Canoeing on the Edge

Knife River-Disappointment Loop

This short loop should probably be classified with two difficulty ratings: the first half easy, and the last half rugged. Your first day should bring you to no more than one portage as you paddle your way northeast along the busy Moose chain of lakes to the Canadian border. Following the border farther northeast, you'll walk your canoe up the series of Knife River rapids to big Knife Lake. From Knife, you'll depart from the international boundary and turn back to the southwest through Vera, Ensign, and a series of small lakes to island-studded Disappointment Lake. Then you will slip westward through Parent Lake and across giant Snowbank Lake to Flash Lake and your origin at the Moose Lake public landing. Most of the loop is along a motor route.

If the winds are westerly (as they usually are) you will make good time, but if they swoop down from the north, beware of Snowbank Lake! All along the route, campsites are at a premium, so don't wait too late each day to find yours. Throughout most of the loop, you'll find northern pike, walleye, and bass inhabiting the depths, as well as lake trout in Knife and Snowbank lakes.

Although deer and moose are seldom seen along the route, the same is not true for bears, unfortunately. Be sure to tie your food pack up in the air at night, and during the day when you are away from camp. This is particularly important between the Knife River and Ensign Lake.

Day 1: Moose Lake, Newfound Lake, Sucker Lake, Birch Lake. This day is short for no other reason than the lack of available Forest Service campsites between Birch and Knife lakes. Although much of the traffic from Moose Lake heads east to Ensign Lake or northwest to Basswood Lake, a good deal of it continues along the border to Knife Lake. On a busy weekend and in August, it is not unusual to find all the"legal" campsites from Birch through the southwest end of Knife Lake taken. You have two alternatives: 1) stop early, or 2) stop at Canada customs for the necessary permits that will enable you to camp on the Canadian side of these busy lakes.

If you would like to shorten the paddling distance and break up your day with a short, easy portage, consider taking the 5-rod portage at the east end of Sucker Lake to Birch Lake. In addition, if you prefer to get off the busy border route for a night of solitude, you might consider portaging 100 rods south from near the east end of Birch Lake to spend the night on Frog Lake. Of course, that means that you'll have to start the next morning with the same 100-rod carry. You must decide whether the solitude is worth the extra effort.

Day 2: Birch Lake, portage 48 rods, Carp Lake, portage 16 rods, Knife River, portage 15 rods, Seed Lake, portage 15 rods, Knife River, portage 75 rods, Knife Lake, portage 200 rods, Vera Lake. If the water level is high enough (but not too high) you can eliminate all of the portages on the Knife River by walking your canoe up the series of gentle rapids around which the portages pass. Only on one occasion will you have to lift your canoe and gear around a low falls.

During the summer of 1987 high water caused the old logging dam at the southwest end of Knife Lake, built in the early 1900s, to wash out. Consequently, the water level on Knife Lake has returned to its natural level, lower than it has been during this century. For the next few years, the exposed rocky shoreline may look strange to returning visitors.

Not far from the old dam, in a cluster of three small islands in Knife Lake, is the homesite of the BWCA's last permanent resident. Dorothy Molter, who sold home-made root beer to canoeing passersby for nearly half a century, passed away in December 1986. Two of her log cabins were then moved, log by log, to Ely and reconstructed as a memorial to her near the Voyageur Visitor Center.

The 200-rod portage from Knife to Vera Lake is a tough one, climbing steeply to an elevation of 80 feet above Knife. But, thanks to it, canoe traffic on Vera is much lighter than on either Knife or Ensign Lake. A nice campsite is found along the north shore soon after the portage. Bears are common in the area, so prepare for visitors.

Day 3: Vera Lake, portage 180 rods, Ensign Lake, portage 53 rods, Ashigan Lake, portage 105 rods, Gibson Lake, portage 25 rods, Cattyman Lake, portage 10 rods, Adventure Lake, portage 40 rods, Jitterbug Lake, portage 15 rods, Ahsub Lake, portage 25 rods, Disappointment Lake. The only challenging portage on this day is your first, and it's challenging in two ways. First, it is by far the longest carry. Second, finding the correct portage trail could be a challenge. As you paddle toward the west end of Vera Lake, you'll first see a portage trail that starts just west of a campsite on the east side of a creek-draining a bog. That's a winter portage and not the one you want. Paddle past it to the very end of the lake, on the west side of the creek, where the correct portage for canoeists begins. Unlike the winter portage, this trail is high and dry, climbing to a rocky ridge inhabited by scrub oaks and maple trees. It then descends fairly steeply to the shore of Ensign Lake.

Just off the short portage connecting Gibson and Cattyman Lakes is a rather scenic waterfall that could provide welcome relief to aching shoulders. With caution, enjoy. Very low water could cause some difficulty between Gibson and Ahsub lakes, and rocks and stumps may present a hazard at the northwest end of Cattyman Lake. Jitterbug, which is always shallow, may be too low for navigation near the portage into Ahsub Lake, requiring an extended portage through marshy terrain. You may see a lot of daytime traffic on Disappointment Lake coming from two resorts on Snowbank Lake.

Day 4: Disappointment Lake, portage 85 rods, Parent Lake, portage 80 rods, Snowbank Lake, portage 140 rods, Flash Lake, portage 250 rods to the Moose Lake Road. Numerous motor boats and wind are potential hazards on Snowbank Lake, a long-time favorite among fishermen in search of lake trout. Flash Lake is a delightfully peaceful change from Snowbank. Unfortunately, however, your trip must end with its longest portage—a nearly level trek from Flash Lake to the Moose Lake Road. You will find the parking lot a short distance down the road (turn right off the portage trail).


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