BWCA Entry Point, Route, and Trip Report Blog
May 24 2022
Number of Permits per Day: 2
Elevation: 1673 feet
Clearwater Lake - 62
East Bearskin to Crystal
July 27, 2011
East Bearskin Lake
Number of Days:
On the day before our entry, we drove from Duluth to Grand Marais. We grabbed our last few grocery and camping items in town before heading up the Gunflint Trail to Hungry Jack Outfitters (HJO).
When we arrived at HJO at 6:30 pm, Dave greeted us and went over our planned route. Our initial plan was to do a loop heading southeast from East Bearskin to Pine (for Johnson Falls) and heading back west through the Caribous and south through Deer and Moon. Thankfully, Dave had another idea.
He suggested that we choose a base camp and avoid carrying our gear over the Canoe - Pine portage. This would allow us to still enjoy the falls but to also enjoy our days. We found his advice to be sound, so we decided to base camp on Crystal.
After tossing our gear into our bunkroom, we headed down to Trail Center for dinner. It was a fun atmosphere, and some locals taught us how to play cribbage.
Dave brought us a basket of breakfast items at 7 a.m., complete with coffee for me and tea for Teresa. We ate all that was provided and then headed up to the HJO office for the PFDs, paddles, and permit.
Once we had the necessary items from Dave and Nancy, we followed one of the HJO staff over to East Bearskin. The staff member unloaded our canoe (Souris 16) from his van and showed us how to portage it. After unloading our gear and parking the car, we were paddling east towards the southeastern end of East Bearskin for the portage to Alder. 8:52 a.m.
With the CCS Pioneer pack carrying all of our gear (minus food) on my back, I carried the canoe over the portage to Alder. It was not fun for me. The portage itself is quite easy, but this was my first time portaging and the darn pack was too heavy. I let Teresa handle the next two portages.
We saw a solo canoeist as we reloaded the canoe in Alder. He said that the two Crystal sites had been empty the night before and that he hadn't seen many people heading that way. So it sounded like we were in luck.
We paddled across Alder to the portage to Canoe. This short portage was easy for Teresa to handle with the food pack and canoe.
Across Canoe to Crystal. Short paddle followed by 45 rod portage. This carry has a gentle rise, but it still tired Teresa by the end of it. We were both happy to see Crystal Lake.
When we arrived at the eastern campsite on Crystal, we found it unoccupied! The landing is nice and a tree stump helps marks the site. 12:52 p.m. We quickly set up the tent on one of the two pads and hung the CCS 10x10 tarp nearby. Snacks and naps followed.
Nearby noises awoke us at about 2:30. There was a group of two canoes making the portage back from Spaulding to Crystal. Because the portage was not far from our site, we could hear them as they portaged.
An early dinner of burritos followed by s'mores made with vegan marshmallows ended our first day.
I awoke early to filter water and make breakfast. When everything was ready, I woke up Teresa. We ate our cheesy grits and drank our coffee and tea. Then it was time to head to Johnson Falls.
We paddled back to the west end of Crystal for the portage to Canoe. Once in Canoe, it took no time to reach the Pine portage. Instead of carrying the canoe, we stashed it off the right side of the portage and left our paddles and PFDs with it.
Without gear, our hike to Pine took about 20 minutes. Plenty of up and down during the portage, and it felt like some of the steps on the south side required *big* steps. I was happy to not carry the canoe and gear over this.
Once at Pine, we took a left and followed the trail over to Johnson Falls. Due to the recent rains, the beginning of the trail was often covered by 6" of water. We mucked our way through it and were thankful when the trail started climbing in elevation.
We made it to the lower Johnson Falls in just an hour from when we stashed the canoe. It was beautiful and chaotic all at once, and thankfully, we had it all to ourselves.
After a quick stop for a bite to eat at the upper falls, we headed back down to Pine. A mama duck and her babies were at the portage as was a young couple who were debating the portage to Canoe. We gave our opinions and then began our hike back to Canoe. Along the portage, we saw a group of four men making the portage with gear, and they made it seem easy.
We paddled and portaged back to our site on Crystal in time for a later lunch of garlic potatoes (the only meal that was so bad we couldn't eat it). Naps and reading followed.
After a dinner of Indian korma, we took the canoe out to the east end of Crystal to watch the sunset. As we paddled, we saw a few beavers and loons... and of course, a gorgeous sunset.
I again woke before Teresa and prepared breakfast - rice pudding (best breakfast of the trip) with coffee and tea.
We portaged to Spaulding directly from our site. I carried the canoe, and it was not a bad 45 rod portage. As we slid the canoe into Spaulding, we thought we saw a leech. At that time, we didn't get confirmation of it.
Our outfitter, Dave, had mentioned that the remains of Spaulding's cabin could be seen on the east end of the lake if we were willing to bushwack. So that's where we headed.
We climbed out of the canoe on a stone landing just north of the stream at the east end of the lake. Climbing over the rocks, we headed east until we were suddenly staring at water that was as high as my head. It was the huge beaver dam that Dave had mentioned. Its size took my breath away.
Backtracking from the dam, we bushwacked north a bit from the stream but still did not find the cabin. We did give up, but we enjoyed the experience and seeing the dam.
Back in the canoe, we paddled to the opposite end of the lake where we saw a turtle sunning itself. Then we hiked the 100 rod portage to Bench because it was still early in the day and we wanted to explore more. Well, that portage certainly felt like bushwacking in some spots. The southern half of the portage climbs at a reasonable grade and had many ripening raspberries along it. Some places were overgrown but the path was always visible a bit further ahead. The northern half of the portage went down a steep decline to Bench. Not much greenery on that side, just many tall trees.
Bench looked nice from the little bit we were able to see. It is a small lake that I don't think is often visited. I snapped a picture, and we headed back to Spaulding. Along the way, on the northern half, we lost the trail for a bit and had to backtrack. This portage requires your attention.
Back in the canoe, we watched a loon fish on Spaulding. It was wonderful to be so close to the state bird.
As we exited Spaulding at the portage to Crystal, we found that three leeches had attached themselves to the canoe. We knocked them off and checked our feet and legs. All clear.
Once we were back at our site, we went swimming. That was fantastic. However, we also noticed dark clouds arriving from the southwest, so we headed back up to the site for a quick lunch of hummus and then into the tent. We napped during the brief storm.
After the rain, a bald eagle visited Crystal Lake. I first saw it when it dove for a fish. Then we continued to eagle watch for another hour and a half as it flitted between trees on the southern shore of Crystal.
Just as we were boiling the water for dinner, I saw something swimming across the lake from the southern shore. With my naked eye, I knew it wasn't a loon or beaver. With the binoculars, we noted that it had a long snout, pointy ears, and a tail. Not a bear. phew. So was it a dog or ...?
When the animal saw us on the shore of our site, it turned back to the southern shore. After about ten minutes, it pulled itself out onto the shore, and we saw its silvery coat. A grey wolf. We watched it pace the shoreline for a while and disappear back into the woods. Convinced that it had decided not to join us on the north side of the lake, we went back to dinner.
Dinner was veggie potatoes. These potatoes tasted much better than the garlic, but we have now decided against bringing the powdered potato flakes on these trips. We followed dinner with pudding for dessert.
Time to move today. I got up and followed my breakfast routine. Today was apricot oatmeal, which in the end needed some more seasoning.
I woke Teresa up at 7:20 a.m., and by 8:20 a.m., we had had breakfast, packed up camp, loaded the canoe with all of our gear, and were paddling away. We paddled and portaged back over to Alder via Canoe. The portages with gear were much easier this time, probably because we were getting better at the entire process.
By 10:20, we had arrived at the southeast site on Alder that Dave had recommended. It was beautiful. The landing wasn't as nice as the one on Crystal, but the site was huge, and we knew that it would have an outstanding view of the sunset.
The tent was up in no time, and we went back to the edge of the site to look out at the lake. This proved quite entertaining for us. We watched as canoes came and went and as groups tried to decide their routes.
With the strong breeze coming over the lake, our site was cool and relatively bug-free all day. Lunch was easy - hummus. Dinner was an alfredo pasta with mushrooms. S'mores and other leftoves were consumed after dinner.
At the site, we had several jackrabbits, a snake, and squirrels. Teresa found a mouse in the latrine in the middle of the night.
I followed my routine on the last morning in the BWCAW. Our breakfast of warm trail mix cereal, coffee, and tea was ready when I woke up Teresa at 6 a.m.
Our site was packed and we were on the water by 7 a.m. As we paddled west on Alder, a bald eagle flew over us and landed on the northern shore. What a great way to end our trip!
We made the portage to East Bearskin quickly and easily. Finally, we knew how to handle that process.
By about 9 a.m., we had landed at the boat access at East Bearskin. I pulled the car up to the access, and we loaded the gear into it. Then we - for the first time in our lives - tied the canoe onto the car. I think we did a nice job of it.
We made it back to HJO by about 10 and quickly headed to the showers. Once we were clean, we chatted with Dave about our experience. He told us it is rare to see a wolf at this time of the season. And when we asked about next year, he said that we were ready for the Ham to Poplar route. So we'll be headed there in a year!
Quite simply, this was the best vacation I have ever had, and I cannot wait until next July.