Bower Trout to Swan Lake: A weekend In-and-Out

The importance of “getting away from it all” as a couple is immense. It’s a really difficult thing to do in the go-go-go world we live in. Scott and I have been together for 13 years. Our first trip together to the Boundary Waters was when we were 16 years old, just babies! We’ve gone up multiple times with my family, we’ve gone up with our kids, but we had never had a trip to my favorite place just the two of us. It was long overdue!

Ranger Station

The Ranger Station for Entry Point 43, Bower Trout Lake, is the Gunflint District Ranger Station. You really can’t miss it as your enter Grand Marais on Hwy 61. It’s just off to the right before the mini golf place.

Our quiz was taken outside alongside another couple. The building was closed at the time of our trip due to covid-19. We had watched the short film before our previous trip this summer, this allowed us to bypass that tidbit. You are only required to watch it once a season. If you’ve watched the video in the past, you’ll find it has been updated. I actually missed the tradition of watching the old video on the tiny tv screen in the ranger station.

Gunflint Ranger Station Info:
Address:2020 W. Hwy 61
Grand Marais, MN 55604
Hours:May 1st- Sept. 30th: Sun-Sat 8am-4:30pm
Oct. 1st-April 30th: Mon-Fri 8am-4:30pm
Phone:218-387-1750

Entry Point Details

Entry Point #43
Permits Issued Daily 1
Permit TypeOvernight Paddle
Ranger StationGunflint District

Getting to the Entry Point

Our route got a little goofy at the beginning of our drive due to some construction. We had to bypass that and go a little bit passed our turn, but it was easy enough to circle back around. The road conditions passed the Gunflint Trail were actually quite good, I was impressed. I recall the sketchiness from when I was a kid. Do not rely on your phone GPS, you will loose signal somewhere along the Gunflint Trail, have a map with you and know your route before you go. I actually like to have printed out instructions along as well.

As you exit the Gunflint Ranger Station parking lot, head east on Route 61. Just a mile down the road, turn left onto 5th Ave W. The Gunflint Trail will be .7 miles down the road, turn left here. Stay on the Gunflint Trail for 16 miles. Next you’ll take a left onto South Brule Rd (325), follow this until you reach a T in the road. Go Left onto 152, the entry point will be half a mile after the turn. The sign is quite small, so go slow or you might miss it.

Parking

For only issuing one permit daily, this entry point has a generous parking area. We were able to back into a space with relative ease. There is no bathroom area (there usually aren’t). Folks can obtain a day use permit, there may be vehicles parked in the area for single day use.

Route

Scott and I chose to go farther in for this trip and take on more portages. We felt free to do so since it was just the two of us and no small children. We took advantage of our lightweight situation and went on an adventure!

Our route would take us from Bower Trout Lake into Marshall Lake, through Dugout and Skidway, up the South Brule River, and finally into Swan Lake. A total of 6 portages, 5 Lakes, and a river. Though there are longer and more treacherous routes, this was the first trip we had been able to take in a long time that was more than one lake in. I was excited!

Portage #1: The Launch

Do not be deceived! There is no view of the lake from the parking area, but you will get there. It’s a 72 rod portage to Bower Trout Lake, but it’s a beautiful portage at that. Depending on what time of year you go, we went in early August, there are groves of wild flowers. Raised planks have been installed on the trail to walk across as it is a more swampy area. The water was so low at the time of our travels that we did not have to worry about getting our feet wet right away.

Portage Tip: We spoke to some rangers on one of our excursions about footwear. This gal and her partner wore boots treated with mink oil, this made them waterproof. We usually wear our athletic water shoes, closed toe only. They look more like mesh tennis shoes. And we pack our dry shoes in our pack. This way you will have dry footwear when you reach your destination and don’t need to worry about trying to keep your feet dry.

Bower Trout Lake

This first sight of the BWCA is breathtaking. Soak it in before loading up the canoe, you’ve earned a moment to take in the scenery after that first portage. Seeing the high hills on the south side of the lake on that cool morning was a reminder of why this wilderness is my favorite place.

Bower Trout Lake has two campsites. If you are planning on staying on this lake there is a good chance that you will obtain a site quickly. This is a rather small lake that offers Walleye, Northern Pike, and Smallmouth Bass. We did not see any campers on this particular lake and kept that knowledge in our back pocket in case of there being no availability on Swan or Marshall.

We shared the lake with a pair of swans as we paddled our way across. They were neat to see and kept their distance. We joked that they were on the wrong lake.

Portage #2

The second portage on this journey is on the opposite end of Bower Trout Lake. It’s really a quick paddle away as Bower Trout is a small lake. There is a small inlet under some bushes from the South Brule River. The portage is farther than this point, though it is worth a quick look. The Portage will be very obvious, there is actually a dock. Not the usual primitive experience but when the water is high, I’ll bet that is appreciated. There are also planks to walk across, to get to more solid ground. This portage is 91 rods with some steeper areas, long but not too rough.

Marshall Lake

Marshall Lake is even smaller than Bower Trout, it is a very short paddle across to the next portage. Not much of a break from carrying gear. There is only one campsite available on Marshall Lake. In our case, it was taken, not that we planned to stay there but that eliminated the easiest backup plan. This lake offers Walleye, Northern Pike, and Smallmouth Bass.

Portage # 3

The portage from Marshall to Dugout was not as obvious as the previous portage with the lack of a dock, but it felt more natural. This particular portage was short and sweet at 28 rods. Really this portage brings you into the South Brule River that leads into Dugout Lake.

Dugout Lake

This was a very cool area to paddle through… or should I saw walk? We reached a point of shallow rocks and small rapids that required us to exit the canoe and guide it upstream. This was almost the most thrilling part of our journey to Swan Lake.

On our way out we watched a pair of paddlers try to maneuver their way without getting out, it was a mess to watch. Just get out, it’s easier, less noisy, and causes less damage to your canoe.

Skidway Lake

Surprisingly there is no portage between Dugout and Skidway. There is, however, a narrowing of the river. Which brings us to the most thrilling part of our route; a small sand bar island in the middle of the stream. Here we found fresh moose tracks and clams that had been cracked and eaten. Obviously, this was a high trafficked area for multiple creatures. There are also multiple beaver lodges to check out. Stay alert, you don’t want to miss the chance to witness something amazing.

There was a spot along this stretch that at least one paddler needed to exit the canoe and guide it through more rough area. No matter, dive in!

Portage #4 & #5

The next two portages 35 and 40 rods. There are some steep areas, but this short distance makes it a breeze compared to the 91 rod portage near the beginning of the journey. There is quite a bit of muck at these next couple of portages. Thankfully, there is a fallen tree near one portage that can be used to avoid some of that mess at one spot.

Keep an eye out for animal sign. We found what we believed to be bear scat. Exciting! If you look through the trees, you’ll be able to see the rapids of the slim river.

South Brule River

There is a small and oddly rectangular section of river that is paddled up the South Brule River. This leads you to the last portage to Swan Lake, yay! The bugs are little more viscous in this area due to more stagnant water. But overall they weren’t bad, thank you dry season.

Portage #6

This last portage brings you up the Swan Lake. The area at the end of the entry has a flat space to organize your gear before loading the canoe. It’s also a good opportunity to check out the map and decide where to search for a site first.

Entering Swan Lake

Immediately to your left as you exit the portage is a group of fallen trees over the river exiting Swan Lake. It’s a very unique scene. More than just a view, the sounds and smells of the crisp water flowing is peaceful. Take a moment to enjoy it and breath it in. Paddling right up to the fallen trees, you’ll see numerous fish swimming in the shelters created by the debris.

Campsites

Swan lake has 3 opportunities for campsites. We took the eastern most site. This site had something that we had yet to see in the BWCA; stairs. That’s right, there was a set of steps leading up to the campsite on a rock. What!? It was definitely a first. I thought it would take away from the wilderness experience, but after setting up camp, they grew on me. It was like sitting on our front step at our backcountry home while drinking tea at the end of the day.

The sites on this lake seemed quite large. There were two areas for tents at our campsite. Our dinky two person tent was dwarfed by the open space. The latrine was quite luxurious as well, it even came with a lid!

Fishing

We had rotten luck again, we entered on a cold front. This made for some rough fishing on our first fishing excursion, Scott caught one northern and I caught one smallmouth bass on our first night. It was great to be out in the canoe with no place to be. We were satisfied with our catch, we weren’t fishing for dinner anyway.

Day 2 of fishing wasn’t any better. We fought the wind for some time until we finally gave up and trolled while the wind pushed us down the shoreline. Eventually we found a little bay on the northwestern side of the lake, that was a small haven away from the wind. We caught one northern for the day. Dinner.

The loons on this lake were rather chatty, we loved listening to their eerie call in the evenings. We also happened upon a family of loons in the bay where we took shelter from the wind. They were quite entertaining to watch as the mother taught her young to fish.

Relax

Fishing, canoeing, exploring, daytrips, swimming, hiking, adventuring; all great fun! I’m up for any and all of it. But when you finally get a break in the action, and no kids tagging along, it’s like striking gold when you can sit down and read your favorite book.

I read the WHOLE book, cover to cover, in one B.W.C.A. weekend. Call of the Wild by Jack London is my favorite book, and I got to read the whole thing in my favorite place. Bring a hammock folks, you can do it too!

If reading is not your thing, find some other way to relax while you’re up there. Some say fishing is just as relaxing. If that’s you, go for it. Scott chilled in the hammock while I read. The point is, find some time to breath and embrace the time that you have there. You’ll want to go back home feeling refreshed, not like you need a vacation from your vacation.

Solitude

Swan lake is farther in than we’ve traveled for quite a while. This offered us a more secluded oasis. We shared the lake with a family for one night and after that we had the lake to ourselves. That time alone was so needed, I really do prefer my solitude. The farther in you go, the fewer people you will see. In some areas it’s quite noticeable, especially when you start to see more wildlife and the squirrels aren’t as friendly.

Time Together

Like I said at the beginning of this post, it was the first time that Scott and myself went on a camping trip just the two of us. I have to admit, it felt a little weird sometimes. We weren’t chasing any toddlers or rushing anyone to activities. So we could actually talk to each other. Or NOT talk to one another and just be in each other’s company without words, silence is a treasure when you have kids.

What separates a couples trip in the Boundary Waters from any other couple’s trip is that you are not distracted by things going on around you. There isn’t some show that you need to make it to by x-o’clock, you aren’t meeting anyone at a certain time, there is no itinerary. It’s just you and you’re favorite person in the most serene place on earth.

All in all, Swan Lake was absolutely worth the trek in. It offered solitude, beautiful scenes, a great campsite, wildlife encounters and time together. I sure missed my kids, but having that time together alone in the woods was much needed! If you have the chance to make it out there with your significant other, do it! You’ll never forget the experience.

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