Homer – Brule – S. Temperance - Sept 2007
PREAMBLE: It’s a 16-hour drive to a BWCA put-in from our home in Indiana, so its not something we do casually, sad to say. We typically rotate vacations through a year of backpacking, then a year of whitewater paddling, and take a wilderness canoe trip every third year. So for a BWCA, Isle Royale, or Sylvania foray, we spend six months planning, buying new gear, tweaking what we take and what we do not. This year was no different…
When perusing topo maps my eye is typically drawn to the more obscure entry points, those with minimal descriptions and little detail on conditions, portages, and campsites. Homer Lake, slightly obscure, fit the bill with the long, narrow lakes connecting to popular Brule, nearby is the allure of the Temperance lakes, even more because of the nearness of Cherokee Lake as a possible goal. BONUS: The opportunity to traverse an area recovering from both the ’96 fire and the ’99 blow-down closed the deal.
Monday (Labor Day) kicked off with a great, sunny morning; we loaded up and headed west for the short portage into little Whack Lake, but ran into a full-fledged bog with no sign of a portage. After 60 minutes of sloshing around and searching, we turned SE to take the alternate route into Vern. We met an outgoing group that informed us the low water levels had made the boggy Whack Lake portage into an undesirable route. The short portages on this small channel into Vern Lake were well marked and easy to walk. We were able to save a few carries by walking up the rocky streambed.
As the narrow channel turned to the NW, the beauty of Vern Lake was clearly apparent. Eagles wheeled overhead, the new forest growth rebounding from the fire was maturing nicely, and the only signs of the fire were the many “toothpick” tree trunks towering over the landscape. Some were blackened and charred, some were snapped off halfway up, others were just stripped of leaves with limbs reaching for the sky as if mourning their death.
We shortly arrived at the north end of Vern Lake and headed up the 60-rod portage into Juno Lake. This is a surprisingly rough portage with difficult footing, somewhat steep inclines, and a twisting path. There were many signs of wildlife on the trail and the views of inland ponds and close-ups of the fire recovery made this an enjoyable, yet challenging hike.
Juno Lake was very similar to Vern, though with more bays, inlets, and narrow channels. Two-thirds of the way up the lake we stopped at the third campsite (#959) we’d passed so far for lunch. A large, very nice site sitting on its own bay, we enjoyed a sunny hour resting for the next leg of our trip. We were soon back on the water and easily found the almost level 65-rod portage into Brule Lake.
We set off from the portage and made the turn around Mock Jock Point with the intent of grabbing a campsite (of the 3-total) on the far west end of the lake. We made good time with little wind in our faces, but the sound of thunder (rumble!) in the distance hurried our strokes. The first site (#956) was on an island on a small channel in the center of the west end, -occupied! We paddled around a nearby island to check the next closest (#957) site, -occupied! (rumble-rumble!) We tried to spy out the last site located on the south shore of the lake with binoculars, but could not see it. We paddled across and began a search for the site (#955), finding it shortly, -unoccupied! The wife looks it over and says, “Its OK, but I’m not sure…” (RUMBLE-RUMBLE!) “Well, I guess it would be OK…” We had already discussed that the next closest sites were in South Temperance Lake; and had heard they were popular with fisherman (even in September); and we might not find anything; and it might rain really hard on us, something we did not fear but thought to avoid if possible.
The rain came and went, never getting severe, but being consistent enough to keep us under cover for the evening and, though it finally relented before morning, very gray skies met our morning breakfast along with a strong easterly breeze. We decided to wait out the weather, since we did not have to be anywhere at any special time. During this relaxing, though gray, cold, and windy day, we eventually decided to lay-over and set out for the Temperance lakes in the morning regardless of anything other then a thunder- or snow-storm.
The next morning was foggy, but warm and we loaded up as the haze lifted and headed for the short portage into South Temperance Lake. The portage was rocky but manageable and we set our boat into the small channel leading into the lake itself. It looked to be prime moose territory and there was physical evidence of their passing, but no current residents were on hand. As we wound through the small bays, the sunshine sparkled off the water and the white clouds skidded overhead, it was a perfect September BWCA day.
We checked the first campsite (#907) back in a bay on the east end of the lake, it was well-wooded and since it was early and the day quite warm, we opted to move on. The next site (#909) on the north side of the lake was on a point and very open to the SW, but had been devastated by strong winds and was surrounded by downed trees and very dry tinder, a fire hazard if we were not under the fire ban certainly. The next site (#910) in the NE corner of the lake was occupied and as we swung around to check out the western site (#908), we saw movement in that direction and realized a rain-fly was flapping in the breeze. We debated going on to North Temperance, but decided to look the previous site over again. We were seeing a lot of canoe traffic on this lake for a weekday in September we thought, and as we pulled up to the wind-blown site, two more boats hove into view around another point, loaded and clearly looking for a campsite. So we decided to stay put on this site (#909), in spite of the incredible devastation.
We spread all our belongings out on the rocks to allow the sun to wring the last of the previous day’s dampness from them. We made a decision to check out the long portage from the south end of S. Temperance Lake into Weird Lake that paralleled the lake’s Temperance River, hoping to see some wildlife. A fast paddle across the island-studded lake brought us to the portage, where we found two very nice portage packs sitting by the trail. Easily resisting the urge to hide the packs for amusement purposes (THOU SHALT NOT MESS WITH OTHERS’ GEAR! BWCA Commandment #7), we hiked down the trail while enjoying the gurgle of the river passing through the rocky course 10-20 yards feet to our left.
We met a young couple walking back up the trail, obviously there to retrieve the packs. They told us they had heard some splashing a ways up the trail, coming from the river and to be watchful for moose sign. We bushwhacked the short distance to the river-course and found large boulders lining the banks with ponds every so far. I turned to the wife and asked her to imagine this in the spring, bankful and bursting with snowmelt. This was a bad idea since she harbors thoughts of an ice-out trip in the years to come I do not fully encourage (brrrr!). She smiled with a clear intent and I quickly changed the subject of our conversation and we returned to the trail.
As we walked on down the portage, we met up with the young couple again and followed them to the end, the small lake before us was very inviting and I momentarily considered a day-trip to explore it. We headed back towards our end of the trail and saw many signs of previous fires and the blowdown. My wife even said this walk was one of my better ideas.
The wind had strengthened since we had paddled across, but by following the NW shore, we were able to take advantage of the wind’s push towards our campsite. We spent the rest of the day relaxing and watching other canoes darting about, fishing or just ‘messing-about-in-boats’. That night we got a great view of the northern night sky, stars wall-to-wall, but no ‘northern lights’.
The next day was a repeat of the previous day weather-wise, sunny and temp’s in the 60’s. We broke camp and paddled back to the portage into Brule, watching for wading moose the whole time, but no takers. As we broke out on to the main lake, the wife suggested we run down the north shore since we had already ‘seen’ the south shore. I agreed and we set our course accordingly. As we left the large islands of the west end, the lake loomed large before us and a light westerly breeze gave us a little help. We have paddled mostly rivers over the past 25 years and it did not surprise me when the wife said, “Sure is a big lake!” as we were well away from shore, headed for the eastern grouping of islands.
We made good time and after dodging around a few small islands, I set course for the first campsite (#942) I’d considered for our last overnight stay. As we approached the island, we could see a kayak pulled up on the beach, so we diverted to the neighboring site (#943) on the same island. We pulled up in a little bay and the wife hopped out and scouted the site. She came back, “Too woodsy > and its too close to the other site”. I smiled and said in a positive tone, “There are quite a few more sites here on the east end of Brule, lets find a good one!” Famous last words…
The next five sites we checked were taken and we could see several boats moving down from the north, possibly looking for sites. We headed east, towards Brule Bay, checking sites as we went. We were surprised that all were taken here in the second week of September. As we entered into the far east end of the bay, we saw three sites that were full. We were close to the last site (#968) and about to turn around, when a gentleman yelled at us, “There’s one more site up in the tip of the bay, it was empty this morning!” Thanking him for his advice, we paddled quickly to the tip of the bay, finding the well-wooded site (#927), with a narrow trail down the hill to a small landing.
“Looks pretty woodsy!” said the wife from her bow seat. “Last chance to camp today!” I replied. Agreeing, she hopped out of the boat and scrambled up the bank to look around. I got out and started unloading the boat, she returned and said “Its pretty!”, “For a woodsy site?” I asked. She smiled and helped me finish unloading. Our nice day was fading to gray as the clouds hurried in, followed by a stiff northwesterly breeze. We set up the tent and rain fly, made a late lunch and rested from our paddle across the full length of Brule Lake.
Getting restless waiting for the apparently impending rain, we decided to paddle to the portage to Vernon Lake, the last feature on the far right side of my map. There a noisy creek made its way southeasterly near the portage trail, we found a lightly used side-trail and hiked over to see why it was so noisy. It was a beautiful cascade of rocks and water, making its way down to Vernon Lake. We commented it was pretty low and some rain would make it more interesting. We made our way down the trail and came to Vernon Lake and the wife asked why we had not planned to visit this beautiful lake? I shook my head and said they were all beautiful and there were only so many days in a vacation, “Besides, my map stopped here,” I laughed. We were literally at the far right side of the map I had brought.
We paddled back to our campsite in a light rain and relaxed until we made a nice supper. The rain became more frequent and more intense as the sky became darker and darker with clouds, thunder, and night approaching. It was our last night in the BWCA, so we decided to stay up a bit later then usual.
The rain turned to a downpour and did not slack off, hour after hour. The water built up around the firepit, restrained by the logs stacked against the hillside. Soon the water began to run over the logs and the firepit became a small pond. The goat path to the latrine was a brook, ankle-deep. We decided to make a run for the tent the next time it slacked off, but we waited and waited. Finally, a brief lessening allowed us to run for the tent and we found some slightly damp sleeping bags inside and could hear water running around and under the tent. We finally fell to sleep as lightning flashed and thunder rolled…
A nearby crash of thunder brought me up suddenly from my sleep and I heard water pouring, not running, very nearby. I looked out the door and saw, in the flash of lightning, a rushing stream where the trail to the lake had been. I decided I needed to check on things, so I grabbed my Gore-Tex jacket and stepped out into the deluge. I saw something floating past and grabbed it, it was my wife’s lifejacket, so I headed ‘upstream’ to see what was happening. I found the entire hillside was running with water and I gathered up loose items and strapped them to several small trees (thank you NRS). I filled the backpacks with small items and strapped them to a log, the CCS rainfly had held up well to the intense rain and wind gusts so far, but we were still in the middle of a very significant rain and I was concerned.
I don’t know why it came to mind as I stood there in the rain, but I mulled over the unimportant question, “Will this downpour end the fire ban?” in my head for several minutes, for some reason, standing there getting a torrential soaking (it did).
Early the next day, as light broke into the bay, I crawled from the tent and looked at what was left from the night’s rainstorm. The trail down to the lake was still shin-deep in running water; the firepit was now a big pond and several nice ‘waterfalls’ were in sight around our camp and many more could be heard nearby. We looked into the bay and saw a stiff wind was blowing from the NNW, pushing waves even into our well-sheltered end of the bay.
The wife asked how much rain we had gotten, I replied “At least six inches, maybe more, the lake is up at least a foot from yesterday!”. She asked if we could pack up and leave, since everything was so wet or at least damp. I pointed to the swaying trees and suggested we wait and see if the wind would abate somewhat later. She was ready to leave, that was a surprise, but she does not like “damp” very well, and it was a bit cool too.
We settled in to wait a few hours, read and relaxed, but the wind persisted and possibly even grew stronger. Around noon, I commented how it might fall off later in the afternoon to which the wife said, “I am not staying another night in that damp sleeping bag”. I suggested we hang them up to dry, but to her that seemed to mean we were going to stay another night, something she did not want to do.
So we packed up and decided we would see how bad the lake looked, how big the waves were and how strong the wind was. I suspected it was bad, but I thought we might be able to sneak behind a few islands and zip across the open sections quickly to the Brule Lake landing. We are experienced whitewater paddlers, in a boat we knew well, and have paddled many times in all kinds of weather. We could do this!
Leaving the campsite at the tip of the inner bay, we were pushing west into a moderate crosswind, but it was manageable. As we broke into the outer bay, the wind seemed to double in power, coming at us in intermittent gusts. We turned more into the wind and managed to make it to the narrow channel between the bay and the lake. We rested for a while, then headed on through the channel, which widens out as you paddle west, opening on to an outer bay. Here the wind was more moderate and I quickly apologized to the wife for putting off heading out earlier in the morning, surprised at the manageable waves and wind.
As we progressed through this calmer water, I soon noticed considerable motion ahead on the water, with flecks of white. It suddenly dawned on me the land to the north of us had been giving us much more shelter from the waves and wind then I had expected and my apology might well have been premature. A small passage between the shore and a small island was funneling both the wind and waves and significantly increasing the velocity and power of both. Whitecaps were clearly moving across our bow, large and fast.
I warned the wife of the coming challenge and lined the boat up to do what I hoped would be a fast ferry across this column of waves. Then I hoped to lie in the lee of the small island to catch our breath, then turn and run with the waves towards the narrow gap between the shore and a large island to our south. This idea was good, until we actually were in the teeth of the gusting wind and the seemingly huge waves.
(NOTE: How big were those waves? When you are kneeling in a loaded boat, being blown about with each strong gust, and looking down into those dark, cold swells, they looked to be five feet high. Realistically, our Wenonah Spirit II has a 22” bow, we were not taking water there, but we were bouncing up and down and rolling left-right a good bit more then I was comfortable; It has a 19” stern, and even with my considerable bulk back there, we did not take water from behind; It is 14” deep and we were not sinking from water coming in on the side. That said, I suspect we were dealing with 18”-30” waves and good buoyancy.)
The waves and wind hammered us and we dug hard for what seemed an hour (probably ten minutes) to make it into the lee of the small island. We both agreed that was more waterpower then we expected to face outside of the Ocoee River. After a short respite, we ‘peeled out’ into the column of waves and enjoyed an exhilarating, fast ride towards what I hoped was the channel behind the large island. I say ‘hoped’ because the island and the shore visually melded into an indiscernible mass of trees. We edged the boat to the right of where I thought the channel was, to deal with some crossing waves reflecting off the islands rocky shore. Within a 100 yards of the shore, I saw what I thought was the opening and cranked the boat left to give us some clearance with the point and pick up some push from the cross waves.
We broke into the calmer water behind the point, we spun right and literally eddied-out, taking a short breather. We then cruised through the long channel behind the island and I stared at the map to plot our next course to the Brule Lake landing. As we came out from behind the island, we could see that a long and wild run was yet ahead of us. We hugged the sheltering island’s lee shore and then broke out into the waves and strong wind gusts yet again.
I caught a flash of color off to our right and noted two kayakers making their way towards the narrow opening to the bay in which the landing was situated. With the rolling of the boat, the gusting of the wind, I did not take much time to consider their progress or situation; I focused on keeping us upright.
The bay opening to the landing was easy to pick-out visually, there was a rocky point on the left and a tree-covered shore jutting out on the right. As I calculated our progress, which was quite rapid with the wind and waves pushing us, it was clear we were going to be blown left of the opening and face an impossible landing on a very rocky shore. I shouted to the wife to ‘crank it up’, knowing she was already doing her best, and asked her to widen her stoke into a sweep as we came down the rollers, hopefully nudging our course back right to make the bay.
She did quite well, about every third stroke she dug especially hard and gave us a good move to the right as I kept us upright while a wave overtook us every few seconds and tried to broach us sideways, due to our angle across the waves. We were within 100 feet of the shore and I felt there was still doubt, would we make the point or crash into the shore to its left?
Thankfully, we made it with about 15-feet to spare, less then a boat length and the wind blew us almost right up to the landing, where our kayaking comrades were pulling out and, strangely, an old aluminum canoe sat loaded for a trip out. We pulled onto the gravel and got out of the boat on wobbly legs.
The wife turned to me and asked, “Where we really in trouble there for a few minutes, or were you just yanking my chain?” I laughed and smiled, not sure what was the best answer. The male kayaker walked over and said, “Rough water, worst I’ve been on in a while.” His female partner asked if we would take a picture of them and I agreed, then they offered to do the same for us.
Winston Churchill once said there is nothing so exhilarating as being shot at without result, that often applies to surviving dangerous paddling experiences too. As I walked the two miles back to Homer Lake to get our car, I was able to ruminate on the trip just completed, the good and bad weather, the rain that would not end last night, and our challenging paddle out that did put us a bit at risk, at least for “a few minutes”.
I remembered a writer who once said that part of the allure of wilderness tripping is the giving up of the control of your life. No kitchen, no A/C, no car, no TV, just you and what you carry on your back, spiced thoroughly with the very small possibility of something unexpected happening, good or bad. Its part of what drives us to go, again and again, accepting the discomfort in trade for the experience, joy, and maybe a return to a simpler way of life, if just for a few days at a time.
When I got back to the takeout, the wife said, “Hey, that kayaker would have been glad to drive you over and drop you off. “ I smiled and told her the walk was something I had looked forward to, it was a mental transition back to the “real world” and a pleasant walk in the woods. The wife looked at me with an expression clearly reflecting the thinking that I was acting “mental” in some way, but she kept the details of that thought internalized.
I walked over to load the boat and noticed the two gray-haired, grizzled old timers were getting ready to push off in the battered old aluminum canoe, with a cooler, two large lawn chairs, and fishing gear thrown loosely in the bottom of the boat. “Be careful out there, its blowing pretty hard!” I offered. The stern-man turned as he pushed off with his scarred, old, wooden paddle, “Yea, old Brule can kick up waves as good as any place out here, you got to watch your nuts for sure!” he assured me.
Suspecting I was watching a couple of locals who really did know what they were doing, without Kevlar or micro-lite anything, I wished them a safe trip and good fishing. We loaded up our gear and headed south and listened to local radio as we went along. “In local news, after the record overnight rainfall, the fire ban has been lifted throughout the area.” the announcer declared. “Great, at least the next guy to put on will be able to enjoy his evening fire” I spoke out loud. The wife smiled and said, “I didn’t miss it near as much as I thought I would, but it would have been nice on that one cold, rainy day.” We talked as we drove towards Duluth, with thoughts of Jacuzzi tubs, cable TV, and soft beds in mind.
As we lay in bed that night in a nice motel in the depth of the Wisconsin woods on a beautiful deep blue lake, she turned to me and said, “Do you think we could stop at Rutabaga’s in Madison on our way home? We need a new cook set that weighs less and cleans up better. I think we also need a new thwart bag, the old one’s snaps are about shot. And maybe its time to start thinking “Kevlar” in a terms of a new boat for our next trip, didn’t I promise you a Kevlar boat after you turned 50? I think we need a new edition of the BWCA guidebook too…”
I agreed with a smile and told her there was a nice motel practically across the street from Rutabaga’s with a big hot tub, plus an Erehwon outdoor shop in the shopping center next door. She rolled over as did I and all I could think of was how blessed I was to have a wife who shared my loves and my passions, -all of them.