Paddling Pristine Potholes

Birchwood's Loyhead and Sawmill Lake Canoe Routes

Like a good fisherman who wants to keep their go-to fishing hole to himself, I'm reluctant to let this one go, but dear reader, in the interest of spreading frilufstliv (Norwegian philosophy of “free-air-life”) and an appreciation of our great northwoods, I've decided to leak the details of this special spot: Wisconsin's Birchwood Canoe Routes.

Near Spooner, Wisconsin, and just a bit over a two-hour drive from the Twin Cities, the Birchwood Canoe Routes offers a nearby alternative to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area (BWCAW) for anyone who loves the feeling of paddling and portaging from one secluded and undeveloped wilderness lake to another. These glacial pothole lakes in the Washburn County Forest are drops in the bucket compared to the BWCAW, but they can definitely offer a pleasant day or two of paddling.

The wild and wooded shoreline and pristine lakes feel an awful lot like the Sylvania Wilderness in Michigan's UP. The Loyhead Route covers seven lakes, and the Sawmill Route links up nine lakes. You are not allowed to camp along the routes, but there is a primitive campground at Sawmill, which could serve as a basecamp while you paddle the routes.

Remote Relaxation Route

Our recent paddle through the Loyhead Route was so peaceful and enchanting, I’d have loved to camp, fish, and paddle the routes for several days.

The lakes were lined with oak, maple, aspen, and tall pines. A few brilliant maples gave us a hint of the approaching Fall colors.

We heard nothing other than the sounds of nature and our paddles stirring through the water. Although it's a secluded area, and it’s a long drive down a gravel fire road to reach the canoe routes, we did see nearby logging activity on our way out, so things might not be so quiet when the lumberjacks are at work.

We only saw one other person on the lakes the entire time we were out there—a solo kayaker fishing off in the distance—and only for a few moments. Lily pads have fill the entrance bay on Loyhead Lake, and the county says Sawmill Lake is non-motorized, so, at most, it appears that you’d only encounter other paddlers. 

Flying Fish

If you are looking for a new secret fishing hole, this may be your spot. Birchwood is known as the “Bluegill Capital of Wisconsin,” and it did seem like fish were everywhere! Linda almost jumped out of the boat when a fat bass erupted out of the lily pads and nearly landed in her lap. By the third time this happened, she wasn't quite so jumpy, and I was wishing I'd brought my rod and line!


We walked up on a doe and two fawns when I was carrying the Prospector back to the truck, and we all had a fun stare down. They seemed surprised to see me—maybe it was the canoe on my head? The Washburn County Forest is known to be home to bear, wolf, bobcat, coyotes, eagles, grouse and osprey.

Wenonah T-Formex Prospector

I was also excited to get our new Wenonah T-Formex Prospector 16 on the water again. Its maiden voyage was on the Wisconsin River a couple of weeks ago, but I haven't had much time in it. The classic lines on this boat allowed us to carve and slip through canals in the floating bogs that were barely wider than the canoe. With a stiff breeze moving across the water and the canoe having upturned, rockered ends, it does take some paddling technique to keep this craft on track, but I enjoy traditional style paddling and knifing my otter tail paddle to do my best rendition of the "Canadian Stroke" I had no problems keeping her on track. Of course, with Linda up front providing the serious thrust, it was almost effortless. Almost. 

BWCAW Prepping

The portage signs along the Loyhead Canoe Route were clearly marked.

The glacial lakes of Birchwood are a non-threatening, non-intimidating, and downright tranquil lake system that make for the perfect practice grounds for anyone planning a first-time BWCAW trip. Whether you want to give your crew some experience, test your gear, figure out the best way to pack, or develop your system to efficiently paddle and portage, this is a great destination.

Clearly marked and short—really short—portages allow ample portage practice, which is important because if this is your first time paddling and portaging, you'll quickly learn there is some nuance to the art of efficiently landing, unloading, humping, loading, and launching your canoe. While you wouldn’t be camping on the routes, you could still paddle them with your full load to tune up your system and your body. Having the Birchwood routes under your belt will undoubtedly help you cover terrain more easily when you take your BWCAW (or Quetico!) trip.

Finding the Brichwood Canoe Routes

This isn’t the high arctic, but the Birchwood Canoe Routes are off the beaten track, and unless we missed it, unmarked.

Wisconsin's...unique…roadway nomenclature can make finding these types of unmarked secret spots nearly impossible. (Have you ever gotten directions from a WI native? "Sure, just take Sawyer County highway QQ to J, and then get on QQ. What's that? No, not the Sawyer County QQ; turn on J and then it's Rusk County QQ.")

Once off Hwy 53 I stopped twice to double check my map. The second check resulted in an about-face to catch a missed turn on a county trunk highway.

One item I find very handy when exploring areas like this is the DeLorme Atlas & Gazetteer for each state. To reach the Loyhead Lakes and Sawmill Canoe Routes, we had to continue down a dirt fire road after getting off the county trunk. This would be difficult, if not impossible, to find with a regular road map, but the fire road was marked on the DeLorme map. And, to the surprise of many of my urban friends, there are still many rural areas in Wisconsin and Minnesota without cell coverage, so don't necessarily think you'll be able to rely on your phone for guidance. [Side note that goes along with the lack of cell coverage: many rural establishments don't take plastic, so keep some cash on you!]

Plan a Trip to Birchwood

If you can get to Birchwood in the Fall when the leaves are colorful, do it! It’d make a great day or weekend trip. If you can get there in the Summer, do it! Just remember to bring your fishing gear—not all of those fish will jump in your boat on their own!

If you want more detail about the Birchwood Canoe Routes or have questions about planning your next trip, send us an email or ask us on Facebook—we'd love to help!