10 Lost Routes in the BWCA
Warm weather in February is a dangerous thing. If it's too warm, the mind starts wandering ahead to summer canoe adventures. Warm weather only intensifies the time spent pouring over maps both in remembering treasured trips past and scheming the ones to come. And for me, one of the things I'm looking for on the maps is places I haven't gotten yet. What portages haven't I taken, which lakes haven't I paddled, what back bays and beaver swamps haven't I explored, and what campsites have I not checked out? An easy answer to that question is a bunch of the "routes" that are no longer routes, and that's the focus of this week's article.
Last fall, we published an article about the "lost entry points" which by change of management objectives, natural disaster, or the whims of time were lost to common knowledge. Portages and campsites are the same way. The Primative Management Areas were the single largest official closure of routes, but many of the routes which were dropped from maintenance as part of the program were likely underutilized to begin with. Many of the routes discussed on this article are now part of the PMA system. Others have simply vanished at some point or another. With that, few of these routes are currently passable as many have gone unmaintained for 30 years or more. In the spirit of planning though, here are ten fascinating old routes and "shortcuts", some of the history of what they were and where they went, and what remains of them today.
1) The Back Route to Fishdance:
The area which is now the Fungus Lake PMA is a fascinating case study on land reclamation. This area was one of the most heavily logged sections of what is now the wilderness with a vast network of roads weaving across the landscape. Along with that, a number of old routes, some of them quite popular, ran into the PMA area. Into the 80s, nature began to reclaim the road grades and with it many of the old routes closed down, campsites were removed, and portages left unmaintained. Then in 2011, Pagami Creek wildfire erased most any evidence that remained. Anything which could burn did, and the new regrowth has quickly covered any artifacts brought to light in the burn. One of the old routes running through what is now the PMA was the Hope Chain. The Hope Chain was a short chain of lakes extending south beneath Insula. The route provided opportunities for base campers, fisherman, and folks looking for an interesting through route. Some of the portages even cut off considerable distances from the route one would take today. This route was an alternate option for traveling from the busy Numbers Chain and Insula to Fishdance or even Baskatong. From Insula, just a brief paddle up Hope Creek, and one would take a short 28-rod portage around a rapids. This portage is still marginally traceable though a down tree or two makes it tough. Next, a 50 rod portage led into a widening in the creek sometimes referred to as North Hope Lake, this portage is pretty much consumed in the brush now. On the far side of North Hope, the creek narrows into a boulder-strewn shallows which once had about a 20 rod portage around it before a person could paddle out into Hope Lake. Hope Lake, with its three former campsites, provided a quiet alternative to staying on Insula and would be the logical base camping spot for folks looking to stay a few days. For the more adventurous though, the route continued. An easy paddle and a short 10 rod portage led into South Hope Lake along with another campsite. From there, the creek to Maniwaki is rocky and narrow and so a 140 rod portage provided access around it. There was a campsite on Maniwaki as well before the real portaging started. There were two routes out from Maniwaki. One was to take Maniwaki Creek to Andek and from there a 320 rod portage to Baskatong. The other route was a 140 rod portage north from Maniwaki to Screamer and then a 320 rod portage north to Fishdance. I mention it briefly in the types of campsites article, but the campsites on the south end of Fishdance likely exist as a direct result of this portage. So where did this route go? The routes to Fishdance and Baskatong are easy enough to explain. Portage maintenance relies on heavily on traffic. If a portage isn't getting used, no amount of maintenance by the Forest Service will keep it open (or it will lose priority.) Both of these routes required long portages and people avoid long portages for the sake of shorter routes. The only reason the majority of people take long portages is if they are forced to by their route or if something very motivating is on the other side (such as good fishing or great scenery.) Now, both of these provided measures of solitude in the past, and the Baskatong route in particular cut major mileage off of a trip. That said, my guess is that long portages connected to time-consuming creek sections did not see as much traffic as the more scenic and easier-to-travel routes through Alice and Fishdance further north. With the closing of campsites in the Hope Chain and the subsequent fire, the fate of the route was sealed to obscurity.
2) Shortcut around the Triangle:
To me, this is a route that makes so much sense. These two portages cut off major mileage as well as diverting traffic away from another very busy route. However, for many of the same reasons as the next route, I would guess it was left intentionally unmaintained for the sake of route separation. Let me explain. From Clearwater Lake north of Bald Eagle/Gabbro, a 200 rod portage once ran NE to Judd which led into Rock Island Lake. One campsite was located in the SE corner and a 30 rod portage led out of Rock Island to the busy Numbers Chain. As a travel route, this saves huge mileage, over four miles, for a person trying to get from midway through Gabbro to the Numbers. Establishing this as part of the PMA (and thus choosing to no longer maintain it) feels like a move to establish some distance between two very popular areas of the BWCA. The Numbers Chain has a huge volume of groups entering every day with the majority of those groups heading west through the Numbers, Hudson, and beyond. To the West and South, South Kawishiwi, Little Gabbro, and Farm all provide access towards Gabbro. Bald Eagle, and the Kawishiwi Triangle. The way routes are managed provide some separation between the two which simplifies quotas and campsite planning. A group can paddle the Kawishiwi over to the Numbers or bushwhack through the PMA, but a very low percentage of groups do. Intentionally not maintaining this route provides some of that separation to limit groups flowing from the Numbers Chain down into the Triangle and visa versa. That said, it's fascinating to think of the possibilities these portages allowed even if it was simply a bridge from one busy area to another.
3) The Long Portage:
This isn't so much a lost route as a route which has changed plenty over the years. In fact, most modern maps are dead wrong about where the Long Portage runs by a measure of 100 ft or more. It's intriguing as the Long Portage is a such a historically significant piece of the Voyageur Route and is still crossed by numerous people every year. First, let's look at where the Long Portage is marked on most maps.
As you can see in the map above, the Long Portage is marked as starting near the mouth of the creek on the Rove sid, following the creek on the north (Canadian side) before crossing not long before the split heading to Daniels. The problem is, the portage isn't there. The portage in fact shares a corridor with the Border Route, climbing the hill and following the ridge back to the split (roughly the purple line on the map.) The question is why do most all modern maps get this wrong, showing the Border Route and the Long Portage as different paths?
It's a question I have never quite found an answer to, so chalk it up as an enduring mystery. The place that the Long Portage is marked on most maps is well underwater in spots thanks to the beavers, and the '99 blowdown did it no favors. What's fascinating to me is that the trail is marked correctly on this 1980s map where the portage shares the path with the Border Route. So what changed and why is data from 40 years ago more accurate than today's? I don't have a good answer.
The other fascinating piece is that there used to be a second Long Portage running on the Canadian side which was in fact shorter than the US one. This sort of breaks the rules of portage maintenance because, unless a natural event destroys them, the shorter portage will almost always endure over a longer portage. In this case, I also don't have a good answer. Treaties allow both Americans and Canadians to use portages along the border so two portages would be redundant. Perhaps the USFS was maintaining their portage more frequently so it began getting more use and stuck around. Perhaps they wanted to preserve the route to Daniels and so a straight route to Rose without the option didn't make a lot of sense. Or perhaps the route running into the flat, old railway grade proved easier than whatever was found on the Canadian side? In any case, the Canadian portage disappeared from maps before 1980. There's a right answer somewhere, but for now it's concealed by history.
4) Sunday and Sterling:
This route, though technically unmaintained, still sees a decent amount of traffic as PMA routes go. This route was an alternate and a shortcut to get from the Angleworm/Fourtown/Horse area of the BWCA up to the border along Iron and Crooked. The river isn't difficult to paddle when the water's high and the portages are still mostly easy to find and follow. There used to be a maintained campsite on Sunday. To the west, a route ran from Sunday to Sterling (where another former campsite was located) and through Bibon and Nibin to Stuart. Interestingly, there also used to be a long portage of some 460 rods north from Sunday Lake to Sunday Bay of Crooked. With the PMA system going into effect and the portages no longer seeing official maintenance, parts of this route have grown over and become harder to find in the brush.
5) The Phantom Bear:
This is another route that I know very little about, only pieces of history and some of the inferences that brings. In the western section of the BWCA is a small chain of lakes heading west from Crab. This is along the zone that was added to the BWCA with the '78 BWCA act and was heavily filled with roads and logged in the years leading up to the act. Many modern maps will show a single campsite dot way out to the west on a small lake called Bear. Little else is marked around it: no portages are marked on Bear/Phantom Creeks and no other campsites are marked in the immediate area. In theory, this campsite could have been used as a stopping point if Bear/Phantom Creek were being used as a through route from the Crab Lake area to Vermillion. There also was a trail up to Pine Lake from Bear Creek and other roads weaving through the general area. Whatever the reason for the campsite being located on Bear, it can be assumed it doesn't see many visitors. Without Bear Creek being its own entry point, the creek doesn't cater to much through traffic and so whatever route existed there has faded away.
6) The Other Numbers:
North and West of Cummings was a route that almost was. Many people are familiar with the numbers chain (Lake One, Two, Three, Four) but fewer are familiar with the Ojibwe numbers chain Bezhik, Neesh, Niswi, and Neewin (also One, Two, Three, Four.) The name is slightly more familiar now since the 2021 Bezhik fire. From Cummings, a short portage reaches to Neewin Lake. Neewin now is a dead end with one campsite. Before the '99 blowdown and the PMA system, a mile long portage stretched west from Neewin to Niswi. Niswi had a campsite and from there it was possible with some difficulty to work through through the chain. A rumor circulates online that the Forest Service had left the materials for another campsite on Bezhik. After the area became a PMA, that plan never would have materialized, but that box of materials is likely still there as is the fire grate on Niswi. The '99 blowdown did an effective job closing off the mile long portage so now both campsites sit abandoned. For me though, I have eyed the route as a possible through way as Bezhik Creek, flowing west from the lake, appears mostly navigable at high water all the way to the Moose River. I don't know that it was the intention in adding campsites, but this route would have been a fascinating way to make a functional loop to the Moose River EP (an entry point that is almost always an out-and-back trip) with the possibility of exiting somewhere like Big Lake instead. If the Ojibwe Numbers Chain had been open as a route, one could make a spring loop back to the entry. It's still a fascinating and quiet area and the 2021 fire to the north has only added to the mystique.
7) Three Letters to Gabi:
Through the central BWCA east of Thomas and Fraser is a chain of lakes I know as "the three letter chain." This chain of small lakes and plenty of portages can be a tough push through to get to Makwa. Through the area that is now the Mugwump PMA was another tough route that cut the corner for a group traveling to and from Gabi. Today, to get from Vee to Gabi requires about 6 miles of paddling and a mile of portaging. Utilizing this old shortcut, it would have whittled that down to a bit over three. The shortcut though would come at a price with a 180 rod portage to Amimi, a paddle into Pace, a 155 rod to Horsefish, a 40 rod and a 55 rod to Image, a 70 rod to leg, and a 20 rod to Gabi. There was a campsite on Amimi to break up the route if needed. On paper, this is a fine route that cuts off some distance for folks heading to/from Gabi while providing another route option. This route seems clear cut as a victim of the PMA system. If a route is not going to be maintained, it makes sense to close the one with fewer options. Also, Makwa's cliffs are a popular scenic destination. To this end, the route slowly faded with a lack of maintenance to where it is today.
8) Shortcut to the South Arm:
This route is another that makes so much sense as it saves a decent chunk of mileage to the most popular destination for traffic moving through from Seagull and Sag. And in the mid 60s-70s this was a popular route through Holt, Nave, and Nabek with a commonly used campsite on the island on Holt. A series of natural events alongside a lack of maintenance slowly worked on closing this route. First, Nave dried up/filled in and became more bog than lake. Next, blowdown damage began erasing what was left of the old portages. And then the Cavity Lake fire in 2006 burned the Holt Lake end. The occasional intrepid bushwhacker finds their way through, and a number of folks stop in Holt to fish, but the route itself is pretty much gone. Similarly to the previous route, this would have cut a few miles off the popular trip to the South Arm, but with more route options and big destinations like Eddy Falls, the route through Ogish is the more natural candidate to keep open.
This is another old route that faded away with a PMA designation, though Jackfish itself is still a popular destination as PMA lakes go. Jackfish used to be accessible via two routes from Crooked. One route followed the creek from Thursday bay and included two portages. The other route from Wednesday bay also had two portages on either side of Wobosons Lake. There were two campsites on Jackfish for those looking to stay longer. A 50 rod portage used to run to Sauna, and the travel route headed out a longish portage overland or a shorter portage to a creek on the way to Maingan. Another portage led north to Pakwene and another campsite. From there, another portage to Gypo and a short portage to the creek heading into Niki. Another look at old maps shows a portage heading south from Gypo which would infer a route in that direction towards Bullet. As with many old routes that were designated PMA, this route has started to fade, but each visitor keeps the portages from fading completely. As this area has not had a major fire or major windstorm like some of the others, bits and pieces of the trails are probably still traceable.
10) The Eastern Pow Wow:
The PowWow trail was built in the mid to late 70s, much of it by the Youth Conservation Corpse, as a repurposing of the complicated network of old logging roads. Hiking trail sections were built to connect some of the old road grades, completing a nice pair of loops throughout the central BWCA. Eventually, the eastern loop was abandoned and left to grow over. The western loop (today's Pow Wow Trail) burned along with most of what remained from the eastern loop during Pagami Creek Fire in 2011. Today, though many of the air photos still clearly show the old road grades criss-crossing the burn zone, any old trails not cleared are mostly un-hikeable. The original eastern loop split off from the western through a six mile loop around the Arrow Lakes region. From there, a marshy trail headed towards Calamity and Pow Wow Lake where an old CCC era wooden landing was built. From Nuthatch Lake, another loop split south to Ferne Lake before winding back around to Calamity. Past that turnoff, the main trail continued east towards Whittler, Fungus (where another campsite was located), and Chickadee along a section which was more foot path than logging road. In the area near Whittler, it's obvious from the air photo that some of the forest is old pine plantation grown from the logging era. South of Chickadee, the trail meets back with an old road grade running from old Forest Center to Kawishiwi Lake. Following the trail back to the trailhead leads past another campsite on Tomahawk and south across the Perent River. Originally, this trail would have been crisscrossed with a variety of other roads and trails making the area pretty challenging to navigate as the old paths grew over. Parts of this trail network became famous due to the 1998 "lost in the wild' incident where a hiker found himself lost not far from where the east and west loops came together.