BWCA Entry Point, Route, and Trip Report Blog
September 23 2023
Number of Permits per Day: 2
Elevation: 1673 feet
Clearwater Lake - 62
Arrowhead Region - Somewhere Green and Peaceful
August 11, 2007
Number of Days:
I fought to force my eyelids open as my alarm sounded at 7:00am. I had stayed up until 1:30 that same morning packing for the trip. Although I was beyond exhausted, I couldn't deny the knot in my stomach stemming from excited anticipation for what lay ahead. In a few short hours I would be leaving with my fiance Kevin for a weekend away in the Boundary Waters. It had been a two year absence since we'd been consumed by the serene canoe country. I couldn't wait to dip my paddle in the cool lakes and feel the sensation of gliding on such pristine waters. The prospect of spending countless uninterrupted hours of solitude with Kevin was also extremely appealing. Only a week prior had I returned to Minnesota from a three month absence in which I was in Salem, Massachusetts. Having not seen Kevin for almost the entire length of the summer was tough. Harder yet was the fact that almost immediately after I arrived back home to Rochester, MN, Kevin had to return to Tomah, Wisconsin for one more week of a summer camp, where he instructed groups of kids on how to respond to emergencies. Once we had finally gotten the car loaded with our gear and said our goodbyes, it was already 9:30am. Kevin and I knew the seven-hour drive would be long, but we were too excited of what lay ahead to care. It was 4:00pm by the time we got to Grand Marais. We turned onto the Gunflint Trail and our eyes widened as the verdant forest sprang up all around us. It seemed to take forever to reach the Clearwater Canoe Outfitters, where we picked up our permit. We continued on the winding route of Highway 66 until, at last, we reached the waters edge. We unpacked our gear and readied ourselves for the adventure that lay ahead of us. We discussed our "game plan." It was nearly 5:00pm, we had not eaten dinner, and we needed to set up camp. An impending storm seemed to linger in the distance, making our less than ideal situation more apparent. We pushed off into Clearwater Lake and headed for the portage. Clearwater lake was definitely different than other lakes we'd been on. The cabins, motorboats, and busyness of the lake made my stomach twinge. Would we reach solitude here? The paddle to the portage was short, but made me realize just how out of shape I was and how much I was not used to being in a canoe. The portage to Caribou Lake was not overly difficult. However, Kevin and I did become confused over halfway into the portage. The map showed that the trail would split to either Caribou Lake or Deer Lake. We were fairly certain that we had passed that fork but soon found ourselves faced with another. There were downed trees at the foot of the left-hand path, but it was unclear if those were make-shift "barriers" or if it was just the way of the wilderness. We decided to take that path first, but quickly turned around once it narrowed and seemed to become overgrown. We then continued down the other trail and felt confident that this new route was right. We arrived at Caribou Lake hungry and exhausted. We set off into the water and felt dismayed when we discovered the first three campsites were occupied. We passed quite a few anglers who told us the next site was also taken. This was not good news. It was already 6:00pm, the color in the sky had begun to get dim, and the once faint rumble of thunder was becoming louder. There were only two other campsite options on Caribou, and they were at the complete other end of the expansive lake. After a very hard paddle motivated by views of lightning, Kevin and I finally reached the end of the lake. Our hearts sank when we saw both sites buzzing with activity. The light from the sky was fading, our stomachs were grumbling, and it looked as if we were on the very cusp of the storm. We decided we needed to rely on the kindness of strangers and ask to share a site for the night. We pulled up to the second to last campsite, which looked large enough to accommodate the two of us and our small tent for one evening. The folks staying at the site were only too happy to oblige our request, a deed that will not go forgotten. Our hosts were two guides and three boys from a YMCA program. They pointed out a bunch of "insider" tips about the surrounding area and filled us with stories from their outdoor adventure. After setting up camp and making dinner, Kevin and I were both ready to crawl into our sleeping bags and call it a night. Our nerves had settled, our bellies were full, our bodies were safe and warm, and the storm had passed us. As I closed my eyes, I could not help but hear the lyrics of a local musician in my head, "Don't worry, I'll be alright, despite the thunder in the bay. Clouds roll in, the stars get dim, sometimes a storm will light the way..."
My eyelids fluttered at what sounded like a very large bird swooping into the water over and over again. I sat up and peered out of our tent to see a bald eagle continuously swooping at the water. I woke Kevin up as we silently watched this magnificent creature scan for prey. After about five or ten minutes, the eagle flew off with a fish clenched in its talon. We would find out later that the YMCA group had a 4lb Walleye on a stringer that the eagle claimed as its own. Kevin and I made some Strawberries and Cream oatmeal for breakfast, packed up camp, and got ready to head out. We thanked our gracious hosts once more and then set out back up to the top of Caribou. Our goal was to base camp and do some fishing. We had heard that Caribou was great lake for Walleyes and small mouth bass. The paddle back to the west side of the lake was long and rigorous due to the wind. We were delighted to find that the "middle" campsite was open! We explored the site to find a large expansive open area that was well sheltered. There was just enough wind that the bugs were almost non-existent. We found the flattest spot for our tent and began to set-up camp. The cool breeze was constant and was a great contrast to the hot August sun. Kevin and I were still very tired from the day before so we both decided a nap was in order. The weather was so beautiful so we laid our sleeping pads and bags outside and soon dozed off. I woke up to a snake slithering by us that startled me a bit. Kevin slept for quite a while while I just sat in solitude taking in the sites around me. The power nap was just the ticket to rejuvenation. We both were well-rested and ready to try to fish. I had never gone fishing before so I was excited to try my hand at it. Kevin showed me how to cast and reel and gave me some other pointers. We set out in the canoe and fished for about an hour. We were both unsuccessful. I did manage to reel up all sorts of seaweed though and a large stick... The rest of the day was pretty relaxing. We swam for a bit, explored a few trails around our site, and then watched then paddled out into the middle of the lake to watch the sun set behind the majestic bluffs.
We woke up to find another beautiful day. By the warmth of the morning air, it was evident that the day would be hotter than the previous day. After attempting to fish once again, Kevin and I made breakfast and began to clean up camp. We intended to visit Johnson Falls for the afternoon and set out for Pine Lake. We were dismayed to find the wind blowing to the East, the previous days it had blown to the West, making for a hard paddle. Kevin and I both agreed that this wind direction would be welcomed on the way back when we would be more tired. We reached the Caribou-Little Caribou portage which was only 25 rods. Little Caribou Lake did not seem to be very deep. According to our map, it was only about 10 feet deep all around. The lake was pretty weedy and Kevin was sad we did not have our fishing gear because he thought it looked prosperous. The 80 rod portage to pine length was not very lengthy either. We looked at the map and were disappointed to find that the trail to Johnson Falls was not marked. We discussed our dislike for Fischer maps and once again vowed to only purchase McKenzie's, a vow we had made on previous trips. We had come across several discrepancies and "missing" items with the Fischer maps. Unfortunately, only Gander Mountain in Rochester sells McKenzie's and the store was moving to another location so their merchandise selection was minimal, forcing us to purchase Fischer maps. We spotted the portage to Canoe Lake that we had heard is no picnic. We deduced that the trail to Johnson falls must be on the West side of the lake somewhere so we paddled around until we were confident that we had discovered the path. We began down the trail only to discover several downed trees making for some obstacles in the path. We were happily surprised to find the trail not as "groomed" as we assumed it would be. We had no idea what the length of the hike would be nor the elevation. In my estimation the trail was slightly rugged but that was mostly due to all of the downed trees. We came upon the lower falls and could hear voices from others enjoying the sites. Kevin and I did not realize that there below both the upper and lower falls there were lagoons for swimming. We had not brought our swimsuits but decided we could not pass up the chance to swim in what looked like the most refreshing water. It was still early in the afternoon and our clothes would dry, so we both jumped in the water. We met a family from Indiana who were BWCA veterans. The father had been visiting for 30 some odd years! He gave Kevin some tips about fishing on various lakes within the Arrowhead region. Kevin mentioned that he would need to come back and visit the area again with the primary intent of fishing. We swam with the three kids from the family and I watched as the climbed onto the rocks of the waterfall and jumped through the gushing water into the lagoon. Kevin tried this as well and took a big bellyflop. Johnson Falls was a beautiful site. If I were to ever visit again, I would definitely pack lunch, and then picnic and swim all day. A few hours later, we left the waterfall and set out to return to our site. We were not happy to find that the wind direction had changed once again and that we would be paddling into the wind for the fourth time. The paddle back was very long and exhausting. We were both happy to arrive back to camp and made dinner. The fire ban prevented us from having campfires which definitely took a piece away from the camping experience. Darkness soon cloaked the sky and the brightest stars I have ever seen in my life burned bright. We were extremely fortunate to witness a meteor shower - a site I will not soon forget.
Kevin and I awoke at 6:30am. The sky seemed drab outside and the wind was fierce. We decided that we had better get going to try to beat any storm that might be headed our way. It took us a while to pack and clean up camp. It was probably around 9:30am when we said "good-bye" to our site and set out for the Caribou-Clearwater portage. Again, the wind was against us and we had to fight to get the the end of the lake. I was nervous for Clearwater, knowing that we would have to paddle across the lake in order to get to the parking lot. If the wind was this bad on Caribou, how would it be on Clearwater? Bad. Very, very bad. I was frightened when I saw Clearwater lake. It was so choppy and the whitecaps were everywhere. After trying to paddle out of the bay into the main body of water, we decided to go back and wait it out for a while. After about a half hour and constant surveillance, the wind was still just as fierce. A couple canoed into the portage and advised us to hug the shoreline. This would mean extra paddling, but less of a chance of capsizing. Kevin and I decided this seemed like the best option so we set out for the second time. The wind was unrelentless and paddling across the protected bay was extremely difficult. Once we reached the open water, we could barely push forward. The wind hammered our canoe, forcing us back. My body ached with each stroke but I had to keep paddling or we would lose control. We set our sights on the nearest dock in order to rest. It was definitely a battle between man versus nature to reach the dock but we finally did. Kevin and I both knew that even hugging the shoreline would be dangerous and extremely difficult. Just then, a a few guys who owned the cabin and dock that Kevin and I had temporarily perched came out and offered us a tow. We were so very grateful! Although we are both for the preservation of the wilderness, this was definitely a time that we were thankful that cabins and motors were present on a lake. We crossed the lake in minutes, a feat that would have probably taken Kevin and I at least an hour to do in just our canoe. The guys dropped us off at a dock closest to the public access. The owner of that dock told us that he knows how rough those waters get and that he himself had already rescued two groups who had capsized. Kevin and I reached our car and began to unload.
Our fourth Boundary Waters adventure was a great trip. Although we ran into a few snags here and there, the trip was worth while and a great escape from the everyday pressures of life. I don't know if we will ever venture back to the Arrowhead region for solitude, but perhaps again for fishing. We both agreed that while Grand Marais is an absolutely gorgeous town, there is just something about Ely that radiates a "wilderness" feel. I am extremely grateful to all of the kind strangers who helped us out when needed. They will never know just how much we appreciated what they did for us. With Kevin and I both graduating this year, our wedding, our honeymoon, and the start of new jobs, I am not sure when Kevin and I will get a chance to return to the Boundary Waters. Until then, we will have to rely on memories of a place that time has left untouched; a place where wild animals roam unbounded; a place where bald eagles grace the open skies; a place that I long for when the clamor of cars and the bright city lights drown me in their chaos...