Paddle the Boundary Waters' Cherokee Loop

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Added by Greg Owens

The Cherokee Loop offers close proximity to Moose, wolves, loons, and bald eagles with solitude, quiet, and zero light pollution. If you like to fish, there's great fishing for northern pike, walleye, smallmouth bass, lake trout.

Home to more than 1,000 lakes, nearly 2,200 campsites, and a staggering array of wildlife, including moose, wolves, loons, and bald eagles, the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW) is one of those remarkable landscapes that has to be seen to be believed and should be explored in order truly to be seen. While there are miles of trails for hiking, backpacking, and Nordic skiing, the real draw of the Boundary Waters is a canoe or kayak trip across at least a few of the lakes. After a full day of strong paddling, what could be better than relaxing at a backcountry campsite, cooking a steak or perhaps the day’s catch on a campfire, listening to wolves howling in the distance, and stargazing with zero light pollution? You can find all of that in this adventure, a loop from Sawbill Lake to Cherokee Lake and back to Sawbill and across more than half a dozen others.

Getting there:

From Minneapolis/St. Paul, the drive to Sawbill Lake is about five hours. I-35 North gets you to Duluth, where you should stop at legendary Duluth Pack for a last-minute gear grab and Northern Waters Smokehaus for ridiculously tasty smoked fish and sandwiches. Take MN 61 along the north shore of Lake Superior to Tofte, and follow County Road 2 for 24 miles to Sawbill Lake and Sawbill Canoe Outfitters, which carries essential gear available for purchase or rent.

Things to know:

A permit is required for travel in the BWCAW, and reserving an overnight-use permit is strongly recommended. All the information you need for getting your permit can be found here.

After just a short paddle on Sawbill Lake, you will enter the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. Please do all you can to minimize your impact on the wilderness for the sakes of those who come after you and the wildlife who call it home.

Each of the designated campsites in the BWCAW has a fire ring/grate and a latrine. Finding those campsites, though, can be tricky since so much of the terrain looks strikingly similar. A good map and compass are essential.

The portage trails between lakes can be extremely muddy and dangerously slippery. Sturdy footwear that can get soaked and muddy is great to have.

Mosquitoes in the BWCAW can be hellish. You may see few to none out on the lakes, but they will eat you alive on the portage trails and at the campsites unless you are prepared. Long sleeves, long pants, bug juice, and a head-net are invaluable.

Fishing for northern pike, walleye, lake trout, and smallmouth bass in the Boundary Waters can be great. Be sure to pick up a MN fishing license before you head into the wilderness.

The adventure:

From the south end of Sawbill, head north across the length of the lake to its northeast end and to the first portage, an 83-rod walk to an unnamed lake (no campsites). (1 rod = 16.5 feet; 320 rods = 1 mile) A short paddle reaches a 79-rod portage to Ada Lake (no campsites), followed by a 13-rod portage and paddle across Skoop Lake (no campsites). At Skoop’s north end, a tough 181-rod slog gets you to a navigable creek that leads into the south end of Cherokee, a big lake with lots of good campsites and a great place to spend a night or two. This is a solid first day of paddling and portaging; when I did this loop in June 2014, we spent our second day watching loons and fishing in Gordon Lake, where we caught northern pike and lake trout, and stayed a second night at Cherokee. A 10-lb. lake trout, caught by my friend Matt, gave us trout to go with our steaks that second night and trout-and-egg breakfast burritos the next morning.

After a rest day of fishing (and eating fish!), head off on the third and toughest day of the adventure: seven lakes, one stream, and seven portages, including one of 165 rods and another of 225 rods. It also happens to be the day on our 2014 trip when we saw eight moose: three bulls (solo), a cow with one calf, and a cow with two calves. The route goes first from the southeast end of Cherokee to Sitka (no campsites) to North Temperance (3 campsites) and then to South Temperance (4 campsites). The 225-rod portage leads from South Temperance to a shallow but navigable, short stream, leading in turn to Weird Lake (no campsites) and a short paddle and short portage to Jack Lake (3 campsites). Jack is narrow for a lake and a pleasant paddle, and a 71-rod portage from the south end of Jack gets us to Kelly. There’s one campsite at the end of Kelly’s northeast arm and four more on the main part of the lake. After the long day, get that fire going, cook up a hot meal, and have a few sips of that good bourbon you brought along. (You did remember the bourbon, right?)

The fourth day is another short one with just a single portage, but it’s the toughest of the trip. At 207 rods, it’s not the longest, but the terrain is up and down, rocky, and extremely slippery. After getting through this slog, you reach Burnt Lake, where there are six campsites, good fishing especially for smallmouth bass and walleye, and bald eagles to watch. It’s a great place to while away a pleasant afternoon and evening. At Burnt Lake, we heard wolves howling during the night.

On the last day, pack up camp one final time and head across Burnt Lake to its northwest end, where a 95-rod portage gets us to Smoke Lake. Across Smoke Lake at its southwest end, you reach the final portage, 107 rods to the east side of Sawbill, where a paddle along the eastern shore gets you to the put-in/take-out and the end of the adventure.

The tiny resort town of Grand Marais is a great place to stay after your time in the backcountry of the BWCAW. Be sure to stop at World’s Best Donuts (get there early!) near the end of town for what really are terrific donuts. The Dockside Fish Market has great fresh fish if you haven’t already eaten enough, and Sven and Ole’s has good pizza and beer.

Pack List

  • Lightweight canoe or kayak and life jackets
  • Dry bags for gear
  • Fishing rod
  • Tackle
  • MN license
  • Good map and compass or GPS with long battery life
  • Rain gear
  • Tent
  • Sleeping bag and pad
  • Cooking utensils
  • Bug juice and head-net
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Camping, Fishing, Kayaking, Photography, Swimming

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Summer, Autumn


Swimming Hole

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Added by Greg Owens

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