A once-in-a-lifetime trip to Rose Lake in the BWCA

The 2022 Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW) permit day was upon us. While discussing possible entry points for our annual trip, I asked my husband if he’d like to do two Boundary Waters trips this year. He eagerly agreed with little convincing needed. But when I suggested a base-camping trip on Rose Lake in the BWCA, he was less enthused. I did my best to sell him on my plan only to watch his interest wane further. Thankfully, time was on my side with permits opening up the following morning, so he reluctantly agreed.

I’ve mentioned in previous articles that we weren’t exposed to the outdoors until later in life. And we didn’t start camping until 2010. I like to share this fact because I’ve met so many people in similar situations. When you look at social media, it seems like all those outdoorsy people are old pros who’ve been doing it their entire lives. I find it encouraging to know that it’s something you can learn no matter what your age.

Our introduction to the BWCAW

During that aforementioned camping trip in the Superior National Forest, we rented a canoe and day-tripped into the BWCA. We were hooked. Each following year we learned new skills and acquired a little more gear. By the time we made our first overnight trip into the Boundary Waters, we were comfortable enough to tackle a nine-day trip covering more than 80 total miles.

Part of me wants to make up for lost time and see as much of this remarkable place as I can while I’m still young. So until this year, I had never considered base-camping. I’ve also read plenty of complaints in online forums and Facebook Groups about crowded portages and not being able to find campsites. But for years I’ve heard nothing but glowing reviews of Rose Lake in the BWCA.

Getting to Rose Lake in the BWCAW

Choosing to enter on a weekday, we had no problem getting our preferred date and entry point. We set our expectations based on what we had read online and were determined to have a blast no matter how things shook out.

Our household buzzed with anticipation as launch day approached. My husband was looking forward to getting off the grid and disconnecting from another busy year at work. I was anxious about parking, beating the crowds, and finding an open campsite.

As we pulled into the parking lot on launch day, we were surprised to find it half empty. We grabbed our gear and shuttled it down to the lake. On my first trip down I noticed a sign that read, “Portage Under Construction – To ensure everyone’s safety, we ask that only parties with overnight permits travel beyond the falls.” Did this mean we wouldn’t experience crowds on portages, I wondered. My expectations were exceeded and we hadn’t even hit the water.

Finding a campsite on Rose Lake

When we stopped to pick up our permit in Grand Marais that morning, the young lady at the Forest Service office warned us about the bugs. As we drove out of town, I studied the forecast, specifically the wind direction. Then I looked more closely at the maps to determine which campsites would have the best breeze. From what I could tell, only one campsite had a good open view to the west so we made that our first choice.

The first campsite we paddled by was occupied as I expected. The next one was open, but it was wooded and would be less pleasant with this year’s abundant mosquitoes. As we continued to paddle down the lake we saw three canoes paddle away. They had just left our first choice campsite with impeccable timing. We pulled in and were set up before noon.

Unexpected solitude

Our good fortune continued. I’m not sure if it was the reports of unbearable bugs, construction on the portage, or simply the fact that we were there during the week, but the lake was quiet the first three days. On the third day, we enjoyed complete solitude on the Border Route Trail, having Rose Falls and the South Lake overlook completely to ourselves. On our way back that afternoon, I inquired about the portage closure with a trail builder we encountered. He said they “had more than 100 people come through in one day on day trips.” The Forest Service closed the portage to day-trippers the following day.

Saturday on Rose Lake in the BWCA

We had a couple of days with strong winds which forced us to stay close to our campsite. But we didn’t mind because it kept most of the bugs at bay. As the weather radio predicted, the wind died down on Saturday afternoon. We took the opportunity to launch our canoe and try out the fishing on Rose Lake.

As we worked our way toward the west arm of the lake, we heard what sounded like yelling and screaming. We looked around in every direction trying to figure out where it was coming from. A few minutes later a group of four canoes with nine youth rounded the curve into the main lake. They were yelling and singing; not a care in the world.

It’s easy to feel like you’re totally alone when traveling in the wilderness. But as Wilderness Rules and Regulation number 11 on our permit reminds us, “A quiet camper is a no trace camper. Noise impacts the solitude of other campers and scares off wildlife.” This was a great reminder of how well our voices carry over water. Shortly after the group paddled by, several other parties came in from the same direction looking for campsites. We enjoyed the opportunity to observe the flow of traffic on a lake that was just four miles in.

A memorable BWCA day trip

The next morning we got up before the sun for an 8-mile paddle through Rose Lake, Rat, and South, to the historic Height of Land Portage. The lake was like glass and we took our time enjoying the reflections on the lake and the sounds of our canoe and paddles cutting through the water.

I thought he was joking when my husband said, “there’s a cow and calf.” I had told him moments earlier, “This is prime moose browsing vegetation. If you’re quiet, maybe you’ll see one.” Then he excitedly whispered, “there are two calves.” Now I knew he wasn’t making it up. I looked to the left and there was indeed a cow moose with two calves.

We moved as slowly and quietly as we could to the other side of the arm that leads into Rat Lake. It can be tempting to get up close and personal with wildlife in the wilderness. But giving them space will keep you safe while not stressing the wildlife. They followed us almost the entire way to our portage. Again, this trip was proving to be unbelievably better than we expected.

We continued with our day trip. Other than being devoured by mosquitoes on the portage into South Lake, it was a perfect day. Being rewarded with great fishing on the paddle back to our campsite for our last night on Rose Lake was icing on the cake.

The forecast predicted rain for our last day on Rose Lake in the BWCA. We got up early and took our time breaking down. Our early start got us on the water and back to our car before 11 am. We packed up the car and grabbed lunch on the Gunflint Trail. As we started driving down the trail after lunch, it began to rain and continued nearly the entire drive home. Not only did everything about this trip exceed our expectations, but it all worked out with impeccable timing.

All photos by Holly Scherer

More information:

How to Leave no Trace in the Boundary Waters

Holly Scherer is a Minnesota-based writer, photographer, outdoorswoman, and guide. She’s most at home in the great outdoors; camping, hiking, paddling, cycling, and gardening. When she’s not on an adventure, she and her husband live in the Twin Cities where they’re fond of saying, “home is where we store our outdoor gear.”

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