Boundary Waters, Trip Reports, BWCA, Stories

Did Juno, Aurora can carry a canoe now?
by TuscaroraBorealis

Trip Type: Paddling Canoe
Entry Date: 05/27/2023
Entry Point: Homer Lake (EP 40)
Exit Point: Brule Lake (EP 41)  
Number of Days: 3
Group Size: 2
Trip Introduction:
After continually reading Lindylair referring this entry point over the years when folks would ask about a great short trip, I had to see for myself what all the fuss was about. Ironically, I got shut out last year when trying to secure a permit so we had to wait a year. In the meantime GHamer's great photo report only solidified my resolve to get here.
Day 1 of 3
Saturday May 27, 2023

While the 6-hour drive (and getting back home after 10:00 p.m. last night) to complete Aurora’s parenting time exchange is typical, it certainly isn’t conducive to getting an early start this morning while still being moderately alert. Never-the-less we leave town before 6:00 a.m. as I promise Aurora that the sooner we get going, the better chance we will have at encountering some wildlife on the way. Having said that, I still opt to take Highway 1 all the way to the North Shore versus using the back (forest) roads to get to Homer Lake.

Initially we don’t see anything but, we do appreciate the ‘forest scaping’ that is being done around the Isabella area where most of the brushy understory has been cut away and only the large red & white pines are left standing. This really helps bring out the unique character of these majestic trees and eliminates the “can’t see the forest for the trees” aspect of so other many roadsides. Not sure what the motivation is for this practice but, I think it would be neat to see more of this sort of thing elsewhere when & where practical.

Being that Homer Lake entry point #40 is our destination, it gives us practical rationale to utilize the often-overlooked Caribou Trail. Sandwiched between 2 much more famous Cook County thoroughfares into the wilds of northeastern Minnesota, (The Sawbill & Gunflint Trails) its anonymity is assuredly tied to the fact that it only sensibly serves just 2 paddling entry points and the Eagle Mountain hiking trails. Its personality closely resembles that of the Sawbill Trail; paved and populated for the first several miles before giving way to narrowing feral gravel. However, the unfamiliarity exudes its own unique rarified beauty and I also believe offers the best fall color tour of the 3.

At the intersection of The Grade there is a road sign giving direction and remaining mileage to Homer Lake. Soon after turning down the Brule/Homer Lake Road my earlier promise to Aurora now thankfully comes to fruition as we slowly approach a lone cow moose ambling down the road. Unfortunately, it appears she does not have a calf and eventually trots off into the woods before we get too close.

Pulling into the small Homer Lake parking lot, which has room for maybe a dozen vehicles and boasts a nice enclosed pit latrine, a friendly older gentleman greets us as we transfer our gear down to the lake. He tells us that he thinks most of the vehicles here belong to people camping here on Homer and recommends that we try to get back to Axe, (non-bwca lake which has a nice campsite with a picnic table), for some walleye fishing . I tell him about the moose we just saw and he says he thinks a pack of wolves recently took down her calf. Oblivious to our conversation; Aurora is preoccupied with acquainting herself to the abundant population of frogs here at the landing.

After all that, I’m pleasantly surprised that we are on the water by about 9:00! It’s already quite warm so the breeze out on the lake is looked upon more of as a blessing than a hindrance. My Voyageur map only shows one non-bwca camp on Homer but, we see another closer to the wilderness boundary as well as what almost certainly appears to be a third very near that one. I spot a lone mud turtle on a nearby log and thus take the early lead in our turtle counting contest.

The lone official BWCA campsite on Homer is currently unoccupied so we pull in for a short breather before undertaking our first portage. This is an above average site that offers a nice view of this end of the lake. The main kitchen area doesn’t have any log seating, is sloped and rocky, but there are a few decent tent pads back in the woods a bit and some well-trodden trails for exploring which flaunt some flowering blueberry bushes.

Our first portage is a short paddle away and we don’t have any trouble pinpointing it. Somewhat surprisingly the lakeside landing isn’t too well developed and has some boulders to contend with. The trail itself is flat and mostly unremarkable until we approach the Whack Lake end where there is an old dilapidated short boardwalk that is noticeably slanted. Water levels are still high but, this landing is polluted with a mess of irregular troublesome boulders. I’m guessing many opt for the southern entry/exit?

For some reason I neglect to even glance at my map and we paddle past the portage into Vern Lake without realizing it. Sometimes, I actually think I know what I’m doing and where I’m going?!?! Our unmerited reward for such an egregious error is that we run across a huge snapping turtle sunning itself on a shelf of shoreline rock, and I increase my lead in the turtle counting contest. Now relying on my map instead of my fading memory, in time we do pull into the proper landing which proves to be an inconvenient steep rock knob. The trail is an up and over an appreciable hill that has a tree down across the trail but, since it is so short, we arrive at Vern Lake before working up too much of a lather. While this landing is more accommodating than the previous, it still requires some extra effort and attention. Campsite #962 was our target site. It is just south of this landing and we can clearly ascertain that it is currently occupied. Bummer!

We proceed northwesterly up Vern Lake and quickly learn that the other site is also claimed. It’s decision time: do we head for Pipe Lake or Juno? It seems to me Juno would be more centrally located and offers us an opportune portal to Brule Lake if all the sites are taken; where Pipe Lake is a dead end and we’d have to come all the way back this way to find a legal campsite. So, we continue on NW up Vern Lake.

Vern exudes an uncommon aura as it seems to be an endless succession of rock knobs crowned with more birch & aspen trees than is typically found in canoe country and the forest does not crowd in and overhang the shorelines making random exploration more inviting. There is even an impressive cliff just off the eastern shore where the lake narrows. My Voyageur map doesn’t indicate any sort of creek but, there is a tiny waterfall draining in from the west that is another spot also earmarked for future exploration. Another random thought that enters my mind is that Vern seems big enough to support at least another campsite or two.

The portage(s) landing into Juno is unmistakable and we pull ashore amidst the array of boulders. By this time, the temperature index is crossing the threshold of warm into outright hot and I tell Aurora that I will bring everything across so she can thoroughly enjoy, and perhaps cool off in, the scenic rapids that are cascading alongside the portage trail. As I am returning for another load, I find her lying on her stomach sunning herself on an exposed rock shelf right on the shore of the creek. I guess she’s growing up and developing new interests?

All the maps I’ve seen correctly indicate that there are 2 separate portage trails here. However, for me perhaps the most loathsome aspect of portaging is the task of loading/unloading the gear. With the paddle between these trails being so pitifully short, it makes more sense to me to just bring our load all the way across in one carry. After the initial rocky climb up to the first landing, there is a flat and easily followed trail that indicates many others have had the same thought. After the second landing the trail again climbs up before leveling out for the better percentage of the trail before dropping steeply down a gravel & stone stairway to an awkward landing on Juno. There is a decent overlook of Juno just off the trail at the top of this stairway.

As we push off it soon becomes obvious that the first site is occupied. I assure Aurora that there are two more on this lake so, let’s not panic just yet. For the second time in as many trips this year I pass by a lone large boulder atop a granite ledge eerily keeping watch – or so it seems. There’s a lot of signs of recent beaver activity along the shoreline and as we paddle eastward my heart sinks a little as we approach the next campsite because there are a couple of canoes out in the nearby bay fishing.

Alas, as we approach, we paddle right past a vacant campsite! They must be camped at the last site on the eastern end. So, we pull up into this almost assuredly last open site to assess its worthiness. We had just paddled past an alternate more accommodating landing but, I quickly deduce that is also where the best tent pad is so we’ll be using the one we are approaching which is awkward & narrow. I’ve seen worse sites but, not many! Still, beggars can’t be choosers.

There isn’t much in the way of mature trees and the site basically runs along a narrow strip of shoreline. As mentioned, the best tent pad will compromise the alternate landing but that’s where we’ll want to set up. The fire grate area is adequate but, the elephant in the room is just 6 feet back from the fire grate – A HUGE swamp. Most Mays this might not be as gigantic of a concern but, the unseasonably warm weather we’ve been, and are, having doesn’t bode well for camp life.

While I’m getting things situated, further disappointment ensues as Aurora shockingly discovers there are no frogs in this camp. There are a few medium sized trees out on the rocky point that will serve to hold the hammock back away from the swamp and, hopefully, catch a breeze. Thus far, the bugs have Providentially been a non-factor although it’s still quite early so, after camp is setup, we decide to head out and check out the remainder of Juno Lake.

Just out from camp Aurora hooks into a fish, after a fun fight she reels in a smallish northern. As I take a quick photo, I’m shocked when she says she can’t remember the last time she caught a northern and further comments how much fun they are to bring in. But, on thinking back myself, I guess she has usually been catching walleye, brook & lake trout the past few years because that’s what we’ve been targeting. I just presumed that she’d caught some bonus northern while we’ve been doing that – guess not.

Eventually we begin working our way eastward and I think to myself that both Vern & Juno aren’t overly impressive on the map but, they are both deceptively long paddles to get from one end to the other. The canoes we’d seen earlier fishing are indeed at the eastern most site and we paddle for the portage into Brule Lake to get out and stretch and do some exploring.

There is a beautiful pebble rock landing with an old weathered log angled out into the lake to aid in landing the canoe. A nice staging area gives way to an excellent level path and there's plenty of moose & beaver sign along the way. I don’t think a portage of this length could be much easier, although the Brule landing is a bit clumsy but, that will likely improve when the water level recedes.

Much of the portage is dominated by young aspen trees and exploration off the trail is effortless in places. Aurora instinctively veers off trail near the mid-point and curiously wanders about in an oddly open area. She soon discovers a couple of old shovel heads and I stumble upon some large iron pieces I can’t identify. I hadn’t done any research of this area prior but, considering the openness of the woods here, this must have been the spot of an old logging camp, resort or settlement of some sort? A quick inspection of our Voyageur map indicates that we actually leave and then re-enter the wilderness when crossing this portage. Not sure on the legality issues that might arise from that or if that plays a role in why this stuff was left here? But, it's another interesting topic for discussion.

The wind is a slightly more intense on the way back but, as before, the cooling effect is most welcome. The channel just south of the eastern most camp that leads into Whip & Squire Lakes looks tantalizingly inviting but, we choose to paddle on back to camp.

Upon our return, the first order of business is to get our firewood coffer fully stocked. Aurora spies a steep trail leading up the ridge just behind the latrine that looks promising. It’s a tough climb up but, we soon come across a bunch of downed dried out timbers amidst many scattered piles of mooseplums. There is even a nice, though somewhat obscured, overlook of the bay that can be contemplated from this elevated vantage point.

The CCS tarp remains in the pack and, while I can envision a scenario to set it up, it would totally congest camp and make getting around a real chore. Besides, there is no rain forecasted throughout the duration of our short trip and the site is already providing sufficient shaded relief here in the early evening hours.

Aurora retreats to the hammock while I process the firewood. She then gets a one match fire going. Even before doing so, I’m astounded that the bugs have been very tolerable to this point. As the day had been, it’s a warm evening. Still, we are taking no chances and keep the fire well stocked while we lounge in relative carefree comfort watching the stars pop out before eventually retreating to the sanctuary of our tent to play some rummy before saying prayers & going to sleep.

~Homer Lake, Whack Lake, Vern Lake, Juno Lake