BWCA Entry Point, Route, and Trip Report Blog
March 29 2020
Number of Permits per Day: 3
Elevation: 1673 feet
Clearwater Lake - 62
Clearwater, West Pike and Pine, with a side of Gogebic
July 11, 2012
Number of Days:
7:00 AM We all meet at the church in the Twin Cities, a big groggy troop with repacking into borrowed/rented packs going on everywhere. It is already hot, a bad sign. There are 4 groups of scouts going in. 2 on Clearwater today and 1 on East Bearskin today. 1 other group going in East Bearskin tomorrow. An hour later, we are still in the dang lot. Umm... Be Prepared? I have read that to get a campsite on Clearwater, we need to be in early. I tell myself to relax, understand "early" won’t be in the cards for us, and go with the flow.
I am on a entry permit with 3 dads and 3 boys. One pair are record holding, Extreme Fishermen. One pair are very experienced BWCA Hero’s complete with their sidekick, the portage dog, they are the ones who have all the cool stuff. Then there is us, the Newbies.
Our ride to Grand Marais is uneventful. Happy to have some good times with the father/son talks on the way. My son is quite excited for the adventure. Our group is last to leave the cities, by 20 minutes or so, but not the slowest. We start passing other groups in Cloquet/Duluth area. I have never been to the BWCA, but every canoe on 35 catches my eye.
In Grand Marais we meet as Sven & Ole’s, some groups are happily digging into pizza lounging away. I just want to start our adventure, drop in and find a site, but we get a status update. It sounds like we have minivans and SUV’s spread up and down 35 and 61 with various senses of urgency and various mechanical problems.
A full hour later, we stand around the ranger station parking lot for another 30 minutes waiting for folks to get more gas in their car, round up slower drivers. There are folks with alternator/battery and tire problems. Note to self, plan in small groups for such trips, this is crazy.
After the movie, we head up the Gunflint trail. Another 30 minutes are lost standing around Clearwater Outfitters pointing at maps and investing in leeches. I finally ditch everyone standing around and go to the EP. A full group of college kids are at the entry point already so I start unpacking the car and changing clothes while they do their thing. I help them with a departure photo and off they go. They are going to Caribou as they think Clearwater sites will be taken. It is 3:30 after all. As the rest of my group drive up and start to load the canoes we see the 3 aluminum rental canoes meander by that are our the guys of our other Clearwater group.
We bid the Port-O-Potty adieu and we are off! There is a perfect wind on our back and we slide over small whitecaps. We cross the BWCA border and there was much rejoicing. The cabins are far behind us, and the canoes breeze by the palisades with camera’s snapping away, this doesn’t look like the Minnesota that I know. Smiles are everywhere. Although I do notice that 11 year olds don’t paddle continuously regardless of encouragement.
The BWCA Heroes Kevlar MNII is flying, luckily they have the food pack and dog to weigh them down or they would be horizon bound. The 17 ft Red Old Town Penobscot of the Fishermen and my green 16 ft Penobscot are dragging behind a bit, but still overtaking the Aluminum canoes of the other scout group. Lots of aluminum zig-zagging around us as I try to keep us from becoming a despised “flotilla”.
As expected all Clearwater sites are taken and we start to hit the portage to West Pike. 218 rods, not sure what that really means as this is my first portage in life. This does not count the walks I took my canoe for during the last week. Our cabin neighbors scratching their heads as my green canoe crosses their driveway views over hill and dale. Who walks canoes down the road when there is a perfectly good lake. I feel strong, not tired and healthy enough to single portage today. I also see both groups are now merging at the portage, it looks a bit like the storming of a beach head, so I rush to get the heck out of there. I skip my boots and soggy Keen my way across the portage with fully loaded #4 on by back, Canoe with spare paddle, rods and canoe seats on my shoulders, brat buns and eggs duct taped under seats. HOLY CRAP! By ¼ of the way, there is a long flat rock, making the path, I can’t lift my head anymore so that is all I see. Hot, sliding in mud. Will put on boots next portage. Something just passed me. Oh yeah, the dog. The rest of the portage is a hazy blur of mud, rock and greenery. I think this is the same thing a Clydesdale goes through on hills, when their muscles bunch, the heads bob and they simply continue on machine like.
At the end of the portage I walk back to help out with our group’s gear and food packs. I find our two groups are mixed together and the other group is struggling with heavy canoes small packs and large tents. I find BWCA Hero son failing under a large blue dry pack with some rods and other loose stuff. I grab the big pack from his back, know his dad has the rest of our stuff covered and get back to West Pike end. Load up and into our second lake. Happy again! I doubt I will carry that much on a single load again soon.
Our group leader is still on the end of the portage talking to our other group. “Is that everything?” Answer: “Pretty much, everything but the cooler.” COOLER? Ice packed food and drink? BWCA Hero Dad is bewildered. This wasn’t part of any plan. He offered spare packs, food packs the works. He helps the other grop with the cooler (3rd trip on the portge) and he sends us off to look for a site. “Everything but the cooler.” Was a source of comedic relief throughout the trip and ever since.
The first site on West Pike is open, looks a bit enclosed though, so we fly by it, hoping for one of the north side point sites. Wind still pushing us, sweat is drying, and the portage forgotten. The sun is getting lower. Both point sites are taken, so I am getting a little concerned. Cross over to look at the island site which was the kid’s first choice when looking at the map anyway. It is OPEN! Relief. It seems pretty heavily used, punky birch shreds everywhere. It has 2 decent tent sites, but not a good 3rd really. The fire grate area is good enough, not great. We unload and stake our claim. The other group from our troop notices point sites are taken and turns back for Site 1, other than being tucked in a bit to bug-ville, that is a decent site, great fire grate area and such. I wave in the Fishermen dad and son, we gather a bit of wood and start the fire. We wave in the BWCA Heros dad and son who tell us the story of the cooler. Laughter.
We set up our Island site as base camp for the next 4 nights. Putting two smaller tents on one pad. The frozen/fresh meats get cooked as tomorrow promises to be quite hot again. Brats and shredded chicken sandwiches. We start the cycles of canoeing out to the middle of the channel between the island and mainland to fill the 4 liter Sawyer gravity filter. AMAZING. Really happy with BWCA Hero’s equipment now. That Sawyer filter is the best thing ever. Easy, quick, clean water whenever, and lots is needed. Did I mention it was hot.
Attempt to sleep. Too hot. My son is sawing logs, so is the portage shepherd dog in the tent next door I stick to everything, happy to have a silk liner. Should have soaked in lake first, lesson learned. Clearwater Lake, West Pike Lake
Rolling over this morning tells me I am sore. Yesterday was good work. The boys are up and yapping around the fire grate. Not sure where that energy comes from. We decide to make up the fresh eggs, some frozen sausage, dehydrated hash browns and dried fruit. Nice! But took a while as I am a camp stove novice. The eggs took so long the kids were already done eating and starting to adventure. The portage shepherd dog happily doubled as a food waste disposal. Happy he is sleeping in someone elses tent.
We decide we will stay put on this lake for the day, no day tripping and get the fishermen fishing. As we prep for a day on the water, the boys explore the island. Never thought about it until now, but an island site is great for kids, as there is less concern about getting them lost in the woods.
As we start are fishing, the choice seems to be small Rapala’s into the shallows. It ends up being a while but the Smallies start coming in. I decide to switch it up and am instantly pleased with the virtues of the Power Bait leeches on a jig head . No mess, they last for multiple catches, and I always prefer to fish actively versus watching a bobber. Smallies are all over the drop-offs. They come in one after the other. My son doesn’t switch to the gulp bait because of recommendations to use shallow divers from our other canoes. I stop fishing to avoid discouraging him with all the fish I am bringing up from the deep, and start running my "back of the canoe guide service" to fallen trees and big rocks. Eventually he notices every time I drop in my line with the Powerbait leech, I catch a fish and he switches it up.
We all rejoin each other for lunch on an open but well pined point that looks like it should be a camp, northeast of the island. This is a great picnic area, and we all refilled our water bottles and set up for Lake Trout fishing. The thermometer reading was right for trout at 50 feet. So we set up some crazy diving space station things. They are like dipsy divers, but more airplane shaped. It took three fairly smart adults staring at charts on the package and a 10 minute debate to figure out the correct combination of leaders, swivels and space stations with innumerable configuration possibilities.
Quickly I discover my son doesn’t appreciate the tedium of trolling for lake trout, but we did eat trout for dinner thanks to the other canoes. Dinner was a combination of foil pouch potatoes, hamburger and veggies with trout on the side. The kids preferred pan fried, Shore Lunch coated over foiled and broiled. They were both excellent.
The dog didn’t benefit from our leftovers night 2 as we saved a 1/3 of the foil dinner for breakfast hash.
After discussion about plans for tomorrow, there is more bass fishing and swimming. The other adult activity was trying to quiet the kids for others benefit. (Mixed success there.) The soak before bed made going to bed a bit easier, that and exhaustion. West Pike Lake
Plans last night were to wake up, make the leftovers for breakfast and head out: East down West Pike, portage over to Pine, back West up Pine Lake to the far end and hike to Johnson’s Falls. Return itinerary on the day trip is open to completing a loop via Little Caribou or back the way we came.
Extreme Fisherman dad confided in me. Did you see the map for this day trip? There is some incredulity in his voice and on his face. I guess we are in for a lot of paddling and portaging, but I am game for anything, I mean isnt that why you go to the BWCA?
The Extreme Fishing crew decides that fishing is more important than getting a move on down the lake. They go the long way, around the island and troll for Lakers again. Our other two boats take the direct route, towards the east portage. After 30 minutes of paddling it is obvious the fisherman must be on the fish, as they are WAY back there. So we go with the flow and start fishing for bass and wait for them to catch up. When they do, they do have a nice Lake Trout caught by the son.
We make landfall at the portage. I was too busy to think through the math, but in retrospect 318 rods is 2 canoe lengths short of a mile. It was probably better I didn’t know starting this portage.
Having learned my lesson about portaging in Keens, I dry off, put on my SmartWool socks and tie up my hiking boots. Dry socks = true pleasure. I carry a daypack, and my 16ft Penobscot, with seats, extra paddle and rods all BDB’d in. My son has another daypack with our water bottles, the small tackle pouch and the paddles. Experienced BWCA dad is taking the huge waterproof blue pack, and the 17ft Penobscot. He won’t allow anything to be tied into the canoe when carrying. Hmmm… I am start to wonder if I should be following others examples. Regardless, this left Extreme fisherman Dad carrying the airy Kevlar MNII. The pads and weight of that canoe fit better on his once dislocated/broken collarbone/shoulder.
The portage started nice enough, it crossed some low areas bridged by timbers, perfectly spaced with enough room to get a foot caught in it, although we all crossed it unscathed. A few minutes later the fauna starts encroaching, and we start going uphill. Sunscreen and deet are sweating into my eyes, it is getting hot. I start rotating what hand is balancing the canoe, every now and then I place the opposite hand on my hip to help bolster the weight, then switch, which seems to cause a new pain in my shoulders. Maybe if I hunch down a bit it will change things up? Slide it back a little? No, forward? Not even ½ way yet... I seemed to have drifted off or blanked out my memory, the next thing I remember is passing experienced BWCA guy who is upset at his giant dry bag pack that doesn’t fit anyone. The boys are yelling ahead, we are crossing the hiking trail finally. They are tired and I pass them by. Muddy… downhill… green… hot… hey, that’s poison ivy isn’t it? Is that a snake? No, just my shoelace in the mud. Crap! Untied shoe? I don’t think I can solve this problem with my load. In my exertion induced insanity, I start dreaming a woodland creature will help tie my shoe. I ask the dog on his portage patrol to help, he doesn't. I swear to double tie my hiking boots, at this point I may as well be wearing my soggy keens Some jubilant solo kayaker? is skipping up the hill at me, smiling, with the smallest, lightest shell of a boat I have ever seen, no pack. “It’s all downhill from hear!” he says with a smile. I try to say “I wish I could tell you the same.” But I think it came out “Blahjsie #@!*^% auwkblad youferistic blod!”
With 40 feet of portage left, I start beckoning the Extreme Fisherman for help to get this god forsaken canoe off my shoulders. He jumps up from his rehydration moment and saves me. I am now 2 inches shorter. My son is there, tired, standing in the lake fully dressed. I mutter as I retie my shoe.
A quick drink, and back up the portage to find the other boys, Experienced BWCA Dad and offer some help. The kids stumble down the hill, and BWCA dad is moving smooth without the hellish blue dry pack.
It sounds like we have left a few stashes along the portage so we will call this an unintentional portage and a half. It feels great to have my right shoe tied, still didn’t double knot, idiot. After about 300 feet, portage shepherd is checking on me. Another 10 feet and damn it all, if BWCA dad isn’t jogging on the portage “Just to hurry things up a bit”, he says. I feel the same about him right now as the happy skipping solo Ultra light kayaker dude. I gather what the kids have dropped and he takes on the hated blue bag. When we get back, and yes, my other boot untied during this carry, idiot!, everyone is now standing in the lake.
There is a camp site here, wind is blowing in and a nice spot by the lake to have lunch so Fisherman dad does up a shore lunch with the Laker they caught. He rules! Supplement that with the usual Bruegger’s Bagels, sausage, cheese and such. The kids play king of the rock in the water until it appears injury may result, so we move on. Here moving on means a 5 mile canoe trek on beautiful Pine Lake. Most campsites on the north side are awesome. A couple sites are filled with canoes converted into catamarans, I suppose that makes a lake this size safer in the wind, or easier to carry mass amounts of beverages?
Headwind. a long persistent head wind. Well, it will be easier getting back… We take breaks on fighting the wind and fish our way down the lake. We have lots of Small Mouth success here and we make it to the west end where there are canoes and people all over. There are plenty of people around Johnson’s falls this afternoon. It feels like a National Park but without the Europeans everywhere. One group leaving recommends fishing where the stream runs into the lake as they could see, literally, hundreds of fish. We spend more than an hour, giggle fishing. This is where you catch so many fish, you just laugh. Every or every other cast is a bass, most small. There are some bigger ones farther out and Northern Pike patrolling as well. These were found as they fed on a couple of the Smallies we reeled in. One looked like a shark on the Discovery channel diving over a dragged fake seal.
The afternoon is running out so the kids reluctantly give up fishing and hike up to the lower falls. The kids play in the pools well downstream from the falls. They aren’t the smoothest rocks to slide down through the rapids but the bruises and scrapes aren’t felt until that night, too much fun.
Visiting the upper falls, amazing. The kids find a small pool where water rushes in about shoulder/neck height and they get a free cold spa treatment. Again we are reluctant to leave an activity, but do so as it is getting on towards evening.
Back at Pine lake, the kids beg for more fishing at the mouth of the stream. OK, you're only here once is the concensus. The bad part is, our steady wind is starting to dwindle. Our expected downwind paddle back becomes less using the map for a sail and more smooth lake paddling.
The portage back to West Pike… ugh. It is meaner on the way north. A long uphill to start. We decide to double portage with a pretty light load on the 2nd trip. Extreme fishermen head off up the portage followed by my son and followed by our portaging machine leader and son. I pick up the rear. The dog is here, it has started checking on me more often. I wonder if I smell like the start of a heart attack. Nice dog, I appreciate the concern.
Jeesh, it is still hot. I start spotting bits and pieces falling off the guys in front of me. Drat! One was even the leach pail the fishermen were using. I still have the spare paddle, seats and rods strapped in the canoe. Still haven’t learned there. I can’t fathom the possibility of putting down the canoe and pack, or cleaning the leeches up with them on my back. I trudge on and go into pack mule mode again. Zero thoughts but focus on the finish to forget about the pain. My son ends up meeting me on the portage, he is going back to get more stuff following the jogging portage fitness dad and his son. I finally drop the canoe off, help the Extreme fishermen out onto West Pike and head back to help the others on the double portage. No help needed for the BWCA dad he jogs on by. I think he was even smiling, so I continue farther to help the kids. They are happy to have saved the leeches and have a lot of other tackle, rods and bags with them. I ease their burden and follow my son. His feet are skimming ½ inch of the ground stumbling into every rock he doesn’t see. He has bonked, with ½ mile to go. I encorage him to march with high steps, to focus on each foot placement. Two tripping incidents later we get to the wooden walkways over the marshy area. Hmmm… His foot does fit perfectly between the two boards! It is stuck. He is not happy. Glad he doesn’t use playground words around me. After foot extraction with no injury, we finish our portage and happily set off on our home lake. I pull out a surprise mint dark chocolate bar. It melted once in its journeys but it is solid right now and we split it, as a reward for that portage. It is the best chocolate ever. Energy levels rise and things are looking up.
When we reach our island, the fisherman dad has been making some linguini alfredo, bacon gets added and again, things are looking up. We are hot and exhausted. Swimsuits are found and we soak away the day’s grime. Revived, it is dusk and mosquitos have come out in numbers never seen on this trip or in any other time of our life. After changing in the tent, long sleeves and pants and bug nets. An attempt is made at eating. Mmmmm… bug net alfredo. Not so easy. We cut is short, euphamism’s are flying about the bugs. S’mores are called off, we franticly clean up, hanging the food and garbage in the swarm is the worst and we dive, literally, into the tents for the night. The running around heated us back up after the swim. Hot and sweaty again. Sleep doesn’t come easy. Haunted by mosqito noise. Is that mosquito in our tent or just by my ear on the screen? I am too tired to figure it out. West Pike Lake, Pine Lake
I have sworn off having that blasted canoe on my shoulders again until we portage to Clearwater on the way out. Nope, won’t do it. Can’t. Portaging is a terrible idea for today.
BWCA Dad and son perform pancake magic providing blueberry, banana, walnut fortified flapjacks. The syrup lasts for everyone and discussions go on about plans for the day. Extreme fisherman dad is in a similar place to me, there is no way a portage will happen today. BWCA dad has Brook Trout on the mind, so a “short” 80 rod portage is in their plans to go to Gogebic Lake. See... look at the map, totally manageable.
My son, hearing of the plans to hang around the camp, maybe swim a lap around the island, do some fishing and take it easy on West Pike, was aghast that we would slow the adventurous pace down. I explain that we probably won’t catch brook trout and if we get to Gogebic midday, the chances are boredom will set in making the portage not pay off. By the time the canoes are in the water, he has whittled me down, I can’t hold back his enthusiasm, and I paddle off toward the west end of the lake for the “portage” to Gogebic. Sigh.
Yes we caught fish on the way. Yes, my shoulders feel better after paddling a while. Yes, my son is very happy to be continuing his adventure to other lakes, and yes, I am very happy to spend some good one on one time with him reveling in our previous day’s adventures. That all said, that portage to Gogebic, is not a portage. Mountainous hiking trail where someone forgot to add switchbacks? Possibly. The BWCA dad and I carry the canoes up a hellish incline one canoe at a time. The few bends in the path are difficult carrying canoes from the ends as it is a tight fit and we both need to make big, wide swings. At one point it is too tight and my Penobscot, doesn’t fit between two trees without tipping it on an angle. From the top of this crazy rise, we portage our gear and canoes up, and down. It comes to me that 80 rods isn’t really all that short when the trail approaches vertical.
Gogebic is a very picturesque lake. The great canoe accessible campsite is taken, the other one on the hiking trail is still open, but we don’t go back and look at it. Newts are everywhere in the rocks, as well as crayfish and minnows. BWCA dad has a lot of fly choices to make for Brookies. Long story short, the lake is beautiful, you feel pretty alone, sorry to intrude folks at that camp site. The wind is gone up here though. It is hot and we don’t even get a nibble. After lunching in the canoes we decide to head back and fish for more bass on West Pike. It is a nice slow afternoon, catching fish and having quiet time in the canoe.
When we get back I make some taco fixings and Extreme Fisherman shore lunches up 5 bass that were quite tasty. Fish tacos with Cilantro Lime Rice, black beans and foil packed chicken if you want it.
Thunder to our east, thunder to the west, nothing here. A gale blows in, and my son asks if we are windstruck. I tell him if it was blowing like this tomorrow, we would be. The BWCA dad begs to differ that the waves are manageable, but that is just crazy. Somehow we didn’t get rained on, however we had some amazing views gazing up the sides of the towering clouds with the sun lighting up the anvil tops.
My son is wiped out. Today was a bit of a wash in his opinion. He feels he would have had more fun if we took it easy. My thought is skipping Gogebic would have been misery as he would have focused on what he was missing with others were doing. He is ready to get out of here. We spend a lot of the evening and the next morning packing up. How did it get hot again after that wind? West Pike Lake, Pine Lake West Pike Lake, Gogebic Lake
It seems spending multiple days at a campsite pushes you to open more stuff and spread out your things more. The morning is spent filling water bottles, undoing the spread of our things and leave no trace lessons. (Sorry folks who came after us, but you should have seen it when we got here, we improved the condition of the camp, but it still looks well used.
We paddle. No wind yet. Well, I paddle. Son is happy to be leaving, but the paddling is pretty weak. The Extreme fishermen felt they needed a huge head start and are 1/3 of the lake ahead of us. Nice loons and eagles sitings this morning. At the portage to Clearwater the fishermen have left some stuff. 50 yards down the portage, their canoe has been dumped already. I decided when starting the day, today no single portaging, not stretching it the way I did when we came through on the way in. With only the canoe and a small pack, without the massive climbs and at only 218 rods, this is a nice enjoyable portage. And nicely double tied hiking boots...Oh, how perspectives can change. My son and I talk the whole way through. On the way back for the packs, we are strong, and light, nearly skipping and smiling. We look at the mid-point pools in the stream beside the portage, the big flat rock areas that to us mean ¼ and ¾ of the way markers. My son has decided that I was right to force him into his shoes at the portage as they feel nice compared to wet keens.
As we head back, we run into our BWCA experienced father son team. I am sure this will be an easy portage for them. They all seem to easy portages for them, and this time he is carrying the Kevlar canoe. For the first time, I am not jealous of his Kevlar craft, only because I am done portaging canoes for the year.
Almost done with our second portage trip, we hear an odd droning, rumble. I ask my son, "do you know what that is?" He can’t place it. “It is a boat motor. It is going to be Clearwater outfitters dropping someone off to make their trip easier.” “I am guessing for $40.00 we could end our trip 90 minutes early and skip the last paddle.” My son is all for it. However I talk him down off this idea. There is very little wind still, we are in the boundary waters, let’s take our time and finish it right.
There is a family of 4 starting “the loop” in the area and have 2 big food packs, 2 big Duluth packs various smaller items and 2 Kevlar canoes, they are completely outfitted. The kids are saying, C’mon dad we can single portage this in a non-Minnesotan accent. Good luck to them on that. I had that same thought on my way in, it will wear off by their second portage.
We start paddling Clearwater and see our fisherman cohorts 1/3 of the lake ahead again. As we get through the narrows, I don’t yet see our 3rd canoe, but am confident they will catch up.
Lots of paddling, it is a really long lake. My son paddles about ¼ of the time. This is an improvement. We close some distance on the canoe in front of us. The palisades are still amazing, wrong angle with the sun for pictures though. We see our 3rd party now. Their sleek craft is making up ground as usual.
"Paddle all the way to the next point son." "Let’s do racing cadenc." Any game possible to get my son paddling. "When that red canoe disappears they will have rounded the point to the take out. Paddle!"
Behind us, brown Kevlar and synchronized paddling is catching up. 1,2,3,4,5, hup!... Argh… I explain to my son the matter of pride I am going to have when we don’t let them pass us before the point. C’mon make the point before them, 1,2,3,4,5, hup!. 2 canoes now doing racing cadence. We make the point! C’mon buddy, it is a matter of 150 yards to go, we can finish ahead of them. Arms burning we finish ahead of them, barely.
The canoe has new scrapes and scratches, tattoos of a BWCA experience. After unloading my son changes into clean underwear, socks, shoes, shirt. SOCKS! Dad, I really like SOCKS! This is so nice.
As we drive home, the talk is not of portage difficulty and shoulder pain, we are discussing BWCA plans for next year. Our 3 canoes netted a couple hundered fish... not exaggeration. Newbies no more, and hooked.