Cedar Strip and Dog's First BWCA Trip
It had taken 18 months for me to finish building my 15' cedar strip Ranger canoe. This was a project I had always wanted to take on, and finally, the time had come where making the templates then turned into milling the cedar strips, which then led to creating the hull of what would be my very own canoe. After lots of time, research, and sanding, the time had come to where I was finally finished my cedar strip canoe. Now I can understand why retired folks tackle this project more often than someone who works and has little time on their hands. After I was able to float her for her maiden voyage, and there were NO LEAKS, I was finally able to breathe. I was done.
Since her maiden voyage, I had tried several lakes in the area with her. I would even bring our one year old German Shepherd, "Winston" along to get him use to the canoe. Being the curious little George that he is, he tends to shift from side to side often as there are always new sights and smells passing by him. I just have to be prepared to counter-act or be prepared to get wet when he shifts around. It only took him a few times for him to get use to the canoe.
As Fall had quickly approached Northern Minnesota, I found an opportunity on one of my weekends to head north and try out the Gunflint side of the BWCA for once. I have always heard about the beautiful landscape up in that region so I decided to bring the dog with and go exploring. With there being lots of bluffs up there, I anticipated rocks; a canoe's biggest enemy. While building the canoe, I knew it was going to get used and abused because, well, it's a canoe. I would have built a coffee table if I wanted one but I wanted a canoe that I was going to use. After I charted my route and carefully watched the weather, I saw my opportunity to take my 3 day trip and I went.
Fall along Lake Superior is never consistent; the gales of November seem to show up earlier and earlier every year. If there is a piece of advice I can give anyone about being on the water, is to always watch the winds. Thankfully, the forecast called for northwest winds 5-10 kts on my first day in, calm and variable the second day, and 5-10kts out of the northeast on my third day. the northwest and northeast winds would work to my advantage as I was heading east on Clearwater Lake my first day and heading out west on my third day. Rain was in the forecast but, when you live up here near Lake Superior, you have to learn to embrace it.
Winston and I had left early so we could get to the entry point by 9 am. He slept so perfectly in the truck with no idea what he was in for. I sent my last text to my fiance really quick in Grand Marais before shutting it off. Talk about a fantastic feeling; being able to disconnect. I continued up the Gunflint Trail with very little traffic and other paddlers. I suppose going in on a weekday tends to be a little quieter. Sometimes it can be nice being a shift-worker with my days off being in the middle of the week.
After arriving to the launch, we loaded up in the canoe and started making our way to West Pike Lake. Making our way around the bend, we were able to catch our first glimpse of the beautiful Clearwater Lake bluffs. The only other things that looked like these bluffs were the palisades on the North Shore or even Devil's Tower National Park. The leaves changing on the Birch trees just mixed in so well with all of the coniferous trees. Being able to preserve this area makes it seem so untouched from anything. The sounds of loons, the water rushing by the paddle, and even the breeze made it feel like we were totally alone...until the 10 horsepower Honda came screaming across the lake at a snails pace. Yes, the lake is motor lake which did not bother me at all. The local lodge was just running a family out to the Caribou Lake portage.
Taking only an hour to paddle nearly five miles, we made it to our next hurdle; a 210 rod portage. Thankfully the contours were not too terrible according to the McKenzie map but I also had to factor in that I was portaging a 70lb battleship and a dog over wet rocks and roots. The only way to get across the portage was by doing it so we trudged on. I made the smart investment to purchase some portaging pads for the yoke of the canoe and those things truly were life savers. 210 rods is a bit of a distance to do but it was very doable due to there only being slight elevation changes.
Winston was loving life. Sniffing all the new smells while carrying his own pack full of his food and water. It's nice having a big dog to use as a pack mule when needed. We got everything across the portage after two trips and then set off for the campsite. I decided to camp on West Pike Lake so I could fish there and also Gogebic if I wanted to. The portage to Gogebic looked like a nightmare so I decided to hold off on that instead. I also was not in the best of moods after scraping the hull on nothing but sharp, shallow rocks near the portage.
Finding our campsite, I released the beast from his life vest. Like a rocket, he took off and jetted in circles around the site smelling everything, biting on every stick, and rolling around in all of the pine needles. I almost forgot that I had been doing all of the work to this point where all he did was nap. The calm before the storm. The clouds were starting to lighten up and the sun began to poke out. If only the wind would calm down but day two was our fishing day since the winds were suppose to be nice and calm.
The camp was all set up and tea was made. I do not normally drink tea but there is something about having a warm drink while camping, especially in the fall. I set up my hammock and watched the waves and fall colors from the shore. A hammock is almost like a recliner in the woods. It just does not get much better than a hammock nap in the middle of the woods. The afternoon was nice and lazy.
We tried to paddle around for a bit to try out my fishing electronics set up and see if the mount and everything would work out. It all worked but it just was not marking any fish so I refuse to say it works until if can get me on a good, solid bite. I grew tired of fighting the wind so we pushed back into camp and began to think about supper and lighting up a campfire.
Once we were both fat and happy, we sat around what could have been a very nice fire if it had not been for all of the wet wood. I did manage to find a nice downed cedar as well as some birch bark so I was able to create a decent fire for the both of us. Winston must have ran all of his energy out because he curled up into a ball right next to me. I was not the one that wanted a dog but now, we are inseparable; best buds.
The next day sure was a chilly start. The forecast had called for low 30's at night and possible snow later in the afternoon. The day started off cloudy but turned sunny very quickly but I was surprised to still see a strong wind but from the northeast. We waited around camp and had breakfast. Camping is Winston's favorite thing to do with us because he gets to eat like the rest of us on top of eating his dog food. Spoiled little guy. After filling up with some grub, we launched out once again in the wind and tried our luck for fish. Once I got away from shore and into the wind, it became extremely difficult to work with. Throwing in the towel, once again, we headed back for camp and bummed around until we could see a sign of the wind dying down.
The wind never died down, in fact, it seemed as if it was growing stronger. Without hesitation, I decided to call it and begin breaking down camp. If the winds are not like they were forecasting, then I know the weather is going to end up taking a turn for the worse. Giving ourselves plenty of time, I got the camp all packed up. We sadly pushed off one more time and headed back for Clearwater Lake.
Arriving to the portage, I feel like I bumped and scraped every rock on the way in. On a cedar strip canoe, the sound painfully reminds me of nails on a chalk board or a floor jack on a concrete floor. Once again, 210 rods to portage this battleship but we made it across; such a terrific feeling. Once back and floating again on Clearwater Lake, I was able to let the northeast wind do a lot of the work for me taking us back to the launch. The sun was beautifully shining on the bluffs and the trees making it so difficult to leave. Even though this trip seemed to be a bust as far as fishing went, I still was able to enjoy exploring in the new canoe along with great company.
Later that day, while driving home, we got caught in the rain that was projected to hit up there as well. The next morning, I woke up at home to find out that the camp I was at would have had at least an inch of snow that morning. Wet gear, snow, slippery portages, and high winds sounds like a miserable adventure for another day. Glad I was able to end my trip on a good note.