BWCA Entry Point, Route, and Trip Report Blog
January 23 2020
Number of Permits per Day: 3
Elevation: 1673 feet
Clearwater Lake - 62
Wandering to West Pike Lake
September 04, 2016
Number of Days:
We left St. Cloud, MN about mid morning with our gear and three canoes. Other than a couple of stops to adjust the load, our trip was smooth all of the way to Grand Marais where we stopped for some delicious Sven and Ole's pizza. After also picking up some bait and some beverages for the bunkhouse that night, we proceeded down the Gunflint Trail to Clearwater road and our base for the evening--the Charlie Boostrom-built lodge at the end of Clearwater Lake. Once we got checked in and settled into our bunkhouse for that night, we took the canoes out for a quick paddle to the palisades that overlook Clearwater. Finding the trail-head to the first palisade was a bit tricky and the climb to the top is nearly 400 feet but the view was well worth the effort. We got up there just in time to watch the sun set, enjoy a gentle breeze and take in the expansive vista up and down Clearwater Lake. What a great way to start the trip! The return paddle to the lodge had us pulling up on their beach right at dusk. We stowed the canoes for the night and after enjoying those beverages, swapping a few stories and conducting some final organization of gear and food, we all turned in for a restful evening before the adventure started in earnest.
Shortly after first light we got up, cleaned up, packed up and then fueled up with a hearty breakfast in the lodge before pushing off at about 9 AM. A slight tail wind helped us along as we proceeded east down Clearwater Lake. After about two hours of paddling we decided to take a break by pulling into the portage to Mountain Lake so we could explore that and the Border Route Trail that intersects the portage. While the other guys went left onto the BRT, Kirby and I continued down the portage to Mountain Lake. When we reached the end, a couple of groups were just pulling up and unloading in preparation for portaging over to Clearwater. We warned a younger man and woman who were traveling together that they were about to encounter a deadfall across the trail that would be difficult to negotiate with gear and we offered to help them get across, if they wanted. They gratefully accepted and once we helped the guy get their canoe past the downed tree, we helped the woman get over the log also as she was quite loaded down. During the rest of this trip Kirby and I would recall the group that was behind these two that gave us a look that seemed to say they were hoping for our help as well. In hindsight, we probably should have done so but later Kirby and I joked to each other that sorry, there were no females in that party so we weren't as motivated to assist them! :)
At the Border Route Trail, we met up again with the rest of our guys who reported that there was not much to see for as far down as they had walked the trail. I'd heard about some impressive overlooks near this area but suspect that the guys turned the wrong way to get those views without hiking for quite a distance (my fault--I had directed them). We decided to return to our canoes and continue on to our destination for the day: West Pike Lake.
The portage to West Pike has some length to it but was not so difficult that my old body would find it un-doable to carry my aluminum canoe non-stop to the end. Once we got all of our gear across, we re-loaded and started paddling for any open campsite. Our two preferred targets--the middle two sites on the north shore, were already taken so we headed for the island. This site was open and we found it to be quite nice. Plus, the best smallmouth fishing on the lake was said to be in the channel between this island and West Pikes's south shore. We had found our spot for the next two nights.
The next item of business was to have our traditional first-day ham-sandwich and fresh-fruit lunch. As usual this really hit the spot. Once re-energized, we were kept busy with tents, tarps, hammocks and other camp chores before a refreshing swim and an attempt at fishing. It seems the smallies were not quite ready for us yet. This was no problem since we had plenty of fresh food to eat for supper that night. The steaks and hobo dinner did make for a delicious meal before a stunning sunset and an evening fire. We secured camp and turned in that night with a threat of rain by morning.
The expected rain did start about midway through the night and continued on through morning. Unfortunately, this revealed that my good old tent had a leak and while we did not get completely soaked, enough water came in to drip from the ceiling and dampen our gear. As the rain persisted, we knew it was going to be a wet day.
After donning my rain gear, I went down to the shore to try for some early morning fish. While Chuck and Kirby went out looking for them in a canoe, I was soon joined lakeside by Greg while Craig and Dave stayed back up by the fire grate to start on cooking breakfast. It was too wet for a fire so the bacon and eggs were all done over isopro and sterno. Our morning meal was thoughtfully served to us down by the water and while eating breakfast in a cold rain wasn't the greatest, it sure beat going hungry.
On the plus side, the bass now decided it was time to cooperate and we started bringing in some decent sized eaters, building a nice stringer of fish for supper. Chuck and Kirby were also doing well out in the canoe so we were going to have enough fish for everyone to have a few fillets that night. After a few hours, though, I started to feel damp and chilled so it was time to take a break under the tarp for some more food and some warmer, drier clothes. Shortly after lunch, steady rain did finally reduce to a fine mist making time out from under the tarp more tolerable. We resumed fishing and added enough smallies to our stringers that it was now going to be quite the fishie feast. Chuck and Greg made quick work of cleaning our catch and again it was time to start cookin'. By now we were able to dry enough wood to coax a fire (we used my new Pocket Bellows to help it along--this gadget worked great and was one of the best pieces of gear I'd brought on this trip). This allowed us to double our speed with cooking up all of the fillets--canned-fuel and campfire cooking got us all fed in no time. As supper concluded the rain quit completely and we even saw a few patches of blue sky before dark. We kept the fire going and enjoyed another nice evening before turning in to the distant sound of thunder, warning us that more rain was moving in.
While the overnight rain promised by the thunder did indeed come, it was not as prolonged as the night before, it quit before morning and no overhead tent leak developed so we woke up this morning drier than the previous day. As we got up and started to move around, the rain continued to hold off so we hustled to get breakfast down and strike camp so we could get packed up to move on to our next site. After about a half hour's paddle down a calm West Pike Lake we again found ourselves at the portage to Clearwater Lake. This time it was slightly uphill so a little more challenging than going in but still, other than a bit of length, not too bad.
However, our next portage from Clearwater to Caribou Lake was a significant test. This carry starts out from Clearwater climbing steeply and my legs were complaining. It does level out somewhat near the middle before descending to Caribou. It was about 200 rods I was glad to be done with!
Once on Caribou we decided to grab a site as quickly as we could. We tried initially for the site to the east of the portage but it was taken so we opted for the site near the little island just to the west. This proved to be a good choice as it offered good tent pads, a fire grate near the water, nice sunning rocks out front and a good deal of general scenic charm. It was also interesting to find an old cast-iron oven door from the logging days of Caribou. What we were not pleased to discover was the debris left by previous campers. Too bad not everyone gets the concept and importance of LNT camping!
As soon as we had finished lunch here and spread out our gear, a couple of clouds blocked out the sun and a rain shower ensued, lasting just long enough to get everything wet again. We set up camp hoping the sun would return (which it quickly did) and dry everything while we were gone on our planned day-trip to nearby Johnson Falls.
Our trip to the falls took about an hour, taking us over a couple of portages and across a very dirty Little Caribou Lake. This water was green enough it could have stood in as a diving pool at the Rio Olympics! After a short paddle across the end of Pine Lake (weedy but not as dirty as Little Caribou) we started the half-mile hike through the woods back to the falls. This summer's storms have left quite a few deadfalls that need to be negotiated but no part of the trail was impassable without anything more than medium effort. When we arrived at the falls, we found both the upper and lower cascade to be running pretty strong. We made our way up to the higher section and had a great time swimming. We were able to sneak behind the cascade itself and then come bursting through the water for a ride on the current for a few yards. It was like a bunch of kids at a water park. Fun!!
When we returned to our site we found that our gear was "mostly" dry but we were going to be a bit damp in our tents that night. It still would not be as bad as the first night so no big deal.
The trip to Johnson Falls left us just a few hours before dark for fishing and we were not successful in the time available so it was going to be our freeze-dried back-up for supper. As they say, "Hunger makes the best sauce," so even this was not bad at all! By nightfall the temps had dipped a good deal so for the first time on this trip, I needed to break out some layered clothing to stay warm. A nice fire helped us ward off the evening chill before we all called it a night.
A cool, dry morning with a lot of fog in the trees and flat water was going to make for pleasant paddling on our final day. We energized ourselves with a quick oatmeal breakfast, got packed up and were soon on our way motivated by the hearty burgers and cold beer that were calling to us from the Trail Center Café! The portage from Caribou to Clearwater again was another that has some length to it but after a moderate climb at the start, it follows a pretty good path with guides set up along the way to keep you on track. The water remained calm on Clearwater so it was just a few more minutes of easy paddling before we were pulling up on the beach at Clearwater Lodge. After loading up our gear for the ride home and a refreshing hot shower, it was off to the Trail Center for those burgers and beverages. Another fitting end to a great trip.