BWCA Entry Point, Route, and Trip Report Blog
January 24 2020
Number of Permits per Day: 4
Elevation: 1471 feet
East Bearskin Lake - 64
East Bearskin to Clearwater quasi-loop; and a lost kid
July 07, 2013
East Bearskin Lake
Clearwater Lake (62)
Number of Days:
The day began with a breakfast at the Blue Water Cafe in downtown Grand Marais, a place that is becoming a traditional "last meal" in civilization before we head up the Gunflint.
One of the benefits, I found, of tripping in the "east end" of the BWCAW is getting to the entry points quicker. By time we got to the outfitter, got our rental gear, and reorganized/repacked the packs for the 10th time, we were in the van getting dropped off at the East Bearskin drop off point by 10:30. Which for us is some kind of record. The Clearwater folks were very nice. Our driver dropped us off toward the west end of East Bearskin. I'm not sure if there is a public put-in toward the east end of the lake, but that is what I was picturing so as we started our paddle I had a couple "this doesn't seem right" moments and then figured out that we were "off the map" (F-14). So we had a couple more miles on our paddle than I'd originally anticipated.
No matter, as we weren't going very far. Per the recommendations on the forum, we used the southern arm portage into Alder, which was a cake walk. There is a pinch in the lake right after the portage but we were able to paddle through it. If water level had been six inches lower I think we'd have had to walk it.
We found the 4th campsite from the west along the north shore available and claimed it right around lunch time. The site has a nice little "beach"-ish entry and a lot of shallow water to wade in for the afternoon swim. Given the rain recently, the site (and most of the trip) was pretty buggy, with mosquitos out all day - something I haven't had much of before during the July/August months. There is also a low area on the east side of the campsite that was flooded with rain water - perfect breeding ground.
Fishing directly from camp is a non-starter at this site, but there is a peninsula jutting out right next to camp that has some dropoffs toward the south, so just a short paddle. I pulled a small bass out of there in the late afternoon.
Steak over the open fire hit the spot at night, as did some rehydrated frozen veggies. Since I usually enter the BWCAW from Missing Link Lake (and the dreaded Tuscarora portage), this was probably easiest first day I've ever had.
East Bearskin Lake, Alder Lake
At sunrise (or just before) the 11 year old and I hit the water for some fishing while everyone else slept in. The boy caught his first walleye to the southeast of the site, along the peninsula on the other side of the lake. Weather was overcast and we didn't get too much action; however, I did manage to haul in my very first lake trout. It was about in 25 feet of water, along the south side of the peninsula near our Alder camp site. It was a (very) small spoon that did the deed, and I was just bouncing it off the bottom as I reeled it in, casting out from the canoe about 20 feet off the shore. We released both fish.
We had decided to move on from Alder and find a nice spot for a two-night stay, so, after a breakfast of eggs and bacon, we packed up with an eye toward snagging the site on Little Caribou, or, failing that, somewhere on Pine.
From Alder we portaged into Canoe Lake, and then took on the Canoe-Pine portage. The hell of that portage is the straight up beginning, it goes on pretty much forever. Once you get past the up it is relatively flat before the down at the end. The aforementioned Tuscarora portage tends to beat one down by it's seemingly unending ups and downs, it's muddy parts, and what I like to call it's "false endings", where it "feels" like you're about to reach the end, and then you find that, no, you've got more to go. At least this one isn't tricky. It's just an up and down butt kicker.
While waiting for some of our double portagers (we were not able to do portages in one go), we sent a canoe ahead to scout out Little Caribou and snag the site if it was open. This group was successful, and the whole group was in camp and eating some PB&J on tortilla right around lunch time. (as I said this was a pretty easy trip).
My only mistake at this point was asking the group whether they wanted the rest of the trip to go through Pine, which would require an additional two portages in the 200+ rod range, or to just go over to Clearwater which would only be one long portage left. Given our day to that point, everyone opted for the shorter trip. Oh well.
The site on Little Caribou is, as reported elsewhere on the forum, a very nice site. Its the only site on Little Caribou (much to the chagrin of some groups passing us by later in the day and the next), and is on a point. It has a great little area with a drop off so that you can run and jump into the lake (not a cliff-jumping rock - it's only two feet or so). Bugs were slightly better than Alder but it was still a little overcast. The following day the wind would pick up and sun would come out, and then the mosquitoes went away during the day, except for back in the woods by the latrine.
This site had a couple of turtles nesting on the rock shelfs by the campsite and there were also several resident snakes (perhaps waiting for a turtle egg meal?). I've never seen so many snakes in one place in the BW before. Needless to say, thanks to my 8 year old, my SD card has more than it's fair share of snake and turtle picks.
Fishing that PM did not go well at all. The lake only gets to about 20 feet deep.
Canoe Lake, Pine Lake, Little Caribou Lake
In the morning I hit the water fishing with the 8 year old and 11 year old. Not much action but we did hit a walleye on the east end of the lake, in the deeper water. Too much bother to keep so we released it. The boys had a couple strikes that they couldn't set or land.
After a breakfast of pancakes we packed up some backpacks and headed for a trip to Johnson Falls. This is a trip that you don't want to miss. We landed the canoes at the far west end of pine, right next to where the creek that the falls are on spill into the lake. From there its a pretty straight forward trail to the lower falls, with a brief mucky section. The trail is a bit less worn than a portage but easy to follow. Near the falls there are several branching trails that connect to the upper falls. Just keep the roaring water to your right and you won't have any problems.
The falls are a great place for a dip. You can slide under the lower falls from the east side and get quite a pummeling massage. And the upper falls can be fun as you try to get situated just right the foamy flow without your feet getting knocked off the submerged rocks and your body pushed downstream. Again, don't miss this side trip.
Before taking the Pine-Little Caribou portage we tried some mid day fishing on Pine and were skunked. It clouded over and lightly sprinkled so we cut the effort short.
Once back at camp it was time for another swim (of course) followed by some serious book reading and hammock lounging. The turtles finally finished their nest digging and egg laying and took off for less crowded areas of the shore.
Little Caribou, Pine Lake, Johnson Falls
The next day we packed up and headed for Clearwater Lake. Neither portage was terrible, except for the length of course, of the Caribou-Clearwater portage. Still not anywhere near as bad as Pine-Canoe.
We arrived on Clearwater to find a strong west-east wind blowing. The waves were probably about 1.5 feet crest to trough so not too bad, but for our group, which was not exactly what you would classify was veterans, it posed a challenge. We wound up taking the campsite second from east, after fighting the waves. The camp site is nice except a bit lacking for large tent spots. It's on a point of land and a little mismarked on the F-14 map (as is the easternmost camp site which is also on a point, to the west of where it is marked). The site has a very shallow approach to the south. Not canoe scratching shallow but you can wade for a long time. Clearwater also lives up to its name and is very gentle on your water filters.
We were camped in time for lunch and after finding a decent amount of firewood, we decided that this would be the night for reflector-oven pizza, which requires a surprising amount of fire wood when you're making eight pizzas! We generally start the process early and end late and this time was no exception. Given the configuration of this particular fire grate, I had to violate the no fires on top of the fire grate rule in order to keep the bottom of the pizza from burning.
Little Caribou, Caribou Lake, Clearwater Lake
Welcome to my worst day in the Boundary Waters.
It started off nice. The 11 year old and I set out to do some sunrise fishing on a near placid Clearwater Lake. On the north end of the island on the far eastern end of the lake, we found lots of bass action, and the boy wound up pulling about five fish out the lake. I got a couple too. All were caught and released. Nothing particularly large.
The weather was mostly sunny and warm, mid to upper 70's I'd guess. After some oatmeal and fruit we set out for the portage to Mountain Lake. On the portage we'd pick up the Border hiking trail to the west, with the intention of seeing some of the overlooks over Mountain, Clearwater, and Watap Lakes.
Everything was going splendidly, the first overlook over Mountain is very pretty. If you make the trip, be sure to walk all the way along the overlook, as some of the best views are a little bit west of the first good view. After a brief break there and some pictures, we headed for the overlook over Watap.
There are a couple of views of Clearwater along the trail, but no well-defined "here it is" unobstructed views. Still, nice. The border trail on this segment is pretty easy to follow, thinner and a bit more overgrown than any portage you're used to. There was one downed tree to walk around and another to shimmy under. But otherwise it's a nice, 2.5 to 3 mile walk in the woods.
We reached the Watap Lake overlook which is suitably impressive and I'd recommend the trip for any who might have interest and are in the area. We had a lunch of sausage and cheese accompanied by some very persistent flies and horseflies. As we packed up, three of our group of nine started back down the trail. As the other six of us got underway, a couple of minutes later, my 11 year old said he was going to catch up to the other three and headed off at a brisker pace. He would never reach them.
Two and a half to three miles later, as the five of us turned off the Border trail and headed down the portage to the landing at Clearwater, our other three group members met us with the question, "Where is John?".
You're going to have to use your imagination as to the feeling you get when your faced with the fact that no one knows where your 11 year old kid is and you're in a wilderness area. I can tell you that your mind starts moving in so many directions its hard, later, to recall what exactly you were feeling. But it is definitely all bad.
Once out of the initial shock, we sent one person to the other end of the portage, and one person down the trail segment to the east a little ways, to see if he'd gone that way. Neither one found him, and as we stood at the crossroads, it seemed mostly likely that he'd gone astray on the segment between the portage and the Watap overlook. It seemed hard to believe, at the time, that he never caught up to the first group over the 2.5 mile hike, nor did it seem likely that he'd neglect to turn right onto the portage trail, which is much wider and as clear as the day is long.
Still out of breath, I sent three people back down the trail segment to the west, with instructions for one to wait at the first overlook (Mountain Lake) and the other two to await me at another landmark (a pile of moose poop) further down the trail. Yelling all the way. The other four were to wait at the crossroads. We'd decided that if the first three didn't find him, I'd send two back to the crossroads and then one canoe would high-tail it to the west end of Clearwater (about a five mile paddle) and notify the Lodge. Meanwhile, I and the remaining one on the trail would walk all the way back to the Watap overlook and back. A this time it was about 2PM, judging by the sun position.
No one found him. And as I and my nephew were headed west to the Watap outlook, yelling all the way, the wife and some of the others were preparing to head for the Lodge. Fortunately for us, a motorboat was passing by (Clearwater is a 10hp limit lake) and my wife hitched a ride to the Lodge. This cut out at least a couple hours of paddling. The Lodge got a motorboat ready, and dropped one guy off at the Clearwater-Watap portage, and one guy off at the far east end of Clearwater, where the Border trail meets the water. At about the same time, my nephew and I were fruitlessly walking our way back from the Watap overlook, yelling away and searching for possible game trails or other offshoots where my son may have taken a wrong turn. I sent the nephew ahead so I could walk slower, with instructions to take the third canoe back to camp, pack some clothes, food, bug spray and flashlights and return, in case our search went into the night. Unbeknownst to me, there was now a Clearwater Lodge worker following me on the trail, about 20 minutes behind me. He'd picked up the trail off the Clearwater-Watap portage. The other Lodge worker, who had been dropped off at the east end of Clearwater where the Border trail meets the water, was walking that segment west toward the crossroads. But had the 11 year old not made a good decision, none of us would have found him.
As hard as it was to believe, the 11 year old had successfully walked the 2.5 mile segment, never catching up to the group of three who had left earlier than the rest of us. I suspect that after a while at a brisk pace, he decided to just slow down and walk alone. He can be a quiet kid and can be a bit of a loner at times, and this is totally in character. He's also a pretty smart kid, and level headed. He claims to never have been scared during the ordeal. Concerned perhaps, but not freaked out. His story goes like this. The big error was simply failing to turn right at the portage. Instead he kept right on going down the Border trail, onto the segment east of the crossroads. By that time, both the group ahead of him and behind were well out of sight and sound. And by the time we had sent a person up that trail, he had probably a 15-20 minute head start, and was out of earshot, despite the yelling.
He walked another two miles or so, until he reached the point where Clearwater Lake meets the Border trail. It was at that point that he realized something was amiss. He knew that this wasn't the lake landing he'd remembered, and he reasoned rightly that he had to turn around. This was the critical decision that lead to a happy ending. Had he continued on eastward, the Clearwater Lodge worker who was later dropped off here and hiked back west ward, would never have found him.
But fortunately, he decided to turn around. After walking about a mile back down the trail, however, he noticed he was really thirsty, so he turned around again and walked back to Clearwater. He waded out, took a drink, and then got back on the trail westward. After quite some time, probably a mile and a half, he stopped, again thirsty. As he stood considering whether to turn back to Clearwater Lake for another drink, up walked our hero from Clearwater Lodge from the east, who brought him some water and some food and brought him back to the crossroads and, eventually, the landing at the end of the portage.
As I turned off the Border trail and onto the portage, I felt pretty much spent - physically, mentally, and vocally. I don't think I want to rehash all the things that go through a parents mind on a five to six mile trail looking for your lost eleven year old. I yelled out the boys name one last time as I walked toward the lake and heard the wife yell back "He's HERE". It was then that I collapsed and lay on the trail, and lost it a bit. After a while, I made it down to the portage and had a nice hug.
After waiting for the second Lodge worker to make it to the portage, and thanking them repeatedly, they headed off. The three of us got in our canoe and headed back to the camp site, meeting the rest of our group on the way who were heading back with the aforementioned search supplies. We had a nice reunion and capped it off with a swim and some pasta and chicken.
You can call me an idiot and I'm not going to fight you. But I write this here as a cautionary tale. My sister said that some day we'll look back on the incident and smile. I am not so sure about that.....but I am pretty sure I can cut a few years off my estimates for necessary retirement funding.
We got up pretty early and hit the water as soon as we could break camp. With a 12 hour drive ahead of us, we wanted to be showered up and on the road as soon as we could. As seemingly was always the case on this trip, the wind was in our face, and it was a long 6 mile or so paddle on Clearwater. Some very nice palisades on Clearwater, and I'm glad we saw them from a canoe and not a motorboat.
The Lodge folks are great, and needless to say, we owe them a lot! I'd recommend them if you're interested in the east end.
If you are into putting a ton of miles behind you in a trip, or if you're into seeing as few people as possible, the east end of the BW probably isn't for you. But if you want to see some nice scenery this is a pretty good trip for you.