Brightsand River starting from Alysworth Lake
62 KM 3 days
6 Portages 1,455m long of 400m average 242m
I considered doing a Boundary Waters Canoe trip or maybe Quetico, but when I ran into an old friend that had recently paddled the Brightsand River, I knew that this was the adventure we were looking for. My brother Tim was up for the challenge, and then a good friend Fred, an experienced woodsman, asked to join. Just a few weeks before the trip Tim’s son-in-law Derek asked to join to have an even 6 men. Just days before the trip, Fred strained his rotator cuff while loading his kayak on the truck, so we were back to five.
Over the winter, as I researched the route, I realized that very few people had ever done this trip. This heightened the excitement of exploring an area with very fewer visitors and the potential for solitude and adventure. I talked to the Park Superintendent, Scott Ellery, who is responsible for a huge geographic territory, including Brightsand Provisional Park. He was very helpful and he sent me a nice map (bsr_canoeroutes Mar 03), but he was not very familiar with the actual route we had in mind. He said we would likely not see anyone along the route of our adventure. Fred found the best map – the Crimestoppers Explorer Map Series – Map #5
We broke away from our traditional Memorial Day fishing trip to scout out the area with the GPS for a morning. We found the landing that would become our base camp on Brightsand Lake and we found the place on Alysworth Lake where we would start. We also followed Moberly Lake Road as far west of the Graham Road as we could to get coordinates for what would be a little less than half way. This was our emergency exit if we needed to walk out.
Andrew, Tim, Fred and I did a practice trip on June 22, 2013 at our home on the Big Eau Pleine Reservoir. Setup camp and cooked in some new land we recently purchased nearby. Experienced some strong rain storms and realized a few adjustments were needed for the cook shelter tarp. In planning for a 38 mile trip, I needed to know how far we could reasonable go in a day. We traveled 15 miles in 5 ½ hours in my Old Town Penobscot 16.4’ and Fred’s 17’ aluminum canoe. Realized that the newer canoes travel so much better than the old aluminum models. Tim rented two Kevlar Wenonah canoes from Sawtooth Outfitters in Tofte, MN on the North Shore of Lake Superior – handy location on our drive to Canada.
Thursday August 8, 2013
Andrew drove from Milwaukee to my house in time to join most of the rest of the family for dinner. Scott flew into Central Wisconsin Airport after his national sales meeting. We finished packing and loaded the Old Town Canoe onto Andrew’s truck. Enjoyed a few drinks and headed to bed.
Friday August 9, 2013
Up early with excitement and on the road at 5:30. Tim picked up Derek in the Twin Cities. We had to stop and adjust the canoe on Andrew’s truck a few times. Tim got to Tofte well ahead of us. After some confusion over Sawtooth or Sawbill Outfitters, we met Tim and Derek and loaded the canoes.
We left Tim’s truck at a trail head and had a nice lunch at the Blue Fin – enjoyed a nice burger and a cold beer on the deck overlooking Lake Superior. Andrew’s truck was pulled over at the border, likely due to Derek’s first trip into Canada, created another delay. Stopped in the town of Kakabeka Falls for licenses, camping permits and beer.
The Graham Road was rough, but not much traffic. No logging trucks, one fishing rig and 2 pickups. Dropped off one canoe in the woods near at Alysworth Lake (49°28’35.28″N 90°24’53.88″W) then headed North to our base camp of the Graham Road near KM 92 at Brightsand Lake (49°48’1.96″N 90°16’43.58″W). With nobody else camping, we spread out our big tents. Enjoyed steaks on the grille with toasted garlic bread around a nice campfire.
Saturday August 10
Got up for a breakfast of eggs, Canadian bacon, muffins and cheese. Broke camp, loading the stuff needed for the river in the Suburban and the stuff for base camp in Andrew’s truck, which we parked in the back, away from the landing. Slow going, we were not on the road until 11:00.
Access off the Graham Road on small spur road on left at KM 52. Look for a small brown sign on West side.
The landing on Alysworth Lake (49°28’35.28″N 90°24’53.88″W) is rocky and steep, but a nice clearing. Backed the Suburban down about half way (this would be a bad place to get stuck) to unload the gear, and then parked in a small clearing past landing opening. The men were excited to start the adventure!
Derek and Scott zigzagged their way across the lake, with Andrew and me next, followed by Tim in the solo canoe. We quickly realized that Tim could not keep up with the young guys in the solo canoe, so we hooked a rope to the back of Derek and Scott’s canoe. Tim had the most detailed map and I was glad he was so careful on our route planning. It was a good mix with two old guys providing direction and three big young guys to provide the power.
We crossed Alysworth Lake to the west and north to first portage (49°31’38.05″N 90°30’43.04″W), 400m on left before rapids (marked with pink tape). A young couple was having good fishing above the rapids – this would be the last boat we would see until the last portage. The portage trail had been cleared several years ago, 2 down trees to get past. This was our longest portage, a mix of rock and swamp. We took two trips to carry everything, everyone pitched in to share the load. At the end of the portage, there is a natural tendency to follow the open water straight west, but we needed to first paddle North to below the rapids to find the main river channel.
Went through Twining Lake to the North West and stopped for lunch on a nice clear rock outcropping.
Followed the river to the big bay at the South West corner of the route. Suggest following the right (North) shoreline to avoid getting confused in the islands and bays straight ahead and to the left. As we followed the river as it turns North towards Moberly lake, we passed a fly-in outpost cabin – nobody there. Boats neatly pulled up on shore.
Paddled past native rock paintings (pictographs) on the East side of Moberly Lake. The red paintings are very visible on the rock wall. Pretty cool!
Found our first camp on the right side at (49°31’46.93″N 90°33’42.13″W). It is a great camp site! Nice fire pit at the top of the bank, table between trees and nice soft mossy area for tents. Lots of down trees for fire wood and a big cross cut saw was hanging on a tree!
After making camp, we boiled water (Tim’s water filtration system worked great!) for the Mountain House freeze dried Beef Stroganoff, which was a big hit with the hungry men. Cut up some firewood and enjoyed a nice fire overlooking the river.
Sunday August 11, 2013
Woke to the sound of a loon calling. Water was still at sunrise. Caught a beautiful picture of the sun rising over the river, with the top half of the trees in the in sun and the bottom in the shade, the reflection on the still waters with the canoes in the foreground was perfect!
The freeze dried eggs and bacon was not much of a hit. Packed up quickly and we were on the water for what would be our longest day of paddling. With Scott and Andrew in one canoe and Tim and Derek in the other, I tried the solo canoe with my kayak paddle, I could not keep up either, so I hooked a rope to Tim and Derek.
We never found the next camp marked on the map before the nature preserve – I am glad we stopped where we did the night before. Went past a small green building with a solar panel on the roof – not sure what it is used for. Paddled to first portage, 260M on right (49°37’10.58″N 90°34’35.14″W) and then quickly to another short portage – 260M on right (49°37’20.13″N 90°34’26.69″W).
Stopped for lunch on a nice sandy point at (49°39’4.58″N 90°33’41.12″W) that would make a nice camp site, before entering the South end of Little Metionga Lake.
The wind picked up from the West as we paddled North then North East toward the portage to Metionga Lake. Passed the second fly-in outpost cabin – again nobody there. It was easy to see the portage opening on right of rapids at (49°41’51.28″N 90°30’17.61″W). The portage was well used, 215M in length, with some vertical rise.
Entered the big open water on the South shore of Metionga Lake and immediately passed last fly-in outpost with several cabins – again nobody there. Talked to the manager while he was standing on the dock with a cup of coffee. No customers, but lots of maintenance work to do.
With a strong wind at our back, we crossed the open water to the East while hugging the South shoreline through the islands. I disconnected the rope as we rode some pretty big rollers on the East side of Metionga Lake. It was tricky to navigate through the islands to the North East into Brightsand Lake. Rain started as we entered Brightsand Lake, but the wind died down as we raced across the North end of the largest portion of the lake. Saw a double rainbow as the hard rain stopped.
We could not find the camp site marked on the North East end of Brightsand Lake, but found a nice beach to use as our camp at (49°44’44.38″N 90°22’12.46″W) – not a lot of space for the tents, but we had room to make Beef Stew for dinner. The young guys made a fire pit on the beach and collected firewood for a campfire before the rain chased us to the tents. Five tired men after 18 miles on the water.
Monday, August 12, 2013
Woke to light rain and calm waters as we made oatmeal for breakfast. We packed the wet tents and took off with Tim and Andrew, Scott and I. Derek took the solo canoe and we could not keep up with him. Clearly an operator problem with the old guys!
Headed North East on the glacial cut lakes and rivers to the next portage at (49°45’47.15″N 90°21’15.30″W). The portage is poorly marked on the left. The big stone landing was slippery after the rain. Not long at 120M, but the portage trail is poorly maintained. Many people must run the rapids, which look doable if not heavily loaded.
The detail map marked rapids that we did not see, nor listed on the map from the Park. It was easy to get confused on the zig-zag route in the rain. The final portage is around the Brightsand River Road bridge is easy to see on the left at (49°47’46.06″N 90°17’47.57″W) is 200M and well used over the road leading to the Brightsand Road bridge, which is marked as closed to traffic, but we saw a truck there.
Made the final paddle across the lake, behind the island to the landing at (49°48’1.96″N 90°16’43.58″W). Nice to enjoy a cold beer after 38.6 miles/62KM. We unpacked Andrew’s truck for our base camp. Tim, Derek and Scott went fishing below the rapids while Andrew and I went to retrieve the Suburban.
Scott caught a very nice Walleye below the rapids, tied the stringer to the canoe and then promptly hit a rock and flipped the solo canoe. Wearing the life jacket, he was unhurt and he was able to collect the canoe and the floating stuff to wade to shore. Tim snagged the rod & reel, so not much was lost. He flipped the canoe back up, got in, talked to Tim and Derek for a moment before he headed to camp for some dry clothes. Andrew and I met him at the landing and listened to the story in the tent as he dried off. Got dry clothes and crawled into his sleeping bag to warm up.
Shared the camp with a couple drunks from Thunder Bay – the only disappointing part of the entire trip. Cooked the fresh walleyes with Zatarain’s Red Beans and Rice for a great meal. Enjoyed a nice campfire (despite the noisy neighbors). Nice to sleep on a cot again J
Tuesday August 13, 2013
Scott and Andrew wanted to get on the road early to get back to Milwaukee before the kids went to bed. Cooking pancakes was slow going with one fry pan. Packed all of the gear we did not need into Andrew’s truck and they were on the road at 8:30 am. They made it to Milwaukee before 9:00 pm.
Tim took the solo canoe, while Derek and I fished together for the first time. Not much action and we talked about going back, but Derek asked to make another pass on the left side of the rapids. He caught 5 Northerns is just a few minutes. Derek played them well in the canoe, which was tricky with such light line. Kept one Northern and a Walleye to take home.
Packed up the remaining gear, loaded the canoes on the Suburban and we hit the road. We drove from KM 92 to KM 40 without seeing a single vehicle, but then came across two First Nation guys that had lost a wheel on the rough Graham Road. Looks like some lug nuts rattled loose and the others snapped off. We agreed to call his son for help once we got cell phone service. Tim called 4 times before he got an answer, but good to know that someone was on the way with a wrecker.
Stopped to see Kakabeka Falls – the 130 foot drop is very impressive!
Made it across the border without any problems. Hotel at Grand Portage was full, so we headed to Grand Marais and got the last room at the Alpine Lodge. A warm shower sure felt good!
Wednesday August 14, 2013
Breakfast at the hotel, then stopped at Tofte to get Tim’s Truck and the drop off the other canoe. Nice lunch near Canal Park in Duluth, then parted ways after a great trip!