04-May-2002 -- This confluence is located in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area (BWCA), a roadless wilderness which straddles the border between Minnesota and Ontario. Since motorized travel is prohibited, access is by canoe in summer and by ski or snowshoe in winter. An entry permit system during the summer months restricts the number of visitors. From late May through early September, permits to most entry points must be obtained
well in advance.
During a weeklong family canoe trip in August 2001, we made an attempt on this confluence. The trip was planned much earlier, and it was quite serendipitous that we ran across the confluence web site just before the trip, and that our route would take us within a couple of miles of the confluence. We also planned to go into the blowdown area, a region of the BWCA which was severely damaged during a storm on July 4, 1999. Over a 600 square mile area, most of the trees had been blown down.
The confluence was 1 1/2 minutes almost due south of the campsite we used as a base for the attempt. Unfortunately, even though we weren't in the blowdown area, a large number of trees had been blown down in the same storm. Most of these trees fell in an east-west direction, severely impeding north-south travelers. The mass of tangled timber proved to be more than the short legs of 9 and 12 year old children could handle.
Before we abandoned the attempt, we did discover a large marsh which allowed us to bypass some of the trees. When we reached the south end of the marsh, our path was once again blocked, but we hoped that there might be other marshes to allow us to bypass the blowdown.
With better maps, we hoped to return on a long weekend sometime in the fall of 2001, but weather, work schedules and other commitments made it impossible. A mild January and February gave us hope for an early spring in 2002. But March and April were quite cold. The last two weekends in April included snow, and the ice was still in on most of the northern lakes.
With the opening of fishing season the second weekend in May, entry permits would once again become scarce so we were watching the weather for the first weekend. It appeared pretty bleak during the week before, with temperatures barely above freezing and snow in the BWCA. However, for Friday, May 3 the forecast improved considerably, and the weekend looked ok too. Further, as May 3 was my birthday, I had already taken that day off. This seemed enough of a good omen that we decided to make an attempt, although we were concerned about ice conditions on the larger lakes.
On the morning of May 3 we got up before 4:00 and were on the road north by 4:30. It's about 300 miles from home to the wilderness entry point. We stopped at the ranger station to pick up our entry permits and found that the ice was out at the entry point. However, the ranger was unsure about ice conditions on the larger lakes further into the wilderness, as the spotter airplane which checks such things had been grounded by bad weather that week.
By about 11:00, we were ready to embark on the canoe part of the journey. The day was almost perfect, with only an inch or so of the previous day's snowfall remaining in the sheltered spots. Blue skies, temperatures in the 50's and a light wind made for high hopes. The confluence was as good as ours.
Canoeing in the Boundary Waters is comprised of alternately paddling across lakes and walking across portages between lakes. As paddling is much easier than walking (at least when you're carrying a canoe or a Duluth pack full of gear), a good day has long paddles and short portages. This was not a particularly good day, as we had 12 portages and 13 lakes between us and our campsite.
The first 7 portages were uneventful, though tedious. There were a couple of trees down across the trail that the rangers would clean up when they got out, but nothing we couldn't get by. The eighth portage brought us on to Gillis lake, one of two large lakes on the route. It was about two thirds ice covered, but we hoped we could paddle up the east side of the ice to reach the portage. Eventually, we reached a point where the ice met the shore. Since we could see open water about 50 yards ahead, we tied a rope to the canoe and dragged it over the ice as we walked along the shore. Back in the water, we paddled a bit farther before running into ice again. Here, we were lucky to find the remnants of a pressure ridge where the ice was weakened. We were able to ice break our way about 100 yards along the pressure ridge, doing considerable aesthetic damage to our paddles, but eventually reaching the open water along the south shore of the lake, and from there the portage to the next lake.
Our concerns about more ice on Little Saganaga, the last lake of the trip proved unfounded, as the ice was completely out there. We arrived at the campsite about 6:30 in the evening, having paddled about 10 miles and portaged another two. (see picture 6; looking to the north across Little Saganaga. We had paddled in from the right of the picture). There was just enough time to set up camp and eat dinner before dark. All in all, a long but satisfying day. And we were within 1 1/2 minutes of the confluence.
Saturday morning it was time to trade paddles for boots. After breakfast, we headed south with our compass, maps, GPS and camera. We were hopeful that our previous experiences would allow us to get through the downed timber more quickly. And we did, reaching and crossing the swamp in about 40 minutes. From there, we were able to locate an area where the downed trees were not quite as numerous, allowing us to skirt the worst places and climb over the rest fairly easily.
By the time we were within one minute of the confluence, trees were not a problem. The beavers were. They had built dams on some small waterways which crossed our paths, creating hummocky marshes where a false step meant icy water in the boots. It was not long before our feet were quite wet and cold. It had also begun to rain lightly.
At 30 seconds north of the confluence, the woods opened up a bit and travel became easier. The rain also increased. Here we made quite good time, and soon we left the GPS on as we watched the seconds values approach zero. The confluence seemed to be in an area of trees and marshy ground so we moved to a small, slightly higher area where the ground was drier to reconnoiter. To our surprise, the seconds values all went to zero. We were at the confluence. Picture 5 is the semi-obligatory GPS reading. It was about 11:15 so it had taken a bit over 3 hours to reach the confluence from our campsite.
We had planned to sit around, eat lunch, and generally enjoy the confluence. Unfortunately it was now raining harder, so it was all we could do to take a few pictures. Sitting in the rain in 40 degree temperatures with inadequate rain gear is not particularly healthy, and we were uncertain whether confluences would be awarded posthumously should we succumb to the elements. (or indeed, whether anyone would ever find us.) So we headed back towards camp.
As we returned to camp, the rain stopped. Perhaps it was only raining at the confluence. The woods were still pretty wet, so we didn't get much drier. We paddled part way out that afternoon by a route avoiding the ice on Gillis lake. After another night camping in the woods we paddled out the next morning, and drove back home.
A summary of the trip might look like:
Time spent: 62 hours
Miles driven : about 600
Miles paddled: 22
Miles portaged: 4
Miles hiked: 4
Confluences visited: 1
All in all, it was worth it.