It was cold. Deliciously cold. After six months of humidity, the weather had finally broken and autumn was rolling in. I shook off the DuoMid and the polycryo ground sheet, repacked everything in my MLD Burn, and headed off with Len and Jan to meet Fred and Brad at the ranger station.
Fred had organised this trip through meetup.com. Last year I hiked with him on the Sioux Hustler Trail, and this year he chose a route around Snowbank Lake near Ely, MN. We planned to take in an additional loop to check out some old pines, and explore a rarely-visited trail over the charmingly-named Disappointment Mountain.
We were a mixed group. Jan, the oldest, from Poland. Len from Belarus. Brad from Bemidji, and Fred from Finland - Finland, Minnesota, that is. I don't usually like hiking in large groups; too much noise, and not enough flat tent places. But I wanted to get out, and this was a good opportunity to test out a load of new gear.
After a quick breakfast at the trailhead, we set off on the first leg, a 13 mile hike to Medas Lake along the Kekekabic Trail and Old Pines Loop. The trails in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wildreness (BWCAW) are rarely hiked and often hard to find. The frequent storms in the area guarantee a lot of treefall across the trail, so I had a pretty good idea that the 32 miles we planned to walk would be long and hard. I was correct.
The early part of the trail was fairly easy going. My MLD Burn was pretty light, weighing in at 8.2kg, or around 9 with the water bottle.
I did make one adjustment early on: I'd set up my Sawyer water filter to work inline between the dromedary and the hydration tube, but it was too much effort to suck the water through the tube. I simply removed the hydration tube and filtered water into the platy-bottle. In the end this method was less hassle anyway.
Considering that the other guys were carrying packs weighing 15 to 18kg(!) it wasn't long before I started to get enquiries about lightweight backpacking. By the end of the three days, all the guys were talking about getting lighter packs, sleeping bags, tarps, and hiking poles (the Gossamer Gear LT4s really impressed them). When you see their packs, you can understand why next time they hike, they won't be bringing three spare, heavy shirts!
The trail became progressively more remote and wild, and at one point the three guys in front took a wrong turn, missing the almost invisible path through overgrown young aspen and wild raspberry.
It's a shame beavers can't be trained to clear trails.
By mile 10 we were getting pretty tired of climbing over or swinging under fallen trees. We almost decided not to take the slightly longer trail around Old Pines Loop, but in the end our decision to do so was worth it.
In Minnesota, most of the virgin forest has been logged, and only a few stands of old trees exist. When you come across them they are magnificent. Tall, giant, strong; standing tall against storms for over a hundred years.
Above us stretched a vast canopy of pine, shading out the sun.
Most of the people in the BWCAW are canoeists. If you're on the water you can expect to see plenty of other people. Very few even know there are trails through the woods, with secret campsites hidden away up from the water's edge, on remote lakes almost impossible to reach by canoe. That night, ours was on Medas Lake.
It was getting late. We quickly set up camp, and I scavenged for fuel for my BushBuddy Ultra.
That night, the stars were spectacularly clear. Well away from any other light pollution, the Milky Way spread out above us. Even Andromeda was visible (I know this, because I used Pocket Universe to locate it!)
After hanging the bear bags, I retired into my DuoMid for the night. I slept erratically, woken by the THWACK of beaver tails on the water, warning each other of our presence.
The air chilled again overnight, falling well below the dew point. I slipped past the condensation on the DuoMid, and into the eerie morning.
Mist hung in the air, veiling the landscape.
Dew coated the morning, highlighting the nocturnal activity that had taken place as we slept.
Under one spruce, I almost expected to find presents and tree-elves.
After firing up the BushBuddy for oatmeal and coffee, I shook off the condensation, packed the Burn, and we set off again.
The mist lifted to reveal a fine blue day as we made our way towards Disappointment Mountain.
Before our "ascent" we had to cross a beaver dam. I was hoping to get my Inov-8s wet, but the dam was so sturdy that this test would have to wait until later.
Perhaps it is the name that keeps people away, but the trail over Disappointment Mountain is one of the least travelled in the BWCAW. It is also one of the most overgrown. Because it stands slightly elevated above the rest of the landscape, it picks up the wind more, and consequently had many more downed trees.
The two-mile trail took us three hours to cross. By far the slowest going I've ever experienced on any trail.
The views were... from a slightly higher vantage point!
As we sat for an hour, 7 groups of canoeists trudged grumpily over the portage. In the confusion, some of them left empty water containers, and one group forgot to take their water filter.
We packed up and left, the lake now full of people enjoying their wilderness experience.
Today's section of the hike would only be 12 miles, but the bushwhacking across Disappointment had exhausted us. Thankfully, our route would now take us on a scenic circumnavigation of Snowbank Lake.
I appreciated the more open views. I love hiking, but walking through a continuous green tunnel is not my idea of an enjoyable trail. I'm much happier when I get some open vistas, and am able to see beyond the next four meters.
After 11 miles, we were all exhausted. We'd been climbing up and down for hours, through dense thicket, over trees, along a trail paved with sharp rocks and numerous bear sign. When we arrived at a tiny campsite with poor access to water our hearts sank. We had to continue to the next site - but all would be well.
Half a mile further along the trail we arrived at a far better site with plenty of pitching sites, and some good trees for Fred's Hennessey Hammock (he swears by it, but I could never sleep in it - still, a light alternative to a heavy tent).
With tired limbs, I gathered sticks for my evening meal.
I had to pitch the DuoMid quite high because of uneven, rocky ground. This, combined with a low dew point, resulted in absolutely no condensation in the night. Fantastic! And what a joy to wake up to sunrise over Snowbank.
I rose to explore the shore. Distant pockets of mist drifted over the water near islands and inlets.
A beautiful scene to accompany breakfast.
Although we only had 8 miles to the trail head, I would have been happy to spend a day here. It was an idyllic spot to sit and watch the lake, and would have made a nice resting site for a day. But we had to continue - through more uneasy terrain.
We came across a group of six hikers from Michigan who were complaining about the quality of the trail - so many fallen trees. I was worried that we'd have another section like Disappointment Mountain, but between meeting them and the trail head I counted four trees down. They were in for a real surprise when they got further around the lake.
As we climbed a hill, we were treated to a spectacular view of Snowbank and Disappointment Mountain in the distance - can you see it towering above the landscape?
The trail in fact became much easier for the last stretch, but my shoulders were aching and my feet sore from the uneven terrain.
Thirteen mile days are not so bad when the trail is good and the path is clear. I would estimate that an equivalent distance travelled on a better path would be around 20 miles. But this is the Boundary Waters - there are no well-trodden paths. Fallen trees block your path at every turn, and the trail will often disappear into thicket.
The trail head was a welcome sight.
(More detailed gear reports to follow...)