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Boundary Waters

A Fall Trip Journal: Mudro-Crooked Loop by Gary Hamer

What follows is an account of our annual, late September canoe trip to the BWCAW. Al, Bill, Paul and me, were the regulars, Steve had been here once before, six years ago, and this would be Jeff's first trip. The six of us had been eagerly anticipating this trip for months, and now the week we had waited for was finally here.

After the nine-hour drive from Central Iowa, the ranger at the Kawishiwi Wilderness Station dropped a bombshell on us. He pointed out that the Horse River was un-navigable due to low water; now we would have to modify our route. We had chosen the route last winter so we hadn't planned on this! If we couldn't get through the Horse River we would potentially miss out on some of the best scenery and fishing of the trip.

It was decision time; we opted to start our trip as planned and check out the river. If it was impassible, we would spend the week on Horse, Fourtown, Boot and Gun. With the decision made we continued on to Ely to pick up fishing licenses and last minute supplies. Then to the Fenske Lake Campground, which is just a few miles from our Mudro Lake entry point.

(Author's note: Recent Minnesota DNR regulations do not allow keeping smallmouth bass after September 10 .)

Our Travel Plan: Mudro, Sandpit, Tin Can Mike, Horse, Horse River, Basswood River, Crooked, Friday Bay, Papoose, Chippewa, Niki, Wagosh, Gun, Fairy, Boot, Fourtown. Total portages: 18 (distance 1376 rods). Total distance: 38 miles.


Clear skies and 35 degrees at sunrise as we woke up at the Fenske Lake Campground. After a quick meal of oatmeal, english muffins and hot chocolate we made the six mile drive to the Chain Saw Sisters parking area. We talked with a group that just came from the Horse River. They told us we could make it through but it would take a couple of hours longer than normal. That was great news for us!

We were on the water by 8:00 a.m. Al and I spotted a pine martin hunting along the rocks while maneuvering our way through the narrows into Mudro. The 80-rod portage between Mudro and Sandpit tested our out-of-shape muscles by climbing, then descending, an 80 foot hill. We made camp at midday near the narrows at the south end of Horse Lake.

The site had a protected fire grate, three good tent pads, and a decent canoe landing. After lunch, Bill, Steve, Paul and Jeff went fishing. The day was sunny and breezy and by mid-afternoon it was a very comfortable 66 degrees. While fishing along shore Al and I actually witnessed a 12-inch diameter birch crash 50 feet down shore from us. I went to investigate and saw that a beaver had just finished chewing around it. After waiting a few minutes the beaver came back and swam along the shore a couple of times; giving me some great photo opportunities.

Our supper consisted of fish, rice with chicken sauce, peas, carrots and blueberry cheesecake. As the breeze was just letting up at dusk Paul and Steve went fishing again. They caught two bluegills and a 16-inch smallmouth bass. I experimented with some time exposure photographs around the campfire. Just before turning in Paul and Steve heard a commotion in the water by where they had secured their stringer of fish. With flashlights, they went down the shore to investigate. A couple of otters were making a meal out of the fish on the rocks. Paul and Steve quietly approached; close enough to hear the crunching of fish bones.


It was slightly breezy, 47 degrees and clear at sunrise. No fish for breakfast this morning; thanks to the otters. We broke camp and headed for Horse River by midmorning. As expected, the water level was very low. It was necessary to lift the canoes over many rocks between Horse Lake and the first 50-rod portage. During one of the liftovers, Al sent the water splashing while attempting to catch a fish in the rocky shallows; the rest of us enjoyed the entertainment.

The middle sections were OK for paddling. After the 75-rod portage, we pulled rainsuits out of our packs as it started to rain lightly; and we welcomed any additional water to add to the river level. Nevertheless we had to use our paddles to push the canoes through the shallow muddy river all the way to the Basswood River. We portaged around Lower Basswood Falls, then made camp in late afternoon, in the middle of some superb scenery.

From camp, we could watch the water rushing out of Lower Basswood Falls, and the area was dotted with picturesque islands and rocky bluffs. There were lots of places waiting to be explored. It stopped raining shortly after setting up camp. I took photos of the guys fishing at the base of the falls. A couple of the guys went fishing around dusk as the sky was just beginning to clear. Steve returned with a 36-inch northern. Later, while sitting around the campfire, we listened to a pack of wolves; they were barely audible over the sound of the waterfalls.


At sunrise it was 34 degrees, clear, calm with heavy fog. There were fantastic photo opportunities everywhere I looked. I shot four rolls of 36-exposure slide film during the next two hours. I photographed everything from an eagle, silhouetted in the foggy scenery, to early morning sunlight hitting the fall foliage. Bill caught three small northern below the falls.

We broke camp just before noon. I could have stayed at this spot much longer. We were able to view the pictographs and granite cliffs along Basswood River. While fishing at the base of the pictographs, Paul caught a three-quart bucket and we all had a good laugh. A little later, Al caught a 40-inch northern. It was so big it didn't completely fit into the net. I finally helped him land the fish by partially lifting it with the net and partially lifting it with my free hand.

In the canoe the northern managed to flop around enough to give me five small puncture wounds to my left index finger and to cover my camera bag with that infamous northern pike slime. We were able to get a quick photo before releasing it. It was sunny all day with a high of about 65 degrees.

Our group made camp on the east end of an island in Crooked Lake just before entering Thursday Bay. We had fish for supper; a small walleye and a three-pound northern. We saw some bear tracks in the mud just below camp. At dusk we watched a bald eagle swoop down several times to clean up the fish remains that we placed on the rocks across the channel. It was 48 degrees at bedtime.


It was partly cloudy with a westerly breeze and 52 degrees at sunrise. As we broke camp before midmorning, the weather was turning sunny and windy. A small island provided a perfect lunch site just before entering Friday Bay. While on the island, we visited with a couple of guys from Ohio on their first visit to the BWCAW and headed to Iron Lake. The first thing they asked us was "Have you guys been seeing lots of mice around your campfire at night?" They went on to tell us about when they entered their first camp and were greeted by the sight of fifteen dead mice hanging from their tails. Apparently, the previous campers had a morbid sense of humor.

(Editor's Note: Hungry mice, fattening up for the long winter months, are fairly common on late fall trips. Keep your packs and your tent buttoned up snugly and these friendly critters will be no more than a curiosity. Harming any animals, especially in the wilderness, is not acceptable behavior; even though mice make most of us cringe a little.)

After lunch we put on our life jackets and headed into Friday Bay where we were met by a stiff wind out of the southwest. Our intention was to camp in the southern part of Friday Bay. We planned to cut across the lake and check out the two campsites on the western shore but quickly realized that the waves were getting larger than we felt we could safely manage. Just as we started to turn back toward the eastern shore, a large wave and gust of wind hit us and nearly swamped the canoe! Our canoe took in about a gallon of water but of more concern was Al's paddle; he lost his grip on it as we were on the crest of a wave and the paddle found nothing but air. While the paddle drifted away, I ruddered the canoe the rest of the way to shore. Luckily Paul and Jeff were paddling close enough to us to give us the spare paddle.

All three canoes in our group pulled into a protected bay along the eastern shore and waited for three and a half hours until the winds died down enough to continue. While windbound, Al caught and released a 26-inch northern, Steve caught a smaller northern and Paul caught a couple of bass from 12 to 17 inches.

By late afternoon, the wind died down just enough for us to make it to a nice campsite on the south end of Friday Bay; a scenic spot but the fire grate was unprotected from the wind. It was 73 degrees. We enjoyed a quick refreshing dip at a small sandy beach a few hundred feet NE of camp. The seafood chowder, fish and rice for supper tasted especially good that night.

After supper, Paul and Steve went fishing north of camp along the shore. Suddenly, Steve arrived in camp running and out of breath. He said that Paul had hooked into something really big and needed the net. Steve quickly retrieved the net and headed back, but Paul had already landed the 23-inch small-mouth bass. Nice fish! We took quick photos and then released it. After dark we were entertained by watching meteors and satellites overhead. To bed around 9:30; it's already been dark for two hours.


Clear, 56 degrees with a light breeze out of the north at sunrise. With the low water, we were unsure of what we would find along Papoose Creek and the other creeks between Friday Bay and Niki Lake. Thanks to the beavers, the level was fine; we just had to carry over a couple of dams. The 45-rod portage between Niki and Wagosh was tough; 80 feet nearly straight up.

We started the 300-rod portage to Gun Lake around noon. The trail was extremely scenic with lots of fall colors and only a gradual climb; relatively easy for a nearly mile-long portage. We had lunch at the far side of the portage. It was 68 degrees and clear. Gun Lake was also brilliant with fall colors. Steve and Bill thought it would be nice to push to Fourtown and buy ourselves a layover day there.

Even though we paddled rather quickly through Boot Lake (Paul called it jet-ski mode), we noted that it was scenic, with more rocky outcroppings and hills, but slightly fewer maples than we had experienced in the previous lakes. We made camp on the east shore of the large peninsula in the center of Fourtown. It was 70 degrees at suppertime. Lasagna, along with a small northern that Steve caught, really hit the spot.


Clear and calm with just a few clouds in the east and 42 degrees at sunrise. We heard wolves again last night. The oranges and reds in the sunrise created some great early morning photography. A gray jay entertained us during our breakfast of pancakes, applesauce and fish. While the other guys went fishing, I had fun photographing the gray jays and chipmunks, and exploring the bluffs north of camp. They came back with three northern, a perch, walleye, and smallmouth bass. We saved the two largest northern (for breakfast tomorrow) and had the rest for lunch.

At mid-afternoon it was still mostly sunny with a light breeze and 73 degrees. The sky started to cloud up by evening, but it was still warm for a fall trip. After a good fight, Al lost a 30-inch northern at the boat (Steve and Paul had the only net in their canoe). Steve and Paul came back to camp at dusk with five nice walleyes that they caught with Lindy Rigs (they would have been back sooner, but Paul kept trying for number six). For supper, we fried up the tasty walleyes, and even though we had to clean up the dishes by flashlight, it was worth it!


It was 57 degrees and overcast with a light breeze at sunrise. The last day of our trip is always a day of mixed emotions; we are anxious to get back home to see our families again but it is hard to leave the beauty of this place! We broke camp early, after having fish (northern) with our oatmeal for breakfast. The 140-rod portage to Mudro was steep and rocky but the fall colors were incredible. It seemed that the water level had gone down even more; the 30-rod portage back to the Chain Saw Sisters parking lot had increased to closer to 50 rods.

We were at the end of another great fall canoe trip. For the photographer in the group (me), I'll never forget the foggy morning camped at Lower Basswood Falls and the brilliant colors of the maples, aspens, birches and ashes. We hit the colors very nearly at their peak. And, for the fishermen, there were personal records for northern, smallmouth bass and some very good eating.

We saw an average of about two other parties each day and the campsite occupancy rate was around 10% ; maybe 30% on Fourtown and Horse. We had many lakes completely to ourselves.

As for the weather, we had unseasonably warm temperatures and lots of sun. We wore our rainsuits for less than three hours the entire week; not typical for a late September trip, but we're not complaining! Now, I'm already anxious to pull out the maps and start planning next year's trip; complete with a backup plan!


--article courtesy of

Northwoods Magic  

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