Boundary Waters, Trip Reports, BWCA, Stories

A Short Solo from Clearwater to Pine Lake
by ChadLeo

Trip Type: Paddling Canoe
Entry Date: 05/22/2009
Entry & Exit Point: Clearwater Lake (EP 62)
Number of Days: 4
Group Size: 1
Trip Introduction:
For over a year I had been eyeing the Caribou Lakes area off of the Gunflint Trail. This was my first Boundary Waters expedition on the east side and the scenery was stunning although even with an early start and months of planning, things didn't go exactly as planned...
I paddled east across calm water as the sun began rising into a cloudless sky. Ahead were the towering palisades of Clearwater Lake with a brilliantly pink sky overtaking the last deep blue of night just behind. I squinted into the sun paddling away to my portage into Caribou Lake and so began my second solo adventure into the Boundary Waters.

With a year into planning, I knew the portage into Caribou Lake could be a challenge. What I wasn’t prepared for was sinking knee deep in muddy sections of the 210 rod trail that were entirely under water. By the time I hauled my gear across, my patience was tested. The stunning beauty of Caribou Lake with its soft bluffy shores of pine and birch brought a smile to my face as I anxiously paddled my solo canoe hoping that one of the six campsites was open. Every site on the lake was occupied. I passed by four gentlemen at a site on the easterly stretch of the lake and they told me the only site on Little Caribou was also taken. Now I was forced to big waters in search of a place to camp, my very worst fear.

I had left Clearwater Lake with nothing more than a granola bar and some water for breakfast and by the time I reached the end of Caribou Lake I was spent. With the relentless sun doing its part to make things worse and my own mind frustrated and questioning my every decision, I pushed on. Soon I sat on the westerly shore of one of the prettiest lakes I have ever witnessed, Little Caribou. I ate some trail mix and a fruit bar at the end of the portage then quickly paddled across.

Pine Lake is a beast of water that sat 80 rods away. After portaging I hugged the north shore of Pine knowing that the nearest site was still two miles away. With a steady breeze working against me I cursed my misfortunes with my arms and back paying a heavy fee. Finally I came upon the first site from the west which sat unoccupied. The site itself and its view were quite unimpressive, but not wanting to venture further away from where I wanted to be, I made it home for two days and dropped on shore completely fatigued.

A very small island sat directly in front of me and housed the nest of two loons. These birds were a constant source of entertainment with their wild calls of eternity frequently echoing down the lengthy and steeply bluffed corridor of Pine Lake. I can only imagine a thousand years ago these same calls echoing across this great landscape barely changed by time, with its shorelines defined and waters both deep and shallow lapping against it in the ancient rhythm.

For two days I fished logical points within my area but had no luck. The abundant sunshine and swirling or sometimes nonexistent winds didn’t help matters. Due to the energy spent getting to my site, Pine Lake intimidated me and not wanting to venture too far away for fear of potential waves I stayed close to camp. The disappointment of changed plans slowly waned as the rhythm of nature took over. For hours I stared out across the rippled surface of the lake completely taken by the surroundings as birds provided a fine song above in the steep boreal shores that sometimes roared like a train when the winds whistled through. It was in this time that patience returned to me.

Taking a chance on finding an open site on Caribou Lake, on day three I packed camp and headed west. On the way I hiked back through the forest to Johnson Falls. It was glorious hike early in the morning with the dewy air scented in fresh pine. I made it to the falls in half an hour and found myself on the easterly side of the falls with an obstructed view, yet downstream a dead pine trunk spanned the creek 4' above the swiftly moving rapids. Knowing potentially there may not be another visitor for days, I went through the ‘what-ifs’ before sizing it up and crawling across the damp and sometimes mossy log. I scooted sideways, my base low with my camera box in one hand and a tripod precariously slung over the opposite shoulder. Once to the middle, the 14" diameter log bounced lightly with my weight above. It took deep breathing and concentration but I made it across with my shins on fire most of the way. I spent the next hour with the falls all mine.

When I returned to the canoe I felt revived. The day was beautiful with a few light clouds dancing slowly across the otherwise blue sky. I paddled along leisurely sometimes letting the winds push me where they would and soon found myself back on Caribou. With the holiday weekend coming to an end, I thought maybe some campers would leave a day early. My thoughts were correct and I was able to choose the best of three open sites. When I stepped foot on ground I stretched my arms high and and yelled to the heavens. It seems that patience and a little luck payed off.

The site had a stunning view to the southeast and a nice and flat canoe landing. I took advantage of the flat shore and walked out into the 50 degree waters. The dip was incredibly refreshing after the constant cycle of warm days and very cold nights. I was just setting up my solo tent when a white bearded ranger in a tan hat and dark sunglasses stopped by to check my permit. We talked for ten minutes and he explained that my campsite once had a rail line through it for logging operations. “But now the forest has reclaimed what was rightfully hers.” He laughed. I smiled back at him.

I tried fishing again but had no luck. The beautiful view I had on this gorgeous lake made me lucky enough I guess. When the sun went down I paddled out to the middle of the lake to fish, but spent most of my time just sitting there and listening. The winds had died completely now leaving me motionless on the water. I watched as the sun fell out of view lighting the sky nicely and when it got dark I paddled back in and set up a campfire. I sat and sipped bourbon with nature my only companion. Soon I fell asleep and woke to a new day.

I was up before the sun and had oatmeal and tea for breakfast before packing things. It was the cloudiest morning thus far but I was grateful. It seems the sun takes as much energy as it gives when paddling and portaging long distances. After bidding Caribou Lake farewell, I portaged back to Clearwater Lake and it appeared foot traffic and runoff put the portage in worst shape than it was before. When I reached Clearwater my boots were once again sodden in mud.

As I paddled back to my car I thought about the experience I had. I sacrificed half of my trip on waters I didn’t want to be on, and the energy expended getting there made me forfeit a day hike to a towering overlook towards Canada I had long been looking forward to. It seems that life often throws you off course no matter how much you plan ahead. These are the challenges that display what you’re made of I suppose. Do you give up or make the best of the situation until you can make things better? If you know where you want to go, put your head into the wind and go. It seems nothing is easy and with patience and faith in your actions you will get to where you need to be.

The large cold waters of Clearwater Lake began getting choppy and I looked over my shoulder to the palisades one more time thankful that I got an early start on the day. I struggled to keep a straight line with the waves pushing from the northwest but finally I landed on shore. After packing my car completely, I walked down the shoreline and sat for some time. It seems it was going to be a cool and windy day. My eyes searched around and saw no one. Before I turned my back to the lake I took in a few more deep breaths and remembered what the white bearded forest ranger said as he paddled away from my site and waved, ”Enjoy the Boundary Waters.” He said to me.