At the end of August in 2007, I spent five days solo in the Boundary Waters wilderness. I entered at Lake One and divided my time between Lake Three and Horseshoe Lake, fishing and taking photos. After that trip I frequently wondered what trekking further east into Lake Insula would’ve been like.
My friend Kortney has never done any routes through Lake One and when we were planning our annual May trip, he brought it up as an option. I agreed that we should go for it and push into Lake Insula so that we could get away from holiday weekend crowds, and so I could check it off my list after hearing so many good things and thinking about it for over a decade.
Part 1: A long day to Lake Insula
I was up at 4:30am and picked Kortney up in the suburbs north of Minneapolis at 6:30am. After grabbing our canoe, permit, and leeches in Ely before 11am, we met our goal of paddling away from Lake One by noon. Lake One is a very popular BWCA entry point and on this Wednesday before the Memorial Day weekend, there were many parties coming off of the water.
It was beautiful day and the only major chance of rain in the forecast was on our last day which held true and resulted in one of the scariest paddles of my life. On our last few trips we rented a Northstar Northwind kevlar canoe which I personally like, but Kortney wanted to try something different and a little more stable, so we opted for a Wenonah Boundary Waters Edition kevlar for this trip.
We pushed off with a fully loaded canoe and had that awkward ten minutes of finding our balance before realizing we missed the channel shortcut into Lake One. Soon enough we found our way and Lake One looked lovely with some light afternoon clouds moving by. We portaged into Lake Two and started seeing the devastation of the massive 2011 Pagami Creek fire. On the south and east shores of Lake Two, spindly jack pine trucks stood dead with new growth flourishing at the base of the forest.
We made it into Lake Three which looked big, round and strikingly barren compared to the last time I was there. We hugged the north shore moving east into Lake Four with the westerly wind giving us a push atop the slightly choppy water. Big summer clouds floated above and we saw several large bald eagle nests built into the scorched pines on the south shore of the lake.
We regrouped at an unoccupied campsite and made a loose plan of either staying at the island site on Hudson Lake, or hiking the portage into Lake Insula. Unfortunately, the entirety of Hudson Lake was burned by the 2011 fire. There was a decent site available as we entered on the long westerly arm but we decided to test our luck and head to the middle of the lake to see if the highly rated island site was available. It was occupied and stood elevated and extremely exposed from the burn.
The afternoon winds had picked up and by this time I was feeling a little tired and dehydrated, but rather than backtracking to the site we passed on the way in, we pushed east towards Lake Insula. The portage from Hudson Lake into Lake Insula is a beautiful up and down 95 rod challenge that goes above a deep ravine with a rushing creek cut into rock at the bottom. We met a couple of elderly gentleman at the landing and shared the hike with them to the other side.
Kortney and I had pushed further than we originally planned and there was still plenty of work remaining. We paddled away from the portage through the east-west arm that is the south end of the lake. Everything was burned. Finally making our way north, dozens of islands stood in our way with some of them spared from the fire. We passed several campsites that looked poor and unusable and we were both becoming fatigued and wanted to find a site as soon as possible. An hour later, we finally found a spot suitable for the night.
Part 2: Camping beneath the full blood moon in the burn zone
Our site faced south in the south central part of the lake. To the east stood a few small beautiful islands that were spared from the fire and to the west hugged a bay with spindly burnt pine trunks. We quickly set up our tents and stoked a fire as the sun began to set. We saw several bald eagles soaring above looking down to the open forest below. On the horizon we watched over a hundred Canadian geese fly directly over us in a perfect V-formation.
Kortney asked, “How many geese do you think were in that formation?
In an exhausted stupor I replied, “I don’t know, maybe 30?”
Kortney laughed hysterically and showed video evidence that there were at least 120. And so our adventure began!
We grilled steak, potato and pepper pouches over the fire and I started feeling more alive. Soon the sun fell and the full blood moon rose in the east with an eerie orange glow behind layers of clouds. The moon was also a full lunar eclipse on this night and camping in the middle of the burn zone while it rose induced a cyclical earthy feeling of endings and beginnings. We kept the small fire going and sipped on wine and gin. I took a few photographs of the moon but mainly kept my camera stowed. I wanted to relax and witness the beauty around us. It felt real and calm and I slept well that night.
In the morning we were both excited to push north to find a nice campsite. We made breakfast, researched possible destinations on our maps, and were paddling before 10am. With its many islands, arms, and bays, I had heard that Lake Insula was a challenge to navigate for first-timers. It didn’t take long for us to realize this.
Part 3: Navigating wrong turns
Around our shoreline we pushed north between several islands. Our goal was to make it to the far northeast corner of the lake which has several nice sites including one on a long sandy beach. Through the channel the lake opened up and we were finally out of the Pagami Creek fire zone. Massive red, white, and jack pines dotted the shorelines while the sky was blue with a few white clouds and little wind. We were in fine spirits.
Our maps showed a small point in the middle of the lake called The Rock. We looked at our compasses and saw a large granite rock penetrating the water alone in the distance. Using this as our navigation point, we paddled past it and pushed further north. Instead of finding a channel between a massive island that would allow us to go northeast, we found ourselves at the end of a huge bay. Perplexed, we both looked at each other’s maps and used our compasses and were convinced we had it correct. But there was no way through.
At this point, some frustration creeped in as the early afternoon winds picked up and we spent two hours lost on the water. We paddled back past the granite rock to the middle of the lake and sat floating with our maps out and the idea came to us, “What if that wasn’t The Rock?” Kortney pointed to the south and the east to a tiny channel between big islands. “That may be our way.”
Once we passed through, Lake Insula opened up to the north and east in what appeared to be a big bay. We were in new territory now and on the correct path. We found the tiny shallow channel that had a heavy current against us and could see an expansive view on the other side. Excitement kicked in and we pushed through to scenes of big stunning islands across the lake in the early afternoon sun. Straight to the north one island looked particularly nice and we knew that it had a campsite on it. Rather than heading east to a congregation of other sites, we pushed north to check out the island first. It had a nice flat rock landing for the canoe and within minutes of exploring its potential, we both agreed this was our site.
The island had gorgeous expansive views to the south and east from the landing area and a well worn hiking trail along its perimeter with a high elevated view straight east on one point. Beautiful healthy pines towered above with two in the middle standing above the rest in regal splendor as seen from the lake. Following the trail to the north, several small islands dotted the lake not far away. It was a great spot for us that also provided solitude from a few other campers in the area.
We set up a full camp and got to work chopping and piling a large stash of firewood that would last us days. When we finally sat down we reviewed our earlier navigation errors and realized that we had been stuck in the far northwest arm of the lake earlier in the day. That night we grilled sockeye salmon over the fire and enjoyed some red wine before I scouted the elevation map for sunset fishing options. There were some small islands nearby that I thought would provide us good opportunities and I was correct.
Away from the fire, the air was cooling rapidly and we paddled out to the islands and let the breeze push us in a slow troll. I quickly caught a small northern pike and released it. Soon after, Kortney caught a 14″ walleye from the bow and now we were both really excited. I missed several walleye bites but finally landed a nice 17″ fish that we added to the stringer. The fish were biting and I wanted to stay out, but with the temperature dropping into the 30s, Kortney complained about being cold and so we headed back to camp with two fish that I filleted.
Part 4: Day tripping to the Fishdance Lake pictographs
It was a beautiful sunny morning and I enjoyed a nice breakfast and a few cups of coffee before we adventured out for the day. Kortney and I have had success base camping in the past, and after a quick discussion, we decided we were not going to move camp. Instead we laid out a map and searched for areas to explore and Kortney pointed to Fishdance Lake which has a wall of ancient Native American pictographs.
Without a cloud in the sky the sun was intense and a strong westerly wind pushed us east through the far arm of Lake Insula and into the Kawishiwi River. It was a nice paddle but my body was a bit sore and the thought of pushing the straight into the wind on our return weighed on my mind. On the Kawishiwi River we saw several merganser ducks and turtles and it was a beautiful part of the BWCA I was very happy to see. The river narrowed in several spots and there were fisherman on the shore trying their luck in shallow waters.
The river eventually fell into the south end of Lake Alice which opened up expansive and round to the north. The south end channeled back into the Kawishiwi River and we passed seven boats who were all fishing the same area in the early afternoon sun. The river narrowed into rushing rapids and we took the 94 rod portage to the other side. The far end was rocky and steep with a large downed tree in the water but we navigated it and were back on the river paddling into Fishdance Lake.
There were three boats in front of us heading towards the pictographs so we took our time and slowly paddled to an open campsite nearby that had a nice elevated view but its floor was covered in tree roots. Here we snacked, drank a lot of water, and I stretched. The sun and wind were taking their toll and I put more sunscreen on before we got back on the water when the other boats moved on.
We paddled close to the large granite wall and could feel coolness emanating from the rock. The wind pushed us and it was a challenge to move slowly past the pictographs so we made a few passes. The pictographs are believed to be 500-1000 years old and were small but distinct in red and orange showing symbols of the Ojibway people. We were both very happy we got to see them.
We pushed the wind all of the way back and my shoulders were feeling it. When we finally made it into the main part of Lake Insula, Kortney was now in the stern of the canoe and had a tough time keeping us on a straight line without the weight of our packs and gear keeping us low. I dug deep and helped steer us into the waves from the front. After what felt like an eternity, we finally landed back on our island site around 6pm and we were both exhausted.
We dipped heavily into the red wine that evening and I felt better after frying up our fresh walleye and making dehydrated stroganoff for dinner. At sunset we went out fishing again but I had little confidence in the walleye bite after the intensely sunny day and my intuition was correct. We didn’t stay on the water long and returned to camp and a big fire. That night was again in the lower 30s but I slept well layered up in my Mountain Hardware bag.
Part 5: Island living
In the morning my shoulders ached and my face was burned and warm from the sun and wind of our previous day’s activities.
I told Kortney early on, “I want to do nothing today.”
“Like nothing, nothing?” He asked.
“Well how about we at least check out Williamson Island and the beach site over there?” He said pointing with a smile across the lake to the east.
“Dammit! Fine, but that’s it.” I laughed begrudgingly.
Thankfully there was little wind and we were again blessed with gorgeous weather. Light feathery clouds danced by and late in the morning we did a slow paddle across the north side of Lake Insula to the sandy beach site on the far easterly shore. The site was unoccupied and really nice with a wide beach covering the entire landing. I unzipped the bottoms of my convertible hiking pants and waded out in the cold clear water. It was invigorating. A larger party could have an amazing time at this site open view to sunsets in the west and its beautiful beach.
We then paddled to the Williamson Island campsite which is named after a family that camped there annually many decades ago and carved their name into a large flat rock. The island had some good views but felt overgrown and we both agreed that our site was much nicer for us. When we returned, I did yoga on the large flat landing rock on the edge of the lake, then stripped down to my underwear and went for a swim. The yoga loosened my shoulders and back and the swim was intensely cold but uplifting. I dried in the sun on the warm rock and we spent the rest of the afternoon hiking around the island, fishing from the shore with bobbers, and having a splendid time before our long paddle out the next day.
There was nice light in the late afternoon and I got out my tripod and took some long exposures. At sunset we went out for a leisurely paddle around the close islands to the north and we decided to stop at one that was flat with a couple juvenile pines sprouting up from the rock. We hit the tiny island straight on and I was in the bow and pulled the canoe up. In an instance that would be hard to replicate if we tried, I somehow pulled the canoe up to where both the front and back points teetered on flat rock. Kortney had already stowed his paddle and I turned around to him yelling as the canoe rolled to my right. I jumped onto the bow but gravity won out as Kortney had nothing to brace himself upright with and I dumped him in 18″ muddy water.
Both boots and the entire left side of his body were wet. He got onshore and cussed to the heavens and soon after we laughed like fools at our luck. Thankfully his electronics did not get wet and we headed back to camp where he dried his boots by the fire. Since he didn’t bring much for extra clothes, I offered him a long-sleeve layer I had on under my jacket and we drank by the fire and laughed it off. Before the large moon rose in the east, I fired off 30 second star trail exposures straight south from our landing. It was a perfect night to be island camping in the BWCA but we had our work cut out for us the next day.
Part 6: The longest paddle of my life
The sky was grey and overcast in the morning. Knowing that we had a very long paddle ahead of us, and then I had to drive us home, I had a sense of urgency to get moving. But my co-captain was in less of a hurry and we didn’t start our trek back to the Lake One entry point until 10am. As soon as we started paddling, sprinkles fell. We both put our rain jacket hoods up and pushed south through the narrow channel.
We soon found our way past The Rock which is actually an island with a big rocky face on one side. We wondered how many thousands of paddlers made the same mistake that we did then paddled back into the burn zone. The sprinkles stopped and grey skies gave way to heavy white clouds. After a couple minor detours, we eventually found the portage to Hudson Lake.
I was in the stern and we cruised across Hudson against a light westerly breeze. At Lake Four, we stopped again at an open campsite and snacked and plotted out the rest of the journey. Kortney pointed to the campsite that hugs the north shore of Lake Three near the channel into Lake Two and said we should plan to stop there for another break. I disagreed and wanted to push on but he asked, “What’s the hurry?”
We paddled west on Lake Four and I started singing James Brown’s song “I Feel Good”. Kortney joined in and the sun popped through the clouds and it was a nice afternoon paddle. But on the horizon ominous dark blue skies expanded to the north and west directly in front of us. Crossing Lake Three against the wind took its toll and we stopped at the site Kortney requested which had a very challenging landing with the wind making waves. Stopping here was a waste of time and we did not stay long.
I stayed in the stern and we paddled through Lake Two and surprisingly saw no one else. The air was now changing with the pressure drop that comes before a storm. I got us to the portage to Lake One and when we landed, a huge clap of thunder cracked through the sky directly overhead and shook the ground beneath us. I took the portage as fast as possible while Kortney meandered around looking for a rock to take home for his rock garden. Being right next to rapids, the mosquitos found me and I was impatient. Ten minutes later, Kortney arrived and we took a quick look at the map before moving on to Lake One.
First the sprinkles came, then light rain, then the winds picked up significantly. Kortney was in the stern for our paddle out and we moved behind islands trying to find our way north. The rains came down heavily now and soon turned to white sheets. He had the map and I was calling out for direction. He didn’t reply with much information and we pushed on. The sheets of rain now had hail in them and we ducked behind a small island and held on to a tree while Kortney grabbed the map and climbed up onto the island. He took a look and wasn’t positive where we were so we tied up the canoe that was now taking on water and I got out.
We took refuge under trees with our backs to the rain and hail that pinged down. Lightning cracked down close by on several occasions and thunder boomed overhead. But within 15 minutes the worst of the storm had passed over. We were both 100% soaked and overflowing with the adrenaline that comes when getting close and personal to nature’s power. The rains continued but the thunder and lightning pushed off to the northeast and the air was much cooler behind the front.
I used our leech locker to bail out water from the bottom of the canoe. When the rains lightened further, we pushed off north behind our island through a tight channel and around a few rocks and we were on the long northeast arm of Lake One. Kortney had us on the correct line all along and I am so glad we made the decision to stop on that small island to take refuge.
We were both shell-shocked and physically tired. Kortney questioned where the inlet channel was to take us back to the entry point and we missed it and ended up on the far northeast arm of the lake. There was a camper on an elevated site nearby and we asked if he could provide directions. He pointed us southwest to the peninsula we needed to wrap around and we thanked him.
After the storm, Lake One turned to glass and the channel reflected magnificently in every direction. Rocks and trees turned to surreal paintings and the only ripple on the water was in our wake. We could still hear thunder in the distance but we knew we were safe for the time being. It was a slow paddle back and when we got close to the entry point, the sun blasted through low in the southwest. My body and mind were exhausted and the surroundings were not very recognizable to me from our paddle in, or from my solo trip in 2007. Kortney got us back to the entry however and I snapped a couple photos in the calm waters just before we landed.
Normally I have clean clothes to change into after a BWCA trip but I overlooked it this time. So my wet pants stayed on and I found the cleanest dry shirt in my bag. We packed my Rogue while swarms of bugs followed our every move and then drove back to Ely and the rains returned. When we got to Ely, the skies in the west had a dark pumpkin orange glow where the sun was setting. We dropped off the canoe, tried to find some food, then I drove us out of town through heavy rain with my car hydroplaning several times atop large puddles on HWY 1. The dark orange sun radiated intensely to the west, but to the south the sky was navy blue and black. As the sun blasted through, a massive rainbow showed in the forest and fields to our left and everything felt ethereal.
The heavy rains continued until an hour north of the Twin Cities and we finally arrived to Kortney’s house at 1:30am after a long and slow drive in the dark. Kortney grabbed his gear and stood in his driveway while I drove off. Not a lot was said, but we both knew we had a hell of an experience that day. I showered when I got home and fell asleep as soon as I laid down, grateful for making it back safely and having a pillow to lay my head on.