55 miles, 25 lakes in BWCA canoe day trip

by Jake Hway
On June 24th, myself and three other friends and fellow paddlers had the day off from canoeing, so we did what we always do and went paddling some more. This day ended up just a little different than normal...
Blake Ferree, Dan Rogan, my son Tommy and myself, (Jake Hway) planned loosely on doing a 50+ mile day trip through some very beautiful areas of the Boundary Waters.
This is not an uncommon thing for us to do. We all have many years of experience traveling through the BWCA by canoe and also by dogsled. We met at the Northern Tier Scout Base on Moose Lake where I have been operating their dogsledding program for the past 18 years. Blake and Dan have worked there in guiding and management positions summer and winter since around 2015. Blake hails from the rivers of North Carolina and Dan was raised along the Mississippi in Iowa.
Tommy and I are both Ely boys.
Shoved off in our 23ft long Wenonah MN4 before 5am. The sky was various shades of pink and orange that morning, and the weather was very calm. We have been so used to more wind lately that we actually kind of missed it not being there to keep the bugs away.
We headed up the Canadian border to Knife Lake and climbed to the top of Thunder Point for a snack break. It is one of our favorite spots in the BWCA, and it has a beautiful bluff where you can look down the border back towards the way we came. I was there just two months before with a bunch of sled dogs.
For the first time ever, I forgot our lunch bag. I packed it… just not into my pack. One might wonder how it’s possible to forget your food on a BWCA trip… But I literally do canoe trips as a profession and also a hobby, so it’s not that uncommon to think someone with a desk job might forget their bag of lunch one day at some point in their life. Luckily, Blake and Dan had a few Oreos and granola bars that we rationed together. Otherwise I would have just unspooled the line and jig off of my water bottle and pulled in a walleye or Bass for lunch. But that takes a while and we were there to paddle that day.
Blake and Dan are preparing for a 1000 mile canoe race down the Yukon River, so 10 year old Tommy came along to teach them a thing or two before they leave a couple days later. We were sort of using this as a training day for the Yukon 1000.
Tommy was using a Bending Branches paddle. Blake and Dan both had some very light weight ZRE paddles. I use a Sanborn Gunflint which is great for steering that large of boat.
There were very few people out there past the first 12 miles. If you want to see less people and are able, travel farther in. We saw no one down the South Arm of Knife. We only saw 4 groups in 25 miles.
Next we stopped at Eddy falls which has an overabundance of water flowing over it. It’s an awesome falls tucked into the cedar trees. Then we cut back over to Amoeber, Topaz, and Cherry because those are stunningly beautiful with cliffs and ridges all around. Blake jumped off a ledge into the crystal clear waters of Cherry Lake. Then it was up the hill to Lunar, and then Lake of the Clouds. The portages just keep going up hill until that point. Now we start going downhill to Rivalry and Gijikiki. And then down onto the border lake of Ottertrack around 2:15. From there, we are still over 23 miles from the parking lot, but it’s pretty straight forward.
We explored a couple historical areas along the way, and then decided to take the Ensign route back. Did a little more swimming on Vera and then across the very crowded Ensign lake. We did see one empty site though.
About 50 miles into our trip, Just after 7 p.m., we were nearing the end of Splash lake and came upon a canoe that was half in the water at the shoreline of the portage, blocking the landing. Behind it on shore was a guy in his 60s laying on the path. As we got closer, he said that he banged up his leg, arm and head pretty bad in a fall down a hill at their campsite the night before. His forehead had a road rash looking spot and he was cradling his arm. He said his wife is on the other end of the portage hoping to flag someone down. She paddled their very loaded canoe for 12 hours across Ensign and Splash that day. Then they sat exhausted on a portage for over an hour, thinking they were going to have to camp there another stormy night. Hearing all of that and seeing the condition he was in, I turned to my comrades and barely needed to say a word. With a nod, we were all in agreement that we would be hauling them out of there. I told the guy that is what we were doing, grabbed some of his packs, and started across the portage. On the other side, I saw the lady before she saw me. She was sitting on a log in an exhausted and defeated posture, staring out at the motionless lake where no one has passed by since she made it there.
She heard me coming and turned as I said Hello! She seemed shocked and delighted to see someone else, especially when she saw I was carrying her packs. I told her that we were going to get them out of there. She began to tear up with joy and excitement as she ran back to help her husband stagger across on his injured leg. They tried to come up with another plan that didn’t put us out as much, but I told them it’s no problem and that this is the only sensible plan. Blake said that they need the practice for Yukon.
The four of us did two trips to get all their gear and canoes over. Then I got in their canoe and had Tommy in the front along with a pile of gear. Blake and Dan took each end of the MN4 with the couple in the middle seats and another large pile of gear.
The guy sat cradling his arm. He is a hard working and genuine good guy that is down on his luck, and you could tell that he would definitely be paddling if he could. He would also do the same for any of us if the tides were turned. The lady was paddling right in time with Dan and she learned some new strokes along the way. She was grinning from ear to ear.
We got back to our van in a little over an hour. We put them, their gear, and their canoe on board and I drove them to their vehicle. They tried to pay, but I think they knew from our conversations that we would not accept. I told them “Next time you find someone that is in need of help that you can provide… Help them! And that will be our payment.”
One of the codes I live by is that I won’t help anyone go INTO the woods. If I help them carry a pack or canoe on their way into the woods, I’m saving them time and energy, and helping them get farther out there beyond their abilities. They will be that much farther to get themselves out, or for rescue personnel to come in if they have an emergency. But if someone needs help to get out, and it’s legitimate, I will help them. Even if it’s just some helpful advice. Or in this case, more of an evac of sorts.
We enjoy traveling through the BWCA and seeing it’s beauty. The distances we travel might not be the norm for the average person. But this is more than just a hobby for us. It is our everyday lifestyle, and also our job. If you love what you do, it’s not work though. We don’t take it for granted that we get the opportunity to live, work, and play in this incredible place.
Fifty-five miles, 25 lakes, thousands of smiles, lots of goofing around, jumped off some cliffs, and helped some people that needed it. Total trip time was under 16 hours.
What a fantastic day in the BWCA!