Canoeing on the Edge
This beautiful route follows the international boundary from Sucker Lake northeast to Ottertrack Lake, then leaves the Canadian border and loops back toward the southwest to enter one of the loveliest parts of the entire BWCA Wilderness. From Ester Lake down to Kekekabic Lake, you'll enjoy cliff-lined lakes, excellent campsites, and a scenic waterfall. Then you'll follow a chain of smaller lakes that parallels the border to popular Ensign Lake before returning to your origin at the Moose Lake landing.
Virtually every inch of this route is quite popular with wilderness visitors. As long as you stay on the main route, you are likely to see other people, especially during the busiest summer season. Nevertheless, if campsite solitude is important to your group, you can usually find it by simply veering off course each afternoon to make one short portage out of your way to camp on a lake that is not on any main route. Or seek campsites in the back bays of such larger lakes as Knife and Kekekabic. Even on popular routes, solitude is available for those who seek it and who are willing to exert a little more effort than the average visitor.
If the winds are out of the south or the west, you should make good time traveling along the Canadian border to Ottertrack Lake. There are only six portages during the first 2= days of this loop. Of course, that leaves 22 carries for the last 3= days. But only two are longer than one-half mile (both near the end of the route) and none is very difficult.
Strong paddlers who don't care about fishing could probably complete this loop in just five days. But for most folks, seven or eight days would be appropriate, allowing one or two layover days to explore the lakes and cliffs along the way.
Anglers will find walleyes, northern pike, and smallmouth bass in much of the water on this route. Lake trout also inhabit Knife, Ottertrack, and Kekekabic lakes, as well as most of the beautiful, clear, smaller lakes sandwiched between Ottertrack Lake and the south arm of Knife Lake. If fishing is"your thing," by all means you'll want to allow 7-8 days for this outstanding wilderness loop.
Day 1: Moose Lake, Newfound Lake, Sucker Lake, Birch Lake. (See comments for Day 1, Knife River-Disappointment Loop.)
Day 2: Birch Lake, portage 48 rods, Carp Lake, portage 26 rods, Knife River, portage 15 rods, Seed Lake, portage 15 rods, Knife River, portage 75 rods, Knife Lake. (See comments for Day 2, Knife River-Disappointment Loop.) Although the southwest end of Knife Lake is sometimes "crowded" with campers, vacant campsites should appear as you get closer to Little Knife Portage into Ottertrack Lake. If not, there are four campsites just beyond the short portage. Where the South arm joins the main part of Knife Lake is Thunder Point. Take time to climb the quarter-mile trail to the overlook, where you will be treated to a fabulous panorama of the Canadian border from over 150 feet above the lake.
If you're ahead of schedule and prefer to get off the "beaten path" to camp in a more secluded location, you might consider portaging either 20 rods from Knife Lake to Amoeber Lake or 50 rods from Ottertrack lake to Gijikiki Lake. Both portages are uphill. The 20-rod carry is no problem. The 50-rod trail is very steep for the first 25 rods and then swampynot an easy portage. On either lake, you'll find two campsites. You can also shorten this loop by one full day if you camp on Amoeber Lake and then skip Day 3 entirely. But if you do this you'll be missing the prettiest section of this loop, and one of the loveliest parts of the entire BWCA Wilderness.
Day 3: Knife Lake, portage 5 rods, Ottertrack Lake, portage 80 rods, Ester Lake, creek, Hanson Lake, portage 110 rods, Cherry Lake. Ottertrack Lake is long, narrow, and lined with bluffs and a rocky shore. While paddling northeast, watch for a plaque cemented to the base of a cliff on the Canadian shoreline, about one-half mile before the lake splits into two arms. The plaque commemorates "Ben Ambrose 1896-1982."
Benny was a prospector who sought gold for more than 60 years in this area. His homestead once occupied the property across the lake, on the US shore. The 80-rod portage to Ester Lake is an uphill climb, while the 110-rod trail climbs steeply up from Hanson Lake, followed by a longer and more gradual descent to Cherry Lake.
You'll find a wonderful campsite at the narrows on Cherry Lake, facing the northeast end of the lake, which is lined on the north by some breathtaking cliffs. This is one of the nicest campsites you could find, with plenty of good tent sites for a larger group. But if it's already occupied, the other campsite on Cherry Lake is a pretty good one too.
Day 4: Cherry Lake, portage 11 rods, Topaz Lake, portage 20 rods, Amoeber Lake, portage 75 rods, Knife Lake, portage 50 rods, South Arm Knife Lake, portage 25 rods, Eddy Lake, 5 portages through Kekekabic Ponds, Kekekabic Lake. With 10 portages this day, it might appear to be too much for the average group. But none of the portages is difficult and the longest is less than a quarter-mile. Nevertheless, you'll want to get an early start in order to claim a good campsite on Kekekabic Lake. Along the way, at the 25-rod portage between Knife and Eddy lakes, take time to enjoy the scenic waterfall on the connecting creek. The best view of the lower falls can be found by paddling past the beginning of the portage to the creek's outlet and then hiking up the trail on the east side of the creek.
The last five short portages of the day connect a group of small lakes and ponds between and Eddy and Kekekabic lakes. The combined total distance of the portages is only about 60 rods, and you may be able to avoid the second portage (3 rods) by walking through the shallow stream connecting two ponds when the water level is high enough. It will take from 1 to 1= hours to cross the Kekekabic Ponds.
Similar to the campsite on Cherry Lake, there is another excellent site at the northeast end of a quiet bay on Kekekabic Lake, across from some spectacular cliffs. The east half of the lake is the most scenic. If you're itching for a hike to break up the paddling routine, you can access the famed Kekekabic Trail at two points along the south shore of the lakeone about a mile from the east end of the lake (it leads up to the site of the former Kekekabic lookout tower) and the other on the portage connecting Kekekabic and Strup lakes.
Day 5: Kekekabic Lake, portage 80 rods, Pickle Lake, portage 25 rods, Spoon Lake, portage 20 rods, Dix Lake, portage 30 rods, Skoota Lake, portage 180 rods, Missionary Lake, portage 35 rods, Trader Lake, portage 80 rods, era Lake. Though with fewer portages than the previous day, this day may be more tiring, since the portages are longer. All have pretty good paths. The longest portage (Skoota to Missionary) is mostly level to gently sloping; but it has one short, steep incline and two short, steep declines. Because Vera Lake is isolated by longer portages, it offers a good, peaceful place to spend your final night in the wilderness. If all the sites are occupied, you can continue on to Ensign Lake, where you' It find many good campsites. But you'll also find many more people on this popular fishing take.
Day 6: Vera Lake, portage 180 rods, Ensign Lake, portage 5 rods, Splash Lake, portage 30 rods, Newfound Lake, Moose Lake. The only challenging portage on the last day of this route is your first one, and it's challenging in two ways. First, it ties for the longest carry of the trip. Second, finding the right portage is 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.
After you rejoin Newfound Lake, you will be backtracking the final 5 miles to your origin at the Moose Lake landing.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication