Category: Reflections

Round Lake is Ice-Free!

If you’re here looking for current ice conditions on Gunflint Trail lakes, we finally have good news to share. As of this morning – May 8, 2018 – Round Lake is ice-free. With a soft steady rain currently falling, the remaining little icebergs should dissolve quickly.

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The lake was mostly open yesterday, but wind pushed the remaining ice into the eastern shore of Round Lake, effectively icing us in. However, last night, we took one of the new motorboats for its inaugural spin. After “ice-breaking” through about 200 yards of rotten “candled” ice, we made it to the open part of the lake, where we joined a pair of loons and a beaver. 

Round Lake May 7 2018

In the name of ice out reconnaissance, we hiked over the Missing Link portage, which was alternately mucky or covered in slippery hard snow pack. We found Missing Link wide open, but the low water levels on both Round and Missing Link Lakes and the brook running between those two lakes likely indicate that Tuscarora Lake has not opened up yet. However if you have a Missing Link BWCAW permit for fishing opener weekend, you will definitely be able to do some paddling, but right now what you’ll find on Tuscarora Lake is a “choose your own adventure” sort of situation for the new couple days. 

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In case you need further confirmation that it’s been a very long winter, keep in mind that Round Lake iced over on November 8, 2017, which sets today’s ice out date just one day short of six full months of ice coverage on Round Lake.

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Happy paddling!

Recap: 2018 Winter Lake Trout Season on the Gunflint Trail

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It feels a little strange to write a recap on the winter lake trout fishing season when Gunflint Trail lakes are still covered with more than two feet of ice and the entire Great Lakes region is seized in Snowpocalypse 2018. During this very long winter, lake trout season proved a very welcome diversion. Usually lake trout season’s start at the end of December correlates with when winter is really starting to sink its teeth into the Northland and by the time the season closes at the end of March, the lakes’ snow cover has often completely melted off. But this year, the season started in what felt like deep winter and ended in what still felt like deep winter, so the fact that we couldn’t ice fish for lake trout either now or in early December feels especially arbitrary. 

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If you follow any of our social media (Facebook or Instagram) this winter, you know we take ice fishing pretty seriously. We don’t have much time in the summer to get out fishing, so we like to make the most of it during the hard water season. Primarily, we target lake trout for no real reason other than that’s what we’ve always done. 
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Andy does his best to get out fishing at least once a week in the winter and usually gets out more often than that. So when a quick gander at our Facebook and Instagram feeds might make it look like we enjoy endless ice fishing success, the reality’s more like that quip about Carnegie Hall.

New York City pedestrian: How do you get to Carnegie Hall?

Answer: Practice, practice, practice.

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Behind each smiling photo of someone holding out a beautiful lake trout, there are literally hours of waiting by the hole, debates on whether to move or switch baits, eating snacks, and jigging off minnows. 

 
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Some of us are more patient than others. I collected a grand total of one fish photo this winter. Andy on the other hand . . . 

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Of course, sometimes the fish at the end of the line isn’t what you expect. Usually you can tell if you’ve hooked a northern pike, but some surprises this season included a burbot aka eelpout aka lawyer fish (pictured above) and even a smallmouth bass! 

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Getting out in the early part of the winter lake trout season can be tough. The temps are usually pretty cold and it’s often windy. This year proved no exception to that rule with long stretches of days where the highs were below zero. However, the low snow totals this winter made it easy to get out on area lakes once the temps warmed up a bit and from late January through the end of March, ice fishing was an at least weekly occurrence.  

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We don’t have any real tips for winter lake trout fishing success other than to be patient, take note of what seems to work for your group, and be willing to try new lakes and fishing spots from year to year. Andy invested in a couple new Haat Rods for this season and those paired with white tube jigs (the hot bait for this year)  and his trusty MarCum landed countless trout. 

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Check out our winter report page for a full recap of Winter 2017/18. 

Did you get out fishing this winter? 

Visiting the Boundary Waters’ Birthplace

Last month, Andy and I had a chance to visit the birthplace of the Boundary Waters. It’s the birthplace of a lot of other things too. 

If you’re imagining something like the Mississippi headwaters in Itasca State Park with its official sign when you think of the birthplace of the Boundary Waters, think again. Chances are, even if you’ve never visited this birthplace in person, you’ve seen it countless times in the media. It might seem a little strange that the Boundary Waters – America’s most popular wilderness area – traces its beginnings to a completely manmade structure of stone, columns, and steps in a very urban setting. 
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Nevertheless, the place that birthed the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness is the United States Capitol in Washington D.C.

Sure, the lakes and rocks of northeastern Minnesota have existed for millennia, but the fact that today we go on canoe or hiking trips in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness is the direct result of U.S. legislators’ work in the 20th century. Without the federal legislative action taken in the 1960s and 70s, today when you checked in for a cabin at Tuscarora, you might be checking in for a cabin actually located on Tuscarora Lake and we’d work with you to motor and portage your party and your gear over the two portages between our parking lodge on Round Lake and your cabin on Tuscarora Lake. When you parked here for your winter camping trip, you might be planning to snowmobile all the way into Gillis Lake. 

Of course, the cabins that Tuscarora Lodge used to own on Tuscarora Lake are long gone, but at the end of the day, the only thing preventing you from using motors within the designated wilderness area is a federal law. (And we should all strive to be law-abiding citizens at every level of government.) At the risk of sounding too esoteric, the Boundary Waters is just an idea. A very good idea, but an abstract concept nonetheless. 

So while the trees, waters, and rocks on either side of the Boundary Waters border might look basically identical when you’re in northeastern Minnesota, the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness as we know it today is the result of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness Act that President Carter signed into law in 1978. In order to achieve the protections that U.S. citizens wanted for the Minnesota/Canada boundary lake country, the BWCAW act officially defined 1.1 million acres contained within the Superior National Forest as “Boundary Waters.” The 1978 act came after decades of state and federal legislative action that slowly worked to define the Boundary Waters as one of the United States’ most special and beloved natural areas. 

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Northeastern Minnesota was certainly a contentious place in the late 1970s when the Boundary Waters were being debated at the federal level. But it’s nice to think that the resulting wilderness area came about from concerned citizens and area business owners working together with their legislators and compromising. Today we’re still afforded the opportunity to voice any concerns we might have about the Boundary Waters with our elected officials. (If you’re curious to learn more about the passage of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness Act, you can check out this podcast from WTIP which specifically discusses how Gunflint Trail residents were involved with the bill’s passage.)  

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We were only in Washington D.C. for three nights and we weren’t organized enough to  make arrangements to watch Congress or the Senate in session. But we did tour the Capitol building and I donned my brightest plaid shirt for the occasion – a subtle nod to the 1970s Gunflint Trail business owners who wore buffalo plaid shirts whenever they visited to the Capitol to lobby about the BWCAW bill. 

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We were on a purely sightseeing visit to Washington D.C., but despite this, I was surprised at how effective the city was – with its grand buildings and innumerable monuments – at creating “that America feeling”  and making me really think (maybe overthink?!) about the impact certain acts of U.S. legislation have had on my own personal life. 

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We never got much beyond the National Mall during our visit (our lodging was just two blocks from the White House), but we managed to squeeze a lot of monuments, museums, and miles into our short visit. 

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Highlights included: 

  • Observing a wreath laying ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington National Cemetery 
  • Watching the helicopters fly back and forth over the Tidal Basin as we toured monuments 
  • Taking a break from wordy Smithsonian exhibits in the flower-filled lobby of the National Gallery 
  • Enjoying a plethora of dining options 

 

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Although we were a little early for cherry blossoms, the green grass covering the National Mall, as well as the beautiful green oasis of the United States Botanic Garden, were truly sights for sore, winter-worn eyes. During our brief trip, it snowed another foot back home on the Gunflint . . . . 

We certainly left a lot unseen in Washington D.C., but we hope to return sometime soon; plaid shirts optional.   

Have you been to Washington D.C.? What was your favorite sight? 

Is a Boundary Waters Trip Right For You?

If our Pinterest account can be believed, a handful of the people who end up on our website each day are driven by this question: “Is a Boundary Waters trip right for you?” Granted, if you’re reading this blog post, you probably already know a Boundary Waters/Quetico trip works well for you, but we figured we’d take this information that’s been buried on our trip planning page so it’s easy to find and share with people you know who can’t quite decide how they feel about canoe tripping. 

Obviously, we’re biased: we think everyone should experience the Boundary Waters and Quetico. (Check out our 10 reasons why every 20-something should canoe trip.) If you’re on the fence about taking a trip to America’s most popular wilderness area, here’s some real talk about what a canoe trip is all about to help you determine if a BWCA trip is right for you.

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Do you like being outdoors?

Kind of a no-brainer, but the people who get the most out of their Boundary Waters experience are folks who gravitate towards spending time outdoors no matter what corner of the world they’re in. Previous camping experience definitely isn’t a pre-requisite for enjoying a BWCA canoe trip, but it is helpful if you feel at ease being outside for extended periods of time.

Are you comfortable on self-guided adventure and do you trust yourself or someone else in your group with navigation?

Tuscarora does not offer guided canoe trips in the BWCA and Quetico. 100% of our outfitting guests successfully navigate canoe country independently. We’ll set you up with the maps you need for your trip and go over your route carefully to mark any confusing spots before you leave our office, but you’ll need to actively navigate during your entire trip.

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Do you like the idea of going off the grid?

Your cell phone won’t work in the Boundary Waters and Quetico and even if you bring an emergency communication device like a satellite phone or texting device, it can be hours before emergency responders reach your group. Boundary Waters campers are responsible for their own safety. You can help yourself avoid medical emergencies by moving carefully on portage trails and practicing extreme caution when using axes, saws, and fires.

Do you have stamina and can you tolerate moderate physical discomfort?

Almost all canoe trips require portaging, meaning you pick up all your gear, canoe, and paddles and carry them from one lake to the next. While the majority of portages are less than a ½ mile long, even the shortest portage can be strenuous. You can avoid a lot of the physical demands of a Boundary Waters trip by opting for a base camp canoe route. Part of going on a canoe trip means you will have wet feet from time to time and that you’ll be sleeping on the ground. A canoe trip is a far cry from the all-inclusive vacation, but we think you’ll find it an extremely rewarding and memorable experience.

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Are you a-okay with things not going exactly according to plan?

Although people often refer to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness as a “park,” the BWCA is very different from what you’ve experienced in a U.S. National Park. The BWCA is maintained to be, well, wild. There aren’t signs marking portages or lakes and you’ll probably run across at least one spot where the portage trail is obscured by fallen trees or flooding. The weather in northern Minnesota is highly variable year-round so make sure you pack good raingear and plenty of warm clothing, no matter what time of year you visit.

If you answered “YES!” to those five questions, congratulations, a Boundary Waters adventure sounds like a great fit for your personality. By setting realistic expectations for your canoe trip, you can have the trip of a lifetime and you might even like it so much that you come back year after year to explore different routes and seasons. 

Favorite BWCA Gadgets: The Silky Folding Hand Saw

Despite recommending that you read Hatchet, we don’t actually recommend that you bring a hatchet (or an ax, for that matter) on your next Boundary Waters or Quetico trip. Although packing an ax might seem like a no-brainer, we feel strongly that much better tools for easy firewood production.

Unless you’re cooking all your meals over a campfire, you probably won’t need enough firewood during your trip to justify the risk that comes with operating an ax in a wilderness area. In 2016, two different groups that outfitted through Tuscarora had to ended their trips early due to injury. Both of those injuries were caused by an ax. Axes don’t only cause bodily harm, when strapped to the outside of portage packs which are then dropped into floating Kevlar canoes, an edge of the ax head often damages the canoe’s foam core.

If you’re gathering firewood that’s dead, down, and wrist-size or smaller as per the Boundary Waters rules and regulations, you won’t even need to split your firewood while you’re in the woods. For the most efficient and safe firewood gathering in the BWCA, your best friend is the folding hand saw. 

Three Sizes of Silky Saws

In recent years, we’ve come to depend on a cadre of Silky brand folding saws for our firewood and brushing needs. As you can see above, we’ve accumulated quite a collection. A Japanese company, Silky is known for producing high quality, efficient, and smooth cutting handsaws.   

For Boundary Waters trips, the Big Boy Silky Saw pictured in the middle of the above photo with the orange handle is your most practical option. (In fact, it’s the saw that Amy and Dave Freeman used during their “Year in the Wilderness” back in 2015/16.)  The Big Boy weighs less than a pound and folds down to 15 inches. We find the extra large teeth blades work best for slicing through Northwoods brush, but you can choose from extra fine, medium, and large teeth blades as well. 

Before this post just turns into an infomercial, let’s bullet point what we appreciate about Silky saws: 

  • Good ergonomics – the saw is designed to do its cutting when you pull the blade back towards your body which lessens body strain and allows you to make quick work of your firewood gathering. 
  • Easy open, easy close – While it can feel like you need an engineering degree to assemble some of the lightweight folding saws on the market, the Silky saws simply pull open and shut like a pocket knife.
  • Replacement options – You can buy replacement blades for about half the price of the actual saw. You just need a flat head screwdriver to switch out blades. 
  • Safety first – These saws won’t fly out of your hands and land into your foot. And because the blade is securely tucked into its handle when not in use, you don’t have to worry about anyone accidentally cutting them when it’s not in use. 
  • Economical –  The Big Boy retails at about $70.00. And because they’re easy to safely operate, you might even avoid a few insurance co-pays too!  

Replacement Silky Saw blades

Here’s a short video of the Silky saw in action: