This was a base camping trip to Horseshoe Lake. Originally planned for the end of June, I had to reschedule it because this lined up with the local little league playoffs. As a first time coach, I didn’t want to miss the playoffs. It was the warmest weather we have had for one of our family trips.
As this was the fourth trip for me, I wanted to try something different to start. I decided to stay at the Rockwood Outfitters bunk house the night before. This worked well and I was on the water earlier than my previous trips that included at least a 45 minute ride down a gravel road to begin.
It would be the third trip for my two oldest sons, MLG age 14 and CTG age 11. You can read about our first trip and our second trip. It was the first trip for my daughter RBG age 9. She was excited for the trip to the point where it was hard to go to sleep the night before. She was looking forward to going canoeing and staying in the bunk house.
This was our first trip under a fire ban. There were times where we would have liked a camp fire but at least it prevented a repeat of last year’s trip.
Day Zero (8-8-21)
Our drive takes us through a stretch of northern Wisconsin that is heavily forested. The scenery becomes interesting and starts to take on a north woods feel. Conditions were foggy as we made our way up the road. We saw a large dark canine crossing the road ahead of us. It was too big to be a coyote. We thought it was a wolf. The sight of it held the promise of future wildlife sightings.
As we crossed the bridge into Duluth, the fog was mesmerizing and it was as if we were driving in a cloud. Seeing the water of the big lake increased the anticipation for the next day when we would launch the canoe.
Rockwood is on the shore of Poplar Lake. The kids all wanted to jump in the lake, which they did with great enthusiasm. Then we bought a dozen leeches from the outfitter because the boys wanted to fish. They proceeded to catch a couple of smallmouth bass as I rearranged some of the gear.
We decided to go out for dinner to Poplar Haus which is a short drive down the Gunflint Trail. Reservations are recommended but we were seated after a short wait. I also did not have cell service this far up the Gunflint Trail. We all shared a pot of mussels and had a tasty dinner. One of the cool things about eating at the Poplar Haus was the view of the lake. Seeing the islands on Poplar Lake provided a reminder that we were going that way in the morning.
The bunk room is designed to use your own sleeping bag. It is also heated. It would be nice to be able to turn off the heat or bring a light weight sleeping bag or liner.
Day One (8-9-21)
Lizz Lake EP 47 – BWCA Gunflint Trail, MN
Poplar to Horseshoe (~ 5 miles src:Back Country Navigator)
Weather Sunny 79 F
Group Size 4 people in two canoes: Rand, RBG and CTG Old Town Canadienne – MLG Wenonah Basswood Solo
Start Time ~8 am End Time ~12 pm
The water was like glass and a heavy fog hung in the air as we pushed off into Poplar Lake. This is a really nice lake to paddle with islands and plenty of nooks and crannies. There were signs of civilization but a lot of them were hidden by the fog.
After hearing stories for the past couple of years, RBG wanted to see how it would be to carry a pack across her first portage. She found it to be rocky and thought it was cool how the landing on one side could be rocky and on the other mucky. After the first portage we proceeded down Lizz Lake. We paused briefly for a picture by the sign marking the border of the boundary waters. RBG took well to portaging carrying her packs with no problem. She was also using her hair bands to lash loose items together by the second portage. I introduced her to the bungie dealie bob which she put to good use.
By the time we reached Caribou the fog had lifted. We noticed a couple of open camp sites as we paddled by. We made our way to the next portage and passed a group exiting.
After putting in on Horseshoe Lake, we paddled to the camp site closest to the portage to Gaskin. This site is in a mixed grove of cedars and white pines with trunks so large that I cannot get my arms around them.
On first sight, my daughter thought the camp site looked nice. She was apprehensive about getting poked in the feet by pine needles as she likes to go bare foot. However, she found the pine duff to be soft.
MLG took his solo canoe out within sight of camp. He caught a small mouth bass sight fishing with polarized sun glasses.
The camp site had a nice waist high rock that was good for filleting fish on. I sauteed the fillet in ghee with lemon juice and Montreal seasoning. We enjoyed it with a side of macaroni and cheese.
We went out for a sunset paddle. It was a peaceful evening. As the sun set behind the trees, the pines were highlighted as they poked up into the sky.
I trolled a chartreuse rapala but didn’t pick up any fish as we headed back in to camp. MLG stayed out on the water to continue fishing.
The mosquitoes came out and made their presence felt as I waited for MLG to return. I eventually called him in. As dusk settled we could hear the buzz of what sounded like a million mosquitoes in the woods. He reconsidered fishing from shore and we all headed into the tent.
Day Two (8-10-21)
Horseshoe Lake BWCA – Weather: Brief Shower then Sunny 61F to 77F
A day trip to Misquah to hike the portage and see the Misquah Hills was the plan for today. The day didn’t go as planned and turned into a fishing trip. It would be the first day where our day trip was limited due to wind.
As we made our way down Horseshoe towards Vista, we encountered a head wind. There was some complaining from the 11 year old in the bow. At one point he vocalized a desire to turn back. With a bit of encouragement, we pressed on.
The Horseshoe side of the portage was sheltered from the wind. We landed our canoes, stashed them off to the side of the portage trail and started to fish from shore. Storm clouds soon rolled in and it began to rain. We decided to don our rain gear. About five minutes later the rain stopped.
We decided to check out the other side of the portage. What greeted us was a boulder garden, overcast skies, two foot rollers and a wind blowing straight into shore. In other words good walleye weather. However, there was no way we were pushing off into those conditions.
We began fishing the from the rocky shore. With my first cast of a #3 Mepps I hooked a fish. When I brought it to shore, I could see it was a walleye. The fish threw the hook before I could get it in the net. With the second cast, I hooked into an even bigger walleye. This one was landed and put on a stringer.
For the next hour or so we had some of the best fishing I have experienced. After a few more unproductive casts with the Mepps, I switched to a leech under a slip float. We caught mostly walleyes with some small mouth bass as well.
There was a spot within the spot too. It seemed that if I could get the wind to push my bobber over one particular area, almost every time I would pick up a walleye. I noticed that the walleye did not always pull the slip bobber under the water when they took the bait. Even with a slip float indicator, their takes could be subtle. As far as the small mouth, they fight hard for their size.
We fished until we ran out of leeches. With the wave action, the fish were even hitting dead leeches. By the time we were ready to leave the sun was peaking out and the lake had calmed greatly. I hope that my 11 year old learned a lesson about pushing ahead in spite of difficulty and being rewarded for the effort.
We kept a stringer with one walleye for each of us and headed back to camp. We had a great fish dinner. The walleye fillets were sauteed in ghee, with fresh squeezed lemon and Montreal seasoning. Everyone heartily enjoyed the fish. This night the side dish was plain mashed potatoes. These were rather flavorless and weren’t that great.
Day Three (8-11-21)
Horseshoe Lake BWCA – Weather: Sunny 61F to 79F
I woke up to the gentle patter of rain on the tent in the early morning hours. It was dark when I put on a headlamp and decided to get up and place all the gear under the CCS rain fly I had setup just in case it rained. Afterwards, I went back to bed and fell asleep.
My daughter was the first to awaken and get out of the tent. The second thing she said to me was “I’m hungry.” After a few hours of a steady drizzle, the rain had stopped. Outside the tent in the light of day, I observed that the tent pad that was kind of down a gentle slope from the fire grate area had a small puddle in one spot.
It was time to start some water boiling for breakfast of oatmeal. The oatmeal was often mixed with hot chocolate powder.
The boys started joining me for coffee, which on these canoe trips means instant. I like to take one TJ’s all dressed up packet and mix it with a Starbucks Via packet because the TJ’s packet by itself would be too sweet for me. The boys would just have the TJ’s all dressed up packet.
The plan for the day was to day trip to Gaskin and do some exploring. We fished both sides of the Horseshoe to Gaskin portage. On the Gaskin side, we noticed the prevailing wind blowing in to shore of the portage. This would make travel difficult.
We pushed to first camp site on an island. Once we got close we saw that the site was occupied. Not wanting to battle the wind further, we turned around and let the wind push us back to the portage. My sons fished for awhile and we had lunch of All American Works Burger from Packit Gourmet at the portage. This was pretty filling and a welcome change from the PBJ tortillas that had been our primary lunch fare.
We made it back to camp with little trouble as the wind was at our backs. Our days began to find a rhythm where we would return in the afternoon after a day trip. The youngest two would go swimming and then relax in the hammocks. We brought along two ENO Sub7 hammocks that were definitely worth their weight. I brought along one bug net in case someone wanted to try sleeping in the hammock. MLG ended up spending two nights in the hammock.
I would enjoy the simple pleasure of drying my feet with a towel and changing into dry wool socks and camp shoes. I would then brew up tea for all of us. Note: next time I will bring some kind of afternoon snack to go with the tea. My oldest might go out fishing by himself within sight of the camp depending on the day and how much fishing we had done already.
Some time later, I would start dinner preparations. On this night we had one of our favorite dinners, backpacker beans and rice with sharp cheddar cheese. My youngest said it was a bit spicy for her. I will go easier on the taco seasoning next time.
Day Four (8-12-21)
Horseshoe Lake BWCA – Weather: Sunny 61F to72F
A return to the walleye spot at the Vista portage was the plan for today. We were able to easily make it to the portage because the wind was at our backs most of the way.
We arrived around lunch time. There was a west wind, which was different from our previous visit. The fishing was slower but we still caught walleyes. As we were beginning to wrap up the fishing for the day, my oldest caught the biggest small mouth of the trip. It turned out to be 17 inches.
We made a lunch of what I call boundary waters hot dogs. Basically, cheese and a beef stick in a tortilla. The sharp cheddar cheese was still quite delicious on day four of the trip.
The way back to camp proved to be the most difficult paddling of the trip. We had to battle a gusty head wind for 1.5 miles back to camp. The wind was bad enough at points that we would pull over to shore and grab a branch and rest while we waited the gusts to die down.
At one point, my oldest was in front of us as we came around a bend in the lake. He was facing a head wind straight on. His solo was lightly loaded because we were only out for a day trip. My daughter was scared he might tip over as he got pushed backward. I could see him shifting his weight with his hips. If not for his shifting and being in tune with the waves, he may have gone over the gunnels. During one of our rest periods, he mentioned that he was scared. We were highly motivated to get back to camp and eventually made it across the most exposed part of the lake of the afternoon. We continued leap frogging and we were all happy to get back on solid ground.
That night we had fish dinner again. Our supply of fresh lemon was still holding up. We had baby red mashed potatoes that included dehydrated butter. These instant mashed potatoes were much better than the plain version from the other day.
Day Five (8-13-21)
Horseshoe Lake BWCA – Weather Sunny 49F – 64 F
On our last full day in the boundary waters we launched a dawn patrol in search of a moose. I set the alarm for 5 am to ensure we woke up before sun rise. We each grabbed a granola bar and pushed off. For this paddle, we all loaded into the Canadienne.
The canoe was big enough but CTG did not have a good seat and started becoming uncomfortable part way through our trip. We paddled the lily pad areas but did not see a moose. On the way back to camp we did get close to a curious loon.
Once back at camp, we tried freeze dried biscuits and gravy from Mountain House for the first time. The biscuits and gravy received a decidedly mixed review. I thought they were ok. My oldest didn’t like them and the younger two did.
The camp site is heavily wooded and the fire grate area does not have a clear view of the lake. The lake is visible through the trees. However, there is a trail from camp leading to a large rock on the shore of the lake. Previous campers had cut back some of the branches to make the rock an inviting place to sit. This rock received plenty of afternoon sun. I dubbed it the sitting rock or sunning rock. I finished my morning coffee on the sunning rock.
After breakfast we decided to day trip to Gaskin portage and do some fishing. This had us paddling against the prevailing wind earlier in the day.
As soon as we reached the portage, we saw a group loading up to paddle down Horseshoe. We decided to fish from the canoe. I rigged up a small sinker about 12 inches above a #6 Aberdeen hook with a leech. I tossed this rig over the side and began to drift. I was hoping to catch a small mouth or a walleye.
I soon realized I had a fish on the end of the line. The fish stayed down not revealing itself until I had it close to the canoe. Once it surfaced we could see that it was a very large northern pike, possibly the largest I had ever hooked. It was clear that the fish was longer than the opening of the net I take in the canoe. My younger son in the bow wanted no part of trying to land it. He handed me the net.
At this point the pike decided to take off on a drag peeling run. It then did a head shake and released itself from my fishing rig.
After two groups cleared the portage, we decided to land and fish from shore. Knowing that pike were in the area, I decided to tie on a steel leader and a red five of diamonds daredevl spoon. Casting this several times produced a fish on the end of the line. It was another northern that fit in the net this time. I was able to land the fish and get a picture with it.
We caught a few small small mouth bass and had PBJ tortillas for lunch. There were brief on and off sprinkles that did not amount to much accumulation. The dark clouds would blow in, sprinkle for a few minutes and then blow over.
We were able to coast back to camp with tail wind. After another round of afternoon tea, I found out the possible key to leaving with an empty food barrel. My children were hungry and began to eat all the remaining snacks and moved on to the extra dehydrated meals that I brought along just in case. Bringing a hungry teenager may be the key to an empty food barrel on exit day.
I slowly started to pack up and organize the camp as much as possible. Then I made what turned out to be one of the favorite meals of the trip. It was a package of Bear Creek Stroganoff that I added freeze dried beef dices to.
After dinner I spent the last evening on the sitting rock soaking it all in. My children joined me as I relaxed on the rock and watched the sun go down behind the tree tops.
Day Six (8-14-21)
Lizz Lake EP 47 – BWCA Gunflint Trail, MN
Horsehoe to Poplar (~ 5 miles src:Back Country Navigator)
Weather Sunny 41F
Group Size 4 people in two canoes: Rand, RBG and CTG Old Town Canadienne – MLG Wenonah Basswood Solo
Start Time ~6:41 am End Time ~10:15 am
The alarm went off at 5am again. We all had a breakfast bar as we packed up camp on the coldest morning of the trip. By the time we were on the water at 6:41, the crew was complaining about how cold their hands were. I left the knit hats at home to save weight because I wasn’t expecting cold weather.
We enjoyed a misty morning paddle over glass calm water. Watching the sunrise over the tree tops as the mist burned off made getting up early worth it. We were relieved to be paddling in calm conditions after the wind we experienced during the middle of our trip.
By the time we put in on Caribou Lake, the mist had burned off.
As we made our way down Lizz Lake, we spotted a beaver. We passed by groups on both sides of the Poplar to Lizz Portage. Another tandem group headed out of the wilderness was loading their canoe as we put in on Poplar Lake. We made it back to the shore of Rockwood Outfitters some time around 10am.
This trip was different than past trips. The weather was warmer allowing plenty of opportunity for afternoon swimming. The younger two siblings spent lots of time hanging out together in camp. The deck of waterproof cards got plenty of use.
We had a great time in spite of some limitations from the wind. I had some of the best fishing of my life. We enjoyed three fish dinners cooked over the camp stove. The bwca was in drought conditions forcing a fire ban with forest fires in some parts of the boundary waters. When we entered some entry points were closed. About a week after we exited, the entire bwca was closed.
Pioneer Pack Is Great
One piece of new gear I brought along on this trip was a Pioneer Pack from Cooke Custom Sewing. This pack is purpose built for portaging and it shows. I found the pioneer size was plenty big enough for my purposes.
Hammocks Were a Win
The light weight hammocks were worth their weight on this base camping trip. My oldest son even spent two nights sleeping in one. The weather was nice so we didn’t have to worry about rain or being too cold.
Afternoon Tea Was Nice
We had afternoon tea on most days of the trip. This was a pleasant way to spend time in the afternoon. Next time I will bring snacks to go with the tea.
Mesh Leech Bags
Using a mesh leech bag is more convenient than using the leech locker while fishing. However, I think I might have been doing something wrong. By the end of the day, the leeches that were in the leech bags were dead or dying. I think I need to be more careful keeping the bags in the water. I might also need to put a rock in the bag because the bags are designed to float in a live well. When tied to a canoe, the bag keeps the leeches very close to the surface of the water.
Always Bring a Knit Hat
Knit hats are worth their weight. They can go a long way to taking the chill off a cold morning.