BWCA Entry Point, Route, and Trip Report Blog
February 18 2020
Number of Permits per Day: 1
Elevation: 1274 feet
Snake River - 84
Isolation on Clearwater Lake
August 18, 2009
Number of Days:
Yesterday, we’d left the kids with Grandma and Grandpa, posed for them in front of the Ely webcam, and went to bed early after supper at the Ely Steakhouse. Today, we got up at 4:30, and were happy to be up so early: it’s put-in day! We left the outfitter by 5:05 and went to Britton’s Café for a hearty breakfast of vegetable stuffed hash browns. Delicious, and very filling; a good start to a busy day. Our plan was to get to Bald Eagle and then see how we felt. If we felt energetic, we’d head off for Clearwater Lake, for a lovely campsite we’d heard about and for some solitude; it’s in a less-visited area, off the beaten path from Gabbro and Bald Eagle. I’ve never been anywhere where I knew there weren’t other people at least nearby, so I was excited for this experience. Just us, alone, in the wilderness. Oh yeah.
We drove to the entry point, #84, Snake River. Not far from Ely, speeding along Hwy 1, we smacked into a bird. Thump! it went on the windshield. Uh oh….poor birdie. We hope this is not an omen for the trip, but we’re still so excited that we soon forgot about the poor bird’s plight.
We had some trouble getting to the EP by following the route on our Fisher map; the forest road is not marked with the proper number. We had to turn around at one point but made it there eventually (note for the future: ask the outfitter for directions instead). The morning was overcast with solid gray clouds, and barely 60 degrees, but it didn’t put a damper on our excitement to get going. Even the threat of rain anytime was brushed off. We shrugged into our packs and headed off on the portage to the put-in with our first load. The portage is wide and easy, with a gravelly path, and slopes gently downhill from the parking lot. This goes on for quite a while, crossing over one footbridge and then later another, bigger one. The trail degrades near the end, and becomes a typical BWCA portage trail: roots, rocks, and mud. But for the most part, the trail is very easy, though long (an estimated 270 rods, longer than it’s listed on all the maps).
We made our second haul over the portage, and finally…finally…we were dipping our paddles into the water. We surprised a big painted turtle, who quickly swam off away from us underwater. The Snake River here is very narrow, and sometimes it seems like there’s hardly any room to go straight, much less make the turns. And turn it does, many times. It’s aptly named. We made friends with the brush on either side of the river; even with John’s deft steering, there were times where getting up close and personal with the foliage could not be avoided.
It wasn’t long before we were at the first real portage of the day. It’s on the east bank of the river, not the west, as indicated on the McKenzie, Fisher, and Voyageur maps. Also, there are three portages, not two. The maps here are completely wrong. Trust your BWCA.com friends, not the maps. ;-)
The portage was short and rocky and we were soon on our way again. A few more bends in the river, another portage. This one was longer than the first, and would be longer than the third. Rocky. But still an easy haul. The third portage came up not much later, and was easily tackled. Directly after putting back in from the third portage, we saw a grassy and muddy bank on the west side of the river. A portage? We weren’t sure. Seems like we thought there were only supposed to be three of them. We back paddled to stay in place and pondered our options. I was just about to get out of the canoe and scout it out, when two men suddenly appeared from the depths of the forest. Low and behold, it was GrampaMike and his paddling partner. He said they were leaving a day early, as the winds on Bald Eagle had foiled their fishing plans. We asked about the portage, and the partner told us it was only a path to a “stinky pond.” We declined to get out, and thanked GrampaMike and his friend for saving us from a portage to nowhere. Oh, excuse me…from a portage to a stinky pond.
Around the next bend, the Snake River opens up and the sides become lined with weeds and grasses with a narrow channel down the center. It winds and twists its way toward the Isabella River. Bend after bend we followed the river, enjoying the sunshine when it decided to peek from behind a cloud; the clouds were starting to break up, pushed along by constant winds of 10-15 mph. At times, the river is choked with weeds and one must push the paddle on through. It wasn’t too long before we reached the Isabella, and paddled there for a short while…we’d reached Bald Eagle Lake. BE is a large lake, and the winds were having a field day. There were some white caps on the waves, and there were some rollers going. We decided we wouldn’t be heading all across the lake to the portage into Turtle Lake today; we’d just paddle as far as we had to for a campsite. We disagreed on which shore to canoe along; in the end, I deferred to John’s superior paddling experience. It ended up being the wrong choice; he claims the wind shifted after we got out onto BE proper. I think he was just mistaken. ;-) No matter; we didn’t swamp the canoe or get pushed against boulders, though it was some work on our part to avoid these things. We had to paddle our little hearts out. Thank goodness I can paddle fast when needed, if it doesn’t last too long, and John is a consistently strong paddler. He is really a pleasure to canoe with, at least when the winds aren’t blowing so strongly. That is never very fun, no matter the partner. I didn’t like this stretch of paddling one bit, and was getting pretty tired, but the third campsite up on the east shore was open and we claimed it as ours for the night.
First, we ate lunch. We were pretty darn hungry after the morning’s work, though I must say those hashbrowns lasted a good long time. I wish I had some more right now. Anyway, for lunch we had a no-cook freezer bag cooking meal, “Southwestern Chicken and Corn Wraps.” These are delicious! And so easy to make after it’s prepared at home: just add some cold water and let it sit for 10 minutes or so. Drain off extra water, add ranch dressing, spoon onto tortilla, add salsa, and chow down. We really liked this one.
The campsite was obviously well-used, slightly abused, but adequate with a nice fire grate area. The cooking/tarp area had a really nice rock for a table, and there were decent tent pads. After setting up camp, I gave into being tired and took a nap. For two and a half hours. John kept himself busy around camp, perfecting his tarp, the bear-bag hanging system, and pumping water.
I was very refreshed when I woke up, and set about cooking dinner. We discovered our steak still mostly frozen, so we put it in a pan of lake water to speed its thawing. I gathered the rest of the meal, which was two freezer bag cooking dishes: “Buttery Trail Carrots” and “Veggie & Bacon Salad.” We cooked our steak, re-hydrated our sides, and had a fabulous feast. The Veggie & Bacon Salad is particularly good; I would eat it again right now. Yum. For dessert, we had “Piggy Pudding.” This one isn’t so good. At least, we didn’t think so; neither of us cared for the taste of the powdered milk in it. We sat around our fire for a while and enjoyed the lovely evening. The winds had abated, and Bald Eagle was calm again. Peaceful. Serene. We knew there were other people on the lake, but couldn’t hear or see anyone. I would have stayed up later, but John, who hadn’t napped, wanted to go to bed. I didn’t want to sit up by myself. I thought I wouldn’t be able to sleep, but once settled in, I nodded right off, listening to the slight breeze drifting through the cedars.
In the night I had a bit of a nightmare. A bear was getting into our things, digging around right in the vestibule of our tent. Then he ransacked our hanging bag. I kept trying to wake John up to tell him, but couldn’t seem to. Then the darkness of the dream lifted, and the bear started talking to us. He was like kanoes, only in bear form. This board is even invading my dreams![paragraph break] Photos: Ely webcam, at EP84 before departure, landing at camp, fire grate area, tarp/cooking area, steak dinner, view from camp[paragraph break]
Reviews of this portage are mixed. One report calls it the toughest one in the BW. I doubt this, but still, I’ve never done a remotely tough portage so I was leery of how it would go. The landing is easy, but the ease ends there. Up, up, up the rocky trail it goes, then levels out in a flat muddy place. It goes up some more, though more gently, and at the Clearwater end it goes down in a steep and rocky way to a difficult put-in spot. I won’t lie and say the portage was easy; I was really tired at the end. But, I did it, and I did my two loads without any help from John. On the return trip to get the second load, we enjoyed stopping to see a big crevice in the rock with water at the bottom. We thought it looked like something Bear Grylls would climb down, perhaps to find another route to the put-in on Turtle. This was further reinforced later when visiting the campsite at the Turtle end of the portage; someone there had made a homemade shelter…Bear Grylls was definitely here.
We were having trouble getting going at the put-in, and I remembered that there’s an easier put-in at the neighboring campsite. He was able to get off all right alone (we could only get half the canoe free of rocks at a time, apparently), and I went over to the campsite to hop in over there. That worked well, though it probably would have been better just to go there in the first place.
The sky was clouding up more and more as time went on; we knew it was going to rain sometime in the near future. So we paddled right across Turtle, not stopping to try to catch a pike or two. I felt an urgency to get to Clearwater and set up camp. One side of Turtle is nicely forested, and the other is in a re-growth stage from a 2006 fire. We paddled reverently by a former island campsite, rated a 5-star site by someone on this board. Through the charred trees that stand watch over the re-growth below, I could see the site’s former glory; it was a little sad to see it gone. As for the rest of the burned forest, mostly what I saw was the chance for a delicious blueberry crop.
We weren’t disappointed in the blueberries. On the Turtle – Clearwater portage, blueberries (and a few raspberries!) abound. On our empty trip between loads, we stopped to enjoy a few handfuls of the delicious berries, even though the rain was still looming. There were also some on the BE – Turtle portage, but not nearly as many.
The portage to Clearwater is pretty long, over 200 rods, and very, very rocky with a few muddy places thrown in. But, mercifully, it’s relatively flat. We met a couple young men along the trail; they were coming from Clearwater, where they’d stayed at the first campsite from the portage and enjoyed its small sand beach. We wished one another good trips and passed on by.
On Clearwater, we headed straight for the campsite we had in mind: the second one from the portage. This site was recommended by spottedowl, and we were eager to get there to set up our site, as we could tell the rain was imminent. And sure enough, no sooner did we land than the rain started falling. We put up a tarp and put our gear under, and made lunch. This time, it was “Potato and Bacon Chowder” and more “Veggie & Bacon Salad.” John liked the chowder very much but I thought it was so-so. The salad was, again, awesome.
After lunch, we finished setting up camp (doing the fastest set up of our tent ever, because it was still raining steadily). There are several tent pads on this site, the two best being one in a circular grassy clearing behind a rotting log, and another nearby, almost right on the lake, on a tiny bay on the side of the campsite. We liked the look of the lake one a little better than the grassy one, based on beauty, I suppose, but we decided the grassy one was the better choice given the current weather conditions. By this time, I was starting to realize that my rain gear was crap. I was getting decidedly damp. I was wearing every stitch of my clothes, except for what I planned to sleep in and an extra t-shirt, and I was not that warm (this is 6 layers: wool t-shirt, quick dry long sleeve shirt, fleece jacket, fleece pullover, poly sweatshirt, and rain jacket, with rain pants and quick dry pants on the bottom). I hoped I wouldn’t have to resort to getting into my sleeping bag just to stay warm, and started to be paranoid about my clothes getting all wet. Mostly I had quick dry and water repellent items, but if my rain gear became completely useless...
(Meanwhile, John was sitting in the lake on a rock pumping water, wearing his zip-offs and a t-shirt. He took off the drenched t-shirt when he came back and put on a fleece jacket and his rain jacket, but left the pants alone. I would have been hypothermic if we had changed places. We have vastly different temperature tolerances.)
Our tarp wasn’t faring too well in the wind. We decided it would last until bedtime, but then it would have to come down for overnight; we’d take it down and wrap it around our gear to try to keep it dry. The food pack was just going in the bushes by shore; John wasn’t happy with the bear trees and it seemed like the bad weather would continue all night, and we told ourselves no bear would be out, anyway (don’t know if that’s true, but it worked for us at the time). We made supper; another freezer bag meal, “Cheesy Hamburger Wraps.” Very good! Definitely a keeper. Chocolate bar for dessert. We drank hot drinks. We wrapped up our gear in our tarp, and scuffled off to bed, at only 8 pm. It was still raining. I was pretty soaked through my rain gear and the top layer. My sleeping bag never sounded so good! We both fell asleep pretty quickly.
Three hours later, we were awake again. The rain had stopped, but the winds were positively howling through the trees. It didn’t seem like it was getting down to us very much, or our tent is very good in the wind (likely this was part of it; it’s very small and short). The winds were swirling and shrieking; they and the dark seemed to press down on us. I thought I should be able to hear the water from the lake, the waves on the shore, but the sound of the wind drowned out all other sounds. I knew we were the only people on the whole lake, and the young guys we passed on the portage were going to Bald Eagle; likely no one was on Turtle, either, especially since there is only one halfway decent campsite on the lake (the others burned). There was probably no one on Pietro to our south; the campsites there are all burned from the fire, too. The people were over on Bald Eagle, two hard portages away. In the way of the night, paranoia started creeping in and I started to wonder why the hell I’d come this far away, why I’d left my girls so far behind me…how could I have left them to come here and risk myself like this? What if something happened to John? What would I do? Because I had to admit that I was quite a bit dependent on him. What if I had to go for help by myself? We did have a satellite phone; on Bald Eagle I could not get it to work. On Clearwater, it did work…and there were no messages from my mom. No news was good news on that front. But would it work if I really needed it to? What if a tree crashed on us and it broke? What if, what if, what if... Extreme darkness and winds do not a restful night nor a calm mind make. I began to feel very vulnerable.
In the midst of this, John declared that he had to go to the latrine. Of all the times! He ran out, did his business, checked that our food pack was still okay, and reported that the lake was full of whitecaps. I was just glad he was back in the tent, safe and sound. At least, as safe as we possibly could be in the tent in the storm.
Somehow I managed to get back to sleep. It was a fitful sleep while the winds still howled, but as they let up I slept better. [paragraph break] Photos: A misty morning on Bald Eagle, Gear along the portage trail (Turtle - Clearwater), the BE - Turtle portage, burned Turtle Lake campsite, burn area along the Turtle - Clearwater portage.
Later in the afternoon, quite a while after lunch, my rain gear was just damp, not wet. So we went out in the canoe to try our luck fishing (fishing from shore was futile) and we wanted to check out the campsite next to us. This would be the third campsite in from the portage to Turtle. It had one so-so tent pad (kind of rocky) and a decent fire area, nice view of the lake, but more exposed than our site. We were glad to be camped where we were. It started raining in earnest and we went back to our campsite, with my rain gear once again soaked through and useless. We made supper and went to bed by 8pm. A rather depressing day, all around. The only bright spots were when we watched a merganser family paddling around, listened to the call of the loons, and saw the loon family: mama, papa, and two mid-sized babies.[paragraph break] Pictures: our tarp area, fire grate area, tent pad, island view, grass growing in crack on rock in lake, the clear water of Clearwater, the loon family[paragraph break]
We had breakfast and packed up and paddled over to the portage to Turtle. The weather wa still poor, but improving. Then, just as we were starting the Clearwater – Turtle portage, the sun popped out from behind a cloud, almost like a sign that we were doing the right thing. I felt like I shouldn’t have gone that far in; it left us a bit vulnerable and also left us very far from our children; should we have been called to go back to them (for some terrible happening), it would have been a very difficult journey; more difficult than it would have had to be. We decided that the next time we go back, they are coming with us.
We tried fishing on Turtle, but were stymied by the winds and frustrated by weeds. We went to the campsite by the portage to take out, and decided to have an early lunch of PB&J tortillas. While getting out the lunch supplies, I realized it was our 16th anniversary that day, and so I got out John’s present that I had been hiding all this time. I had had our older daughter count out in-the-shell peanuts, 16 of them, for me to give him to enjoy by the campfire. He loves eating peanuts by the campfire. So I gave them to him, and told him to count them. There were only 14. I insisted that he count again, and still, 14. “Well,” I said, “math isn’t really her best subject.” We laughed about that, and then he said, “Is this all our marriage amounts to after 16 years….peanuts?” More laughter… “Yes, and only 14…” We found this hysterically funny, and while laughing our butts off, out of the woods right in front of us comes two kids and a dog. Scared the pants off us! The first people we’ve seen in two days, and they just appear out of the woods like that! The girls were about 7 & 10 years old and their parents weren’t too far behind. They were all traveling in one canoe. The dad said, “Yeah, we sit pretty low in the water.” No kidding! He was gung-ho to go off into where no one else has roamed, and even talked about a portage from Clearwater toward the Lake One area that isn’t on any of my three maps. I hope his family didn’t mutiny. We showed them which site to stay at on Clearwater, so at least they had a nice site that night.
After lunch, we tackled the portage to Bald Eagle and found it easier than the first time. No doubt due to it being more downhill this time than uphill (we had also found the Clearwater – Turtle portage easier, too). Bald Eagle Lake was again besieged by winds. We went down the eastern shore of the lake, the leeward side, and went to a great campsite with a walk-to island. It’s a gigantic site. Not really great to cook at (no good surfaces, really) but a lovely respite from the winds, many choices for tent pads, and two different views of the lake. We decided where we’d put our tent and hung a bunch of clothes lines to dry out. I tried making my own clothespins, as someone here suggested, but didn’t have much luck. They kept splitting in two. We’ll bring a few real ones next time, for the smaller things.
We discovered our lunch hadn’t lasted long and we were still hungry. We made “Chinese Take Out” which we liked a great deal. After that, we went to the walk-to island to fish. John found a likely site and started fishing as I was catching up. On his second cast…fish on! It was a small pike, but we decided he was just the right size for the two of us to eat. He fished a little more and quickly caught another pike, but he got loose as we were trying to get a grip on him and so he got away. I hope he is okay because he got banged up on the rocks a little. We stopped fishing because we didn’t want any more fish to get banged up unnecessarily, because we probably couldn’t eat any more than we already had. On the walk back to the camp, we saw a pile of bones on a rock along the shore of the island. Bigger bones, from a mammal. Very weird! The rocks along the shore are black and very jumbled upon one another, and the going was slow and wobbly. But our fish was worth the effort.
We finally put up our tent as it was now dry, and messed around in camp a bit, then fried up the fish. He was delicious. I let John have most of it, since it was his catch, plus I had pizza to make. After the ease of the freezer bag meals, making the pizza was a serious pain in the rear. Plus I had extra ingredients when it was all over, which annoyed me. We had very little trash or extra up until that point.
We had a fire, but it was again kind of lame…that’s what two days of rain will do, I suppose. We stayed up until full dark so that we could enjoy the stars… amazing. Our necks started to ache and from all the craning and so we went to bed.[paragraph break] Pictures: Camp, bones on lakeshore, sunset, Chinese take out meal, frying the fish, pizza[paragraph break]
We went back to Ely, showered, and had a marvelous, though late, lunch at the Boathouse Brewery. Then it was on the road back to Minneapolis…and back to our babies. 2009 trip: complete.
There is one other thing that I was fantasizing about getting from this trip, and that was some sort of mental healing. Our older daughter has had a lot of medical problems in her life, starting with her early birth (she only weighed 2 ½ pounds) and it still continues today, though at a much less stressful level. She has at 10 surgeries, and may need more in the future; we have to wait and see. Sometimes it’s been a really long 10 years. We haven’t been back to the BWCA since 1998, the year before she was born; it was just too hard for a long time. We couldn’t leave her, and we didn’t feel she could go. One year, when she was five or six, we considered going and taking her along, but it didn’t work out. Since then other things have come up, and in the past few years it’s been no time off because we’d used it all on her surgeries, or because of me being pregnant or having a tiny baby. I had problems with low blood pressure during the pregnancy and a physical trip like that would have been out of the question, plus there was no time off, anyway, since surgery #8 happened early in the pregnancy. This year was the first year we really felt that we could go. So I’ve been waiting and waiting for this, and wanting nature to somehow soothe part of me that’s had a hard time with all of this. Fix me somehow. But I realized while portaging from Turtle to Bald Eagle that I don’t need to be fixed. I’ve just changed into something else, and that is okay. Like the giant rock that broke apart to form the chasm along the Bald Eagle – Turtle portage… what was once whole has broken, but it’s just been made into something else. And maybe it’s been made into something even better.
I asked John, “Which of the things we’ve made did you like the best?” I was referring to the freezer bag meals, but his reply really said it all: “Our girls.”
Pictures: The Isabella River, near where it meets Bald Eagle Lake, the Snake River at one of the portages, the Snake River near where it meets the Isabella River, a bird of prey (anyone know what kind?), at the EP after our trip, at the Boathouse Brewery in Ely post-trip.[paragraph break]
An aside...I had all three brands of maps. I like the new Voyageur maps the best, then the McKenzie, and then Fisher.