- dates: 2023/06/04-10
- location: boundary waters canoe area (bwca)
- route: horse and basswood river loop
me and my dad have been wanting to check out this loop for a while, and decided to do it this year for our annual bwca trip.
our route in red, campsites in blue
we went pretty light, only bringing a single hiking backpack full of food, and a single duluth pack for all of our gear. we used my dads 17ft wenonah kevlar canoe, and had plenty of room to spare. there’s a lot of portaging on this route, with the longest being around a mile, so we really wanted to minimize the amount of stuff we would be lugging between lakes and around waterfalls.
i use a hammock for sleeping when i’m camping in locations that are feasible, as even with the associated bug net and tarp, it ends up lighter and smaller than a tent. it does make it slightly harder in general to find a campsite, but i can always share a tent or use a tarp if there’s no suitable trees. luckily this hasn’t been much of a problem on our bwca trips apart from a few select locations.
we left in the morning and drove north to the fall lake entry point, our usual starting point for boundary waters trips. we put in around noon and paddled into fall lake. this was pretty familiar ground for us, so we didn’t spend too much time on fall or newton lake.
it was a little early in the season, but we didn’t see a single other group until we got into pipestone bay. we paddled a little past wegen’s point before stopping to setup camp for the night.
it was a pretty easy day; other than the two portages which were both very well maintained. One is more of a gravel road, which makes it fast and easy to traverse, especially with how light we went.
for supper we had packed ‘hobo dinners’ (foil wrapped veggies and meat with seasonings) to throw in the fire as our last non-dehydrated meal before heading deeper into the wilderness.
this was the true beginning of our adventure, we paddled through a small connecting lake and stream to get to jackfish bay from pipestone. luckily, the water was high enough to navigate through the stream and around beaver dams that studded the swampy barrier between bays.
while moving through the stream we saw a moose peering out of the forest at us as we passed, a rare sight in such a popular and crowded lake.
moving down jackfish bay, we encountered a growing number of large ‘deadhead’ logs, stuck into the lake floor and raising to the surface. the density of these increased dramatically by the mouth of the river that we were taking, resulting in a somewhat congested path out of the lake.
this lead into a short river section between jackfish bay and sandpit lake, with two short (<20 rod) portages. both of these portages were much less traveled than those in basswood lake, and we had some trouble finding the trails, having to double back on both times to look closer for the canoe landings.
we setup camp in the single campsite at sandpit lake, and wound down for the night.
we packed up camp and canoed for a few minutes to the first portage of the day, into tin can mike lake. this portage was a bit longer, but still pretty well maintained, with a nice board walk across a swampy area near the end. which we paddled across tin can mike in a little under an hour, before doing the second portage of the day into horse lake. this one was a little shorter than the first and was also pretty nice to walk on, making it a quick journey to get to horse lake around mid day.
we didn’t want to do the entire horse river and still look for a campsite before the end of the day, so we decided to call it a short day and camped at one of the sites on horse lake.
i’m glad we stopped here, because it was my favorite site of the entire trip. a nice wide open area, spotted with pine trees for shade, and an excellent view from the fire pit.
it rained briefly just after the sun set, but quickly let up before any thing got truly wet. our only other interruption was a beaver slapping the water just outside of the campsite, apparently a bit irritated at our presence.
we paddled back down a bit of horse lake before heading off down the horse river. we quickly encountered the first of three sequential rapids, which were pretty mild.
the second set were the most intense of the whole river, these were the only rapids we got out and walked along the bank to scope out our route. it involved a bit of quick maneuvering, and we scraped a few rocks, made it through unscathed.
the rest of the river was pretty calm, and there were a few sub-hundred rod portages around low spots in the river. the meandering river was a nice change of scenery from the expansive lakes, carrying us to the lower basswood falls in about four hours from when we first entered.
we stopped to walk along the falls and stretch our legs before heading up the basswood river to find a campsite. at wheelbarrow falls we had the hardest paddling of the entire trip, battling against the combined flow of two giant falls in addition to heavy winds to make it to the portage. this portage was also among the poorest maintained of our whole trip, with a dry stream bed running directly through the center, making it a precarious trip while loaded down. luckily it was only about thirty rods, making it a quick struggle.
we camped just a little more up the river, at a site that seemed to frequently be under water if the river was high.
it was extremely cold in the morning, only a few degrees above freezing, we started our only morning fire of the trip, and watched the sun burn the mist off the river as it quickly warmed up.
we got going a bit before seven, as we had to portage a mile around the upper basswood falls, and didn’t want to get stuck paddling late. it took us about an hour and a half across two trips, but it was late enough in the trip that it wasn’t unbearable.
after the portage we paddled across basswood to start looking for campsites and finish the day. it was still before noon, so we ended up being pretty picky about the campsite we chose, and passed up six or seven before we found a good one. it was located right at the narrows separating jackfish bay from the rest of basswood, which unfortunately was also the separating line for motor boats, leading to a bit more noise and activity.
the campsite looked out across a small bay, and as the sun set we watched turtles climb across the rocks to find places for their eggs.
it was less than a day’s paddle to get out of the lake, but we still had one more day planned. we left pretty late in the morning and paddled slowly down basswood lake, looking for a perfect spot.
we eventually found a very nice site about a mile north of wegen’s point, leaving us a short trek out in the morning. the campsite was nicely laid out, wide open with enough space for five or six tents, with enough trees interspersed to give shade throughout the day.
in the afternoon the wind picked up and clouds gathered in the north, seemingly signaling a storm. we decided to have an early supper to beat the rain, and made a pot of chili as the wind continued to increase.
the rain didn’t come until after dark, and only a small sprinkle of rain, rather than the storm that the wind had been suggesting.
the wind continued through the night and into the morning, resulting in a turbulent lake as we left our campsite. the waves were coming from behind, overtaking us with two or three foot swells at the highest. luckily this was only a short portion of the lake, and as soon as we made it around wegen’s point the winds calmed to a much more manageable level.
after that it was just two portages to make it back to civilization, and with the wind at our back we quickly arrived back at the fall lake campground.
i would highly recommend this route to anyone that’s looking for an intermediate level trip into some less populated areas around basswood lake. there’s quite a bit of portaging (at least 2 per day), so you want to go as light as you’re reasonably comfortable with.
even this early in the season the bugs were bad. we used a good amount of bug spray, along with a vaporizable bug repellent that worked well enough during the day. during dusk though, nothing seems to stop the mosquitoes except a physical barrier, leaving you to wear full body clothing and a head net or simply retreat to the tent.
some especially interesting places to check out are: sandpit lake, horse lake, and the lower and upper basswood falls.