The Boundary Waters Canoe Area holds a myriad of wilderness experiences for adventurous types. I’m always looking for adventure and for something new to try, so it’s usually a good fit. BWCA Entry Point 47, at Lizz and Swamp Lakes, was the site of my latest solo paddling adventure.
My trip to Gillis Lake in 2020 burned me up—with both hotter-than-normal conditions and frequent portages. It laid waste to my body. That is what led me to go this year to what I think of as “Minnesota’s Finger Lakes.”
Typified by long, narrow lakes like Henson, Banadad, and Winchell, this area north of the Misquah Hills makes a guy wear his canoe like a hat less, letting him spend more time in the saddle to paddle. Along with some decent fishing prospects, it seemed a good all-around destination. I looked forward to confirming that.
I shoved off from Poplar’s shore at 7:45. About an hour later I’d completed the double portage onto Lizz Lake and crossed into the wilderness. The wind was moderate and straight out of the south, so going was slow. The pace felt inadequate because I was a bit uptight about finding a campsite. Fortunately, no one was on the water at Lizz, Caribou, or Horseshoe.
All the campsites I passed on Caribou were empty, as were the first two on Horseshoe. The third lies at the “crossroads” in the middle of the lake. I got out to inspect it because it could not be seen from the water. Due to a lack of shade trees in the firepit area, and not-great options for hanging my hammock (I did not bring a tent), I went to check on the next few sites.
They were occupied. So I doubled back and set up camp at the crossroads.
After lunch and a nap, I hit the water to see what might bite. That turned up only a dinky perch and a couple small northerns. After dinner it was time for another try. Just a few canoe lengths from camp, my shallow shad rap connected with something good in the shallows. A better northern or maybe respectable smallmouth seemed likely, but it was a 21” walleye. I hurried back to the canoe landing to snap a couple photos, then turned her loose.
Since it was getting late at that point—and the mosquitoes were far less terrible than expected—I stayed at camp and tossed out a leech under a slip bobber. Another couple walleyes came to hand, including a 14-incher, which went on a stringer for the next morning.
After a fishy breakfast, I departed on a day trip to scenic Vista Lake.
A stiff wind met me at the other end of the portage. It was a struggle to get out of the bay, which acted as a wind tunnel. I took the first good opportunity to evade it by turning into the west arm. A few small fish took the bait as I drifted down the shoreline; nothing special. That changed right at high noon.
Because it made powerful sideways runs and never jumped out of the water, I thought that fish would be a decent northern. Wrong again. It turned out to be a 17.5-inch smallmouth, my biggest ever (that I got a measurement on). That put a smile on my face. Soon after, I found the biggest piece of trash I’ve found in the BWCA: a plastic canoe seat back. That was far less thrilling.
I didn’t quite reach the famously-beautiful campsite at the south end of the lake. The wind whipped up and thunderheads bloomed in the southwest. It seemed possible to get caught in a storm and stranded a while on Vista. I hightailed it back to the portage.
Riding the wind was a nice treat. About halfway through Horseshoe again, I could see something up ahead. It looked like a swimming moose, but was instead a grazing moose—with her two calves. She didn’t seem to notice me, but those babies did. They watched with interest after they scrambled up the far bank. I’ve never thought of moose as cute, but they definitely were.
The rain never reached me. I took a dip, treated myself to some Chicken Coconut Curry, and called it a night.
The next morning I moved camp to Gaskin. The lake was calm, and rich with near-perfect reflections. Bird songs decorated the still air. It was the kind of morning that draws attention to itself—in a good way.
The first five campsites on Gaskin were open, allowing me to choose the optimal site for my needs. There were great options for hammocking. A branch over the canoe landing provided an incredible spot for hanging a food bag. The beach even looked decent for swimming. I was pleased.
Most of the afternoon was spent fishing the west end of the lake. It was hot and sunny, and I caught nothing. The most notable thing all afternoon happened right away.
A wild splashing sound broke out down the shore from the campsite. It came from a moose, which ran through the shallows. I thought it would scoot right past my site, and wished I was still there with camera in hand. Instead, it climbed ashore and disappeared a little to the east.
After midnight that night, the splashing returned. When I woke up enough to realize what was happening, it was obvious something big was just below me in the lake. I unzipped my hammock hastily and climbed out barefoot onto the pine needles. The moon’s reflection danced on freshly-made ripples. I waited a few moments in case the moose would come into view, but it never did. Neither was there so much as another tiny splash. It was as if that giant animal simply disappeared. Did it swim across the lake? I’ll never know.
An east wind meant it was time for a day trip to Winchell Lake, home of a waterfall, cliff overlook, and resident lake trout population. It is about five miles long, and sits in a roughly west-to-east alignment. Normally, I would expect a strong west or northwest wind at some point, which would push me along nicely while I jig for trout. But this trip was plagued with mostly warm, weak south winds. Drifting down from the east would have to do.
Since the breeze was light, it took a long time to float down the lake. The good news was, a slow drift allowed me to keep a shiny spoon way down deep. I didn’t expect many bites, since the lake seems sparsely populated. One good strike with a couple big head shakes indicated I was doing something right. Unfortunately, it bit me off and I lost yet another Al’s Goldfish.
The waterfall was about what I expected: kinda neat, but just another waterfall. I enjoyed the overlook much more.
The “trail” to the top of the cliff was easy at first, but petered out. It wasn’t hard to finish, though, by finding a way through the boulders and trees toward the lake. The view was everything I hoped it would be. I lingered up there about an hour before making my way back down to the canoe, then back to camp through Omega and Henson.
Still plagued by hot sunny weather, fishing on Gaskin seemed less appealing to me than moving camp to Caribou. Perhaps, I thought, better luck awaited there. Plus, I’d be well-positioned to make my exit the next morning.
The fishing wasn’t any better on Caribou. And there were tons more people about. Perhaps it was because it was the weekend, but it felt like Grand Central Station compared to everywhere else I’d been. Concern about finding an open campsite became all too real again.
The southwestern-most site was small, but it was nicely secluded and had great trees for hanging. Not only was it a decent site for a hammocker, but the number of rocks made it terrible for tenting. Perhaps that’s why it was unclaimed. Nonetheless, I snatched it up as it was the only one available. Most of the afternoon was spent filtering and drinking water, fishing from shore, and generally relaxing while the sun was at its worst.
Later, when shadows got long, I ventured out again. Caribou is supposed to be a decent fishing lake, but perhaps under different conditions. A couple small perch were the only takers. I didn’t feel bad about it, though. Nobody else seemed to do any better.
The day’s first light pried my eyelids open before 5:00. Sunrise that day was especially memorable, and I stopped to take a few photos while packing up camp. Paddling the lakes was easy, but mosquitoes on portages were fierce. I was glad to reach my car at 7:30.
I reflected on the trip as I drove, and what I’ll remember about it.
On the positive side, that area did deliver a better paddling experience for a solo tripper. Travel was not strenuous. Taking day trips—something I hadn’t done before—was enjoyable, even though the loop through Winchell was around 10 miles.
Also good was how few people there were. I don’t know whether to credit luck, or recent reductions in the number of wilderness permits. But other visitors impacted my experience negatively only once (on Winchell; a canoe full of shout-talkers), for which I’m grateful.
If I could change anything about this trip it would have been the weather, which was unseasonably sunny and hot. It kept me from fishing as much as I wanted. Actively avoiding sunburn and dehydration was part of it, but cooking under the sun is simply not enjoyable to me. If there had been more clouds and/or wind, I’d have fished harder. But weather is a variable we can’t control or avoid.
If there was a silver lining, it was being forced to slow down and take in the total experience. Fishing is temporary, but mindset can be permanent. And that’s something that can go along on all my future solo trips.