Day 1 - Our First Ever Overnight Backpacking Experience - Cruiser Lake Trail - Voyageurs National Park - Minnesota
After all these years of day-hiking, I wanted to start getting out in the back-country more and stay overnight in peaceful natural areas. So, we bought a bunch of fancy, expensive, light-weight gear and scheduled this three-day, two-night trip in Voyageurs National Park to test ourselves and our equipment. This post is Day 1 and includes a lot of extra details about our gear and processes once we reached our destination.
We arrived at the Kabetogama Visitors Center at Voyageurs National Park just before 8:00 a.m, the time we had scheduled a water taxi pick-up to take us nine miles across the lake to the Cruiser Lake Trailhead in Lost Bay.
We had loaded our packs last night, and I did a spreadsheet of items we packed, who would be carrying what, and the weights of each item (as best as I could determine). Yep, I am a nerd.
It was my spreadsheet that told me I would be carrying about 30 pounds. I had weighed the backpack on our bathroom scale before adding water, food, and the extra "just in case it rains or gets cold" clothing. With the essential gear, it came in at 18.5 pounds. Three liters of water added 6.6 pounds, food added 2 pounds, and I'm guessing the clothes (rain gear, light fleece, base layer, and extra pair of socks and underwear) added another 2 - 3 pounds and that put me real close to 30 pounds.
My spreadsheet had Linda at around 25 pounds, but I didn't go through her pack to see everything she had stowed in there. She insisted she was ultimately carrying about the same as me.
The good news is we had just about everything we could imagine that would suffice for any length trip (except extra food), and it was good to know we would be carrying only about 30 pounds even considering some luxury items like folding chairs, a folding table, and a collapsible fishing rod with a spinning reel and tackle. I think we did pretty good on the weight for our first real backpacking trip.
On our overnight trip hiking to the bottom of the Grand Canyon and back out in 2013, our day-packs weighed about 20 pounds and we thought those were heavy. But then we didn't have to worry about a tent, sleeping bags, sleeping pads, a stove, or all our meals since we were sleeping at the Phantom Ranch facility, and we opted for their optional dinner and breakfast.
We would soon find out how much difference the additional ten pounds would make, at least on relatively flat terrain at much lower elevation.
Tim with Kabetogama Angling Adventures lives right by the visitors center dock, and I had hired him to be our water taxi to get us out to the trailhead today and then pick us up on Sunday at 10:00 a.m. At $50 each way, it wasn't cheap, but I knew it would be reliable, and I could pick up some fishing advice on the way.
We loaded up his Lund fishing boat and headed out on the gorgeous morning.
We passed by The Pines of Kabetogama Resort, ....
and a few fishermen .....
as we made our way to the dock at the Cruiser Lake Trailhead in the back of Lost Bay on Lake Kabetogama.
If you have your own boat, you can leave the boat at this dock while you are camping at the Cruiser Lake Trail campsites.
We unloaded, re-confirmed our Sunday pick-up time with Tim, and soon we were alone in the wilderness. I think there was one other campsite reserved on the Cruiser Lake Trail system for the weekend.
We had been warned about the bugs - biting flies and mosquitoes - so Linda put on her head net before taking a step. That was a critical piece of gear that would help make the adventure more enjoyable (or at least more tolerable) for her.
Soon, she was ready to go with her head net, trekking poles, gaiters, and her Osprey Viva 50 pack. It was quite the fashion statement.
My pack is the Osprey Atmos AG (Anti-gravity) 50. I tried several packs, and I kept coming back to the Atmos AG as it was by far the most comfortable for me. It just seemed to fit perfectly.
These packs transfer weight from the back and shoulders to the hips and lumbar region of the back, so heavier weights can be handled more comfortably.
We checked out the sign at the beginning of the trail that provided distances to other trail markers in the Cruiser Lake Hiking Trail System.
I had an identical paper copy of the map in my shirt pocket, and I had a National Geographic trail map for the park (although it wasn't really necessary).
We had to do two .8-mile legs and then a 1.8-mile leg to get to the marker at Cruiser Lake, and then it would be perhaps another half mile or so to the campsite. It looked to me like it would be about four miles although some resources quoted five.
The trail was narrow, but obvious the first part of the way.
Mosquitoes weren't bad at all, but the flies were quite annoying. Fortunately, the flies weren't constant, but rather off and on as we traveled through different terrain.
We quickly came to our first intersection where a left went to the western side of the trail system and more lakes and campsites that we would not be visiting on this trip. We took the right fork toward Agnes Lake.
I quickly noticed the weight of my pack on the smallest of uphill inclines. Sure, we hadn't hiked in several weeks, but I didn't expect a 30-lb pack to slow me down and take as much effort as it did.
Soon, we reached the detour to the Agnes Lake campsite where we will be staying tomorrow night.
It's just a short walk off the main trail, and we couldn't resist taking a look.
Should be great for a sunrise.
We reached the first .8-mile marker and Linda remarked "We haven't even gone a mile yet?". Not a good sign.
From there, parts of the trail were overgrown. In fact, at that marker and the next one, there were trails going to the left to intersect with the western side of the trail, but the trail itself wasn't worn at all.
Just past that marker was a beaver pond on our left. The trail went below the beaver dam that created the pond, so we were at eye level with the water checking out the beaver lodge.
We walked on boards that were so overgrown you couldn't see them. We sort of had to feel our way across.
After a short climb, there was another beaver pond on our right.
We scanned both beaver ponds for wildlife - perhaps beaver, moose, or waterfowl - but saw nothing.
We kept walking and found the second of the .8-mile markers.
Over a mile and a half down. Through the woods, the trail was a narrow path, and then it alternated going across sections of granite rocks where the trail wasn't clear. Fortunately, they did a great job of placing lots of cairns (piles of rocks) serving as guides.
We chose these two days to do this trip because there was little to no chance of rain. However, we didn't anticipate that they would be the two hottest days northern Minnesota has experienced this summer.
It was nice to pop out of the woods onto the rocks so we could relish the breezes that were blocked by the trees. It didn't matter that we lost shade - the coolness of the breeze on our sweaty bodies was better.
The other benefit of the rockier areas was the unlimited supply of blueberry bushes.
At first, we thought we might fall over with the weight of our packs as we bent to pick the berries, but we managed to stay up and became quite good at gathering the fattest, darkest, ripest ones. That certainly slowed us down as well.
We walked past another beaver pond that wasn't quite as visible from the trail. So, we walked up on some rocks for a better look. Two large white birds were on the water. I assumed they were White Pelicans, but Linda thought they might be swans. I got out my mini-binoculars and, sure enough, it was a pair of Trumpeter Swans.
Moving on, this was one of the larger cairns along the way.
It was in that area that we came across some moose droppings. There are an estimated 40 - 50 moose on the Kabetogama Peninsula where we were hiking, and having seen evidence, we were more encouraged that we might see one.
A bit farther, we found a rocky area that was shaded and decided it was a good place to take a break. There we found wolf scat and smelled the clear odor of canine. We didn't expect to see any wolves, but we hoped we would hear them howling at night.
We passed another beaver pond.
But, again, we didn't see any wildlife, not even a duck.
Then we crossed a tea-colored creek ....
that flowed to what sounded like a small waterfall. We could see the pool where the waterfall was flowing, but we determined it wasn't worth the bushwhacking to take a picture.
It was around that point that the trail turned from it's northeast direction and headed northwest. That meant we were getting close to Cruiser Lake.
It was at that point, that the flies started biting me on the head through the narrow mesh ring on my floppy hat. Until then, I had been annoyed but not a favored menu item. Still, I didn't break out my head net or spray my hat with DEET. That was a mistake.
I was looking for the 1.8-mile section marker (3.4 miles from the trailhead), but it just wasn't appearing. Eventually, we climbed up a rocky area and got a view of Cruiser Lake (while simultaneously picking blueberries).
We had to be getting close. Then we passed a huge pile of what was unmistakably bear scat. I have photos of all the animal feces we encountered, but I figured you'd probably take our word for it.
Not far past the bear scat, we found our marker.
And just beyond that - you can see in the photo above - was the sign to the Cruiser Lake campsite.
Now I was confused. The campsite, while lakeside and nice, was supposed to be another half mile from the trail marker, and it didn't look like one of the photos I found online which matched a description I found in a book saying the campsite was out on an island and reached by a boardwalk.
Well, apparently, this campsite is in a relatively new location and the photo and description I found were old. AND the trail marker that was supposed to be at 3.4 miles from the trailhead was actually at 4.2 miles from the trailhead. I went back and looked at the marker and the map on it was different from all the other trail markers and the paper copy map in my pocket that I printed from the national park website.
Also, my reservation said the site had a tent pad and a bear pole and neither was true. Also, the canoe I reserved was supposed to be a short walk from the campsite, but it was actually at the campsite.
No wonder I was confused.
Ultimately, I convinced myself we were in the right place, and we plopped our packs down on the old picnic table.
The picnic table, though in rough shape, was actually a nice surprise. And there was a bench next to the firepit and seating in the form of pieces chain sawed out of the downed tree in the background above.
Though there was no bear pole, we could use the metal box used to store the canoe paddles to safekeep our food. If we hadn't rented the canoe and gotten keys to the canoe and the metal box, we could've hung our food with the 50 feet of paracord I brought.
There wasn't a designated tent pad, but there was a flat spot that looked like people were using. The downside was that it was just a few feet from the main trail. I found it odd, and disappointing, that this backcountry campsite was so close to, and in full view of, the main trail. Fortunately, we still didn't expect to see a soul out there this week.
Now, there was also supposed to be a latrine - big selling point to convince Linda to try this whole backpacking thing this weekend. After a little searching, I found a restroom sign on the main trail just past our campsite. I followed the narrow path to the left and discovered our "facility".
Better than squatting on the ground.
Now that we knew where everything was and having consumed our lunch, we started setting up camp. There was a great breeze coming of the lake that both cooled us off and kept the bugs away.
We started with our tent.
Our new tent is an MSR Hubba Hubba NX 2-person backpacking tent. It's total packed weight is 3 lbs., 13 oz. I carried the tent body and rain fly and Linda carried the frame, so we split the weight with her carrying about a pound of that. And she carried the "footprint" (the lightweight, overpriced tarp to put the tent on) which added a little less than a 1/2 lb to her pack.
The tent was up in about five minutes. Not bad considering it was our first time setting it up.
With the breeze coming off the lake, we used the stakes. The stakes are a very lightweight material designed to just be pushed into the ground. The first time I hit one with a rock, it broke. Fortunately, there are six stakes and we only needed four.
With no rain predicted for today, we left the rain fly off so we could see the stars.
Next, we blew up our inflatable sleeping pads: Sea To Summit Comfort Light Insulated Mat (the green one - 20.5 oz. - as opposed to the non-insulated blue one). That was Linda's choice after trying out several on the floor of the outfitter's store back in Louisville.
And we blew up our very expensive air pillows: Sea To Summit Aeros Pillow Premium (4 oz). Lightweight comfort mattered more than the costs to get Linda out here.
Finally, we threw in our Marmot Electrum sleeping bags (2 lbs., 8 oz.).
The tent is certainly cozy for two people, but we wanted something that I could use as a one-person tent for some longer backpacking excursions in the future.
I was concerned about those ground chairs - chiefly, how do get in and out of that thing. I crashed to the floor trying to get into a store display.
But we practiced, and with a simple "one hand on the ground" procedure, we've got it down .... most of the time.
I can tell you that the chairs and table are Linda's favorite of our new gear .... by a long shot. Having a guaranteed place to sit with comfortable back support and a usable table is a really big deal to her. And I have to admit, though I would probably leave the table behind when I go out solo, I'll be taking one of the chairs along. The extra pound-plus is worth it.
We also got out our Sea To Summit Lite Line Clothesline (3 oz.) and hung some sweaty clothes to dry. It comes in a little pouch and is actually two lines with several sliding beads. You place your item between the two lines and then use the beads to squish the lines together to pinch the item in place - no clothespins necessary.
While we were unpacking, we went ahead and got our new "stove": MSR WindBurner Stove System (1 lb. not including fuel).
Now, we ordered the WindBurner (formerly known as the WindBoiler) online, and thought we could pick up the fuel pretty easily here in northern Minnesota since the fuel is too expensive to ship (and most places won't ship). Wrong. That's why Linda had to make a trip over to Fort Frances, Ontario - to get fuel.
Now, the 4 oz. fuel canister fits, stows, and travels inside the WindBurner. However, she could only get the 8 oz. canister, so it takes up a little more space and adds a little more weight.
In addition to the one-liter pot, the WindBurner comes with a 16 oz. plastic bowl. So, one of us can eat from the pot and the other can eat from the bowl eliminating the need for any other pots, pans, plates, or bowls. More on the food later.
For now, I took the plastic bowl out and gathered blueberries. While I was at it, I found a large patch of raspberries, too.
Most of the raspberries didn't make it into the bowl.
And yes, we were quite aware that an abundance of berries around our campsite and evidence of bear activity meant that we certainly needed to stay vigilant and store our food away from our tent.
With camp squared away, and plenty of berries in my belly, I broke out my Quantum Telecast combination spinning reel and collapsible 6-foot rod. The rod stored easily inside my pack, and I found a place for the reel.
As for tackle, that was the last thing I packed and I really didn't know what to take. I grabbed my lightweight fly box out of my fly-fishing vest, threw in one bass lure and a few small trout lures and that was it.
I read, and this was confirmed by Tim (our water taxi/fishing guide), that Cruiser Lake has Lake Trout that are very deep and Yellow Perch. The lake is so clear, and I couldn't see any fish anywhere near the shore, so I had low expectations.
I put on a yellow-bodied trout lure with a silver spinner, and tried my luck.
Some tiny fish were following my lure, so that kept me entertained for awhile. After moving to a new spot, I caught three baby Yellow Perch that were maybe four or five inches long. If I had been hungry enough or in a survival situation, they would have been a great treat.
Once I got bored with the fishing, I walked the lakeshore, took some photos, ....
unlocked the canoe, and readied it for an evening paddle.
That was enough work for today.
I joined Linda, and we read from our Kindles on the lakeshore in our Helinox chairs.
Reading and listening to the sound of the breeze in the trees, the water lapping on the rocks, and the occasional loon call made us sleepy. We went to the tent for a little nap, but the tent wasn't getting as much of the breeze, and it was just too hot in there. So the naps were pretty short.
We went back to reading, and I was very much enjoying the quiet, the solitude, and the beauty of our surroundings. Yep, for me, hauling the heavy pack and even dealing with the bugs was quite worth it.
Later, we were startled by a park ranger. Hadn't expected to see anyone out on the trail. It turns out he was in search of wolf scat, so I filled him in on the general location of where we saw some earlier.
Time passed, and though we weren't extremely hungry, we thought we should take care of dinner.
I fetched water from the lake with our Sea To Summit 20-Liter Folding Bucket (4 oz.). On a level surface, it will stand up by itself if there isn't too much water in it.
However, I found it worked best (especially for a solo) to hang it on a sturdy branch. It would hold more water, and I could easily use the handle on the bottom to tilt it and pour into another container.
I also learned it's a good idea to put a towel over the top to prevent tiny pieces of bark and other stuff falling off the tree from getting into the bucket. We brought along Sea To Summit Pocket Towels (3 oz.) which worked great for multiple uses.
The bucket made it much easier to get water and then filter it. We've read enough and watched enough survival shows to know it's important to filter, treat, or boil water from pretty much any wilderness source before ingesting it, even if the source seems as pristine as Cruiser Lake.
This would be the first time we used our filtering system (other than practice at home). We have the Sawyer Squeeze Filter System (3 oz. field weight).
It's very easy to use, and no pumping is required as with some other systems (having seen so many pumps in different applications fail, I liked this pump-less option).
Ours came with three bags, a 32 oz. and two 16 oz. We brought the 32 oz. and one 16 oz. bag as a back-up.
You simply fill up a bag with water from your water source (or from the folding bucket in our case). Then you screw the filter onto the threaded bag, pop open the push/pull cap, turn it all upside down and squeeze the bag letting the filtered water pour into your container.
It's that easy. No treating, no boiling, no waiting. In fact, you can drink right from the push/pull cap on the filter.
They guarantee it for one million gallons of filtered water, but we have to periodically backflush it with the included cleaning syringe to keep the flow good. For a two-day trip, we didn't bring the syringe, but I would on longer trips.
So, I poured filtered water into the WindBurner pot, connected the fuel canister to the burner, and Linda turned on the gas and lit the burner. She then clicked the pot into place on the burner and we waited for the water to boil.
It took a little under four minutes to boil the water we needed for dinner, and some claim two minute boil times.
Now, about our food. Lightweight and high calorie is the key for backpacking, so Linda did an online search and came up with a blog post called "A Week of Lightweight, Nutritious Backpacking Food" by Monica, the author/publisher of The Yummy Life. Her husband is a serious backpacker who doesn't cook, and she is a recipe developer.
Requirements for backpacking food:
Linda fell in love with her organization and adopted her recipes and food system for our backpacking. Most resources indicate that backpackers will carry 1.5 - 2 lbs. of food per day. We carried well under a pound per day and had plenty of food with some leftover.
Tonight we were having curry rice with chicken and cashews.
Here's Linda's slightly modified system using our "Day 2" as an example. A one-gallon Ziploc labeled for each day of hiking ....
includes a separate Ziploc for breakfast, lunch, snacks, and dinner. In our case, because there were two of us, there were two bags of each for each day in one "day" bag (oh, plus a another bag for Linda's coffee supplies).
So, our "Day 2" bag included nine bags for a total of 1 lb., 13 oz., less than a pound per person, and that was by far our heaviest day. Our three days of food totaled 3 lbs., 3 oz. ... for two people.
Having a variety of tasty food that only needs boiling water and weighs half of what most backpackers carry is a big deal. Plus, it cuts down on other cookware needed without sacrificing hot meals or nutrition.
By the way, it was based on Monica's husband's recommendation, that we researched and ultimately purchased the WindBurner.
Okay, so we could technically just pour the boiled water in our Ziploc and eat the food right out of the bag thus saving on time and water to clean up. But we opted to use our containers.
Linda poured my dinner bag in the plastic bowl that came with the Windburner (the berries were gone by then). And she poured half the water in my bowl.
Then she poured the contents of her dinner bag into the remaining water in the WindBurner pot. We let that sit for 9 minutes and then it was dinner time. By the way, each dinner bag is marked with how much water is needed and how long it's supposed to sit to make sure it's "cooked".
We ate with our Sea To Summit Long Spork (1/2 oz.) which allows us easily get to the bottom of the WindBurner pot.
It was a lot tastier than it looked, and very filling.
In fact, we decided we could have split one serving and that's what we'll do tomorrow night. Perhaps, after a 10-mile hike and twice the calories burned, one serving would have been perfect. But for us, this weekend, it was way too much.
During dinner, the wind died down and the lake calmed as the sun started to set. We grabbed a couple of paddles, and I put the canoe in the water.
We paddled the glassy lake, ....
and watched the sun set.
It was so quiet and peaceful and knowing that we had that beautiful lake completely to ourselves was reassurance for my desire to get into backpacking. We've seen some gorgeous places all around this country in the last ten years that many, many people will never have the privilege of seeing.
And I want to see more of the special places that are not easy to get to. I want to spend more time in the remote wilderness areas of the world. I want to challenge myself to do the hard work required to spend time in some of those places. And, hopefully, we can do that as a team with Linda joining me when she wants or supporting me from the RV when she feels like it's too much.
We circled the lake and, before it got completely dark, we headed back to our campsite.
Back there, we started a campfire and fought off mosquitoes for about an hour before they finally relented.
We have several methods for starting a fire, but we used the easy option of waterproof matches and a small square of fire starter. There was plenty of wood all around to keep the fire going, and we sat out there quite awhile.
Eventually, we headed to the tent, and the last challenge of the day was to see if Linda would sleep. If she does, she may be more likely to do some more backpacking and camping.
She enjoys the wilderness as much as I do, but she's not as willing to suffer the discomforts (as much as I am) to experience it.
It's been a long day, and it would be nice to top it off hearing howling wolves or calls of the loon while snuggling up under a blanket of stars.