On our first trip to the boundary waters, all my two oldest sons (now thirteen and ten) wanted to do was fish. So, this year I planned a fishing trip. My friend Sergey made the trip with us. The plan was for four nights of base camping on Vern Lake after entering at Homer Lake.
Day Zero (9-6-20)
Crescent Lake Campground Lutsen, MN
Weather: Partially Cloudy and Breezy 65 F to 43 F
Group Size: 4 people… Rand, Sergey, and my two oldest sons
This year there were no leeches to be had in September anywhere along our drive to Minnesota. I called around to at least four places. I had maybe a dozen left over from my June trip. A few days before our departure, as I was getting new fishing line spooled on my reels at Cabela’s, I observed a bait fridge. The signage promised “live bait.”
Closer inspection revealed that there were a few packages of leeches left. After checking the containers and rejecting those that revealed the smell of death with the lid off, I sourced 6 dozen of what I called “last chance leeches.” I brought them home, changed their water and put them in my bait fridge alongside my remaining leeches.
The day of our departure, I woke up to a thunder and lightning storm at 5 am. After a quick shower and final packing of the truck, the boys and I were on the road at 5:50 am. We planned to meet our friend Sergey at the campground later in the day. About 3 hours from home, I realized that, with the distraction of the electrical storm, I had forgotten the leeches.
This meant we would have to resort to plan B, night crawlers. My younger son questioned whether night crawlers would be as good as leeches. We had caught most of our BWCA fish using leeches in the past. I assured him that pretty much any fish that swims will eat a worm, but I had some lingering doubts in the back of my mind. Night crawlers were a distant second choice of bait because they are not native to the boundary waters, whereas leeches are.
We arrived at the forest service campground at Crescent Lake in the early evening. This would be home for the night before entering the boundary waters. The lake seemed really nice but we didn’t paddle it because we were tired from the long drive.
After much watching of Steve1989, the boys had requested we bring MREs along for the trip. I surely wasn’t packing this extra weight and packaging into the woods. We ate them in the luxury afforded by a picnic table at our camp site. Not my first choice for dinner, but it kept the boys happy and full. Two qualities that are perhaps more important than how the food tasted to me.
We had a nice camp fire. The main feature of which was constantly shifting wind. No matter which side you were sitting on, before long, a shift in the wind would have the smoke blowing in your face.
Camp site 23 was tucked away in the trees. We couldn’t see any neighbors for all the tree cover. We didn’t hear them either as all the campers settled in for the night. The site only had one small tent pad behind the parking area. This worked for us because Sergey had decided to sleep in the back of his vehicle.
As we lay down in the tent, the wind blowing the leaves of the birch trees could be heard. It was a cold front blowing in. I remembered to bring my hi/low thermometer along for the trip. The overnight low was 42 F.
Day One (9-7-20)
Homer Lake EP 40 – BWCA Lutsen, MN
Homer Lake to Vern Lake (~4 miles src:Back Country Navigator)
Weather Windy overcast 42 to low 50s F
Group Size: 4 people in three canoes: Rand and CTG Old Town Canadienne, MLG Old Town Pack, Sergey Wenonah Vagabond
Start Time ~11 am End Time ~6 pm
We packed up our Crescent Lake camp and proceeded down the dusty gravel road to Homer Lake. We arrived at about 10:30 am. We loaded the canoes and took some pictures near the entry point sign.
We pushed off around 11am into gusty winds. Out on the main body of the lake, we could see white caps. As I began to paddle from the stern of my 17ft canoe with my 10 year old son up front, I found it difficult to steer. In fact, we were getting pretty well pushed around by the wind. My son soon became frustrated.
We paddled a circle around the small bay and tried to push up the channel into the main body of the lake. Soon we were pushed back by rolling waves to the boat landing. We decided to get out and regroup. We stood on the shore and watched white caps whipping up over the main body of the lake.
A plan was formed to have lunch and see what could be done. I turned on my weather radio while eating lunch. Current conditions were 10-25 mph winds gusting to 35 mph. In the afternoon, the wind would abate to 15 mph and 25 mph gusts. Yay?
As we waited for the wind to die down, alternative plans were discussed that included going back to the campground. My oldest son was in good spirits and would not be denied his boundary waters trip. At one point he proposed portaging our canoes along the rocky eastern shore and then launching while protected from the wind. While I applauded his out of the box thinking and appreciated his positive attitude, I didn’t think this was a feasible plan.
We checked the map and observed that the landing was oriented in the worst possible way for the wind that was blowing in from the north west. We decided to paddle up the eastern shore to reach the north shore in hopes of getting some shelter from the relentless wind. This would add some additional distance to our trip because it was the long way around to the portage. (Later gps track confirmed it added almost a mile.)
After lunch, we attempted some shore fishing. Sergey caught a small perch. As we were fishing, a bald eagle landed just off shore from us. I can only guess that the eagle was curious about us visiting his territory. It was a little confusing to us because the eagle landed in the water and bobbed on top as if it were some kind of water fowl, all the while looking distinctly like a bald eagle. The eagle eventually flew off across to the other side of the small bay.
My oldest son was able to paddle his loaded solo canoe in the face of the wind and white caps. He ventured out to the nearest island to try his luck fishing. He didn’t catch anything and eventually came back to shore.
Upon his arrival, we reloaded our canoes to make our second attempt of the day to enter the boundary waters. The time was about 2pm. We launched at a time when there were no longer visible white caps. We proceed to the north shore making slow progress. Occasional gusts made paddling difficult. At times in order to proceed in a straight line, my son and I would paddle on the same side of our canoe.
Our plan was working and we were able to navigate Homer Lake.
While making headway to our first portage, Sergey landed an eater size small mouth bass by trolling a red 5 diamond spoon. He decided to keep it and onto the stringer it went.
We eventually made it to the first portage, a short 6 rod carry over that landed us on a small creek. The creek was shallow and choked with lily pads. It was protected from the wind, however. We proceeded up the creek, getting out a couple of times to drag the boat over shallow spots, and over two more 6 rod carry overs.
At last we arrived at the southern end of Vern Lake, which was also protected from the wind by trees on the shore. As we moved up the lake towards one of the two campsites on the lake, the lake opened up and we were faced with a headwind again.
Up ahead, my oldest son signaled that our desired camp site was available. My younger son, in the bow, shifted to another gear and began paddling furiously. We soon reached the camp site on the heals of our trip partners. When we had disembarked, a feeling of jubilation swept through camp with high fives of congratulations all around. It had been a long and foreboding day. At one time, even thinking of having to call off the trip only to overcome the wind and reach our camp site.
After getting the tent set up and collecting some fire wood, my sons began to fish from the shore of the camp site. My oldest caught an eating sized small mouth with the first night crawler he cast out under a slip float rig, thus erasing any doubts as to the efficacy of the night crawler as a fish attracting bait. That made two nice smallies, enough for fish dinner.
I put some water on to boil for a side dish of mac and cheese and then filleted the fish. The boys requested that we see what the fish had been eating. We took the opportunity to examine the stomach contents and found crayfish in both of the small mouth bass.
The fillets were pan fried in ghee, over the camp fire, with a healthy application of Montreal steak seasoning. The meal was plated up and eaten with a slice of lemon. It was a great dinner and a wonderful end to our day.
Day Two (9-8-20)
Vern Lake – Vern River
Vern Lake up the Vern River (~1.5 miles src:Back Country Navigator)
Weather Overcast 34 to low 50s F
Group Size 4 people in three canoes: Rand and CTG Old Town Canadienne, MLG Old Town Pack, Sergey Wenonah Vagabond
Start Time 1 pm End Time ~4 pm
We woke up without an alarm to a leisurely morning around camp. I toasted a couple of bagels over the morning fire. These were slathered liberally with cream cheese and consumed with gusto. This was all part of the plan to have some variety for breakfast beyond oatmeal.
I strung up a 10×10 tarp to provide a dry spot for the gear packs in case of rain. Fishing with night crawlers from camp produced a few small fish and one eating sized small mouth bass for Sergey. My oldest even hooked a pike using the night crawler. He let my younger son reel it in.
We had peanut butter and jelly on a tortilla for lunch. We then turned our eyes to the main objective of the day, fishing the Vern River. The entrance to the river could be seen from our camp site. We loaded up our canoes with fishing gear and shoved off. I also took the food barrel for added ballast and to prevent any bears from stealing our food supply.
As we made our way up the river, I was called back by my oldest son. He had stopped to fish near a downed tree. Near this tree an eater sized walleye had gone for his worm. However, in his excitement to start fishing, he had left camp without a stringer. I had one for him. We met up a short distance from the tree.
At that point, he said he was going back because where there was one walleye, there would be more. We followed him and watched as not 5 minutes later, he pulled out a second walleye. This second one was even bigger than the first. My youngest and I tried our luck near the tree and ended up with only a snag to show for our efforts. We proceeded back up river to talk to our trip partners. After fishing unsuccessfully, we decided to head back to camp.
In preparation for the evening fire, I began to cut up some of the down trees we collected. I then decided to split some of the logs with my hatchet.
It was during the log splitting that I made a trip ending mistake. The mistake was holding the firewood round I was going to split with my hand as I tapped the hatchet into the wood in preparation for splitting. I know better than to do this. During one of these initial swings, the hatched glanced off the top of the firewood round and struck my left thumb.
My thumb began oozing blood. The first thing we tried was direct pressure and placing a band aid on top of the wound. This slowed the bleeding, but didn’t stop it. I then took a paper towel and applied pressure to the wound for a few minutes. The bleeding continued.
At this point I decided to try the quick clot I had brought along. This is a pouch of chemicals designed to aid the blood in clotting and stop the bleeding. This pouch contains many spheres of medicine. This pouch eventually became saturated with blood.
Finally, my friend Sergey wrapped my thumb several times with a roll of bandage from the first aid kit. He cut the bandage on the end and tied it around my thumb. This resulted in the first great relief as the bleeding finally stopped. Based on how hard it was to stop the bleeding, I knew we should probably end our trip early. I decided to exit the next day and go to the nearest hospital. Sergey thought I would probably need stitches.
After my thumb was all wrapped up and no longer bleeding Sergey made, ukha, traditional Russian fish soup for all of us. I had brought along a 4 liter billy pot for this purpose. He had brought fresh root vegetables. He processed the one small mouth bass and two walleyes that would be used in our soup. The soup was fantastic. It is said that it is better when made with more than one variety of fish. The boys enjoyed the soup and ate it heartily. I remember my oldest especially complimenting the carrots.
After eating and some dish clean up the boys and I went to bed. The boys fell asleep but I could not. My thoughts raced. I blamed myself for the unforced error due to improper use of the hatchet. It was my fault that this trip would end early.
Many questions were also going through my mind. Would I be able to paddle out in the morning? We still had two portages and about 3-4 miles of paddling to get out of the woods. Would I be able to drive?
I eventually got up to get my phone. I was hoping to play a podcast to help fall asleep. Sergey was still sitting around the camp fire. He invited me over and we stayed up for awhile watching the fire. We discussed ways my injury could have been worse. The fire kept us warm. As the last of our logs burned down we noticed that it was clear night and the stars were out. I paused to view the milky way before going back to my tent.
I laid sleeplessly in the tent until about 1:30 am. My thumb felt like it was on fire. I decided to take some pain reliever. Sleep would still not come. At 2 am, I took another pain pill. I laid on my side holding my left hand outside the sleeping bag, hoping that the 33 degree night might help numb the pain. Some time after this, mercifully, sleep came. This was the second great relief.
Day Three (9-9-20)
Vern Lake – Homer Lake
Vern Lake to Homer Lake (~3.1 miles src:Back Country Navigator)
Weather Sunny 33 to low 50s F
Group Size 4 people in three canoes: Rand and CTG Old Town Canadienne, MLG Old Town Pack, Sergey Wenonah Vagabond
Start Time ~10 am End Time ~1:30 pm
I woke up at about 6:30, right around sunrise. Thankfully, upon waking, I felt no pain in my thumb. This was another great relief.
We arose to a completely fogged in lake. I remember my oldest remarking on it more than once. We could not see the nearest shore across the small bay, probably a couple hundred feet away.
We packed up camp and taped a ziploc bag around the bandage on my thumb. I was able to paddle by gripping the paddle with four fingers. We decided to leave by a different set of two portages because the water level in the river/creek was so low that we had to get out and drag boats on the way in.
My oldest son and Sergey had to pick up the slack for me on the portages. I stuck to carrying loose items because I did not want my thumb to start bleeding again. My oldest had to carry extra bags. Sergey carried our food barrel and my canoe. My younger son carried his loads of a back pack and a #2 duluth pack.
These portages were longer and the first even had some mild up and down elevation change. The biggest problem however was the sucking mud hole on Homer side of the Whack to Homer portage. There were several inches of water over the top of a very mucky bottom. I was able to launch by only getting one foot wet and pushing through the muck. Our trip partners took a long time getting launched through this mud.
Once on Homer Lake for the second time, we were greeted by calm conditions. Referred to as a paddlers dream, the surface of the lake was like glass reflecting the sky and trees onto the surface of the lake. This made for easy paddling. We took our time on the way out and enjoyed the serenity of the boundary waters.
I was focused on paddling out due to my thumb. My younger son and I made it to the landing ahead of our trip partners. When they did arrive they each had a pike in their canoe that they had caught trolling. One hit a red diamond spoon. The other hit a mepps #2 in black fury pattern.
We loaded up our gear and canoes. Then we had a quick lunch of PBJ on tortillas. Then it was time to drive down the gravel road through the forest to the nearest hospital in Grand Marais.
I entered the ER, but visitors were not allowed. Sergey would have to watch my boys while I was being treated. He ended up taking them to Sawbill Outfitters to return his rented solo canoe.
In the ER, the nurse unwrapped my bandage. The blood started flowing into my thumb and blood started slowly oozing from the wound again. My thumb started to hurt as much as the previous night. This was alleviated through a series of measures. First an ice pack was applied. Then I was given some kind of pain pill. Finally, a needle was used to numb my entire thumb. The pin prick of the needle into the base of my thumb was unpleasant but nowhere near as painful as my thumb. The feeling as the anesthetic worked its way up my thumb was very strange.
Just as the doctor was about to “repair” the wound, she was called away because an ambulance arrived. She eventually returned. It took four stitches to close the wound. A part of my thumbnail was removed because it was cracked and this would just cause problems later.
There were no vacancies in Grand Marais. I decided to use my hotel points and book two rooms in Duluth. I was discharged from the hospital around 7pm. We arrived in Duluth shortly after 9pm. We ordered pizza delivery as that was about the only thing that was open.
The Drive Home (9-10-20)
Duluth to Northern IL
Weather Partially Cloudy and Rainy
Before driving home we decided to eat at Uncle Louis’s cafe in Duluth. This was a great idea as it filled up the boys and provided me coffee to get ready for the long drive home. I would eat here again.
I had a long drive home to contemplate the events of the trip. In contrast to the sense of accomplishment and satisfaction previous trips, I was disappointed. I plan these trips months in advance. The trip was going well. We were catching fish and the weather was improving. Ending the trip early was a bitter pill to swallow.
A highlight of the drive was stopping for a nice dinner at Essen Haus in Madison. At this point, compared to all the driving, we were almost home. This provided a nice break and a nice meal.
While leaving the restaurant in Madison, my low tire pressure light came on. I stopped at a gas station to top up the gas and air in the tires.
Things To Do Differently
Use the hatchet safely.
Holding the round to be split with a stick is the safe way. Another safe way would be to use the hatchet as a splitting maul. Instead of swinging the hatchet, the head is placed on the round to be split. Then the head of the hatchet is struck with a log.
Leave Wool Blanket At Home
We packed in an old USGI surplus wool blanket. These blankets will add extra warmth. However, my sons moved around so much at night that by the morning the blanket was on the floor of the tent next to them instead of covering them. It was not worth its weight to pack in.
No More Wet Footing in September
I wet footed on my previous September trip. I wet footed on this trip. The water temp was fine for wading and wet footing. However, on the second day when the air temp was in the 40s, I found myself trying to keep my feet dry. I would bring muck boots or hip waders if I go in September again.
Things That Went Well
Bagels and Cream Cheese
I brought bagels and cream cheese. This was a nice change of pace from oatmeal. I froze the bagels and packed them in a soft sided cooler. I tried to make block ice out of plastic bottles of 100% juice. However, this ice was the first that melted. Ultimately, I didn’t need to worry about the cream cheese going off though because of the cold temps.
Mac and Cheese
The four cheese variety of Bear Creek mac and cheese worked well. It is a just add water side dish. We had tried it once before our trip. It tasted pretty good and was eaten without leaving any leftovers. I can’t speak to other varieties, they seem to have bad reviews and I haven’t tried them.
Night crawlers are a viable plan B. We were able to catch small mouth bass, walleye and northern pike using night crawlers under a slip bobber.
Removable Portage Yoke
My oldest son was able to portage his own canoe on this trip. The clamp on portage yoke from North Star Canoe did its job.
We brought wool gloves to keep our hands warm. They served us well.
Puffy Throw Blanket
On the two coldest nights, I used a down puffy blanket (from Costco) for added warmth. I think I would have been warm enough in my 20 degree bag but the extra blanket kept me toasty warm.