We came up to northern Wisconsin to peep some fall color. The first day on the Namekagon River was a little disappointing. The drive there was spectacular, but it seemed the color line changed at our put-in at the County K Landing. The leaves from County K to Whispering Pine were blown down or past peak. The next day we decided on paddling the Birchwood Canoe Routes.
Related: Paddling pristine potholes
The secret of the Birchwood Canoe Routes is out
Bull Moose Patrol let the secret out on this miniature Boundary Waters in the Wisconsin northwoods. Since Scott spilled the beans about this place last year, I feel I can follow suite and spread the news about this picturesque series of lakes.
What are the Birchwood Canoe Routes
The Birchwood Canoe Routes are a series of small glacial lakes connected by short portages. The portages usually climb a steep bank and then right back down to the water. Portages average around 100 yards each. There are two routes in Birchwood – the Sawmill Lake Route and the Loyhead Lake Route. We paddled the Sawmill Route.
Light snowfall with our pancakes and eggs
While carbing up at the Rustic cafe in Birchwood, we looked out the window to see snow flurries. Before we left, the flurries turned into a heavy wet snowfall that started to accumulate. Snowing in October gave new meaning to snowfall. On the bright side, there was little wind, so we decided to continue with the plan and headed to Birchwood. In fact, I don’t recall if there was ever a discussion about canceling. We just continued with the plan. We were joined by Kurt from Wenonah Canoes and Katja. Kurt came with a full rack of beautiful new canoes for us to try out.
I had the pleasure of trying out a Wenonah Fusion canoe. It is ultralight and has a rudder although I chose to paddle the traditional style and kept the rudder up. It was too cold to experiment.
Related: Copper Falls State Park fall color
Getting to Birchwood Canoe Routes
We parked on Sawmill Landing Road. To find this location, search Sawmill Landing Road in Birchwood, Wisconsin on Google Maps to locate. The road dead ends at a loop right on Sawmill Lake with parking available and a decent grassy put-in. We looped through several other smaller lakes to Otter Lake and then walked back to our cars.
Early snow creates two beautiful natural phenomenons
As we pushed off from the shore, the only other disturbance on the water besides our paddle was the droplets of snow driving straight down. This early snowfall created two beautiful phenomenons. First of all, it created a sheen of white over the orange trees. Secondly, the snow fell straight down on top of the coating of leaves that were already down on top of the water. The snow then melted creating a hundreds of round droplets on the leaves.
It was something I have never seen before. That is the the extraordinary thing about nature. You can spend a great deal of time outside and then see something for the first time. If conditions were just a little different, this phenomenon would not have occurred. If it was windy, it would have blown the droplets of the leaves. A few degrees colder and the snowflakes would not have melted perfectly on top of the leaves, and if it was a little warmer, there would not have been any snow in the first place. I felt fortunate to see such a unique situation play out on the dead leaves.
Peak fall foliage
We may have missed the fall color the day before on the Namekagon, but today it was just about perfect. With every portage that brought us to a new lake, we were greeted with orange, red, and yellow on the surrounding forest of oak, maple, and ash. As we paddled those colors were fringed with white as the snow continued to come down.
Sawmill Lake Route perfect for shorter or longer paddles
There are nine lakes on the Sawmill Canoe Route. Paddlers can choose a short route of three portages and three lakes, or take a longer trip and do an outer trail that encompasses all nine lakes. It is possible to finish the longer route in one to two hours. If you want to take more time you can circumvent the shoreline of each lake or take a direct route from portage to portage.
Great training ground for the Boundary Waters
The Birchwood Canoe Routes are often called a “mini Boundary Waters,” due to the amount of lakes and portages. Since they are much smaller in scope, they provide a great training ground for the BWCA. You can practice carrying the canoe on smaller portages and hone your packing skills to make the portages more efficient without the drive to northern Minnesota. It is also nice to practice in a safer environment and not have to worry about being in the wilderness or stuck on huge lakes prone to wind.
There is no camping allowed on the lakes; however, the rural Sawmill Campground is close by. Paddlers can use this campground as a base for the paddling and the excursions to the local northwoods bars.
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