BWCA Entry Point, Route, and Trip Report Blog
October 02 2023
Number of Permits per Day: 2
Elevation: 1673 feet
Clearwater Lake - 62
Vento Unit in Early October (Clearwater/Pine/West Pike)
October 01, 2020
Number of Days:
On Day 0 we made the drive from Iowa to Duluth in the afternoon. Early Thursday morning we were checked out of the hotel and making our way up the north shore. After a quick pit stop in Grand Marais we were on the Gunflint Trail. The temperature dropped sharply as we drove away from Gichigami and heavy snowflakes started to fall. I was a bit intimidated, but excited for the challenge of a cold weather trip. Like Dad says, "no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothes."
From the start the fall colors were amazing. We left the EP around 10:30 and made the short paddle across Clearwater to the portage to Caribou. This was flat and well-maintained. About two-thirds of the way through is a false trail that leads to a campsite on Caribou. I definitely would have stepped right over some sticks and taken it, but luckily Mike pointed out someone laid the sticks out to spell "NO".
Caribou was another really pretty lake. We didn't see anyone on it, so our hopes were up we'd get the vaunted Little Caribou site. Ha! Even though it was cold and sleeting throughout the day, there were still enough groups enjoying the shoulder season for that site to be occupied. On to Pine.
After another relatively smooth portage, we decided not to make the trip to Johnson Falls. With water as low as it was, there was probably not much to see. Better to save that for another trip. I was shocked by just how long and skinny Pine Lake is. The morning breeze turned into an afternoon wind, thankfully at our backs. Andy and I were still finding our rhythm together and doing more zigzagging than I'd like to admit. Meanwhile, the old pros effortlessly paddled half as hard and lead the way to the only site on Pine Lake's south shore.
Dad and Mike are much better at campsite evaluation than me, so I'll let them expand on that in the comments. Two reasons we chose this site: proximity to Vale and a chance to see the Northern Lights. After getting camp set up and collecting firewood Andy and I tried some casts from camp with no luck. Around the fire we realized we left our whiskey we bought to warm our bellies in the car. The vets were gracious enough to share. Clouds brought intermittent sleet and erased the chance of seeing the Northern Lights. Not that it mattered, we were all in our tents by 8:30. That cold weather really takes it out of you!
Here is a video of that day and part of day 2:
Morning 2 we woke up to packs covered in sleet, but we all stayed mostly warm in our sleeping bags. A breakfast of bacon and hashbrowns got us ready for the day. We were off to try our luck on brook trout at Vale Lake. The portage was a bit hard to find. On the map it's right next to a creek, but that was dry at this point. Holy cow this was a steep one! While it was short, the gradient made a coward out of me and I wondered about pulling off the trail to take a break. However, the woods were too thick on the trail's edge so I had no choice but to power through and make it to the top. The view once there was rewarding. It's hard to do justice to Vale in the fall, but I'm confident it is the most beautiful little lake in the BWCA. (Gadwall could very well look the same, but we were not about to portage down then back up to check it out.)
Fishing was very slow on Vale and it felt 10 degrees colder than down on Pine. A light sleet was off and on. Mike caught a gorgeous brookie. Dad had one up to the boat. Andy and I were unsuccessful in willing the trout to hit our lures. We had lunch on shore. While trolling our way back to the portage to Pine I acknowledged our boat's fate of being skunked. I wouldn't get the perfect picture of a trophy brookie with Vale's colorful bluff as the backdrop, but I had another plan. Being the stern man, Andy's line was within reach. As he took in the scenery I plotted my prank. One yank and he set the hook with so much excitement I thought he'd fall out of the boat. After a good laugh we were back down to Pine.
Dad and Mike went back to camp and did some chores. Andy and I were determined to get on the board and paddled up and down the shores casting everything we could think of. The cold weather won the day and we went back to camp empty-handed. Brook trout potato soup warmed us up before we called it a night.
Here is the second video from this trip:
Morning 3 felt warmer than the rest of the trip. We packed up camp and paddled north across Pine to the portage to West Pike. Thankfully, the lake was almost glass during this crossing. Winds could easily have made this short paddle a pretty hairy adventure. The portage was every bit as grueling as you'd expect from a mile long North-South trail in the Vento Unit. Not as steep as the trek up to Vale, but the climb seemed to never end. If I remember right, once you cross the Border Route trail you are about two-thirds of the way to the top. Then there is a long, steady descent. Be careful not to make a wrong turn towards the end or you will end up at East Pike instead. I forget how long this took us, but by the time we finished we were all sweating. This was bad news, as the weather had turned. Snow started to fall and the wind started to pick up. Not sure if the temperature dropped dramatically or if that was the result of breaking a sweat on the portage. It felt COLD making our way along the north shore of West Pike looking for a campsite. The portage can be seen in the video mentioned in Day 2 of this report.
Exhausted, we made it to the very nice site just north of the island site. Wood was pretty scarce here this late into the year, but there were plenty of spots to try shore fishing. Andy got on the board with a smallmouth. This left me as the only one shutout for the trip. If you were able to get bites consistently during this cold spell, tell me your secrets! The funniest part of this site was the enormous tree that had fallen and been caught on another tree directly above the latrine. Would not have wanted to be back there when that happened!
This was taco night, a trip favorite of mine. Mike does a great job dehydrating and rehydrating these. Or maybe its a favorite because of the margaritas that go with it, who is to say. The winds calmed down in the evening. Somehow our radio picked up an AM station from Cedar Falls and we were able to listen to the 4th quarter of Iowa State beating Oklahoma. That was awesome to be able to combine two of my favorite things (the BWCA and the Cyclones).
West Pike was calm when we woke up on morning 4. There was a cool fog all around camp. It was not going to stick around though. The warm up was on, being brought in by VERY strong winds, according to the weather radio. Originally we were planning on moving to Clearwater, checking out the overlook of Mountain and some more fishing. We couldn't afford to get wind bound for a few days though. Unfortunately this meant it was time to pack up and get the heck off the water before we were stuck.
Paddling through West Pike we figured out that every site on the lake was occupied. Oddly enough this fall trip was the first I've been on where I haven't gone at least a day without seeing another group. We made our last portage of the trip into Clearwater. The crazy thing about this trip was every new lake seemed to be prettier than the last. It was impossible to pick a favorite. We paddled past some campsites and the portage to Mountain and I was bummed about what we were leaving unexplored. Shoot, I guess that means I'll have to come back! After paddling the length of Clearwater and dealing with some strong gusts, we were back at the entry point. It was turning out to be a very nice day. We had forgotten what the sun looked like. Here is the video covering the last part of our trip.
Taking out a day early did not mean the trip was over. We camped in Grand Marais and explored the town a little. Dad and Mike whooped Andy and I in cards. Before leaving the next morning Andy and I walked down to grab some of the world's best donuts for the trip back home. All in all it was an awesome trip, even if the weather and fishing didn't cooperate.