Paddle - BWCA, Quetico, Sylvania, and other paddling places

Ice is Nice

By Riley Smith Print Icon Print Report View/Leave Comments (0)
Dates:October 17-18, 2020
Entry Point:40 - Homer Lake (BWCA)
Lakes:Brule, Cam, Cherokee, Homer, Juno, North Temperance, Sitka, South Temperance, Town, Vern, Vesper, Weird, Wench, Whack

We met at the campground late Friday night and were surprised to see it mostly full. I shook my head. Despite the craziness of this year, it still amazed me to see this many cars at a tiny entry point during a time of year that is usually dead quiet. We took comfort in the fact though that most of the people who are willing to head out in a canoe in a snowstorm are of like mind to ourselves and would make fine company for the evening. We also grimaced at the thought of inexperienced groups who could be heading out dangerously under-prepared for this weekend when the weather turns and the wilderness punishes the unexpecting. Sleep was fleeting as both of us were way too excited for another snowy canoe trip.

We woke before sunup. The plan would be to leave a car at Baker and then head over to Homer to begin our trip. The Baker parking lot was nearly full which left us wondering if any of these people had seen the forecast? In any case, we made the drive to Homer, pulled the gear, and got ourselves to the water. We both felt overpacked, but this time of year makes more sets of dry clothes a wonderful luxury to have. The sun just began to rise as we crossed Homer Lake and we encountered a group hot tenting on one of the island sites. They were still sleeping as we silently cut westward.

We made our way across Whack and into Vern, marveling at the unique almost savannah-like landscape and the magnificent rock faces. The weather was still clear and the paddling was going well. Somewhere on Juno the skies began to open and big, soft snowflakes began to fall.

Across the portage into Brule, the snow really opened up. We ate lunch on Jack Mock Point and watched the snow strengthen to our west and our destination. Gratefully, there was an easterly tailwind to look forward to. By the time we crossed by Fishbox Island, we were nearing white-out with about a half-mile of visibility which feels disorienting on a lake like Brule. The rock slide on the western end was very well clad in the snow by the time we paddled by. We took a pitstop to hike into Wench before making the turn north. We had heard stories of infamy about the chain between here and Town Lake. The rumors that these four portages usually take over half a day to cross and have terrible footing. We couldn’t imagine snow helping that, but we looked forward to the challenge and the scenery.

The four portages really didn’t disappoint. All had terrible landings, and left us asking why they “didn’t just build the landing over there in the flat spot.” I guess it wasn’t these ranger’s thing. The portages each had different challenges from the rocky footing, boulder scrambles, standing water, hills, and balance beams. These portages did earn their reputation, but man the reward was worth it! The incredible contrasts between the small lakes and the magnificent topography and geology that surrounds them was a marvel to behold, and the winter wonderland only compounded that beauty.

We reached Cherokee just shy of three hours after leaving Brule which was a good time, but still left us aware of the limited daylight this time of year. The lake seemed deserted with no other groups in sight and our choice of campsites lay ahead. As the wind swirled the snow around us, we discussed the merits of good campsites and how they may differ from the summer. The large, sloping rock face campsite in the distance, though reminiscent of splendid sun basking in August, looked desolate and wind-swept this day. We settled into a site in a small back bay that, though quaint, was sheltered and out of the wind. It was about 5:00 and the sunset was not too far away. We took a little hike back to Sniff Lake before settling in for a long night’s rest.

We awoke the next morning to a winter wonderland. It was sunny and warm and generally beautiful in every way. This is why we take fall trips! We foolishly lagged in our camp teardown. Our route to Baker wasn’t terrible mileage and should be fairly easy compared to the day before. The ten-acre Gasket Lake had been completely ice-free and so we weren’t too concerned about our travel itinerary, but we thought there may be some thin ice on Cherokee Creek so we set out ready to change our plans.

When we hit Cherokee Creek, the weather was still warm and sunny, but a thin ice sheet encased the mouth of the creek. This only worsened as we slowly chipped our way nearly 1/5 of a mile in before re-evaluating. We knew it would take us more than an hour to clear the creek, and there was no guarantee that more water wouldn’t be frozen further south. Our backup option would send us through the Temperances and south via Weird Lake to Baker. We knew that Brule was our final backup, but neither of us wanted to face that today in the growing wind. By the time we returned to Cherokee, the weather had darkened and it was beginning to snow again.

We worked our way over to South Temperance where we had a late lunch. So far there hadn’t been ice issues, but I vocalized concerns for the beaver pond to the south. We were not let down. It was thoroughly frozen with 1.5” of ice, with the occasional thin patch. We weighed our options: breaking through, turning back, dragging overland, or cutting across the bog. Our risk management side determined the bog not yet frozen enough, so we started breaking ice to the corner where we got out to scout the overland route. The forest was thick and blown over in sections, so we returned to the water. We talked about lining the shore, but the footing was poor and rocky. We hit scab ice before the beaver dam which we pulled up and over. There was a very small beaver sitting in the water nearby who seemed very unconcerned with our presence. We broke through a fair bit more ice before landing at the portage to a collective sigh of relief. My buddy steps out of the bow when, all of a sudden, I notice a mink hopping down the creek towards us. It stops between us and stares up as if to ask “what are you two doing here this time of year?” He then proceeds to do the completely unexpected and hops up onto the bow of the canoe, shoots us a curious glance, and then trots off into the forest. What a goofy little bugger, but that’s an experience I won’t ever forget. We crossed the portage and our spirits hit the floor. The entirety of Weird Lake, all 30 acres of it, are frozen over. By now, it’s 2:00 and sunlight is already a concern as is the weather. We are both incredibly stubborn by nature, but we could not conceive a viable way to clear this hurdle before sundown. With a sigh and a snack we turned north again to face the winds and the weather.

By the time we reached the shores of Brule after fighting more ice in the back bays of S Temperance, we were sitting on the portage in the dark. The snow was swirling, the wind was gusting, and a decent little chop had kicked up on the lake. Thankfully, the wind was blowing as a tailwind from the west. Just after pushing off, a large shadow began crashing through the darkness from the point to our south: a cow Moose, also seemed surprised to see us, bolted back into the forest. It’s always a joy to see a Moose, but up close in the dark was enough to get our heart rates elevated! We paddled east, deciding the least risky strategy was to stay close to shore. It was dark enough to not see landmarks very well and the icy waters could quickly turn fatal if we for some reason capsized mid-lake. Neither of us were too keen on a nigh-time crossing of Brule to begin with this time of year, but if we followed the shore, we knew we would make it. Three or four times we were partially convinced we reached Jack Mock Point, but the paddle dragged on. The clouds and snow cleared for a few moments which gave us brief glimpses of the stars above Brule. Finally, we passed the open mouth of Jack Mock bay and the cross-gusts blowing down from the end. The snow was letting up by the time we hit the island and turned south towards the landing, though the darkness still left us a little disoriented. We both felt that we were close and, as we turned headlamps on and shined to the shore, a wide gravel landing was there to greet us. It was still a two-mile walk to the Homer parking lot, and both of us were glad to warm up for a little while. My watch read 9:30 when we reached the car and we still had to drive back for gear and then pick up the other vehicle.

No two trips are alike and this wilderness never ceases to amaze us with its ability to meet us with new challenges, stories, and adventures. Hopefully the next trip is not too far away, but canoe season is quickly coming to a close. If this is my last trip in a canoe for the year, I am glad it was such a marvelous story-filled weekend.

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