Gaskin, Winchell, and Horseshoe Lakes in BWCA

My pal Kortney and I decided to explore some Gunflint area lakes on our annual Boundary Waters trip. While we were out in the wilderness having a great adventure far away from society, our hometown of Minneapolis, MN was burning with thousands of people protesting and rioting due to the killing of George Floyd. We had no idea what we would return to after our trip.

Part 1: My intuition is rarely wrong

On Wednesday, May 27th we were on the road early and made it to the Poplar Lake BWCA entry point around 1pm after driving for over five hours. The day before, the bystander video of George Floyd being killed was causing a stir on the internet. Kortney and I chatted briefly about it on the drive but had no idea the significance of the ramifications.

After loading our gear into the rented Northstar canoe at Rockwood Outfitters, we paddled south past several islands on our way to the Lizz Lake portage. It was a glorious day to start our adventure, with the temperature in the mid-70s and big white clouds floating by above. The breeze smelled sweetly of pine and we were both in fine spirits.

Lizz Lake was buggy and we quickly paddled through and portaged into Caribou Lake which looked healthy with big pines filling the shoreline. Horseshoe Lake came next and is aptly named with long narrow arms stretching west to east. The south central part of the lake became our crossroads where we needed to make a decision on which direction to go.

We didn’t have a definitive plan but decided to see how we felt once we got to Horseshoe Lake. My research of the area gave us two good options. Option #1 was to push west to Gaskin Lake and camp at one of the two sites I had circled if available. There is a beautiful elevated site on the west arm of Gaskin that is out of the way and would give us great seclusion. In my heart, I knew that site was for us and camping on Gaskin was also the most efficient way to doing a loop through Winchell Lake later on our trip.

Option #2 was to head east then south and take our chances with Vista Lake which has a highly rated campsite in the central part of the lake. This is by far the best site on the lake, and if not available, would mean we went well over an hour out of the way and would have to backtrack through Horseshoe Lake and into Gaskin. Vista Lake doesn’t get a lot of traffic so would provide good seclusion – but only if that one site was available.

At the crossroads we stopped paddling and had to make a choice. Behind us I saw several boats entering Horseshoe from the Swamp Lake portage so we were going to have competition very soon. I asked Kortney what he wanted to do, and he responded, “Let’s try for Vista.” I immediately knew this was the wrong decision but he didn’t ask for my opinion and it was a stunning day on the water I didn’t want to argue. We paddled south and then east down the narrow arm and made it to the portage where two older fisherman with southern accents were casting for bass in shallow waters from their canoe. I asked them if they had been to Vista Lake that day. They said they just returned from fishing the lake and that the nice elevated site was occupied.

I told Kortney we were turning around and heading to Gaskin and we needed to push hard due to the other boats. When we made it back to the southern crossroads, a group of six women and two dogs were already in front of us paddling towards Gaskin as well. I felt a little disheartened but made some quick decisions that would pay dividends. We caught up to the boats and a female moose and her calf were swimming along the shoreline on the far southwest end near the portage to Gaskin. It was beautiful to see and other boats slowed and we pushed on in front while the moose got back on land and disappeared into the forest in front of us.

Wanting to get as far away from the other group as possible, I recommended that we single portage the 102 rod trail. With a full backpack of gear, food, and camera gear I portaged the canoe as well, and it proved to be a significant challenge. While not incredibly long, the portage was very rocky, muddy and slippery at times. One step at a time we made it, then entered into Gaskin Lake which was gorgeous and calm.

The big west-facing island site I had circled was occupied, so we pushed to the west along the north shore and the elevated site on the west end was available. We landed the canoe, unpacked, and set up our tents. I had just finished setting up my tent when along came the three boats we had encountered earlier. Turns out they also wanted the site and my quick thinking led to their disappointment. The unfortunate part of the BWCA becoming so popular is that many of the lakes have steady competition for sites. Kortney and I have done many trips and know this all too well and plan accordingly. You must have good backup plans in case the first options don’t work out.

Gaskin Lake campsite

That night we stoked a large fire and cooked the steak, peppers, and potato foil packets we brought from home. It was a beautiful night with stars popping out, but this site was heavily sheltered so I couldn’t get good star trail photos. The next morning it rained briefly, then the lake reflected the clouds heavily and we went for a morning paddle around the nearby islands after having coffee and breakfast. It was calm and relaxing and we spent the rest of the day eating well and leisurely strolling around the lake, stopping to explore islands that called us.

evening views from camp
morning paddle
morning paddle after the rain on Gaskin Lake
morning paddle after the rain on Gaskin Lake
near camp on Gaskin Lake

Part 2: A couple of loons on Winchell Lake

The temperature dropped significantly over night, and we paddled away from our camp at 9am and pushed south into Winchell Lake. The portage was easy and when we got to the shores of Winchell, new growth forest bloomed green on the east side of the lake that had been affected by forest fire. Winchell Lake is long and deep and Kortney and I were concerned about the potential westerly winds that are known to whip through these west-to-east Gunflint lakes. But on this day the wind was relatively calm and a blanket of clouds insulated us from the sun.

About a quarter of the way in we came upon two curious loons. They dove under the canoe and swam by closely for twenty minutes. We floated in amusement before pushing further west while stopping by several campsites on the north shore. The massive lake had no one on it but us and it was really peaceful going at our own pace with our eyes set on the far northwest site that was highly rated. We arrived in late morning and were glad to see that it was available.

It was a cool afternoon in the mid 50s and the wind stirred a chill in the air. The site pointed out on a long rocky peninsula with a wonderful view north and west. After lunch we pushed head first into the wind, then north, portaging into Omega Lake to do some day exploring. Much like Horseshoe, Omega had long arms and was almost the shape of a star. We paddled straight west and my eyes were tearing up from the strong breeze. There is a nice elevated site in the middle of the lake I’d love to stay at sometime but it was occupied on this day so we kept moving and stopped and explored the far west site while the sun peaked through the clouds at times.

bucking the west wind on south arm of Omega Lake
Omega Lake southwest campsite

Omega Lake is a wily one and had interesting magical energy. The westerly wind pushed so hard on our way back east that our Northstar canoe didn’t handle well and several times we were pushed sideways. The rock strewn portage from Winchell is also nasty but we survived and I’m really glad I got to see and feel Omega Lake.

When we returned to camp, we were both tired and the boxed red wine we brought was nice around the fire. I set up my tripod on the point of the rock landing and took some long exposures before relaxing in my tent when the sun finally set. Later in the night the winds calmed and I slept well.

Winchell Lake long exposure
Kortney and the cliffs of Winchell
the cliffs of Winchell and me

Part 3: A starry night on Horseshoe Lake

The next day was calm and mostly sunny and we headed back across Winchell at an easy pace in the morning. We portaged back into Gaskin then paddled northeast and found the trail into Jump Lake. We were in new territory now and the portage follows a rushing creek that was moving fast with a few fallen trees bridging across. It was a nice surprise and we took our time to explore before pushing north into Allen Lake.

paddling east on Winchell Lake
Jump Lake portage rapids

Allen Lake was small and quaint, with long stretching arms and no other humans in sight. I filled my water in the middle to take a sample before we worked our way east looping into the north arm of Horseshoe Lake. We had our eyes set on the north site that opened on a beautiful rocky point to the west and east. It was now Saturday on a busy weekend and we were shocked to find it unoccupied just after noon.

Horseshoe Lake from our campsite

We set up camp and chopped a good pile of firewood before venturing out to see the parts of Horseshoe we missed on the way in. A small island housed a loon family right in front of camp and I spent a good amount of time watching them come and go while they kept an eye on us.

heading out to explore Horseshoe Lake

That night we ate well and finished the last of the wine. Kortney retired early to his tent while I set up my tripod near the shore and pointed back at the trees directly over our camp. Although the quarter moon was waxing and bright, the stars popped magnificently for several hours. I sipped whisky and filtered lake water keeping the fire going low to not produce too much smoke. The quiet solitude was bliss to me.

star trails above camp on Horseshoe Lake

Part 4: A windy paddle to a changed world

In the morning we took our time packing up and when we finally got going, the westerly Gunflint winds began to howl. We portaged into Caribou Lake and the wind funneled straight into the southeast arm. Our plan was to hug the north shore of the arm which proved to be a major task. I was in the bow and first almost lost my Patagonia cap, then after putting it on backwards we paddled hard straight into the wind and whitecaps and my eyes began watering and tearing up so I could barely see. Kortney struggled to keep us in a straight line in the stern but we eventually made it behind a couple islands to take a quick break before pushing north and out. For a smaller lake it was an exhausting paddle.

Soon we were back to Poplar Lake and slalomed behind islands as much as possible to avoid the winds. By the time we reached our outfitter on the north side of the lake, I was tired but felt good. That feeling of peace and accomplishment didn’t last long however.

We started driving towards Grand Marais and about twenty minutes later I had a phone signal and read several messages from friends asking about the riots and looting in Minneapolis. While Kortney and I were out having a wonderful time in nature, our city was making international news. An ex-girlfriend provided details as to what I had missed and what I should expect when returning to the Twin Cities. I had to take a detour home as protesters had gathered on the I-35W bridge while the National Guard kept a close eye and closed a portion of the interstate. All of the businesses in my Northeast Minneapolis neighborhood were boarded up with graffiti spray painted everywhere. I saw a man screaming at two police officers while I waited at a stop light to get home. After being in the wilderness oblivious to society, thoughts of building a cabin far away from civilization crept in strongly. I eventually made it home, but the city no longer felt like home.