Along Wilderness Routes: Day Trips, Part 3 by
Hot coffee and oatmeal with granola helped
take the chill off the 34 degree pre-dawn hours.
Our words nearly froze in front of our lips as
Marshall and I sat at our camper table and
finalized our plans for the day.
By daybreak we were jolting down the
washboarded rural road on our way to Isabella
Lake. Thick steam blanketed the marshy areas
where tiny rivulets meandered through hummocks
of grass. A covey of spruce grouse shivered as
they scurried from the ditch into the woods. The
slanted rays of the rising sun radiated down on
the gravel ruts while the frost on the pines
sparkled like flocking on Christmas trees. A
puddle in the roadway had a thin skin of ice.
Marshall and I pulled over at the Island
River bridge to unload the canoe and to fill out
our day-use permit before continuing up to
toward Isabella Lake. The only vehicle we saw
belonged to a hunter; his camouflaged jacket and
bright orange hat disappeared in the dust as he
stirred up the gravel roadway.
The spacious Isabella parking lot opened
doors to several possibilities for future
adventures. The Pow-Wow Hiking Trail started at
the west end of the parking lot while a well
trod 35 rod walkway led east to Isabella Lake.
The latter path lured us through the woods for
our first glimpse of this popular lake. The
surrounding forest floor was carpeted with thick
caribou moss, its seafoam green contrasting
against the rusty pine needles lying on the
ground. Log steps marked the #35 BWCA entry
point. Light winds whistled in the tree tops
while small waves created foam along the sandy
Donning our day packs, and carrying paddles
and life jackets, we followed the moose
prints along the dirt road on the mile walk back
to the Island River where we had left our canoe.
Our agenda included a trip to Rice Lake via the
western channel of the Island River and
returning to the car via Isabella Lake. If time
allowed, and weather conditions were favorable,
we might even continue to Boga Lake and paddle
some of the Perent River.
The fog was just starting to dissipate by the
time we hit the water. Sunlight filtered through
the clouds, casting a golden hue against the
trees along the shore. The air was still; the
only disturbance of the water's surface was an
occasional fish jumping.
It was so quiet I could hear my own thoughts.
A bald eagle soared gracefully overhead and
landed in a tree further down the river while a piliated
woodpecker pounded away at a dying Jack
pine. Wild rice lined the waterway, but the main
channel lacked the choking reeds we had
experienced on the eastern end of the river.
Twin cedars shared a rocky base at the 11 rod
portage; a small outcrop reached over tiny caves
where water lapped at the river's edge. Glacial
erratics were piled on top of one another and
filled the narrow stream.
It was a short paddle over to the 10 rod
trail that led to the Isabella River. We must
have been following someone with a hole in his
pocket, for the change I was finding along the
way now totaled seventy-eight cents.
Marshall and I took advantage of the
amenities at an Isabella River campsite and
tarried to have a mid-morning snack. Further
down the river a beaver went about his daily
chores. An otter sunned himself on a rock until
we paddled closer. After somersaulting into the
water he bobbed up and down and chattered a
scolding for our trespassing in his domain.
The next 130 rods drew us closer to Rice
Lake. The trail was dark and damp, much like a
rain forest. The cedars in this area were larger
than most, some measured two feet in diameter.
Massive boulders lay scattered in the waterway
just before the channel narrowed down to enter
I learned quickly to be wary of anything with
the name "rice" in it. Rice Lake was
appropriately christened, for we had to
literally bushwhack through the thick
"meadow" of rice and horsetails. I
stopped to check my map as we questioned where
the lake actually began. The island in the
middle of the lake was getting closer, but the
rice was still so thick that it wasn't practical
to continue. Perhaps it would be better to tour
that area in the spring when the water level
might be higher.
The Isabella River was remarkably quiet; no
float planes or distant motors disturbed our
solitude. Swamp sparrows flitted around the lily
pads and whirligigs etched little v-trails on
the mirror-like surface of the shallow water.
A solo paddler passed by going in the
opposite direction, the first person we had seen
all day. His passenger, a creamy gray Siberian
husky, rode in the bow and called out a mournful
greeting in a series of whines and howls.
The Pow Wow Hiking
Trail bridge stood out in the trees where it
crossed the rapids at the next portage. Water
sparkled and foamed as it tumbled over the
cluster of rocks. We must have by-passed the
official landing to the 28 rod path and caught
it somewhere in the middle; it took only minutes
Isabella is a large round lake with several
islands, but the gloomy sky didn't lend any
character to the body of water. Several
fishermen were trying their luck in various
locations, and bright colored tents stood on
some of the sites. An immature eagle and a crow
argued on a small island while Mama eagle
watched from further down the shore.
The water was still relatively calm so we
paddled on past the landing steps and continued
toward Boga Lake. It seemed to take forever to
reach the notch in the trees where a 15 rod
portage led to the next body of water. The
shoreline seemed to inch by from our perspective
in the middle of the lake.
A ruffed grouse drummed somewhere in the
brush along the short portage to Boga Lake, his
distinctive beat thumping like a lazy motor in
the distance. Two cozy campsites remained
vacant; one solitary squirrel scampered in the
fallen leaves gathering a cache of winter
rations. Two large rocks fit together like
pieces of a jigsaw puzzle in the middle of the
Fatigued from the long day of exploring, we
felt sluggish on our first crossing of Isabella
Lake. It had been difficult to focus on details
from the middle of the lake, making the trip
seem endless. On our return trip, however, we
had regained our energy and moved like a horse
going back to the stable, gliding swiftly along
the southern shore toward the landing. The wind
was building, and swells bounced us along as we
rode the growing waves. The darkening sky was
thick with clouds and we were glad to be heading
The log steps at the landing were a welcome
sight after the long but satisfying day. The air
was quickly turning bitterly cold as we portaged
back to the parking lot. Maples along the trail
were yellow and brown; their pink and green
seeds spiraled slowly to the ground.
Rows of replanted red pines stood high on the
ridge overlooking the parking lot and invited us
for a closer look. The plantation had been home
to the former Forest Center community which had
been active in the middle of the last century.
Marshall was quick to discern the railroad
grade, an elevated strip of land which was now
overgrown with trees and grass.
The former Duluth, Missabe and Iron Range
Railroad intersected the portage at a 30 degree
angle, linking the village to the outside world
through the now dense forest. As my eyes
followed the narrow grade which was still
vaguely visible, the subtle whistle of the wind
in the trees around me contrasted to the blasts
of the phantom steam engines of the past.
We loaded our gear in the car and then took
time to read the Forest Service signboard which
told about the local logging history:
"Between the years of 1949 and 1964 the
town of Forest Center was located in this area.
Used as a logging camp of the Tomahawk Timber
Lumber Company, there were as many as 250 people
and 53 homes. The camp also had a school,
recreation and restaurant hall, store, lumber
mill and more. The loggers worked the area with
as many as 112 horses cutting 100,000 to 150,000
cords per year. Upon the closing of the camp the
buildings were moved or dismantled with many of
its residents relocating in Isabella and other
One of the joys of our BWCA excursions is the
time we spend exploring the various areas for
artifacts. Relics from bygone eras can be found
all over the Superior National Forest and
designated wilderness where resorts, trapping,
logging and mining operations were present. With
this search in mind Marshall and I slowly
moseyed around the grounds to glean a little of
We didn't have to go far; a rusty rake was
nailed to a tree just outside the parking lot
privy, and some twisted metal packing straps lay
not far behind the small building. Various
pieces of corroded iron leaned against several
neighboring trees. The Forest Center was one of
Lake County's last logging villages. While most
of the area camps housed only the logging crews,
the town of Forest Center had been a family
settlement. In the historical account, "By
Water and Rail", author Hugh Bishop claims
that even the women became involved in the
livelihood; many of those working in the
pulpwood sawmill were lumberjack wives.
The town of Forest Center was a progressive
community with everything from a post office to
a roller rink, coffee shop and even a laundry.
Homes, some of them trailer houses and some mere
shacks, relocated from other more primitive
camps; a generator supplied electricity, and
indoor plumbing was a real bonus. Working right
up to the time of the BWCA wilderness
designation, residents remained dedicated to
town they called home to the very end of the
A thick carpet of brown needles padded our
feet as we trudged up the hill. Wandering
between the rows of tall pines we visualized the
streets as they might have looked fifty years
ago. I could imagine a woman hanging her laundry
on a clothesline strung between the trees.
Perhaps her little girl had played jacks near
that very boulder or a group of boys had amused
themselves with a game of marbles in that nearby
clearing. This neighborhood had been filled with
real people; their silent ghosts were all that
were left in the abandoned logging town.
My imagination ran wild as I tried to picture
the village with its many buildings. Somewhere
on those acres a schoolhouse once stood, a
building with the pungent aroma of a wood
burning stove and welcoming smoke curling from
its chimney, a playground where children might
have gathered for a game of ball until the
clanging of the teacher's hand-held bell called
Where was the recreation hall with its
boisterous laughter? The honky-tonk piano had
been silenced years ago, but distant chords
still plunked in my mind's ear. In the hush of
this cloudy fall day, it was difficult to
imagine the whining chainsaws and the clatter of
the steam-driven sawmill.
Poking through the rows of trees, my
pastor-husband looked for signs of the Forest
Center church. The worship center was now part
of a natural sanctuary where only a sapling
bowed to its Creator.
Thick cushions of moss grew in mounds near an
opening in the woods while red-capped soldiers
formed a minute army on a rotting stump. Purple
ironwood, asters and creamy lily of the valley
grew in profusion near a foundation; Marshall
guessed that the asphalt floor must have been
part of a garage.
Another foundation lay discretely nestled
amongst the dense trees. Corroded tin cans and a
fuse box added more pieces to the puzzle, and
further up the hill we found a rusted cable,
nuts, bolts, jar rings, springs and a
disintegrating gas can. The top of the ridge
opened into a grassy bald area dominated by an
immense but perfectly formed blue spruce tree.
This clearing was the location where the sawmill
once stood. Daisies and goldenrod formed a
garden of yellow surrounding a cement slab and
pieces of cinderblock, roofing material, and
pipe tile. Other rusty treasures hid under
shrubs where falling leaves attempted to bury
the remnants of history.
The small spot of orange sunlight peaked
through the jagged tear in the clouds along the
western horizon. Marshall and I took a last look
at the forest which offered so much history. The
familiar landmarks which had been part of so
many lives had faded over the years and all but
disappeared for today's visitors. So also was
our journey drawing to a close.
To see the other parts of Heather
Monthei's series on day trips, go to: