First Paddle of 2017!

Spring came early to the Gunflint Trail in 2017. The crocuses outside the outfitting building started blooming this week (that’s 2+ weeks ahead of when they bloomed last year) and the snow cover has disappeared from all but the darkest, coolest corners of the woods. With the seemingly endless string of sunny days that we’ve enjoyed over the last couple weeks, it’s hard to remember that we’re still in the first half of April and that the BWCA paddle season is still weeks away. 

Last weekend, the water level rose significantly in the section of the Cross River that runs beside the Round Lake Road. A dramatic rise in the rapids usually means that an iced-up section of the river upstream has let loose. 

On Tuesday, Andy and I decided to take advantage of the sunshine by going for a walk around the neighborhood. A couple steps out of the front door, we realized that we didn’t have to go for a walk . . . we could go paddle into Ham Lake. So we turned on a dime and headed over to the canoe yard to throw the Royalex Champlain (aka, the Bathtub) in the back of the pick-up and drove down to the Cross Bay entry point. 
Cross Bay Entry Point Dock April


At first glance, it looked like a large section of ice that had drifted into the landing dock would immediately hinder our adventure, but we were able to sneak around the edge of the iceberg to make it to the first portage. 


First Portage to Ham Lake April

The first portage landing on the route to Ham Lake is fairly shaded so there was plenty crystalized snow to pick through. Although the partial snow cover made them slightly treacherous, we sure appreciated the steps the U.S. Forest Service installed on this portage last August with a group of volunteers. 

Ham Lake Portage April

A Royalex canoe is a great early season canoe option because it is much warmer than an aluminum canoe (those aluminum bench seats can be chilly) and you don’t have to be as careful with it at portage landings as you would with a Kevlar canoe. Of course, it does weigh about 80 lbs, but that didn’t phase me . . . until Andy made me portage it on the trip back to the landing. <cue the sad trombones> 
Cross River Rapids April

Except for a few icebergs here and there, the route to Ham Lake was wide open and we scared up quite a bit of water fowl (including a dozen Canadian geese) as we traveled through one of the only navigable stretches of open water on the Gunflint Trail. But once we got to Ham Lake, the smooth sailing came to an abrupt end. 

Iced In Ham Lake April

You can reach the first campsite on Ham Lake. Not sure what you’d do there (catch up on your reading? Watch for ice out?) if you were to camp there right about now, but you could easily reach it in about a 25 minute paddle from the Cross Bay entry point. 
Ham Lake First Campsite AprilAndy Tuscarora BWCA Paddle April

Ham Lake Portage Trail BWCA AprilCross Bay Entry Point BWCAW April

It’s been a hard year to make accurate ice-out predictions for Gunflint Trail lakes. This year’s weird winter weather, particularly the rain that we received, seems to have changed the molecular structure of the lake ice and in turn, effecting how the ice melts. Instead of turning dark and candling as per usual, the ice this year seems to be turning into white slush and simply dissolving. 

Andy describes Gunflint Trail lake ice conditions in this video from Thursday, April 13: 

At any rate, even with the cooler weather predicted for next week, we think it’s fair to say that in a week’s time, we’ll probably be able to paddle Ham Lake and maybe even the entire Snipe Loop. It won’t be a record-breaking Gunflint Trail ice-out ala 2012 and 2010, but it will be a very early Boundary Waters paddling season at Tuscarora Lodge and Canoe Outfitters for sure. 

What’s the earliest BWCA canoe trip you’ve ever taken?