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Bass Lake By Water and Woods  by Heather Monthei

Day Trips - Part 1
While extended wilderness canoe trips in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area are always an attraction, we often tend to overlook the shorter day trips. This past September my husband, Marshall, and I spent eight days off the Echo Trail; starting at the Mudro Lake entry and traveling to the Basswood River. We lingered at the waterfalls, explored smaller lakes, looked for historical artifacts, and stopped to admire a watery garden of pitcher plants.

The weather was warmer than most of our past autumn trips, and we were treated to starlit nights, moonglows on the lake ripples, and close encounters with otters and loons. A special thrill was a visit by Canadian Jays, and their willingness to eat right out of our hands. Like all trips, however, it wasn't long enough, and in this case, we still had nine days of vacation left. Nine whole days for day trips!

After returning from the Basswood River loop, we tarried at our camper in Ely for only a few hours. That was long enough to do laundry and eat a good dinner. By the middle of the following morning we were already on our way back up the Echo Trail to the Bass Lake trailhead. We had considered paddling the Superior National Forest loop that included Bass, Burntside, Fenske, Grassy and Low Lakes; a route that would take several days. The weather forecast, however, was predicting frost warnings, and cold rain or snow, for the next five days so we pondered our options. I have no problem dealing with those conditions when we're already out in the wilderness, but to go out there with an icy, wet forecast on purpose is another matter! Thus the idea of several day trips was born.

Where Has All The Water Gone?
A sign at the Bass Lake Trailhead had excerpts from an old newspaper article: "Experts unable to explain why water of lake has left basin. Lake full of water Friday but those returning later find it empty." The historical review went on to tell about a sluiceway between Bass and Low Lakes which had deteriorated after the logging operation was discontinued in 1925. On that fateful day a portage crew had been working on the trail between Little Long and Bass Lakes and had heard the thunder of roaring water during the night. When they investigated the area the following morning, they found a barren terrain of rocks where the lake had been. The lake was literally drained leaving about a mile of mud where the water had been. Over the years the lake has refilled somewhat, but there are still areas where the lake bottom is still obvious.

It was mid-morning when Marshall and I started the 160 rod portage to Bass Lake. The trail began with a long boardwalk which bounced beneath our enthusiastic steps. After a short distance a sign announced the spur path to "Dry Lake Trail and Falls," a hiking trail which we would take several days later. Log steps made the walking easy, and the clear gravel path was level most of the way. A dark ceiling loomed overhead, but occasional breaks in the clouds offered peeks of sun. The air was steamy after the early morning thunderstorm.

The gravel landing at Bass Lake made the put-in easy, and soon we were paddling across the expanse of water. Dry Falls splashed down the rocky embankment on the northern shoreline near the portage to Dry Lake; a nice campsite was perched on the bluff overlooking it.

Portage signs on this loop marked the distance to each lake, a distinct difference from the pristine BWCA routes. Narrow wheel marks spanned the length of the trail from use of portage carts, another forbidden tool in the designated wilderness region. The walkway to Low Lake ended at a slick muddy hill and a rocky area where my boots slid even as I carefully eased my way toward the water.

The small pond at the base of the hill was surrounded by cattails before it opened to a wide gravel-filled area. This spot was part of the original lake bottomland just beneath the sluiceway washout. A labyrinth of paths wove amongst small birches and aspens. Several day hikers were enjoying the area with their dogs.

Marshall and I stopped at the first campsite on Low Lake for a picnic lunch. Two impressive jack pines towered over the fire ring where benches had been created from split logs. A couple of tent pads lay further up the hill, and more trails led up the incline to offer more scenic views. Across the lake a truck was pulling away from a public boat launch, and several cabins sat nestled in amongst the trees.

Clouds thickened overhead as we paddled in the direction of the Range River. Several canoes were full of teenage youths; who appeared to be doing research They were gathered near the shoreline, wearing waders and examining some aquatic treasures in their pond nets. I wondered if they were part of the new Boundary Waters Wilderness Program which had recently started at Ely's Memorial High School.

Low Lake turned into a weedy muskeg at its northern end before branching into the Range and Grassy Rivers. Bogs of grasses and blueberries lined the narrowing channel, and whirligig beetles zigzagged on the quiet lake surface.

Quiet inlet channels are always a delight, and we continued up the Range River as far as the unimproved road. The deteriorating log bridge would make this overgrown lane impassible in a motor vehicle. Rusty spikes stuck out from the rotting structure, and big gaps were left where the logs had decayed. The "road" dropped off several feet into a mud puddle before leading to more weedy ruts.

We had considered lifting the canoe across the dirt road and continuing north to Range Lake, but the water level was so low, and the grasses were so thick, that we decided against it. The mist was becoming heavier so we dug out our rain gear. My long-billed paddling cap must have looked comical sticking out from under the hood of my rain jacket, but at least it helped to keep the rain off my glasses.

Back on Bass Lake, the sun struggled to peek between ominous clouds, highlighting the autumn colors. A loon swam peacefully not far from our canoe; arching his back he rose up and flapped his wings, appearing to wave at us as we passed by.

We passed a picture book island which looked like an ideal place for a shore lunch. The round emerald lawn in the front of the campsite contrasted against the dark pines, looking very much like a golf green. Marshall smiled, "Yeah, but look at the water hazard in front of it!"

Water tumbled over the rocky steps between Bass and Dry Lakes, collecting in a pool about half way from the top. The adjacent portage ascended a very steep hill, and over some difficult rocks, before descending sharply into Dry Lake. A brilliant yellow-leafed birch had fallen on the southern shore, and several magenta mountain maples dotted the banks.

While searching for the portage to High Lake I spotted a couple who were hiking the Dry Lake Trail. The man stood high on the rock outcropping watching us approach and called out a greeting. He couldn't imagine how we got our "critter" into this isolated territory. Distracted by the beauty of the vista he and his wife had wandered off the trail and were trying to find the familiar landmarks and blue diamond markers.

The 100-rod portage to High Lake was tucked in the trees in the northern corner and it soon intersected the hiking trail. Scattered stones provided steps across a shallow trickling creek. A large tree had fallen at the landing on High, its huge root system grasping great clots of dirt.

As we paddled west through the narrows of High Lake, I spotted some rustic buildings on the far shore. As we drew closer, we saw an open shed with camping gear hanging from the rafters and several teepees and temporary shelters. I wondered if they were privately owned or part of an outfitting business. Darkness was falling fast, under the heavy clouds, so we didn't tarry on this picturesque lake. The distant shore was hazy with mist as we made our way back to the portage.

A blue heron erupted from the shore near the portage back to Bass Lake. We traversed the steep rocks once again and Marshall continued to the landing while I crossed the bridge at the top of the waterfall. The overlook provided a spectacular view of the lake and I lingered there to take a few photos.

The long boardwalk on the last portage added a spring to our steps as we neared the parking lot. It was after 6 p.m. when we arrived at the car. The fatigue we were feeling after a strenuous day was balanced with the exhilaration of accomplishing a major feat. The route had covered 13 miles and 8 portages, twice as much paddling and portaging as we would have done on that same portion of the originally planned loop.

Two days later Marshall and I decided to give our canoe a rest and to spend some time hiking. The Bass Lake area had been so fascinating from the water and now that we knew a little of its history we were eager to see it from a different perspective.

Lace Up The Boots
The parking lot at the trailhead had few cars at 7:30 in the morning but, even with the 40 degree temperatures, I didn't expect to enjoy much solitude on this Saturday hike. A gray jay watched us curiously as we ambled down the trail unencumbered by our usual heavy loads. A mahogany shelf bracket clung to an aged birch while thick sphagnum moss padded the forest floor. Thick gatherings of ferns hid in the shade of the dense pines, and red-capped soldiers marched along a rotting log. It was enjoyable to have more time to observe the special little things along the path.

I took time to appreciate the marsh at the west end of Bass Lake. Small spindly trees surrounded the former lake bottom, and I considered that the path upon which we were standing had been under water before 1925. The trail provided an invigorating climb on the spur leading from the Bass Lake portage landing. The southern rim continued upward to the crest where rock cairns pointed the way on the solid Canadian Shield. It was a straight drop from the ridge to the glistening water 100 feet beneath us.

By 9 a.m. we were ready to shed our heavy coats. The sun filtered down through the trees and raised the temperature significantly. The dense forest changed periodically, varying from straight cedars to a thick grove of ancient red pines some 18" in diameter. Then, suddenly, we found ourselves surrounded by peeling white birch. Some smaller saplings leaned over to catch any window of sunlight. One tree reached out a thick branch and beckoned to me to climb into her arms. It was a great place to pose for a picture.

At last the ridge opened up to a vista where the breeze was a welcome relief. To the east was a dense wooded gorge where I bushwhacked to find an "office in the woods," unaware that there was an official primitive facility at the base of the trail. A gurgling stream revealed a tiny waterfall that splashed over rocks and fallen leaves. The wooden walking bridge at the bottom of the hill gave us yet another view of this unique area.

Marshall and I lingered on the sand bar that we had traversed a few days earlier and wandered through the small birch-lined paths. It was easy to see where the sides of the natural glacial dam had caved in when the sluiceway washed out. The fine sandy soil in the flatlands must have been deposited by that event.

The topography changed as we crossed to the northern side of the eroded area. The former shoreline was visible at an even higher elevation, and waist-high piles of rocks were stacked for cairns in the vast openings on the granite floor. The sweet fragrance of wilting leaves permeated the forest as the dying foliage dropped from their branches and spiraled toward the ground. Decaying toadstools added a slightly acrid scent. Great mounds of caribou moss carpeted the rocks in the shade of a birch with a 2' girth.Dry Falls - Photo by Erik W. L. Anderson, 2012

A backpacker campsite offered a picnic table for our lunch, and the clearing held many options for tent pads. A wooden privacy screen hid a decaying box latrine across the main path. We crossed more smooth rock ledges and several sunny meadow-like areas with thick plush moss. Vibrant orange chanterelle mushrooms added a bright splash of color, and a parade of puffballs marched single file on a downed tree. A musky smell drifted across the path and alerted my senses for wildlife.

We paused several times to gaze at the lake at the many overlooks. Even as we meandered away from the lake, it felt like the crest of the world as we climbed still higher on the northern bluff. We chose to veer off on the Dry Lake Trail since we had already visited the waterfall on our previous trip. Aged birch trees led the way to the lowlands where evidence of the former lake floor appeared with a garden of horsetails growing deep in the woods.

After crossing the portage trail between Dry and High Lakes the path ascended straight up on gravel rock. Switchbacks had been built into the hillside to ease the climb and curtail erosion. As I detoured over to an outcropping, I spotted the keyhole opening to Little Dry Lake which we hadn't been able to see from the canoe. I was sorry to discover we had missed paddling this little side-lake, but now we had an excuse to return someday.

The trail eventually led back down to water level and to more old shoreline rock. Two day-hikers passed us going the opposite direction, the first people we had seen all day. As we circumnavigated Little Dry Lake, we noted it was larger than expected. The trail was filled with cobble, and bunchberry grew in abundance amongst the moss along the sides. A swamp spanned the far side of the lake.

Back on the main trail we met several families that were hiking back from the waterfall; their young children skipped along the path stopping occasionally to collect some colored leaves. It was just after noon when we reached the parking lot; four hours wasn't bad for a trek of more than six miles.

If the fiery orange sunset that blazed over Ely was any indication of the next day's weather, we could anticipate delightful paddling for our next day trip. Although the darkening sky was ushering in a sharp dip in the mercury, part of me regretted that we hadn't gone ahead with our original plans. Our weather had been sunny and warm that day, a far cry from the predictions of icy rain.

Yet, when I looked back on our two trips to the Bass Lake area, I realized we had been able to study the region in a little more detail than we would have if we had labored with overnight gear. With some sense of fulfillment I tallied the miles we had paddled and hiked and felt the satisfaction of our accomplishment. I was already anticipating our next day's trip.


       --article courtesy of BoundaryWatersMagazine


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