Date: Friday-Saturday July 22-23, 2022
Area: Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness
Trip Plan: Launch at Fall Lake near Ely, head through a couple lakes to Basswood Lake and follow the US/Canada border west for 35-50 miles, turn around and go back the same way.
Day 1 – Get past Curtain Falls and camp where possible. Maybe make it to see Lac La Croix.
Day 2 – Assess the situation, but generally head back on the same route.
Day 3 – Make it back to Fall Lake by any means necessary.
Day 1: Friday July 22, 2022
I started my second, and last, three-day weekend Boundary Waters trip sleeping sketchily in my van in the entry point parking lot with a obnoxious bright streetlight flashing right into my car, with the car running, with people parked everywhere and actual campers walking right on by on an adjacent path. I had one trip under my belt launching from Moose Lake a month earlier, and felt pretty steady with my pack job. It was almost too easy… I must be forgetting something. The weather was looking to be iffy at best. I knew from June that the weather forecast for three days ahead is probably pretty accurate, especially with the wind direction. I knew that I couldn’t rely on cell service under any circumstances, that I’d probably forget the forecast that I was constantly refreshing on my lumpy minivan floor. I remembered how much the wind affected my speed, and how horrendous it was fighting the west headwind on Sunday last time trying desperately to get back to the lumpy van. It doesn’t seem so lumpy from the middle of a wavy lake. I screenshotted the forecast.
Tomorrow would be brutal in the wind. Saturday looked potentially stormy, but spotty. I was nervous about thunderstorms. What if that caused a paddling stoppage? What if I’m stranded way out come Sunday? That’s part of the deal, I guess. Either way, it put my plans to a very wide range of possibilities. I kept it open and was ready to just get out there and see what I could do in the wind.
Thursday night was a little choppy on Fall Lake as I took a tiny spin around the boat launch, and Friday morning was no different. I figured I should crank miles early to get as west as possible before the wind really kicks up. The hourly forecast was not encouraging but it was nice to launch and get going right away in the early morning. It was humid and I was sweating quickly. I got to the first portage and it was like a superhighway. This was wider than park trails in Chester Park Duluth! I felt mosquitoes right away and moved quick. It was nice with no rocks or roots. I cruised through the series of lakes to Basswood and was excited for a big stretch of pure paddling, yet nervous for the wind. I figured if I stayed on the shore running northeast I’d mostly avoid the west wind. It was mostly a tailwind, actually, and the small, splashy waves were definitely pushing me towards my prime destination. I saw a few people, spotted a few sites, and was enjoying looking at the much smaller National Geographic Boundary Waters West map instead of the 5 big BWCA maps I had stowed deep in my drybag. It was a beautiful morning and I was making great time.
It took me a while to realize that Pipestone Bay was part of Basswood Lake, and in fact Basswood Lake was absolutely massive with several huge bays. I got my first taste of paddling against the west wind about 10 miles and 2:30 into the trip, about 9am. By 10am I had 13 miles logged, and stopped for a dip in the lake before the short back bay to a seemingly very long portage from Basswood Lake turning straight west and then to the drastically narrower Basswood River. After over three hours of steady, constant paddling, jumping in the lake was an ordeal. Hopping back on my board, two paddle strokes towards a group of people off in the distance that ensured I was aiming towards the portage, and at that moment I hit the international border that I’d try to follow for the rest of the day for many miles.
Before long, and a couple hasty changes of hand, and I felt like I made it to the end of the Basswood portage really quickly. I hadn’t seen anyone for a while but there was a group at the other end. As they were awaiting at the shoreline and I swiftly put my board in the water and pushed off, one guy told me to send the rapids. I remembered my last trip and the one time, really the one time this year so far, that I’ve accidentally fallen off my board, which was was due to the rapids. Rapids? Yeah right, I thought. I didn’t put it like that to the guy and instead fake-laughed it off, and as I rounded one tiny bend to see the rapids, they actually looked doable and fun. But, not doable in this scenario. I wasn’t going to risk the whole trip to send some stupid rapids. I wasn’t going to bash my board up or worse! I saw a pretty short portage to the left and took it.
The narrow river waterway was cool. There were plenty of portages with adjacent moving water. It didn’t seem like the current in the flatwater sections was pushing too hard, but I was certainly going with it. The wind was no factor, but I could tell it was a bit breezy. I was heading west, right into the wind, but it was narrow enough that I could stand and paddle nicely. It was getting close to lunch time. I was getting nervous about the big bays ahead, and some potentially wicked crossings right into a heavy west wind. I got turned around at an interesting semi-circle of waterfalls and essentially bushwhacked to find the bottom of a falls and the flat river once again. It was generally easy wayfinding and excellent views through the narrow waterways of Basswood.
I found a campsite. It was almost 12:30pm, just over 20 miles in, 6 hours on the day and I was ready for a break. I had to refuel for a raunchy afternoon. I was making good time and had a good buffer, but I could feel the breeze transforming to a constant wind. I knew the rest of the day would probably be sitting down and probably really hard. Let’s go. This is what I signed up for.
Lunch was amazing. An Uncrustables hazelnut sandwich or two, potato chips, beef jerky, candy coated licorice. I opened my food bag and feasted. It took maybe a bit too long to rest, but I seemed to be busy the whole time. Munch, munch, munch. I reorganized my map just for the first time, which actually seemed to save a lot of time compared to the many refoldings and changes of maps required with the bigger, more detailed ones. I loved the different Nat Geo map. I filtered water to replenish my empty water bladder then got back moving. It was slow going and I could finally sense a bit of turbulence in the water with the winds picking up. I knew at Table Rock it’d start getting a little more challenging. That landmark was on my map, and super easy to see. Cool. I didn’t stop, though. Getting into Crooked Lake, through Wednesday Bay and into Thursday, the wind was progressively more difficult. I was excited. It was kind of this nervous dread, but also a bit of ego. Who can paddle straight into 20mph winds and crank miles? Yup, that would be me. On a paddleboard. That’s right, motherfuckers! Me!!
On the map, I suspected many narrow groupings of islands that I could sneak between to generally get me on the correct trajectory, but also figured that a tiny strip of land could really screw me up and be nearly imperceptive. My watch’s map was not real help, but I could tell when I was right on the border which was helpful. I knew I could stick to the border and go the right way with a pretty efficient route. I wondered why the border was made that way… there seemed to be an even more efficient route. Why wasn’t the shortest route from A to B the border? Did the USA really want this one island, literally one in a million? Or, maybe I just think sneaking between islands is the fastest and shortest route, and it’s really not. Either way, I went between islands and I was doing pretty good sticking on the leeward side to remain standing and moving somewhat quickly.
The winds were definitely blowing right in my face and it was a game to interpret the map, match my 2D guide to the 3D landscape, with endless bays, peninsulas, points, islands; there was water, trees and sky only. I was trying to win at finding the most efficient route from a mileage perspective coupled with the efficiency of staying on a leeward shoreline. Open water crossings were intense, and I got my first taste at Thursday bay sitting all the way down and experiencing waves washing over the nose of my board and flowing under my dry bag. This is it. Push hard, flip my hat back and grind to get to the leeward side, and it’d get a little rest. Drink a sip, maybe stand up if I could efficiently get tight to a shoreline, then I’d approach the easily visible point where the winds would be pushing up bigger and bigger waves from an open water bay of seemingly increasing difficulty. Another point with waves radiating out, attack. The next point, bigger waves. Attack! Friday Bay looked raunchy. Saturday Bay would be very challenging, and Sunday Bay would be one last strenuous bay but a relief to get through. That final leeward west shoreline would be an indication that I could start looking for campsites.
I repeated the same cycle several times – grit through a wavy, windy and slow big bay then get some sweet relief in a narrow pinch point between Thursday and Friday Bays, then to Saturday. I passed one group of two canoes. Otherwise, I guessed people were sticking tight at their sites. I didn’t see many occupied campsites even. Then again, there weren’t too many right on my route. Around a bend on an island, paddling close to shore to stay safe and keep in calm waters as best I could, and I saw a huge eagle on a downed tree right on shore. Its neck looked to be rotated grotesquely far around its body. Maybe I couldn’t see it… but as I crossed behind the eagle’s back, it snapped its head 270-degrees counter-clockwise to continue to stare me down from its left. I had a vision of this eagle feeling threatened and attacking my forehead with the intent to scalp me with its razor-sharp claws. I pulled my hat down a little bit. It didn’t happen, and I paddled past the majestic bird in seconds.
I stuck to what I could tell was the most efficient route all the way due west to Curtain Falls. After Saturday Bay came and went quickly, I was relieved and proud that I made it through. It wasn’t too hard. I could manage a straight headwind with 10-20mph winds on relatively big water. Crooked Lake wasn’t anything to compare to Rainy Lake… maybe not Lac La Croix, or the section of Basswood Lake east that I didn’t travel on, or Saganaga. But, it’s still a big lake and I was pretty happy to crush it. My arms were tired, thought. I was sick of sitting low on my butt, and sick of the waves. How lucky was I to have such a nice tailwind all morning? Man, that was easier. I was siphoning time and struggling to keep 20 minutes per mile between the strong winds and taking breaks on any blocked, calm water I could find along my route. It was easy to curse the wind, but also I thought about how this forecast would be absolutely astounding for five days in a row in early September. That changed my mindset… Thanks, wind!
I figured I’d have some nice tight islands to snake around getting to Sunday Bay, my last big bay with windy conditions and big waves whipping up. It was slow going, though. It was a bit past 4pm and I told myself I could stop soon for a little break before proceeding with my final miles on Crooked Lake and onto a pretty big portage around Curtain Falls. I remember my friend Kyle Severson talking about Curtain Falls and I was curious if it’d be a cool waterfall. I wondered if it looked like a curtain or what. The break was fantastic, on the very calm leeward side of a small island in between Saturday and Sunday Bays on Crooked Lake.
I snuck south of the border in between a big land mass and a long football-shaped island. I saw another canoe up ahead and wanted to catch it. It didn’t work well, but I didn’t care. I knew Sunday would be tough, but I planned my route. I could either stick south, to the left, and follow the south then east shores. The east shore would be prime paddling and I could take that all the way up to the portage. Or, I could take the direct route by hammering into the cross-wind to get behind an island then jetting straight northwest in a probably way worse cross-wind, probably at the peak wind speed of the day, to get to the south side of another island. From there, hammer straight west into the direct headwind to that one last eastern, leeward, lovely shoreline of Sunday Bay. I caught up to a couple paddling a canoe at the in the middle of Sunday Bay. Left or right… My ego took over and I beckoned at the paddlers that I was going for it. I sat down, took a big sip of water, and cranked away. The waves were intense, but I knew the drill at this point. Keep my paddle in the water the whole time, focus on forward progression and I’d get there for some sweet relief on a leeward shoreline. I looked back upon arrival, saw the canoe inching forward towards the wind break. They were in the worst spot. It was like the waves would concentrate to make setting off into the unblocked wind more intimidating. Upon arrival to an island’s south shore, I stood up. Yep, that was the worst part, I told myself. Another little hop and I was to the back of Sunday Back. Crooked Lake was sweet, and I was feeling tired but accomplished.
It was an easy paddle to Curtain Falls. There were some awesome looking campsites, cliffs, islands, and excellent views getting into the evening. I didn’t think I’d make it too far past Iron Lake, as cool as it would be to hit 40 miles or more on the day or check out Lac La Croix. I was ready to be done. It was 6:30pm, I had about 37 miles in for the day. That’s pretty good, I thought. I took my time getting ready for the Curtain Falls portage. It was really buggy. The bugs make portaging so hard. Mosquitoes were all over me, and so I started off walking. I stopped to take a picture of the falls but it was a terrible stop as the bugs swarmed. I walked faster. It didn’t seem to make a difference with the bugs, but it made a difference mentally to know I was doing everything I could to get through the dang portage. I pondered how much more enjoyable this portage would be, right next to the rushing Curtain Falls in a beautiful orange- and yellow-tinted evening, if it weren’t for the mosquitoes. It was a major struggle to try to ignore the swarm of mosquitoes on me. I didn’t want to do it. I didn’t want to be here. I was sick of it right away and that made the portage seem long. How long was this stupid thing? I guess I didn’t look too hard beforehand to prepare myself. Ugh. I bashed my board on the rocks at the landing and frustratingly fell in as I tried to get my heap of bags on my board along with my self, my paddle and my pesky leash all over the place. C’mon…
Once I stood up and got onto Iron Lake, I looked to the several campsites within view. I’m stopping at the first, I said. I quickly noticed there were people there. Here we go… There were two options and I chose to check out left, to go essentially downwind and figured I’d be able to see the site and if there was anybody there with plenty of time to bail if so. Can’t see it, can’t see it, can’t see it, maybe that’s it, that’s gotta be it, can’t see anyone, crap there is someone, no that’s a rock, oh yeah, that’s definitely an empty campsite with a sweet beach. Ohhh yeah, that’s my spot. Finding a campsite is sometimes an emotional rollercoaster.
I was ready to stop, and aimed for the tan, sandy beach. Cool. The wind pushed me right in. Now as I finally stopped churning my arms, I was very excited for the breeze blowing the bugs right off! It also blew my stuff all over. I wanted to dry off some of my gear and had to tie it down. I shuffled around the site – from the beach to the rocky outcrop and fire pit. I set some stuff down then went back to the beach where my stuff was. I moved my stuff around, trying to think of how to set up the site. Where should I sleep? Over by the fire pit, naturally. Well, why not sleep on the beach, I thought? Is that allowed? Maybe not, but if I leave no trace… I went back to the rocks. I noticed some text messages that came through, but couldn’t get a signal. It was either No Service, or one bar. One bar seemed to be at the rocky outcrop or near the fire pit. Ah, forget it, I couldn’t get a message out, and I wanted to hang on the beach. So, I moved everything back over, sat down for a minute. Nope, now is the time to set up my tent and then I can relax. My site was sweet.
I made dinner and ate it on the beach. It was great. The bugs were at bay (not literally, luckily!), the temperature and a lovely sea breeze made the evening seem just perfect. Maybe it was just that I wasn’t paddling anymore. I had my board propped up right next to me and used that as a shelf. When dinner was finally cooked and cooled, that moment seemed to coincide with the sun going behind the trees, the wind dying down to a lull, and the bugs coming out in full force. Mosquitoes seemed to just now get the sniff of sweet human skin and came to investigate. I didn’t hang around for that to happen. I kept my rain fly off, knowing there was a pretty good chance of rain overnight and the whole next day. I ate in my tent, then drifted to sleep. I knew I’d wake up for the rain fly later. It was spotty in-and-out sleep. At some point I got my rain fly on. The mosquitoes were horrendous and upon reentry I had to spend five minutes smacking at the bugs. But after that, I feel asleep pretty well. The sandy foundation of my tent was extremely comfortable.
Day 2: Saturday, July 23, 2022
I seemed to notice and rouse awake right when the dark of night changed to the dim light of dusk. The extreme number of mosquitoes trapped between my rain fly and tent mesh kept me awake and I figured I might as well get going. It’s always calmer wind in the morning, I told myself. I tried to pack as much as I could in my tiny one-person lightweight tent, then ripped the bandaid off and jumped outside into the bug-infested beach. I had my rain gear on, bug net, everything. It wasn’t so bad and I packed up quickly. The morning was indeed very calm, with some heavily layered clouds. I knew I had the fairly long Curtain Falls almost right off the bat so headed off out of my nice little bay still donning my rain gear still.
I got a little frustrated wayfinding, and thought I took a wrong turn but it was just a small group of islands blocking my view and path. I got to the portage and remembered falling in just 10 hours before – I wouldn’t make that mistake today and calmly made the transition from paddle to portage and set off on foot. Curtain Falls was an easy portage this time, although buggy, but I got to Crooked Lake no problem and was feeling pretty good right away in the morning. I took a while just sitting on my board to get off on Crooked Lake since I knew that it was going to be several hours of constant paddling to get back to Basswood Lake. This route was interesting – a few smaller lakes and portages right near the entry point at Fall Lake, the pretty big Curtain Falls portage, a monster portage of a mile at Basswood, and a couple other hikes around rapids near that. Otherwise, hours of open water paddling. I was excited to go across the calm Crooked Lake and all of the bays I struggled on in the wind yesterday. I even enjoyed a nice little tailwind. Remnants from yesterday? I finally got my shit in order, ate a bit more breakfast including some caffeine gummis, and set off paddling.
I made good time following the border this time. I didn’t need to strategically hit islands to block the wind and zoomed across Sunday Bay. Saturday Bay was extremely fun this day. The sun peeked out and my fears of a stormy day washed away. It was very early, though, and I had no idea what the updated forecast was saying. I only had the look of the sky to guess. To my back was darker clouds. Straight on and to my left, that would be east to the northeast, was beautiful sunshine. The wind must have shifted, and the lake was absolute glass. Despite following the US/Canada border this time through Crooked Lake, I got into some islands, points and bays and it was just an amazing morning for paddling and observing the pristine nature of the Boundary Waters. It seemed like no time to get to Thursday Bay and a much narrower section of waterway. The sky darkened a bit and I wondered if it would rain. I saw a couple groups of people and two times in a row I received some commentary regarding my mode of transportation: “I’ve never seen that before!”. The wind kicked up as I turned due south past Table Rock campsite, right to my back. Nice. Maybe it’d be a south wind all day. That’d suit me, especially back on Basswood Lake. Wait, what was I going to do today? I didn’t even have a plan, I had simply been taking the same route back up to this point in the morning. I knew it was set to be wet the rest of the weekend with scattered storms Saturday, potential rain overnight and kind of a breezy and potentially stormy Sunday. Maybe I’d just get back past Basswood and I could tool around there, close to Newton Lake and Fall Lake to avoid a catastrophic inability to get back to my car on Sunday. I passed the high cliffs with ancient pictograms and reflected for a moment. 18 miles in, 5 hours of paddling and by 11am the morning had just flown by.
My energy levels stalled in the river section. I slowly made my way to the first falls of Basswood. I went a bad way the day before, circling around. There were essentially three different waterfalls and I chose the middle this day. It didn’t look to really be an established portage but I could see open water over the hump of land and went for it. It was an easy portage and I got back to it but just didn’t have the energy or desire to hammer. So I floated upstream with low cadence paddle strokes and didn’t care. I got to the next short portage along a rushing torrent of water, then the final short portage I’d have to make before a big one, remembering that I was very close to the taxing mile walk to Basswood Lake. That’s where I stopped for lunch. There were swarms of my friends above – dragonflies. Stick around, friends! It was a wonderful lunch and very relaxing. The weather had held out nicely I strongly enjoyed a calm and cloudy day.
After lunch I packed up and steamed to the big Basswood portage. The bugs didn’t seem too bad and I didn’t make preparations for them. Maybe that was a mistake, but once I got walking I was pleased that the mosquitoes weren’t killing me. I again thought about my portages in September and how bugs won’t be a factor. The big mile portage was lonely – I didn’t see another group – and so seemed longer. But, I was pleased with my pace and made it to the other side with no incident. It was still early afternoon, I was 24 miles in – just 14 miles or so from my car. Hmmm. I figured I’d still press forward towards Fall Lake. I checked but couldn’t pull the forecast, so pressed on down Basswood Lake. Conditions were perfect and the big water gave me the energy to get into a nice strong rhythm. My mile splits were great, which made me want to paddle harder.
I passed lots of occupied campsites on Basswood Lake and my mind was also occupied. Time flew by until I got down to Pipestone Bay right at 30 miles for the day. Rain started but just very lightly. The wind started kicking up a bit and it was wet. I had to put my rain jacket on and decided to take a little afternoon break on a rocky shoreline. I’d go down Pipestone Bay to the portage to Newton Lake and take it from there. I made the plan and set off to it. I saw another group right by the portage, and one guy looked super familiar. But I was a little dazed from the hours and hours of paddling and essentially no social interaction and so I awkwardly stared at the person trying to decide. Then he asked “Mike?” I asked “Alec?” Yup, in a million acres of wilderness I happen to see my friend Alec Kadlec from Duluth. In my defense, I hadn’t seem him for a while and he had long hair and kind of dark glasses on. It was a brief interaction. I didn’t hesitate to continue on my way and enjoyed a really buffed out portage to Newton Lake. I pulled out my phone again. Yep, it was likely going to be a fairly wet night. Meh, I don’t wanna do that, I told myself. Maybe I’d sleep in my car tonight and tool around the National Forest on Sunday. Or maybe just go home. Or, if there’s a site on Newton that looks cool I could take it. There were plenty of camping options on Fall Lake, too. I was absolutely NOT going to sleep in my car in the damn Fall Lake parking lot, however. As I paddled on into the increasingly cloudy afternoon, I pondered my options knowing it’d be a fairly foul night.
I kind of brushed over the sites on Newton and just sent the final portage to Fall Lake, the superhighway. I felt like running out of principle because it was so buffed out. Yeah, I’d just head back to my car. I can always go from there. It was set to be kind of windy Sunday – maybe I could find a cool downwind project. I don’t want to camp in the rain, I told myself. I got to Fall Lake, the home lake, and was happy to make really good time and feel good. I could definitely go another 12 miles, and had the daylight to do it. Granted, it was still late July and I’d be trying to do that mileage with probably a lot less daylight in September. I remembered the route back from the Fall Lake portage – when I get out head a bit to the right, around a point and the dock is right there. Well, there ya go! I paddled on towards my vehicle.
Before I got to the final point, in the middle of the back bay of Fall Lake, the rain kicked up a bit again. This time, it was heavy with large droplets. It got dark quickly. Yep, here it comes. Right on the last lake, typical! I put on my rain jacket because the rain started soaking me, and kept paddling. Then, I saw in my peripheral vision a lightning strike. Whoa, OK, I better get back. I could see the bolt line every time I blinked, engrained in my visual cortex. It was a bright one. It seemed like a substantial delay of 5 seconds or so, but the explosive crack and rumble of thunder thereafter was so intense it knocked me down. I luckily didn’t fall completely off my board, but to my hands and knees. It might have been the shock of the extremely loud thunder boom, or the instinct to get down low, but I fell down. My next instinct was to immediately get up and I had the sense of urgency to get back unlike I’ve experienced ever before. There’s lightning in the area! The rain came down even heavier and I paddled faster than I ever have. Don’t die, don’t die, I was chanting to myself like a mantra. Lightning doesn’t care about my mantra! GET BACK MIKE!! I furiously paddled around the point and saw the dock. This is how I die, I thought. I paddle 37.5 miles towards the dock, then see it and get fried by a lightning strike because I’m an idiot on a stand up paddleboard.
I didn’t see any more lightning, but heard a few more small rumbles in the distance and got to the dock with a soaking rain coming down. I offloaded all my stuff and figured I’d just get to my van and reassess my life. I schlepped by board across the parking lot, set it aside my car, opened my rear hatch and shoved my stuff on it. Then I climbed in the back and struggled to shut the hatch behind me. WOW. Alive. The chances of me actually getting struck by lightning in a scenario like that are still probably low, but to hear that intense of a thunder clap – loud and scary enough to knock me down – is something I’d not like to replicate in the future ever again. I hung out until the rain stopped and planned my next moves. I figured I could camp near a little hiking trail and drove to the Kawishiwi Hiking Trail parking lot to scope it out. Nobody there, nice. Upon arrival, the sun peeked out. Double nice. Then, people started showing up. I was cooking dinner on my stove outside my van, and several groups came and went. Meh, this is kind of sketchy, I thought to myself. I didn’t want to just hang here the whole rest of the day and night like this so decided to go home.
All in all, it was maybe not the trip I had envisioned way back in January. But, still great practice. I realized just how quickly a storm can roll over me. I also realized that I can make good mileage with a terrible wind forecast. Still, Saturday’s make a huge difference on my pace. If I have even one day of a strong east wind in September, it could put the record – and getting back to work on time – in jeopardy. The silver lining is that I have absolutely no control over the wind.