2020 Boundary Waters Family Adventure: Day 2 — “Portaging & Canoeing”

Would you believe that four days later I’m still doing laundry from our trip? Aw…I suppose if you knew me, you would 100% believe it. It would likely be harder for you to believe if I had all the laundry done by now. But let me say, my washer and dryer has been going non stop since we got home. I mean, you can only fit one sleeping bag in the machine at a time. So…yeah.

Before you read any further. If you haven’t already, you may want to read the first post of Day 1.

Day 2 of our adventure started early, though maybe not as early as Nick would have liked. (This time of year it’s a race to get a campsite, especially considering the BWCAW is seeing a 100% increase in permit purchases this year.) We woke up around 6 a.m., packed up and headed out to our next stop, Tuscarora Lodge and Canoe Outfitters, stopping at the Rockwood Lodge and Outfitters office on our way out to square up. At which point we watched the owner’s two adorable English Setters obsess over an itty bitty chipmunk that kept eluding them up a tree or under a bush. Also, the owner gave us each an awesome Rockwood sticker — you know, the kind you tattoo all over your laptop or other such things.

Anyway, I’d say we pulled into Tuscarora Lodge and Canoe Outfitters sometime around 7 or 7:30 a.m. It was just a few miles up the road from Rockwood. This is where we rented our canoe from. We have a canoe, but it won’t fit all four of us plus our gear, so the last two years we’ve been renting a four-person kevlar canoe from Tuscarora. It’s great, they load it up and bring it to the entrance point for you.

This is Ryker hanging at the end of our second portage waiting for us to make it back with the rest of the gear.

When we pulled up at Tuscarora, it was teaming with teenage boys. I can only guess it was a Boy Scouts’ trip, but not 100% sure. I did appreciate how one of the boys had a pink Nalgene water bottle and wore a fanny pack. I think I may need both of those for our 2021 trip.

After paying for the canoe, we drove to our final destination, Point #50, where we loaded all of our excessively heavy gear into the canoe, parked our van, and paddled our way through Cross River. This is a very short paddle and a stunning river!

Paddle & Portage #1: Cross River

As soon as we got in the canoe, despite our advice to be silent so we wouldn’t scare off wildlife, Ryker decided to test out his echo — loudly and consistently — throughout our paddle. We still got to see the most adorable family of otters though. A mom, dad, and four babies. They were swimming right toward us with their little heads bobbing above the water, before they dove under at the sight of our canoe coming toward them.

This was right after we saw the family of otters on Cross River.

We reached our first portage within about five + minutes. It really was a short paddle. Nick and I have paddled for hours on just one lake in the BWCAW in the past (mostly because of the wind). Thankfully, the day was partly cloudy, warm, and windless, making canoeing super enjoyable.

Nick pulling the canoe out of the water at our first portage.

The first portage was at the base of some rapids and was a giant pile of rocks with a few sharp edges to keep you on your toes. We all piled out, our feet getting soaked immediately, slipping across wet rock, and Nick handed me all the gear: Three packs, the largest weighing about 80 lbs, one tent pack, weighing about 30 lbs, two paddles, two Nalgene water bottles, maps, three fishing rods, and a leech caddy. We loaded the boys up with the fishing rods, water bottles, paddles, maps, and leech caddy, and sent them ahead down the first portage, which was 66 rods of uphill, muddy, narrow, and rocky terrain. (Quick side note: rods are how they measure the distance of portages. 320 rods = 1 mile. So the first portage was about .2 miles.) We were able to do this portage in just two trips (three passes). Nick followed shortly with the canoe hoisted above his head and then I came with the first and heaviest pack. Once we got to the end of the portage, Nick set the canoe partially in the water and tasked Townes with holding it while he, Ryker, and I went back to get the rest of the gear. When all was said and done we walked the portage three times for a total of 198 rods, or .6 miles.

This is the first portage, third pass.

Paddle & Portage #2: Cross Bay Lake

Next up was our paddle across Cross Bay Lake, which was about a 20-minute paddle. (Quick side note: we chose this trip, short portages and paddles, to keep the trip fun and light for the kids — and I guess us too.) Our next portage was just 30 rods, half the distance of the first and was a much wider and flatter trail, making it loads easier to trek across. And so we unloaded, carried all our gear across, and reloaded, again in just three passes, totaling 90 rods or .3 miles. Portaging for a total of about 1 mile the first day, which doesn’t seem like a lot, but when you’re carrying heavy gear on your back across ankle twisting terrain, it feels like A LOT. This was our last portage into Ham Lake, where we would stay for the next two nights — hopefully.

Carrying the tent on my front and a pack on my back for the second portage.

Paddle #3: Ham Lake

Next we reached the lake we’d be staying on, Ham Lake, assuming there were campsites available. Despite it being 119 acres, there are only three campsites on the entire lake. It’s not an overly huge lake, nothing compared to Brule, with about 17 campsites, or even Cherokee Lake that’s 880 acres, but large enough for our purposes.

Townes looking out at Ham Lake from a cliff.

We really hoped to stay at the same campsite as last year. It was the first campsite on our way into Ham Lake. It’s not much to look at, and we were actually pretty bummed when all the other sites were full last year and we were stuck with this one. It was small without much of a view or a place to hang a tarp over the fire, or even a hammock, but we quickly discovered it was perfect for fishing, on account of the small channel it was located on, and a great place for the kids to go swimming.

This was our campsite from last year. Not much, but the kids loved it!

Alas, much to the disappointment of the kiddos, this site was taken, though it looked rather empty aside from a handful of clothes drying on a line, and a teeny tent or tarp in a small space between a few trees. It reminded me of how my uncle David would camp, with not much at all.

Ham Lake.

So we paddled into the open water heading to the next campsite to see if it too was taken. On our way, we saw four other canoes heading in from what looked like one of the larger campsites located on a point in the middle of the lake. So, we headed that way, and sure enough, they were leaving. Watching one, then two, then three, four, and then five canoes leave from one site reminded me a bit of watching dozens of clowns piling out of a tiny clown car at the circus. Where did they all fit?

Townes and Ryker exploring a sandy beach off a trail from a campsite.

So we parked our canoe, hopped out, and started exploring the now abandoned campsite. And, despite the absolutely stunning 360-degree views, the sweet little sandy beach, and the absolutely fabulous fire pit, we were hesitant to start unpacking. We were worried the kids wouldn’t enjoy it as much since there wasn’t a rock to jump off into the water safely, nor a guaranteed fishing spot. So, we unloaded, but didn’t unpack, and set out to canoe the rest of the lake in search for a “better” site. What we wouldn’t realize until the next day, however, was this campsite was by far the best site we could have asked for given the impending rain. But that’s for another post.

The campsite.

To be Continued…

4 thoughts on “2020 Boundary Waters Family Adventure: Day 2 — “Portaging & Canoeing”

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