BWCA Entry Point, Route, and Trip Report Blog
November 28 2023
Number of Permits per Day: 2
Elevation: 1497 feet
Summary: A 5-day loop from Baker up the Temperance lakes to Cherokee, and back through Sawbill and Smoke lakes back to Baker. A fairly difficult trip.
Day 0: We drove up from Stillwater in the morning and camped at one of the 5 walk-in campsites at Baker Lake, and it was nice.
Day 1 (Baker to S. Temperance) - A beautiful day, we decided to paddle all the way to South Temperance the first day which was a great paddle with easy portages except for the last one. We picked the campsite on top of a huge rock that was close to the middle of the lake. Tried fishing some but no luck
Day 2 (Rest) - In the night, we encountered the worst storm of the entire season. While we were there 19 people had to be rescued from the BWCA. We had about 50mph straightline winds, and I'm still surprised that the huge tent we had stood up to it. We slept in and took a rest day because of the intense winds. Amazingly beautiful sunset.
Day 3 (S. Temperance to Cherokee) - We left as early as we could to beat the heat, but it was no good. The lengthy, hilly portages were challenging and by the last portage we were pretty beat. We overpacked and single portaged which led us to speedier exhaustion. Still amazing weather. North Temperance was a beaut- I wish we had stayed there instead of South. We took the southeasterly facing campsite on Cherokee on the southeastern skinny island. Neat little site.
Day 4 (Cherokee to Sawbill) - Left a little later in the day but it was ok. We took our time going down the river letting out of the southwest part of Cherokee and it was a great area. BEWARE: The area between Ada and Skoop Lakes appears to be floatable, but a dam built recently has made the portion impossible to float. Be prepared for a long portage through muck and water. A guy that we saw there said he had been going to the BWCA for 40 years at least once per year and it was the worst portage he had ever seen. By the time we got to Sawbill it was pretty hot. We paddled all the way down to the site next to the portage onto Smoke.
Day 5 (Sawbill to Baker) - Cooler, cloudier weather for the first time on the trip. We were pretty hungry (I underpacked food a little and I felt really bad) and we were taunting each other with vivid descriptions of the burgers we were going to eat ASAP after getting out. We paddled back to Baker and returned our gear to Sawtooth outfitters.
Overall great route.
Did Juno, Aurora can carry a canoe now?
May 27, 2023
Brule Lake (41)
Number of Days:
While the 6-hour drive (and getting back home after 10:00 p.m. last night) to complete Aurora’s parenting time exchange is typical, it certainly isn’t conducive to getting an early start this morning while still being moderately alert. Never-the-less we leave town before 6:00 a.m. as I promise Aurora that the sooner we get going, the better chance we will have at encountering some wildlife on the way. Having said that, I still opt to take Highway 1 all the way to the North Shore versus using the back (forest) roads to get to Homer Lake.
Initially we don’t see anything but, we do appreciate the ‘forest scaping’ that is being done around the Isabella area where most of the brushy understory has been cut away and only the large red & white pines are left standing. This really helps bring out the unique character of these majestic trees and eliminates the “can’t see the forest for the trees” aspect of so other many roadsides. Not sure what the motivation is for this practice but, I think it would be neat to see more of this sort of thing elsewhere when & where practical.
Being that Homer Lake entry point #40 is our destination, it gives us practical rationale to utilize the often-overlooked Caribou Trail. Sandwiched between 2 much more famous Cook County thoroughfares into the wilds of northeastern Minnesota, (The Sawbill & Gunflint Trails) its anonymity is assuredly tied to the fact that it only sensibly serves just 2 paddling entry points and the Eagle Mountain hiking trails. Its personality closely resembles that of the Sawbill Trail; paved and populated for the first several miles before giving way to narrowing feral gravel. However, the unfamiliarity exudes its own unique rarified beauty and I also believe offers the best fall color tour of the 3.
At the intersection of The Grade there is a road sign giving direction and remaining mileage to Homer Lake. Soon after turning down the Brule/Homer Lake Road my earlier promise to Aurora now thankfully comes to fruition as we slowly approach a lone cow moose ambling down the road. Unfortunately, it appears she does not have a calf and eventually trots off into the woods before we get too close.
Pulling into the small Homer Lake parking lot, which has room for maybe a dozen vehicles and boasts a nice enclosed pit latrine, a friendly older gentleman greets us as we transfer our gear down to the lake. He tells us that he thinks most of the vehicles here belong to people camping here on Homer and recommends that we try to get back to Axe, (non-bwca lake which has a nice campsite with a picnic table), for some walleye fishing . I tell him about the moose we just saw and he says he thinks a pack of wolves recently took down her calf. Oblivious to our conversation; Aurora is preoccupied with acquainting herself to the abundant population of frogs here at the landing.
After all that, I’m pleasantly surprised that we are on the water by about 9:00! It’s already quite warm so the breeze out on the lake is looked upon more of as a blessing than a hindrance. My Voyageur map only shows one non-bwca camp on Homer but, we see another closer to the wilderness boundary as well as what almost certainly appears to be a third very near that one. I spot a lone mud turtle on a nearby log and thus take the early lead in our turtle counting contest.
The lone official BWCA campsite on Homer is currently unoccupied so we pull in for a short breather before undertaking our first portage. This is an above average site that offers a nice view of this end of the lake. The main kitchen area doesn’t have any log seating, is sloped and rocky, but there are a few decent tent pads back in the woods a bit and some well-trodden trails for exploring which flaunt some flowering blueberry bushes.
Our first portage is a short paddle away and we don’t have any trouble pinpointing it. Somewhat surprisingly the lakeside landing isn’t too well developed and has some boulders to contend with. The trail itself is flat and mostly unremarkable until we approach the Whack Lake end where there is an old dilapidated short boardwalk that is noticeably slanted. Water levels are still high but, this landing is polluted with a mess of irregular troublesome boulders. I’m guessing many opt for the southern entry/exit?
For some reason I neglect to even glance at my map and we paddle past the portage into Vern Lake without realizing it. Sometimes, I actually think I know what I’m doing and where I’m going?!?! Our unmerited reward for such an egregious error is that we run across a huge snapping turtle sunning itself on a shelf of shoreline rock, and I increase my lead in the turtle counting contest. Now relying on my map instead of my fading memory, in time we do pull into the proper landing which proves to be an inconvenient steep rock knob. The trail is an up and over an appreciable hill that has a tree down across the trail but, since it is so short, we arrive at Vern Lake before working up too much of a lather. While this landing is more accommodating than the previous, it still requires some extra effort and attention. Campsite #962 was our target site. It is just south of this landing and we can clearly ascertain that it is currently occupied. Bummer!
We proceed northwesterly up Vern Lake and quickly learn that the other site is also claimed. It’s decision time: do we head for Pipe Lake or Juno? It seems to me Juno would be more centrally located and offers us an opportune portal to Brule Lake if all the sites are taken; where Pipe Lake is a dead end and we’d have to come all the way back this way to find a legal campsite. So, we continue on NW up Vern Lake.
Vern exudes an uncommon aura as it seems to be an endless succession of rock knobs crowned with more birch & aspen trees than is typically found in canoe country and the forest does not crowd in and overhang the shorelines making random exploration more inviting. There is even an impressive cliff just off the eastern shore where the lake narrows. My Voyageur map doesn’t indicate any sort of creek but, there is a tiny waterfall draining in from the west that is another spot also earmarked for future exploration. Another random thought that enters my mind is that Vern seems big enough to support at least another campsite or two.
The portage(s) landing into Juno is unmistakable and we pull ashore amidst the array of boulders. By this time, the temperature index is crossing the threshold of warm into outright hot and I tell Aurora that I will bring everything across so she can thoroughly enjoy, and perhaps cool off in, the scenic rapids that are cascading alongside the portage trail. As I am returning for another load, I find her lying on her stomach sunning herself on an exposed rock shelf right on the shore of the creek. I guess she’s growing up and developing new interests?
All the maps I’ve seen correctly indicate that there are 2 separate portage trails here. However, for me perhaps the most loathsome aspect of portaging is the task of loading/unloading the gear. With the paddle between these trails being so pitifully short, it makes more sense to me to just bring our load all the way across in one carry. After the initial rocky climb up to the first landing, there is a flat and easily followed trail that indicates many others have had the same thought. After the second landing the trail again climbs up before leveling out for the better percentage of the trail before dropping steeply down a gravel & stone stairway to an awkward landing on Juno. There is a decent overlook of Juno just off the trail at the top of this stairway.
As we push off it soon becomes obvious that the first site is occupied. I assure Aurora that there are two more on this lake so, let’s not panic just yet. For the second time in as many trips this year I pass by a lone large boulder atop a granite ledge eerily keeping watch – or so it seems. There’s a lot of signs of recent beaver activity along the shoreline and as we paddle eastward my heart sinks a little as we approach the next campsite because there are a couple of canoes out in the nearby bay fishing.
Alas, as we approach, we paddle right past a vacant campsite! They must be camped at the last site on the eastern end. So, we pull up into this almost assuredly last open site to assess its worthiness. We had just paddled past an alternate more accommodating landing but, I quickly deduce that is also where the best tent pad is so we’ll be using the one we are approaching which is awkward & narrow. I’ve seen worse sites but, not many! Still, beggars can’t be choosers.
There isn’t much in the way of mature trees and the site basically runs along a narrow strip of shoreline. As mentioned, the best tent pad will compromise the alternate landing but that’s where we’ll want to set up. The fire grate area is adequate but, the elephant in the room is just 6 feet back from the fire grate – A HUGE swamp. Most Mays this might not be as gigantic of a concern but, the unseasonably warm weather we’ve been, and are, having doesn’t bode well for camp life.
While I’m getting things situated, further disappointment ensues as Aurora shockingly discovers there are no frogs in this camp. There are a few medium sized trees out on the rocky point that will serve to hold the hammock back away from the swamp and, hopefully, catch a breeze. Thus far, the bugs have Providentially been a non-factor although it’s still quite early so, after camp is setup, we decide to head out and check out the remainder of Juno Lake.
Just out from camp Aurora hooks into a fish, after a fun fight she reels in a smallish northern. As I take a quick photo, I’m shocked when she says she can’t remember the last time she caught a northern and further comments how much fun they are to bring in. But, on thinking back myself, I guess she has usually been catching walleye, brook & lake trout the past few years because that’s what we’ve been targeting. I just presumed that she’d caught some bonus northern while we’ve been doing that – guess not.
Eventually we begin working our way eastward and I think to myself that both Vern & Juno aren’t overly impressive on the map but, they are both deceptively long paddles to get from one end to the other. The canoes we’d seen earlier fishing are indeed at the eastern most site and we paddle for the portage into Brule Lake to get out and stretch and do some exploring.
There is a beautiful pebble rock landing with an old weathered log angled out into the lake to aid in landing the canoe. A nice staging area gives way to an excellent level path and there's plenty of moose & beaver sign along the way. I don’t think a portage of this length could be much easier, although the Brule landing is a bit clumsy but, that will likely improve when the water level recedes.
Much of the portage is dominated by young aspen trees and exploration off the trail is effortless in places. Aurora instinctively veers off trail near the mid-point and curiously wanders about in an oddly open area. She soon discovers a couple of old shovel heads and I stumble upon some large iron pieces I can’t identify. I hadn’t done any research of this area prior but, considering the openness of the woods here, this must have been the spot of an old logging camp, resort or settlement of some sort? A quick inspection of our Voyageur map indicates that we actually leave and then re-enter the wilderness when crossing this portage. Not sure on the legality issues that might arise from that or if that plays a role in why this stuff was left here? But, it's another interesting topic for discussion.
The wind is a slightly more intense on the way back but, as before, the cooling effect is most welcome. The channel just south of the eastern most camp that leads into Whip & Squire Lakes looks tantalizingly inviting but, we choose to paddle on back to camp.
Upon our return, the first order of business is to get our firewood coffer fully stocked. Aurora spies a steep trail leading up the ridge just behind the latrine that looks promising. It’s a tough climb up but, we soon come across a bunch of downed dried out timbers amidst many scattered piles of mooseplums. There is even a nice, though somewhat obscured, overlook of the bay that can be contemplated from this elevated vantage point.
The CCS tarp remains in the pack and, while I can envision a scenario to set it up, it would totally congest camp and make getting around a real chore. Besides, there is no rain forecasted throughout the duration of our short trip and the site is already providing sufficient shaded relief here in the early evening hours.
Aurora retreats to the hammock while I process the firewood. She then gets a one match fire going. Even before doing so, I’m astounded that the bugs have been very tolerable to this point. As the day had been, it’s a warm evening. Still, we are taking no chances and keep the fire well stocked while we lounge in relative carefree comfort watching the stars pop out before eventually retreating to the sanctuary of our tent to play some rummy before saying prayers & going to sleep.
~Homer Lake, Whack Lake, Vern Lake, Juno Lake
I let Aurora sleep in while I watch our resident beaver swim around while enjoying a hot cup of apple cider this early misty morning. Later we both have some cinnamon raisin bagels with our Ova-Easy eggs for our leisurely breakfast and then get packed up for our day trip.
Aurora is eager to fish again but gets annoyed when I occasionally paddle over her line as we troll towards the Vern Lake portage. She thinks it’s a bite. To remedy this situation, I suggest we switch spots in the canoe after we put the portage behind us. So, we put that strategy into motion as planned – no more complaints!
However, after we pull under the large cliffs to get out and climb to the top, we discover a tragic flaw in the execution of that plan. Since I was in the front seat, I never noticed it but, Aurora has forgotten her PFD back at the landing. I tell her not to get upset, we’ll explore here and then paddle back to grab it. (Hopefully Canoearoo doesn't come down on me too hard?!)
I don’t know if there’s a dedicated/official trail up to the top? But we just start crawling up just above where we landed and get to the top without too much zig zagging. As mentioned yesterday, the whole of the immediate shoreline areas is not heavily forested so getting ripped apart by sharp branches is easily avoided. Note: The amount of mooseplums in this vicinity is impressive.
Once at the peak we are afforded a breathtaking (pun intended), long reaching, panoramic view of the surrounding countryside. Aurora mentions it would be cool to find a moose antler so we spend a little time browsing the woods. Again we find countless piles of mooseplums but, no antlers.
I give Aurora my PFD and then we paddle back to grab hers. She suggests we check out the little waterfall we’d seen yesterday. As we pull in to said waterfall, there really isn't a good spot to land the canoe but we get creative and make it happen. I tie the Black Pearl off to a nearby tree and we bushwhack over to the stream.
While the waterfall is neat, what we find just behind it blows us away. There is a blown out beaver dam and a long-abandoned monstrosity of a beaver lodge surrounded by a multitude of still standing sunbaked spires. Aurora equates this beaver lodge to New York City! :) Yet again there is ample evidence of moose in the area as trails run atop the ridgeline and beyond. Really one of those unexpectedly cool areas to explore and I’m glad we stopped here to check it out.
Approaching the SE narrows of Vern Lake, where there’s supposed to be a couple of short portages, a canoe with 3 passengers inside pokes its head out from around the corner. They kindly inform us that we will be able to paddle right through the first one if we take our time and pick our way through. Even though it’s not much of a rapid, there’s no paddling up the second one so we pull into the portage landing.
This is an exceedingly short & easy portage. The water is still a little cold so I forgo walking the Black Pearl up the chute and just undertake the portage. After expeditiously getting everything across, we linger in this tranquil spot and catch some very small northerns in the shallow pool where the rapids wash out.
Next, we proceed on to the East Pipe Lake portage which is a short paddle away. Considering the docile nature of the previous portages, the climb up to the lake takes us somewhat by surprise but, we are completely astounded by the massive ‘boneyard’ of beaver sticks at the landing to East Pipe which is situated atop a sizeable beaver dam. The old boardwalk is almost completely dilapidated and currently serves no practical function. So, I get the unnerving sensation of walking across a succession of partially floating roller pins. I tell Aurora if she wants/needs a new firestick tonight, this is where she can pick one out on our way back.
East Pipe is an unexpectedly scenic lake with a few small islands indiscriminately peppered within its perimeter. The portage landing into Pipe Lake is very overgrown and kind of tough to discern until we’re right on top of it. It’s a little tricky climbing out because Aurora can’t really pull the canoe up & I need to run the gauntlet of large overhanging branches on my way to the front.
This is another very short portage that climbs up the entirety of its length. Once on Pipe it appears it would’ve been easier to have just stopped a little north of the actual landing and just bushwhacked up – it's much more open. As they say, hindsight is 20/20. Pipe doesn’t impress either one of us as this end appears to be a huge beaver pond.
Upon our return voyage back to camp, now knowing full well what to expect portage wise; instead of just walking the canoe down the shallow rapids, I suggest that Aurora take a crack at putting the Black Pearl on her shoulders at the short portage back into Vern Lake. Since her very first portage was into nearby Vernon Lake, I suppose it's fitting that her first canoe carry be into Vern Lake? After putting up some half-hearted resistance, she soon saunters under as I hold it up for her. Not exactly brimming with confidence, she assumes the burden while I take a picture for posterity. This is about as easy of a portage as they come and she really didn’t need to do much more than hold it up. And while I don’t expect her to be crossing the Paulson to Sea Gull portage doing the “Voyageur trot” by the end of summer, I think it’s a foundational stepping stone & great confidence builder for her to feel the weight of the canoe on her shoulders and realize that she could indeed carry the Black Pearl. Permit me the indulgence of a photo montage of Aurora's portaging history.
Once back on Vern Lake we discover that our originally targeted campsite #962 is now vacant. So, we paddle over to the back side landing to inspect what we missed out on. Aurora is already irreversibly zeroed in on a few frogs before we officially land and I must bring us in unaided. Fortunately, it’s a shallow water approach.
This is certainly a much nicer site than ours with several tent pads dispersed about this site. Although, it appears the ones nearest the accommodating fire grate area may collect water. It also has about the right feel of openness but, yet still offers some shaded and protection from the elements. A prominent rock knob rises from the SE corner to provide an ideal sitting area for viewing the lake, sunsets, stars etc. However, the trail to the latrine is up a long steep hill.
After entering back into Juno Lake, we are closely tracing the shoreline back to camp when a chunky beaver waddles back into the lake from shore just ahead of us startling Aurora. We spy a couple other beavers out and about on the lake as well before making it back to camp.
As I get supper going, Aurora is busy sawing up some of the beaver sticks we brought back to camp to creatively build a miniature log cabin. She painstakingly notches it out so it has a measure of durability and even adds some moss to chink it!
It's another gorgeous, relatively bug free, night that God has graced us with. Since we're leaving tomorrow; I propose since she enjoyed the portage so much yesterday, that we just do one portage (Juno to Brule) tomorrow and then just do the long walk back to the van. Aurora quickly agrees to that plan and after supper, we sit up and savor the grandeur of the clear night skies and our crackling campfire.
~Juno Lake, Vern Lake, East Pipe Lake, Pipe Lake
Juno Lake is a misty mirror this morning. With a plan to paddle Brule Lake today, I hope those calm conditions persist. Yet again I allow Aurora to sleep in as I begin tearing camp down. I’ve done pretty much all I can do outside of the tent and she is still slumbering. I holler at her to get up back this tactic has little to no effect so, I just open the tent and start rolling up my sleep system and packing various other things away – she sleeps right through it!
I let her alone and go back out and contemplate the peaceful serenity of Juno Lake this morning partaking in another cup of apple cider as I do. Sometime later a slight breeze starts kicking up which snaps me out of the tranquil state of mind. I don’t want to be paddling through big waves on Brule and the longer we linger here in camp the more our odds of doing so increase. Besides, I want to have time to not have to rush Aurora back to her mother so, I take a hard line and she finally crawls out.
The unseasonably warm temps continue today and the aforementioned breeze sure feels good as we paddle east for the portage into Brule. Aurora isn’t nearly as enthralled with this portage today as she runs across several snakes in bringing her first load across. I too count no less than 3 after coming across shortly after her. Yet, it appears she will win the turtle counting contest.
Brule Lakes' enormity is initially well concealed here in this quaint back bay. Soon the grandiose rolling horizons and vast waterway unfold in its full splendor. Since the winds are very manageable, this affords us the coveted opportunity to wholly immerse ourselves in the atmosphere of this immense wilderness wonder.
As fate would have it, we are briskly transported out of our dreamy state of mind as we pull in to the landing just behind a large group with another large group pulling in a couple minutes behind us. Couple that with at least 2 other groups just putting in and you get a real sense of the congestion. Still, we’re able to speedily drag our stuff off to one side without bumping elbows and then grab our water bottles to begin the long walk back to the Homer Lake parking lot.
Once again, it has become a very warm day and Aurora can continue to work on her suntan as we stroll down the gravel road, favoring the shaded sections when coming across them. There are a few vehicles parked in small turn offs that must be out hiking. Soon a large sign comes into view but it only has wording on the opposite side, I tell Aurora I hope it says Homer Lake this way. She sprints ahead and upon reading it dejectedly keeps walking down the road. Unfazed, I turn off without even reading the sign – You have to get up pretty early in the morning to fool this old dog. And, Aurora slept in today!!!
Aurora always likes poking around in Waters Edge Trading Company in Tofte so, we stop in there before grabbing a pizza & some ice cream at the Schroeder Baking Company. From there it's a long drive to Pine City for our parent time exchange. Apparently too long? As after I say goodbye to Aurora, I start walking towards the gas station and my legs completely cramp up. I'm sure I look like I'm having a heart attack! Thankfully, I'm able to work them out and make it home without further issue.
This was a fun trip. We got to do and see a bunch of neat things in a short amount of time without having to deal with inclement weather. One regret is I really wish we would've had time to head up the Vern River but, that gives us an excuse to come back one day. As the title suggests, this was another step in Aurora's evolution in wilderness paddling. I don't know if it will be something she will continue to enjoy throughout her life but, I'll forever treasure the memories we have made thus far. She had the opportunity to meet Jerry "One Match" at Canoecopia earlier this year & had him sign her T-shirt. I think his song "Canoeing with Daddy" is an appropriate climax to this trip report so I included it in the report. By the way, there are at least a couple old photos of Aurora in the video including the last one.
~Juno Lake, Brule Lake