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How to Make the Most of High Water in the BWCA: A Trip Report

Open water season is well upon us and this year has been extraordinary so far. A decent snowpack and a late melt combined for a high water spring. As a result, there have been numerous stories of capsized watercraft and perilous experiences. High water can be a challenge and a hazard that should not be taken lightly, but it also means one more thing: it’s creek season. To me, spring is the time of year to visit the obscure creeks and beaver ponds where shallow water limits travel for the rest of the summer. I also love to cross off some of the Boundary Waters’ most famous rivers during this time when the power of rushing waterways offers an experience unlike any other.

Last year in 2021, the lakes iced out by mid-April and my first paddle trip of the year was a relaxing weekend near Baker Lake. A few weeks later, I teamed up with some old guiding friends (who I will address by trail names for this story) to tackle a route that had long sat on our collective wishlist: the Frost River. The Frost is known as being a tedious river to travel whenever the water drops below flood stage. Some have even said that the Frost has 50 portages, marked and unmarked, in its 7 miles. We aimed to cover it in a weekend full of adventure.

Great stories need great beginnings and ours, if nothing else, was memorable. On the last day of April, we met in the Cross River parking lot at 10:30 at night. We were starting in darkness to give ourselves a more generous position for the next day. This is a great opportunity to mention that I would not recommend this to others. Canoe trips can be challenging and darkness is simply one more obstacle that can lead to accident or injury, but this was our decision. We double-checked our gear, dropped another vehicle at the Round Lake landing (our anticipated exit point,) and gathered our things near the river. I had utilized this entry once before, but it was new to ‘Lil Grumpy and Dan-in-the-Box, so tonight there would be some navigation by feel. We worked our way south through the string of portages before crossing into Ham Lake. The final narrows before Ham are eerie any time of day where the infamous Ham Lake fire started and took off into a fiery tempest north along the trail. In the darkness, the skeletal shadows of charred trees stood out in contrast along our right-hand shoreline. Upon portaging out of Ham, we officially crossed the wilderness line that so often signifies the beginning of treasured memories. After one or two instances of getting turned around on the darkness-shrowded river and the challenge of dodging obstructing boulders, we finally pulled into our evening accommodations on Cross Lake at about 2:30 in the morning. Relief and excitement competed for our attention as we tucked in for the night and anticipated the big travel day ahead.

The next day came early without much sleep to go around. A quick breakfast and we were soon packing and heading for the water. It’s a good 7 miles of travel south from our campsite on Cross Lake before the headwaters of the Frost. On Frost Lake, we took a lunch break on one of the sprawling beaches near a campsite, and then it was onto the river. As Sig Olson once wrote: “As long as there are young men with the light of adventure in their eyes and a touch of wildness in their souls, rapids will be run.” And so it was this day on the first of May since the three of us had every intention of portaging as infrequently as possible. Our reason was more for the sake of adventure and enjoyment rather than any predisposition against portaging.

The pace went well as we moved past marshy banks lined with nearly bare Tamarack trees that were not yet cloaked in summer’s foliage. Though the water was still pretty high, many of the rocky rapids required us to exit the canoe for lining. We reached the last portage after Pencil that works around a lovely but quite un-runnable waterfall. There we stopped for a snack and enjoyed the sound of bubbling water before portaging around. After that portage, the river levels drop for a stretch. On this early spring day, this fact went nearly unnoticed as we still were easily able to paddle through. Little did I know that nearly a month later I would beach a canoe mid-river in this same spot, thus beginning a tedious slog with my guided group through the rest of the Frost. For the three of us on this early spring trip, the turning point was not one of low water, but of dwindling daylight. Truth be told, running the rapids of the Frost does little to save time. The only purpose is to see the river in all its character, both the good and the challenging. The portage from Afton to Fente provided some opportunities for laughter as the steep rock face descending into Fente offered a chance for Lil’ Grumpy to attempt to display what remained of his guiding chops this early in the season. With less grace than a mountain goat, but enough determination to stay upright on the face, the portager and the portaged arrived at the water unmarred.

Upon reaching Whipped Lake, with the sun quickly approaching the horizon, we made one more decision for the sake of an even deeper experience of the Frost. We had heard stories of folks blowing past the 100-rod portage and finishing the river via Time Lake instead. We can now say from experience that it really is a magical little stretch of water. The rapids through Time required exiting the canoes and boulder hopping our way to the next stretch of open water. The concept of boulder hopping seems simple enough: just step from one rock to the next. In actuality, the evening’s wilderness gymnast routine played out with great amusement at the expense of those performers who possessed not the balance nor the energy after a long travel day to execute the routine unscathed. The first adventurer through attempted to leap from geologic balance beam to balance beam, careful of the pitched angles and water-greased surface. One wrong step and, like some re-run of ninja-warrior, he’s in the drink below with a gravity-propelled canoe on top of him besides. Soon enough though, Mora lake comes into view in the near darkness. It takes some teamwork to navigate the canoe through the final stretch of brush and over the fallen trees. We then take the last portage into Little Sag and begin the search for a campsite. The maps and map readers have some minor miscommunicating before we pull into a site for the evening at about 10:30. It was a late ending to a long but successful day. We covered 18 hard-won miles and all slept well that evening.

The next day was to be a more traditional Boundary Waters experience with paddling and portaging towards an eventual exit on Round Lake. Since all persons involved are easily distracted by the promise of more scenery on more lakes, and not intimidated by that promise coming at the expense of more portaging, we would not be taking the direct route. We headed from Little Sag through Rattle to Gabi, Gabi to Peter, up the as-of-yet uncleared and brushy portage to Virgin, and then West Fern, Powell, French, Fern, and into Gillis. There we encountered our first other canoes of the trip paddling hard south towards destinations unknown. We crossed Gillis and into Bat, Green, Flying, up the stairs to Gotter, and across the portage into Brant (where I would take my first spill of the year on one of the last portage descents.) We exited the BWCA by paddling into Edith and then it’s West Round and Round to the car. As seems to so often be the case for us, it is late in the day before we start heading down the trail, but we wouldn’t have it any other way. Any weekend which includes 36 different lakes and this many wilderness memories to cherish is worth every step to get there. And the journeys shared, both in the challenges and the victories, cannot be replaced or repeated. I think this sense of camaraderie in facing tough things and overcoming them is one of my favorite aspects of the BWCA experience. Now I may be reminded, every time the water is high enough to start the journey up the smallest creeks and marshes, of the time spent exploring the intricacies of the Frost in the spring of ‘21.

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