30pm at the time. I was just talking to myself at that point. So, I blitzed onto the portage, the second longest of the day at 230 rods. It was fairly buffed out, and I made good time. I had to stop several times, and switched arms halfway through. It was grueling, but I made it, feeling super excited to just have two lakes to paddle until Sawbill, and I’d be paddling northwest, seemingly perfectly aligned with with wind.
I had a straight shot across Burnt Lake. The water was a weird green color. I wondered if that was from the burning of Burnt Lake. Probably not… I was going right with the wind and it felt so good. I crossed really close to a campsite, then into a back bay. I was in autodrive mode, and just hopped off the board, Diamond and I trucked through to the next lake, and right back onto the water.
Smoke Lake was another easy paddle, with simple navigation. I just had to follow the left hand shoreline. I saw several loons ducking in and out of the water. The very end of the back bay, near the portage somewhere, was marshy. Right in the middle of the bay I nearly stopped dead after smashing into a rock under the surface. I fell onto Diamond, thankful that neither of us went in. Yikes. I spotted a channel in the tall weeds and cattails, turned into it and saw a dock-like structure, which was interesting and unique. It made for a really nice landing. I was nervous Diamond would go off of the wooden dock because there were a few shoes on one of the planks, presumably sucked off my the extreme mud just off the dock. One more portage then I was home free! I made it through, but with many stops to relieve my arms and hands.
The other side of Sawbill Lake was very rocky, and I was on my last straw with Diamond because she wouldn’t climb over the rocks to get on my board. Since when were rocks an issue for you!?!? I screamed at her, and she finally lumbered on board.
The sun had definitely set, which was a bummer. I was looking forward to a great sunset. Clouds had rolled in, or maybe I missed the sunset. Or maybe I saw it. I was glad I had my long sleeve shirt on, it was getting chilly. I still had a pretty long paddle on Sawbill, but was really excited to be done with portages and to be back on Sawbill. What a day! I had the chance to reminisce a little bit, and told Diamond to take it all in. I thought to myself how it wasn’t fun at all. All the lakes looked the same. I could have had a more enjoyable experience with six hours, or four, instead of 12 hours out here. I could have woken up later, and already been back home in my comfortable home. Oh well, it’s done now. Well, not done actually. I looked at my map. I had a long way to go. I just kept smashing my paddle into the water. I started seeing more people, and signs of the campground. One lady hollered at me, asked if I had been paddling all day. I said yep. She said she saw me in the morning. Cool!
I thought I was at the last dock, but it looked different and I didn’t see the road. It was the wrong dock! How did I not find this one in the morning? One more corner and I saw THE dock. I paddled straight to it. My watch was really close to 30 miles and really close to 12 hours. I thought about paddling in a circle to get to both checkpoints. Nah, I just paddled straight in. I nodded to an angler on the end of the dock. I stopped my watch, plopped Diamond onto the dock, lifted my stuff out, and lifted the board out. Then I walked back up to my car, drove down and retrieved my board. While lifting my board into my car, I had to shift it around to align it onto my car seat, and my poor, weak hands slipped and the board slammed on the ground. Oh well, one last bash of the board. You want to smash up your paddleboard real good, take a trip to the Boundary Waters!
The next day, I wrote up a trip report in the BWCA Forum, somehow got to researching on new, faster paddleboards and different touring models and stuff, and dreaming up a new trip, maybe an overnighter. Maybe the trip wasn’t so miserable after all… maybe that was sweet. I think an overnight trip is definitely next. Maybe not so many miles, but c’mon it is so fun to push the limits! I’ll be back.