My First BWCA
June 24, 2010 I was up at 6:00 and ready to go, but nervous as a whore in church. Breakfast isn’t until 8:00 and then I meet with the outfitter at 8:30. I find myself pacing everywhere, not sure what to do or where to go. I met some people from OH (Columbus, I believe) who had spent a few days in the BWCA (the guys went out while the girls went shopping). I met four guys who were going the same direction as me. Three generations – father, two sons, and one grandson from White Bear Lake.
8:00 finally arrives. I think they’ll be happy to see me leave. Breakfast of coffee, scones, egg bake, and grapes.
8:30 met with the outfitter and he showed me everything that will be in the pack (My God, its huge), and we were on our way.
9:15, we arrived at EP 64 – East Bearskin Lake. Erik unloaded the canoe (a Wenonah Encounter) and pack, asked if I had any last questions, pointed east and said “Have a good time.” The guys from White Bear Lake were there too, unloading their van and loading their two canoes. They were giving me a hard time about not having enough stuff and that my canoe was far too light. I haven’t picked it up yet, so don’t know how heavy it is. They offered to give me some of their gear. I picked up the pack and immediately wished I’d exercised more – it feels like the weight of the world in there. I loaded it into the canoe, climbed in and my adventure begins. Weather is great, light breeze from the west helps.
By 10:30, I’d paddled across E Bearskin and found the portage. The guys from White Bear Lake arrived shortly after. We helped each other out and the first portage began. Jeff (the father) led the way with his Old Town canoe, and I followed with my pack and paddle. It didn’t get any lighter as we went, then, before I knew it, Alder Lake appeared before me. We walked back and met the rest of the party. I helped Jeff shoulder his pack and then grabbed my canoe. WOW – I could carry this with one hand. Up on my shoulders, and away I went. I’m still nervous, but I survived my first portage (48 rods). I loaded my canoe and moved out of the way so the White Bear gang could load.
I found the channel and got into Alder Lake. It’s incredible what the scenery is like. Bearskin was nice, surrounded by trees and all, but Alder is beautiful. No houses and the cliffs along the south shore are breathtaking, I almost changed plans to stay at Alder so I could see the sunset, but pressed on. I’m still a terrible paddler, but starting to catch on. I made my way across Alder and another short portage to Canoe Lake. This time I stopped to rest a little and take some pictures. It looks like the two nice sites are already taken. Oh well, I’ll take #3 on the east end. I pulled in at 1:30. By 3:00 I had the tent up, lunch eaten, and the pack scattered everywhere. So far so good (where is the latrine?).
6:45 and camp is cleaned up again. Supper was chicken breast and potatoes au gratin and a big brownie for desert. There was enough food for two. I only ate one breast and put the other in a zip-lock bag and back in the cooler. The campstove worked great (a Bruten I believe), but I definitely need help making a fire. I found some dry pine needles and twigs and the fire roared to life, but when I put the bigger branches (birch) on, it sputtered and started to die. After much blowing and cursing, I got the chicken breast cooked through. I went up the trail and bound a birch branch that had fallen and cut some larger branches for the next camper.
The weather could be a little warmer. There was a point around 4:00 where I could have taken my shirt off, but otherwise, a long sleeve shirt and jeans has felt pretty good. NO MOSQUITOES !! The worst pest so far has been one horsefly that just keeps hovering over my head. I put up a clothesline to dry my socks and shoes. That way I’ll have three pair of dry socks for the last three days. Weather forecast as of Wednesday night sounded wet for the weekend. I’m anxious about the portage tomorrow – 232 rods from Canoe Lake to Pine Lake. It looks like I drop 250 feet too.
The only sound of civilization was a float plane that went over around 4:00. The trees on the south side all just got that beautiful evening glow as the sun began its decline into evening. I noticed the one lone dead tree amongst all of the life to remind us that life doesn’t always go as planned, but to be remembered is a great thing. (Sorry – waxed poetic for a moment). Hey, a beaver just swam by – sorry, no picture, the camera was over by the tent. So, about the campsite – the fire grate is excellent – about 50’ from the lake. Shore is good, nice entry, but it drops off about 15’ out. Only one tent pad and it’s a little rough. I still can’t find the latrine. There’s a trail that goes up a long ways. I walked it to the end, but no latrine…Probably not the best site for my first day.
Night of 6-24 – spent the night uncomfortable and panicky. The ground was hard and uneven. The clothes sack was hard (next time, bring a pillow!!) and I worried about bears coming for my food and worried about the wind trapping me. By 2:00, I was planning to get up at 5:00, pack up and go home the way I came. To Hell with the canoe and pack - I’d grab my stuff and walk back to the lodge and drive home.
Friday 5:30 am – I must have fallen asleep sometime between 2 and now. I’ve got a much better attitude, but still want to get moving. I’ll continue on my original route, but maybe cut one day out.
Camp was packed by 6:00 and I was on the water by 6:15. I’ve already drank a liter of water – must remember to drink more during the day. I got to the portage by 6:30. 232 rods from Canoe to Pine and down 250’, if my math is right, that’s about 2/3 of a mile. I grabbed the canoe and away we go! Only stopped once. As I walked back for the pack, I was able to see the sights much better. There are two plank trails. One is a double wide and one is only single wide. Try doing a balancing act while carrying a 17’canoe or an 80# pack. I didn’t fall off of either one, so must be pretty level-headed. I made the entire portage non-stop with the pack, but felt like Quasimodo when I arrived at Pine Lake and definitely lost a little balance when I put the pack down. I didn’t get to see Johnson Falls – is there a trail to it? A short trip across Pine and up the canoe went again. While it only weighed 40#, I found it to be more tiring to carry than the pack. 80 rods to Little Caribou. Added to the other one, that made about a mile of walking (three miles actually if you count each trip across the portage).
Finally, I got to see what I was looking for. This was truly magnificent. It was about 9:00 and the mist was just coming off the lake. The water was smooth as glass and there wasn’t a soul around. As I paddled, I decided to skip this stop – if something went wrong with the weather, I didn’t want to lessen the exhilaration I felt. The campsite was open too. If I knew the weather would be good, I would have stopped and stayed here. I had a loon swimming about 30’ from me without a care in the world.
Another portage, only 25 rods this time, piece of cake. I got to Caribou Lake and got to see the results/aftermath of the blowdown. The entire east end was littered with dead trees. As I paddled, I was nearly speared twice by sunken trees just under the surface of the water. There’s a light breeze picking up out of the east now, and the occasional raindrop. By the time I got to the west end, the sky opened up and it was officially raining. I dug out my rain coat and pants – how do you put on rain pants in a canoe? I turned towards shore and found an open campsite (the farthest east one on the west end – in the bay). WOW – what a contrast to the one on Canoe Lake. It’s got lots of open area for tents, a big fire grate and log benches and a great spot for a rain fly. But I still can’t find the latrine. There are three trails heading out of this site. The third one goes off to the north – deep into the woods and uphill. At last, up a 10’ stair is “The Throne.” It really does give that impression. I had to take a picture of this one. The last camper left their toilet paper and I got the idea that if I had my canoe paddle in one hand, the TP in the other hand, I’d have an Orb and Scepter while I sat on my throne and gave counsel to the woodland creatures.
By 2:00, the rain had slowed and I was able to set up the tent. I found a great spot under two trees with a bed of old pine cones (the little ones) and needles. There were still no mosquitoes – well, okay, the occasional one or two. Finally stopped for dinner and while I was eating Pita bread and hard salami, a chipmunk came over to investigate. He couldn’t have been 5 feet from me. I’m definitely going to be sore tomorrow though. I’ve got another short paddle and then another long portage (210 rods) getting me onto Clearwater Lake and then back to Clearwater Lodge for a shower and the long drive home. I’m hoping for a better night.
How far did I carry? 48 rods E Bearskin to Alder; 22 rods Alder to Canoe; 232 rods Canoe to Pine; 80 rods Pine to Little Caribou; 25 rods Little Caribou to Caribou; 210 rods Caribou to Clearwater = 610 rods/320=1.89 miles.
Friday evening, tried to make a fire, but the wood was too wet and I didn’t really try very hard. Camp is picked up again and I’m ready to go home.
I’ve got a chipmunk here to see me again. He’s cruising all over camp – up one tree and down another. At first, I thought he was after my food pack, but I’m not so sure anymore.
7:00 and I’ve got a bullfrog in the tall grass behind me. Yes, this camp was definitely better. It would have been great if it weren’t for the rain. In some ways, it reminds me of home, a little clearing with some prairie grass growing, a few spruce trees, a couple of pines, birch, and trails through the grass. It could be a favorite deer hunting spot I like to go to. Then I hear the loon calling in the background and I’m here again. I will be glad to go home, but I will bring some fond (and some not so fond) memories back home. I don’t think solo is for me yet. I need a little more human contact until I get comfortable with the whole idea. I do plan to come back again – maybe with my brothers??
Saturday 5:00 am. Another long night. I find myself worrying about two things – bears and wind. But again, no bears and a gorgeous morning. It was cold though last night.
My last morning and I’ve got the camp down and packed by 5:30 (how do you pack the camp saw?). There’s some morning fog, but the water is smooth as glass. The paddling is beautiful. No sound except for the water dripping off the paddle. I’m not looking forward to my last portage though - 210 rods. The fog is a little thick every once in a while and I find myself staying close to shore. Sometimes I think I’m too much of a chicken. The last portage is in sight. The shore is pretty rocky, but I found a spot to pull into. I pulled the pack out of the canoe and there’s that darn saw poking at the side of the pack. I opened the pack and yanked the saw out and gave up a few pieces of my mind. I tied the saw to my belt (gotta love carabineer clips). I picked up the pack and set it on the shore. A pull from the water bottle and the canoe is on my shoulders for the last time. The portage is muddy, but not steep. The canoe is starting to get heavy though and the trail is pretty close sometimes. With no breeze, I can hear everything in the woods. I smelled something really musky and heard some rustling in the woods, but it was too small to be really concerned about, but it did get me wondering. Now, I’m starting to sing a bunch of old camp songs from my youth. There are a couple of spots where some hiking trails merge into the portage. The forest service has laid some white birch logs across the front of the hiking path to keep us tenderfeet on the right path. I stopped once to catch my breath. It’s funny, but I find it harder to carry a 40# canoe than an 80# pack. A little rise and a little fall and there ahead is Clearwater. The fog is almost gone. My last empty walk back to the pack and I’m noticing all the little nuances that will stay with me for a while. The tentworm webs are all wet with dew and glisten in the morning light. The birds are all singing and I realized that I never saw a single eagle. Back at Caribou and my pack is still waiting for me. It seems lighter this last time. I’m still singing though as I finish my last portage.
7:30 and I’ve got the canoe loaded for the last time. There’s just a little mist rising up off of the lake, but the water is as smooth as silk. I see why they call it Clearwater. I must be in 12 feet of water and I can see the bottom as if it were a pool. There’s a loon out in front of me and he must be a little curious. Every time he dives, he gets a little closer, until he was no more than ten feet from me. Front picture; profile; “I’m ready for my close-up Mr. DeMille” and the loon dives and swims under me. These are the things that make beautiful memories and already have me wanting to come back. I find that the closer I get to the lodge, the slower I paddle and the more pictures I’m taking. I’m tempted to just go the other way and paddle off into the wilderness, but reality is calling me home. While I love the moment, I know it’s time to go home. I pulled into Clearwater Lodge, took my shower, thanked the staff and headed for home. As I drove away, I knew that while my dreams and fantasies are in the BWCA, my life is waiting for me and I’m anxious to get back. But I know that I will be back – hopefully several times.