Boundary Waters, Trip Reports, BWCA, Stories

1st Solo
by djw22

Trip Type: Paddling Canoe
Entry Date: 06/29/2017
Entry & Exit Point: Homer Lake (EP 40)
Number of Days: 4
Group Size: 1
Trip Introduction:
I had left open the possibility that one of my two adult sons might go with me on this trip. However, both of them started new jobs in May and that just wasn't going to happen. I had always wanted to try a solo trip, but the fear of being alone and dealing with tough portages swayed me instead to head to Leech Lake with my boat, where we have a comfortable trailer.
I left for the lake with my boat in tow right after taking my wife out for breakfast on her birthday. Not the best plan leaving on your wife’s birthday, but it was the only way to get to the BWCA on Thursday without driving all the way through or paddling in the dark. The idea here was that I was going to drop off the boat, spend the night at Leech, then go onto Tofte early the next morning. Everything went according to plan, leisurely heading north on Highway 69 out of Iowa. I briefly considered getting on I 35, but decided to take the scenic route. A couple hours later I found myself looking for a way to get out of southern Minnesota after finding Highway 22 to Mapleton was closed. I ended up southwest of tiny Good Thunder on two miles of the dustiest gravel road in Minnesota. So much for cleaning the inside of the boat, and that leisurely scenic drive seemed to be going downhill in a hurry. However, not taking I 35 turned out to be a blessing. 35 miles south of Brainerd on 371, I was losing one of my trailer tires to a sidewall failure. I had earlier passed and snickered at a guy driving 42 mph on his little donut, then laughed at myself when he passed me going in to Baxter. I limped into the Fleet Farm parking lot, bought a tire on a rim, changed it out, and I got to Leech at 9:30 pm. My son showed up an hour later. He had an interview with the Minnesota DNR Forestry supervisors in Grand Rapids the next day.

Wednesday morning I woke up and not in too much of a rush I headed to the North Shore in a light rain. I took 200 east Grand Rapids and 169 northeast to Hibbing and cut through the forest on 37, 16 and 11 and 5, coming into Tofte from the north just after 2 pm. At 230 I was signing my permit, and thinking of my son just starting his interview. I hung around Tofte a little, bought a head net at the outfitters, then headed for Highway 4 toward the Crescent Lake Campground, where I planned to sleep in my truck before going in at Homer early Thursday. On the way I made one last call home at the top of a hill, and marveled at the beautiful lupines in bloom all along the roads. I checked out the campground, the Homer Lake and the Brule Lake entry “ramps”. I decided to reorganize my canoe pack along a pull off on the side of the road, but the drizzle and a hoard of mosquitoes that attacked my bare legs and feet drove me into the Silverado. With seats up, I crouched for and hour and a half killing blood suckers and repacking parts of the pack. That job completed, I found that the $11 I had wouldn’t cut it at the $18 a night Crescent Lake Campground. I headed back into Tofte in a strengthening rain from the east.

An hour later after a pint of milk and a Holiday breakfast sandwich for supper, a decision had to be made. Head back to Crescent Lake, the original plan, or stay in Tofte? I opted for the latter, and contemplated several places to lay low and sleep in my truck. One of those was the Tofte Ranger Station, but I feared I would stick out parked there, and get a visit from the local sheriff. I settled on a place where one can pull in and park, recline into the passenger seat, and melt right in and be totally unnoticed and unbothered- the parking lot at the AmericInn Motel. By the time I closed my eyes, puffed my camp pillow against the car seat, and pulled my towel over my bare legs, the northeasterly gale was driving a stinging rain. The hurricane continued all night under the lights of the parking lot, and I’ll bet Tofte received 4 inches of rain. At 7 am I was up, heaved over into the driver’s seat and headed out of town. What amazed me on this part of the trip were the waterfalls created by the water racing down the hill and over the rocks into the ditch along the road. I’ll bet there were more than a hundred of these beautiful ten foot cascades splashing over the rocks.

I got to Homer Lake about 8 am, and immediately set out my Wenonah Fusion, my now repacked canoe pack, and my smaller food pack. In addition to my kayak paddle, I brought along a traditional wooden paddle, a decision made after reading that a lost or broken paddle could ruin a trip. I wasn’t keen to add that extra loose item. I had my camera and spinning rod loose in the canoe too. With no one around, I put on my PFD and shoved off into a light mist, the gale from the night before subsided. New to me was the sluggishness of the Fusion, especially in the read end, due simply to the 50 pounds of canoe pack behind me. About 13 pounds of food pack were in the bow. Homer is a beautiful lake, and I enjoyed it on my slow paddle west. What I found surprising was that the weak north wind was working on the heavier stern of the canoe more than the bow, forcing the stern southward, and the bow northward. I pretty much spent an hour paddling on the right side of the canoe to keep the bow pointed west/southwest. I made a little stop to reposition my packs and that helped a little. Beautiful islands and trees. After one wrong bay, I found the entry bay into the Vern/East Pipe waterway. This is beautiful, dark water with a southbound current that pulled me into the shortest portage I’ve ever been on. When I was here I expected to see a moose at every turn, so I was quiet entering and leaving the portages. This first portage is 40 steps. It was short, easy, and wet. In fact all three portages I was on were always running water because of the night’s heavy rain. As I reentered at the end of this mini portage, along paddled a gentleman- more chronologically gifted than me- with a great gray beard, wearing a Bug Shirt, paddling a kevlar 15 footer with a Werner paddle, with one light pack. He was a pro, and I wondered what he thought of me with a Walmart jacket sprayed with silicon, a 45 pound Fusion, 2 paddles and 50 pound pack. But what a nice guy. He told me he’d laid out some dry wood for the next camper at the southwest campsite on Pipe Lake, and that it was a nice little site. He told me about the portages into East Pipe and Pipe. I would have liked to stay and talked with him more, but we both had places to go.

I pressed on through the high, lichen draped rocks addressing the water, heading south toward East Pipe. Here, one passes through a small lake that links Vern on the west to East Pipe on the south, and Homer to the north through the aforementioned mini portage. At this next portage, the water pours northward this time, lightly dammed by beavers. Obviously, Homer on the north and East Pipe to the south both pour their water into this pretty, lily and lotus choked link, and it must in turn flow west into Vern Lake. This portage was 140 steps, still a walk in water, but this time with a good steep climb to start. It levels out for a second or two, then falls with the same intensity toward East Pipe. Here are more strong, dark walls of gray rock on the east side to paddle against before coming into the the corner of East Pipe. East is a pretty little lake I wished I had more time and energy to explore. It has some neat looking islands. You aren’t on East for long before you arrive at the west side and hear the water pouring out of Pipe Lake. I stayed to the right here just like I was instructed. I pulled my canoe into a little garage formed by the canopy that could only be the entry to the shortest and most interesting portage I’ve ever seen. There is so much water coming out of Pipe Lake- maybe 7 feet higher than East because of the beaver activity and the heavy rain- that water has diverted down the rocky little portage a few yards to the north of the beaver dam. The portage is only 30 feet long, but falls about 6 feet in that short span, and is now a mini stream. I unloaded and walked right up the new stream. My friend told me I had to climb a beaver dam and I pictured it made of loose sticks with trecherous footing and deep water. This beaver dam was 3 inches of fast water racing down the rocks. One thing I haven’t mentioned- there were almost no mosquitoes. Cool temps and the mist had them thwarted. A gorgeous iris versicolor met me at the end of this portage, but by the time I left a few days later it had been trampled by other paddlers as well as myself.

On Pipe I was met by a gray fog and calm waters. Pipe has been raised so much by beaver activity that many trees along the shore have died and dried. Quite a few have been tipped by strong winds so that their root balls, embedded with granite nuggets, have been pulled out of the water. At first I thought I was seeing a solitary moose standing still and dark against the emerald of the forest, but it was these black masses of soil tipped from the shore. There are dozens of these around the lake, mostly on the north shore. The pine and spruce south shore rises 300 feet from the water and looks imposing. I’ve never been this far east in the BWCA, and was used to seeing the flatter topography at the Snake River entry point. I checked out the site that my acquaintance had suggested, but did not like how far the tent pad was from the fire grate and the shore. I found that the northwest site fit my wants, and I set up camp after a quick video. It sits on the east side of the northwest corner bay of Pipe. The other side was about 80 yards away from my camp, with a point on the southwest end- I would find later- to be full of eager topwater smallmouth bass. I setup my Tetragon 5 tent and fly, got a tarp over what looked like a kitchen, cleaned up a bit, and got ready to eat. I was in the tent ready for a better night’s sleep before I heard the whine from the forest. I don’t like sleeping bags because of the bulk, so I use a polyester fleece bag liner and a polyester fleece blanket, and a small camp pillow. They roll up compactly. I have two cheap blue foam pads, light and easy to stash atop my pack. My back was grateful for the second pad, but it was still not the best option for comfort. I’ll have to work on that one. My camp was a headquarters for pileated woodpeckers and yellow bellied sapsuckers. The pileateds put on a show I wished my wife could have seen and heard, but I got great video so that helped.

I learned a lot on this first solo. First, I always bring too much stuff. On Saturday morning I paddled back to my truck at Homer to drop off some things and pick up some medically needed items I had left behind there. I got rid of my wooden paddle, my 9x12 flat of tackle save for about 6 lures, about half my food, and the extra shirts, pants and shoes I brought. I shed about 12 pounds, enough to make the extra round trip worth it, even though I had to go back regardless because of the forgotten supplies. The weather on this trip had cleared and there was a cool breeze out of the west to help me. Again, almost no bugs. At the Homer ramp I watched what looked like older dad, son, grandson and a friend getting their truck unpacked to go in. Each of the four had a giant canoe pack bulging at the seams, and each of them carried a small personal cooler. There were two, big heavy food packs, a duffle bag, two 84 pound aluminum canoes, small chairs, and rubber knee boots over blue jeans or sweatpants. Each had a life jacket, a throw pad, and a jacket. They were headed into Whack and Vern. I figured that the two kids would never want to return after hauling all of that stuff. I wished I would have had video of that. I think that is a great lesson. Second, I took my time. I wasn’t in a rush to get anywhere and I had no pre set agenda that caused me to stress. I had done enough of that when in 2008 I took my 17 and 12 year old sons into entry point 84. We fought the wind, the lightning, the rain, too much stuff, and the bugs in an overly ambitious trip into Gull Lake and back out. I had done that same trip 16 years earlier with my brother, same issues with similar results. I could have stayed another night this time, but I proved that I could go into the BWCA alone and keep busy and have a good time. I was never lonely. I think videotaping a lot of my trip helped a lot. I read my favorite New Testament books out of a little Gideon Bible and started reading another small book. Like my friend on the portage, I left a nice supply of dry wood next to the fire grate for the next adventurer. I paddled out late Sunday morning after taking my time making camp look like I was never there. I had a north/northwest wind that hampered me a little bit going into Homer, but helped getting out of Pipe. I used the wind to my advantage heading into the Homer boat landing. I took my time going back to Leech, with a long slow drive west on The Grade (complete with pics of moose tracks, hawkweed, and the Temperance River), down 61 to Duluth, and a Dairy Queen stop in Hermantown. I got back to the cabin in time to watch Pikedale’s July 2nd fireworks show. On Monday I unpacked, organized and dried everything out and also rested. I got home to Ames on Tuesday, July 4th. Lots of pictures, videos, and memories. I’m hoping one of my sons will want to go back with me sometime soon to see and experience what I did. If they do, I know that one day they’ll want to take their own children there. Thanks for reading and all the best!!