Good omens on Gabbro Lake in the BWCA

Rain came down in the middle of the night and I heard it through a window in my bedroom that was open a few inches. I rolled over and fell back asleep, dreaming of lying in a tent in the woods with the rain pattering down from above. I woke before sunrise, made a cup of coffee, then finished packing for another May trip into the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.

Part 1: Rain and good omens

My friend Max was waiting for me inside of his open garage door with the skies heavily overcast and light rain falling. We loaded up his gear and proceeded north to meet up with the rest of our group at 7am. Dave was awake and ready when we arrived, but Kortney accidentally turned his alarm off in the morning and we woke him.

Max and I drove north on I-35W and rain continued all of the way to Ely. Dave and Kortney arrived at the outfitter minutes behind us, and we loaded up our rental Northwind kevlar canoes and drove east to our entry point at Little Gabbro Lake. I had the Grateful Dead playing as I like to do before entering the wilderness and my heart was light with the excitement that comes before a new adventure.

This entry point starts with a 240 rod portage to the lake. The trail was in good shape, but the far end was quite muddy with the rain and I slid climbing onto sloped rock near the lake with enough gear and food for five days on my back. Max and I single portaged the trail and waited for the others while light rain fell. A gentleman from Duluth returned from an overnight solo trip and gave us good information about the rapids moving fast between Little Gabbro and Gabbro Lakes. With the elevated amount of snow melt and heavy spring rain, lakes were much higher than normal this year and we knew going in that there could be some challenges. We chatted with the man for several minutes then pushed off once Dave and Kortney finished portaging.

With the winds picking up and rain falling, I had some anxiety about finding a good camp spot as soon as possible. Little Gabbro was easy to paddle but the narrow rapids between it and Gabbro Lake pushed hard against us and Max and I spun in a circle twice before stopping on the rocks to portage over. Dave and Kortney got spun in their first try as well but made it through on their second attempt. On the edge of shore was a swamped solo canoe standing as a reminder of how dangerous these fast water areas were.

I had several promising campsites circled on the map ahead of time. The first island site and the large peninsula site on the north-central shore of Gabbro were occupied so we pushed further east. I was in the stern with Max in the bow and did my best to keep us in a straight line against the waves while droplets of rain dripped from my glasses obscuring my view. Close to a northeast site, a large bald eagle flew into a tree nearby and looked down to us. We landed our canoes and got out to explore the site in different directions. While the others hiked the trails into the woods, I stayed behind and kneeled to pick up an eagle feather on the wet ground near the base of a spruce tree. “We’re taking this site!” I yelled into the woods with a smile.

The feather was a good omen and it was a beautiful campsite as well. After deciding to stay, within minutes the rains stopped so that we could all set up our tents and a rain tarp, then a few hours later the rains returned once again. Kortney did a great job finding dry wood and we lit a fire and built it up big to create coals for cooking. That night I grilled us steak and vegetables in foil pouches above the fire and it was a wonderful way to start our adventure.

BWCA camp
a few hours after arriving at camp
juvenile loon
juvenile loon near camp

Part 2: An amazing encounter with eagles

Overnight the rains stopped, and I woke early and sat on logs near the fire grate looking out from our spectacular view to islands in front of us and to the central part of Gabbro Lake. The clouds were heavy and gray and I made coffee and enjoyed the quietness before others woke up. Later in the morning, I suggested to Max that we fish the end of a nearby island and we each put a walleye on the stringer while missing several other bites. The sun broke through the clouds on several occasions and by late-afternoon the heavy skies began breaking apart completely.

Boundary Waters clouds
moody morning in the Boundary Waters
BWCA firewood
firewood stash
BWCA eagle
our eagle friend nearby

We all felt a sense of joy as the weather changed for the better and it was a lovely afternoon. After dinner, Max and I tried fishing again and had no luck at our previous spot. There was a nearby point that also looked promising on the map for fishing, so we paddled lightly in that direction while Kortney and Dave enjoyed a leisurely day at camp. A spindly pine stood charred at the top at the end of the point and when we approached Max whispered to me that the eagle was perched there. We paddled slowly and quiet with barely a ripple on the lake as the sun blasted through in the west highlighting the shore and the eagle. To the east behind the sky was painted dark blue and I couldn’t have asked for better photography conditions. As we got closer, we could see the eagle’s mate was also perched by its side and we stayed quiet as this beautiful and surreal experience unfolded.

bald eagles BWCA Gabbro
BWCA bald eagles
Gabbro Lake eagle

I snapped photos from the stern while Max paddled lightly on occasion and took it in. The eagle’s mate eventually flew off to the east bay of the lake but the other did not move. I could tell it was the same eagle from the previous day, and the same one I saw perched in a tall tree nearby earlier on this day. We were now directly under it resting on the shore while it kept an eye on us from above. Max dumped the remnants of the walleyes on the flat rock and we paddled out towards the middle of the lake to give it space. A few minutes later, the large eagle soared from the tree in a wide circle and landed down to pick the scraps before gulls came in. It was an incredible and majestic experience that I will not forget.

Boundary Waters bald eagle
Boundary Waters bald eagle
Gabbro Lake eagle
Gabbro Lake eagle

Max and I spent the next hour cherishing the experience while paddling slowly to explore islands to the south and east. The lake was as smooth as glass and the trees on the shorelines reflected magnificently in every direction. When we returned to camp we told the others of our experience, while stars popped out in the sky one-by-one and our campfire crackled sparks in the night.

Gabbro BWCA
Max and eagle
Gabbro Lake BWCA
Gabbro Lake BWCA
BWCA zen landscape
BWCA Gabbro Lake
BWCA landscape reflection
Gabbro Lake BWCA sunset
Max at sunset
BWCA campsite Gabbro
Kortney and Dave at camp

I set up my tripod to photograph star trails but couldn’t find a good composition that wasn’t in our way. After a few attempts, I gave up and put my gear away, knowing that I needed to plan ahead and have the composition lined up during daylight to be successful.

Not having the clouds to insulate us, it was much colder for sleeping that night and I woke up shivering and put on extra layers and zipped my down feather sleeping bag tight. Later I woke again to the amplified sounds of dozens of geese squawking overhead. Just after falling asleep once more, a pair of loons howled their sacred calls nearby with their echoes piercing the crisp lake air and a sky full of stars.

BWCA night photography
long exposure from camp

Part 3: Perfect day for a Bald Eagle Lake adventure

I was up just after sunrise again and watched light clouds pastel on the horizon in front of camp. It was calm and peaceful, and soon Dave was up as well. It was now Friday and a beautiful sunny day was forecasted that we were excited for. Each of us made a large breakfast and snacked heavily before adventuring out late in the morning.

BWCA sunrise
clouds burning off after sunrise
BWCA sunrise reflection
beautiful BWCA morning

Straight to the south on Gabbro is a long narrow point and we paddled leisurely in that direction while the sun reflected off of the lake and little sparkles of light danced on the large rocks on shore. The paddling conditions were spectacular and we were all in great spirits. White clouds floated overhead slowly and the sky was blue with the sun radiating through.

BWCA landscapes
perfect BWCA conditions

We worked our way to the southeast point of Gabbro Lake and stopped by the east facing campsite I had circled on the map. It was unoccupied with a gorgeous open view straight east to small islands. It is also quite secluded compared to many other sites on Gabbro Lake, but we all agreed that the site itself felt overgrown and buggy and were happy that we made the decision to take our site with the eagle feather.

view from southwest campsite on Gabbro Lake

Summer was in the air and we took our time paddling further south to explore Bald Eagle Lake. The island site near the narrows was occupied so Max and I paddled through the shallow and rocky area and took a break from the sun against large cool rocks that provided some shade. When the others caught up we pushed on and Bald Eagle Lake opened up large and round without many islands or structure.

Bald Eagle Lake BWCA
Bald Eagle Lake facing north from westerly campsite

We stopped by the three campsites on the westerly shore south of the opening from Gabbro Lake and each site was unwelcoming and didn’t appear to be used much. After a game of frisbee at one of the sites, we worked our way back and took a break at the south bay campsite which was expansive and quite nice at the entry to Bald Eagle Lake. I was hungry and made a dehydrated rice meal and Max cooled off by going for a swim in the shallow waters in front of the site.

Bald Eagle Lake BWCA campsite
view from Bald Eagle Lake bay campsite
Gabbro Lake Bald Eagle Lake BWCA
entering Gabbro Lake from Bald Eagle Lake

The paddle back to camp was leisurely with the afternoon winds pushing against us lightly and big white clouds sheltering us at times from the intense sun. When we returned, Max, Kortney, and I got to work sawing and splitting wood and made a big enough pile to last the rest of the trip while leaving a stash for the next campers. It is good to pay it forward when you can.

Part 4: Rains return to Gabbro Lake

In the morning, the sky was heavy and gray and rain was once again in the forecast. I was up early and made coffee and knew the conditions were right for catching fish. The days prior, I heard a nearby camp having success fishing from the same shore so I tried my luck by tossing out a slip bobber with a small jig and a leech straight in front of camp from the nice flat rocks that we had. After 20 minutes I had no bites and so I tried a simpler approach.

I removed the jig and tied on a white hook and snapped on a small weight to create an 18” leader. On the north side of our site spanned out two large rocks that acted like peninsulas flowing into the lake near a tiny bay. I found my way through the trees and hiked up the back of one of the rocks and down to its slippery point at the edge of the lake. I tossed my line out with a leech on the hook and no bites. I tossed it out again to my right and stared into the sky grateful for this new day. When I looked back to the lake, the bobber was no longer visible. I slowly reeled the line taut and felt resistance so I pulled up and set the hook. Fish on! It was a small walleye and was giddy with excitement.

I put another leech on, casted it out to the same spot, and another walleye bit within seconds. Our crew was hoping to have a fish dinner that night but only Max and I had fished seriously thus far and I knew we needed to catch a few more, so I ran over to Max’s tent and woke him to tell him the news that walleyes were biting. While waiting for him, I tossed out my line again as light morning rains started. I landed a northern pike and a smallmouth bass that I released before Max came down to join me.

I set Max up with the same rig I was using and within a few minutes he pulled in a walleye. Max and I fished for the next two hours from respective rocks with our rain jackets on and hoods up to keep us dry from the intermittent rain. Later that morning Kortney and Dave set off in their canoe to explore an area on the south side of the lake. Max and I had good conversations and it was a quiet and nice morning in the Boundary Waters.

In the afternoon I filleted the fish then later we played a fun game of hearts under the canopy of our tarp while rain fell. For dinner I fried us up the fresh walleye and we enjoyed drinks and laughs before Kortney and I decided to paddle out and dump the remnants of the fish away from camp. After hearing about the experience Max and I had on the point with the eagle, he wanted to try that again. Sure enough, the eagle was back at sunset perched and looking out in three directions.

BWCA walleye shore lunch
frying walleye – pic by Kortney
bald eagle BWCA
bald eagle flying BWCA

The wind kicked up waves and the sky was heavily overcast and we had a tough time making a peaceful approach. Kortney was in the stern and we moved in too quickly and scared the eagle who flew out in a large circle before returning to its perch. Rather than staying close, we dumped the fish on the shore of a nearby island in the eagle’s view and paddled out to give it plenty of room while the waves rocked our boat. Within a minute, the large eagle soared down to the island and had its pickings before taking the largest carcass in its claws and flying to a tree in the dense forest. Kortney and I paddled around the island seeing several gulls downwind moving in quick to find the rest of the remains.

Kortney and I have done several trips together in the past and it was good being in the boat with him again. On the backside of the large island near camp there was less wind and we paddled slow admiring the tree line reflecting on the water before heading back to camp to stoke a big fire with Dave and Max.

Chad Rieder
me – pic by Kortney

When we returned, I felt the pull to get out and explore our area with my camera so I snapped on my 50mm 1.4 lens and hiked around solo. The day rains lit up moss and tree bark in a surreal fashion while the last of the sunlight filtered through heavy grey and white clouds. It was cool and damp and the earth smelled heavenly as I treaded lightly and hiked far down near the point where the eagle liked to perch. I could hear the guys chatting by the fire in the distance and sat down on a shelf of rock and admired the lake view and solitude I had to myself.

BWCA canoe paddles
red pine bark
BWCA moss

I returned to a warm welcome and we kept the fire going big on our last night in the Boundary Waters while we engorged in our remaining snacks and drink. We were all grateful for the good company and meals, and the easiness of this trip compared to some we have done in the past. After the previous year’s wild trip from Lake One to Lake Insula, I wanted to do a shorter or more leisurely BWCA adventure and Gabbro Lake was perfect for this.

Part 5: Heading out

It was cloudy in the morning and we packed up and were on the water before 10am. Max and I switched seats for the paddle out, and we fishtailed back and forth all the way out with him in the stern. The rapids going out were much easier to take and on the other side I warned a father with two kids to be very careful as they entered that area. The father thanked me and I wished them well.

Once in Little Gabbro Lake, we had a tough time finding the portage trail. Dave and Kortney called out and we followed them in the wrong direction but eventually both boats found the correct line after going our separate ways and we converged. I was ready to portage the canoe out but Max offered to take it again and we single portaged the trail that was very buggy and wet on this day. Dave and Kortney double portaged again, so we told them to meet us at the outfitter where we talked about future adventures and said our goodbyes.

A coworker first told me about Gabbro Lake in the BWCA years prior so it was on my radar as an area to consider. With its islands, nice campsites, and fairly easy access, there is a reason it is very popular. Our crew had a wonderful leisurely trip here and I am sure one day I will be back. If not, there is a large eagle feather to remind me of the divine experience I had in nature with friends.