Crowded Clearwater loop
Group was six 16 or 17 year old females and two mid 50’s males. Joe is the husband of our school secretary and active in the community. Five of the six girls are former students of mine. Tia is a thrower that made it to sectionals last spring as a sophomore. This is her third trip and I’m happy she is along. She is strong, funny, and a good team player. Alex is on her second trip. She’s a lifeguard, tough, and organized. Natalie is also a lifeguard. This is her first trip. I was a little worried (needlessly) about her physical strength. Her ever-present smile and good nature is an asset to the group. Kaari is also on her first trip. She becomes the camp mom and keeps everyone on task. Bobbi is 5 feet nothing and 90 pounds. She proved that good things come in small packages when she carried the 70 pound canoe on a half-mile portage. She does power lifting in school and has lifted well over 400 pounds total. Her only problem, she needs to be fed every two hours or she runs out of gas. Haily is the only unknown to me as she went to elementary school in Ettrick. She proves to be tough, hardworking, and has a wicked wit. This turned out to be one of the best groups I have ever had the pleasure of traveling with. They were tough, determined, and fun.
Day 1 August 8
We left Galesville around 8 AM. Took our usual route and were in Superior by noon. Lunch and leeches were bought and we were on our way again. We stop at Gooseberry as usual, again not much water and too many people. On to Grand Marais where we pick up our permit. A short stop at the Holiday station and it is up the Trail to East Bearskin for the night. The campground is almost empty. Strange for this time of year. Supper is followed by a campfire where we discuss the plans for the next day. We want to camp somewhere near the west end or middle of Pine Lake. We hit the sack by 9:30 to an increasing wind. Does this sound familiar?
Day 2 August 9
Up at 5:30 and at the Clearwater landing by 7:15. There is only 1 parking space left and we see 2 groups of canoes already on the lake.(Clue #1) We get to the portage by 8 AM and share it with 2 other groups. (Clue#2) We had talked about this portage being confusing, but there are three intersections, not just the one shown on the map. The girls do fine, Joe takes a wrong turn and ends up doing an extra 300 or so rods. Was a good experience for the girls to see an adult make a mistake and provided an amusing anecdote that was brought up frequently during the trip. Joe was a very good sport about it. After that we appointed one of the girls to guide him on the portages. The wind decides that Caribou will be were it begins to be a problem. We are going east, directly into the wind. We stop at a closed campsite for a snack. With girls, I usually stop at open campsites for snack so they can use the latrine. But there were no open campsites on Caribou, nor would we see one until 5:30 that afternoon. We portage into Little caribou and find its only campsite occupied. On to Pine. On the portage we meet two groups who have just left Pine and find out which sites they had vacated. Joe and I help Tia and Bobbi over the portage so that they can go ahead and find the “empty” campsites. The rest of us finish the portage and follow. They report back via radio that the first 3 sites are taken, only a half-hour ago 2 were open. We stop for a snack short of the occupied south shore site. Joe and I scout out the next 4 sites, filled. Even the backpacking site has canoes on the shore below it. We stop at a island that would do in a pinch, but it has tall trees and a thunderstorm is threatening and I decide to move on. Joe and I split up and paddle with Bobbi and Tia. Their dash against the wind to find a campsite has left them tired. At this point let me say that I am getting worried about where to spend the night. The girls have been real troopers and continue to paddle without complaint. Storm clouds start to chase us down the lake. We hear thunder and pull over to the shore. We wait for about a half hour than continue paddling in the rain. The wind has let up some by this time. About a half mile from the channel into McFarland Lake we meet 2 guys that tell us the last campsite on Pine is open We thank them and with renewed energy paddle to the still open campsite and claim it as ours. Everyone is happy with the site. It is spacious, grassy, and has a great view of Pine.
Day 3 August 10
Even though a layover day, most are up by 6 AM. It is sunny and pleasant. Bobbi is the last up and comes out of the tent when she smells the blueberry pancakes. This becomes the joke for the trip. If Bobbi isn't cooking, she always comes when she hears the rattle of the pots. During breakfast we enjoy a very pleasant visit with Rick, a ranger. He gives us many ideas for side trips , even points out some alternative (illegal) campsites on E. and W. Pike. We discussed the campsite situation and he gave me a form that he encouraged me to fill out and send to the Forest Service. He also showed us yellow spurge, an invasive species on our site. The girls pick all they can find during the day. He also stopped back later to mention a portage over the hill behind us that would cut out a lot of paddling. The rest of the day is spent reading, writing, resting, swimming, and fishing. Several smallies are caught and released.
Later that evening, while looking at the channel into McFarland, he ran into a fellow CCBBer, Carl. He has a cabin on the lake. Carl gave us many tips and a lot of info on the area, including more on the portage from McFarland to East Pike. After our conversation, we went back to camp, gathered the group, and discussed the options. Option 1 was about a 7 mile portage with a flat 180 rd portage. Option 2 was a 240 rd portage over the hill behind our campsite. This portage is on 2 of our maps, but not the others. McFarland lake has an elevation of 1464, the top of the hill 1765, 300 feet of difference. East Pike is 1532, that’s another 150 down. I tell the girls that it would be like portaging Brady’s Bluff in Perrot State Park. There is little discussion, as a group they all say, “We can do that!” Plans are made to stay on West Pike tomorrow if we can find a campsite. We hope that West Pike is less crowded. That night, while trying to get to sleep, I am entertaining doubts about tomorrow. Can they do it? Will it break them? Will it kill me? Only tomorrow will see. I have a troubled sleep that night.
Day 4 August 11
Everyone is up and moving at 5:30. No relaxing cup of coffee this morning. They want to hit the water and assault the portage. We drift through the short channel to McFarland and to the landing that is only 150yds from our campsite. We discuss the plan; haul everything to the top, rest, than continue. The portage starts out rather steeply than, for the most part, continues as a gradual, steady climb. This continues for about 2/3 of the portage. We reach the top of the ridge and then go back for what was left. When all gear is up the hill we rest and drink plenty of water. The downhill part has several very step parts. So steep, that my knees are shaking when I reach the bottom.
Day 5 August 12
Morning dawns clear, crisp and brisk. Most are up by 6:30, all by 7:00. Hot chocolate, coffee, and oatmeal are eaten in a unhurried fashion. After breakfast dishes are done, we find sun-warm rocks to sit on. Like reptiles, we soak up the warming rays. Hard to think of anything better. If the wind dies down, Joe and I plan some serious fishing. But that was not to be. The wind was stiff most of the day and we fished from shore with some success. This was another “wasted” day.
Day 6 August 13
We are on the water by 6:30 and heading for the portage into Clearwater. It is 214 rds with some ups and downs. A piece of cake after the “mountain portage.” We stop for a snack and a bathroom break, then continue down Clearwater.
Day 7 August 14
Up early and at the World’s Greatest Donuts when they open. It’s an uneventful trip home.