Friday, August 28, 2015

Boundary Waters 2015 - Kawishiwi Lake EP #37 to Amber Lake

We drove north with Jerry Van Diver's True and Deep - Songs for the Heart of the Paddler playing and our 7 year old singing along. I looked at my husband and smiled. With the mad dash of a long work week behind us, we found ourselves doing the very thing which seemed infinitely out of reach just a few days earlier. We were headed to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area in Northeastern Minnesota.

We spent the night before entry at Kawishiwi Lake campground, a 5 site no fee first-come-first-serve Forest Service camping area, complete with a vault toilet, picnic tables, and fire rings. We were lucky to get campsite #1, as others showing up were left without sites. We enjoyed our lakefront campsite by splashing in the water, hanging out, and turning in early. We felt too warm and sticky for a fire. The hot, muggy night ended in a thunderstorm which slowly dissipated at dawn, allowing us an early entry.

Day 1 - Paddling through the burn area on the Kawishiwi River.

Day 1 - Square Lake

On Day 1, we paddled across Kawishiwi Lake, on and off the Kiwishiwi River, and across Kawashachong, Square, and Townline Lakes. The sun came out as we arrived at Lake Polly after about 8.9 miles of paddling and double portaging. Being a Sunday, we observed more people heading out of the Boundary Waters than in, confirming our thought that Sunday might be a good entry day, but would be crowded at the portages.

Hurray for Lake Polly! The sun's peeked out, and no more portages until tomorrow!

Day 1, sunset on Lake Polly

Site 1073 on Lake Polly

With the skies turned sunny and the headwind picking up, we felt relieved to get into camp and talked about taking a swim. But there would be no swimming as the afternoon the air cooled, the skies grayed, and it rained a bit. Rangers visited and listed rules we were well aware of and already happily following. I couldn't help but wonder what kind of high jinks people find themselves pulling on Lake Polly to necessitate this, but I'm sure the Forest Service feels the need to send rangers around reciting the rules for good reasons. We spent one night on this gorgeous 5 star site  on Lake Polly enjoying the views and listening to the resident squirrels chatter, before pushing on to Amber Lake on Day 2.

Day 2, enjoying the Koma Lake to Malberg Lake portage

Moving from Lake Polly to Amber Lake required about 9.5 miles of paddling and portaging, crossing windy Koma, Malberg, and River Lakes through the afternoon heat before reaching Amber Lake. Our daughter loved the portage between Koma and Malberg and stopped to play and snack near the picturesque river alongside the portage. She stared wistfully at the rocks and rapids and said it was the most beautiful thing she'd ever seen.

Day 2 swimming in Amber Lake

Day 2 sunset at Amber Lake

Day 3, playing with rocks on the beach at Amber Lake

Our first night at Amber Lake, our daughter enjoyed a dusk swim in the shallow water along the lovely beach. We were thrilled to have a night with a semi-clear sky, this is typically not our experience in the Boundary Waters, as we seem to be rain magnets. Although exhausted from the heat and the paddle to Amber Lake, we stayed up to watch the stars. We were rewarded with several shooting stars. The sheer volume of stars in the night sky away from artificial light never ceases to amaze. This would be our last opportunity for swimming or star-gazing on Amber Lake as by lunchtime on our second day on the lake, the weather became cool, windy, and wet, staying that way for the next several days.

Day 3, watching the morning fog dissipate at Amber Lake

We base-camped on Amber Lake for 3 nights, where we never saw another person. I commented that  I was surprised the only mammals we'd seen were squirrels. My husband quoted the famous canoeist Bill Mason, who once said many people think the wilderness provides one animal sighting after the next, but that in reality it's a treat to see an animal. Later that day, as we sat in the wind and the rain feeling cold and especially in need of a treat, we heard some desperate squeaks. We ran to the shore, and were treated to seeing a mother and baby otter swimming across choppy Amber Lake in the wind and rain. The frogs, loons, woodpeckers, and eagles also "treated" us quite frequently.

One of many eagles sighted while paddling.

Day 4, the loons were active in the rain.

Day 6, tapping the dead trees looking for breakfast

Sometimes on cold, wet days when the wind socks you in it's the little things. Our daughter forgot all about being wet when I told her if she had pigtails she wouldn't need to get her tangles combed out each day. Thrilled, she ran around showing off her pigtails delighted with the idea of missing a few daily hair combings. Of course, she also enjoyed scampering about the enchanted forest in the rain pretending to levitate an imaginary crystal ball.

Day 4, pigtails

Day 5, levitating an imaginary crystal ball in the rain.

We also enjoyed a nice day trip over to Fishdance Lake to see the petroglyphs. The 6 mile round trip required from Amber Lake followed River Lake, with one short portage to Fishdance Lake. It turns out there are 2 neighboring portages to Fishdance, an extremely muddy portage (on the Fishdance side) easily visible on the left when coming from River Lake, and just a bit closer to the rapids on the left there is an easier portage not easily visible until you get right up on it. If the water were high and one were afraid of getting swept towards the rapids, the first easily visible portage would be the way to go. However, the mud soup on the Fishdance side (perhaps due to low water) proved painful, and the portage was a few rods longer with some slighter rougher obstacles to climb over. On the return we took the easier low water portage.

Day 3, looking for petroglyphs on Fishdance Lake.


Day 5 we waited for the wind, rain, and cold to give way to slightly less wind, rain, and cold before beginning to backtrack our way to the entry point. Our late start may or may not have contributed to our failure to achieve our goal of camping at Koma Lake on our way out, as the sites were full. When we finally got to Lake Polly, we began to worry with each site we passed filled. Luckily an unoccupied 4 star island site appeared, and we felt happy to be getting our family off the lake just ahead of sunset. Our only issue with the site, trash to cleanup from the previous campers and a mouse infestation the minute we opened the food barrel. But this is the price we pay for camping on a popular lake relatively near the entry point on our way out.

Day 6 campsite 2013 on Lake Polly

Day 5 the rain dried up, and we found a campsite on Lake Polly before dark

On day 6 we planned to camp even closer to the entry point as storms with damaging winds were in the forecast for day 7. As we paddled closer, we noticed many boats on the water and many people at the portages. It was windy and we had paddled against a headwind most of the way out. With our 7 year old growing weary of paddling, we learned Friday is a bad day to find a campsite closer to the entry point. We found nothing, and sadly came out to a full Kawishiwi Lake Campground. We drove over to the Sawbill campground to find a place to sleep for the night, managing to snatch the last site they had available.

The burn, results of the 2011 Pagami Fire
Amber Lake

One of many portages

On this trip, we climbed over beaver dams, sloshed through the mud, stumbled over rocks and roots, admired the stark beauty of the burn area between Lake Polly and Kawishiwi Lake, and lounged alongside the beach at Amber Lake. We acted silly, playing hours of Truth or Dare and Uno with our 7 year old. We listed to the wind and rain rattling and tapping our tent. We smelled the lake ripening in our shoes, cedar burning in the fire pit, and, yes, we even smelled the well-filled thunder box at Amber Lake. For a few short days we were just where we wanted to be, with just the people we wanted to be with, and it felt like a little slice of heaven.

One of several beaver dams on the Kawishiwi

There is nothing like a little time in the wilderness to set things right. On the way home my husband talked about how a week to get up to the Boundary Waters and back really isn't enough, and next time we should plan 10 or 11 days. I thought 2 weeks would be even better.

Crew selfie in camp on Lake Polly
Wondering what we ate? Check out our Boundary Waters 2015 Menu Plan. As usual, we packed and portaged more than we consumed, but we enjoyed every bite we took. Read on for more details on the lakes paddled, campsites, and portages reviewed in this trip report.


Day Location
0 Kawishiwi Lake Campground Five first come first serve free campsites.
1,6 Kawishiwi Lake No campsites left on the trip out, exited early.
1,6 Kawishiwi River
1,6 Square Lake
1,6 Kawishiwi River
1,6 Kawashachong Lake 187 rod portage.
1,6 Townline Lake 88 rod portage.
1,2,5,6 Lake Polly Gorgeous 5 star campsite 1073, 4 star island site 2013 (nice, but has a mouse infestation).
2,5 Kawishiwi River and Koma Lake 114, 54, and 17 rod portages.
2,5 Koma Lake Beautiful portage stop down by the river, 27 rods.
2,5 Malberg Lake Very muddy portage to River Lake, take the path to the right of the portage to put in on water.
2,5 River Lake The water was low, watch for boulders just below the surface on channel between River and Amber Lakes.
2-5 Amber Lake Excellent beach campsite 1044.
3 River Lake

There are two neighboring portages to Fishdance, the portage easily seen from River Lake on the left is more overgrown with more obstacles and mud soup on the Fishdance side. The second portage on the left closer to the rapids is nicer but one may not wish to get this close to the rapids during high water.
3 Fishdance Lake Petroglyphs.
6 Exit Day - Sawbill Campground
Exited a day early with storms with damaging winds forecasted on the weather radio and no campsites left on lakes near the entry point.

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