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Return to Homer Lake by Heather Monthei

Homer Lake held special memories for Marshall and me. We were just getting acquainted with the BWCA and were spending our vacation taking day trips on lakes on the eastern side of the wilderness. We explored Gunflint and Magnetic Lakes and experienced our first portage on the Pine River where the waterfall provided a picturesque backdrop for our picnic lunch. A paddle through Bearskin to Duncan led to a hike on the Stairway Portage and an awesome view of the Canadian hillside. We traveled through McFarland to Pine Lake off the Arrowhead Trail and from Sawbill to Kelso off the Sawbill Trail, but perhaps most memorable was our experience on Homer Lake off the Caribou Trail.

It was one of those strange fall afternoons when the weather was unpredictable. One minute it was sunny and warm while the next moment a sleet squall pelted our car's windshield. I recall pulling into the parking lot at the Homer Lake entry and frowning at the sight of the gray wall of rain that was heading in our direction from the far end of the lake.

Two families with a young girl and a black lab puppy were loading gear in their canoes and showed no alarm at the threatening storm. They exhibited far more experience that we did as they embarked on their three day fishing trip. Following them across the lake, we soon lost sight of their canoes as they disappeared into the shroud of fog.

Our intent was to find the portage to Whack Lake or explore the Vern River, but our plans never materialized. Soon the blackness of the storm enveloped us and then turned into a world of white. Large flakes of snow fell on my nose and splattered on my glasses. Within minutes the aged pines were drooping with the weight of the wintry mix, and our visibility was cut to a mere few feet. Hope of finding either portage through the blizzard was looking slim for these two novices. We tried to find our way thinking that this fluke storm would be short lived, but after an hour it became apparent that it wasn't going to give up.

Snowfall on Cedars?
When we had chosen September as a time to see the fall colors, white was not one of them. This scene was bizarre, and our laughter rocked the boat precariously. I spent time taking photographs of the snow laden shoreline until ice chunks clogged in my gloves and my fingers felt stiff. As the wind rose and beat our faces, we struggled to paddle against the steely waves. It was time to turn back. Although we may not have paddled as far as we desired, we were sure treated to a special memory and vowed that someday we would return.

In May 2002 with nine years of wilderness experiences, Marshall and I returned to Homer Lake. The scene was vastly different: A turquoise sky held puffy white clouds and the sunlight shimmered on the placid water. A gull watched us from a rock in a shallow bay, and mallards scratched the surface of the lake as they did "touch and goes". A spotted sandpiper enjoyed the fast moving water near the rapids while the melody of chickadees, white-throated sparrows, and winter wrens filled the surrounding forest.

The 6 rods into Whack Lake seemed twice that length with the low water level, but the short trail provided a good place for a quick lunch. We lingered in the 65 degree sunlight to feast on crackers and cheese, carrots and trail mix.

Marshall and I settled on Vern Lake at the first campsite east of the portage. The forested retreat was built on a small hill and offered a grand view of the entire lake. The pile of split wood was a welcome sight by the grate.

There was extensive fire damage on the opposite shore which we called the ''Vern Burn.'' I learned later that Vern Lake was the epicenter of a lightning strike that burned over 5000 acres in the mid 1990's. It was a far cry from the lush green forests that we have enjoyed on other trips.

After establishing camp we returned to the canoe and paddled down the Vern River. Both sides of the channel were lined with fire destruction where white rock lay exposed; even the thin soil seemed to have burned. The narrow river was void of wildlife and silence prevailed. We turned around at the first rapids and paddled back to our campsite.

Red Sky at Night
It was near 8:30 when the sun disappeared behind the hills in a ball of fire. Skeletons of burned trees across the lake took on a pinkish cast. Liquid gold streaked a sparkling path across the lake while a silver halo reflected off the clouds. A water bubble near the landing glowed red as the last rays of sunlight reflected through it. Wispy clouds turned from gold to copper, peach, rose and finally gray, and a half moon glowed overhead. The red in the west promised a good paddling day ahead.

The air was cooling fast, but we stayed warm in front of the campfire blazing in our grate. Crackling sparks flew straight up snapping and popping as the flames consumed a cedar log. Tongues of fire wrapped around a pine knot and danced through the split wood turning to cream and blue as they reached through the grate. Bark curled as it peeled off in the heat of the blaze leaving a pungent scent of pine. Marshall and I sat mesmerized as coals pulsed into glowing embers, and a distant owl echoed across the lake.

It was 24 degrees the following morning, and the tent and canoe were coated with heavy frost. The sky was clear, the water was calm, and there was very little breeze. A nearby winter wren was singing in double time as he started his morning. We struggled to get out of our sleeping bags in the frigid temperatures.

Our plan included a paddle to East Pipe and Pipe lakes while we waited for our tent to dry. Our next night would be spent at Juno Lake.

The ducks in the grassy channel were swimming in pairs as they watched us from a comfortable distance. An abandoned osprey nest was easy to spot in a singed tree. The narrow waterways are always pleasant to paddle because it is easy to spot wildlife on the shore, but in this fire ravaged area, there was very little activity due to the loss of habitat.

The sun felt warm on my neck as we paddled with its radiance on our backs. Water filtered through strainers in the stream where fast moving water sang over the rocks in the rapids. Eddies gurgled with swirling debris.

We must have made a sight as we mistakenly stumbled over the 3 rod liftover to Pipe Lake on the wrong side of the rapids. We plowed through the tall grasses and our boots sank in the mud, but the bald eagle atop a barren tree was the only one watching. Bored with our foolishness, he lifted high into the sky and drifted gracefully on a thermal, his white head shining in the sunlight.

The entire northern side of Pipe Lake showed burn scars where the duff had blown off exposing clean white stone. Occasional red rocks offered a colorful contrast on the drab hillside. The hills on the south shore, on the other hand, were untouched by the devastation; the thick stand of birch dappled with pine would cast a rich green once the leaves opened. Their fine top branches cast a smoky appearance as they awaited the miracle of spring.

We stopped at the first campsite to have a mid-morning snack. A small yellow butterfly claimed ownership of the fire ring while a bumble bee checked out the weeds near the shore.

Up the Lake Without a Paddle
The only crisis in the trip was when we noticed something floating in the middle of the lake. As we got closer, I saw it was a wooden block with a string wound around it and anchored to a weight. When Marshall reached out to grab it, his paddle flipped out of his hand; our eyes grew wide in disbelief as we watched it float out of reach. After struggling alone with short draw strokes, I was able to guide us close enough to retrieve it, a small feat considering I was coping with tendonitis in my elbow.

The raspy sound of a raven circling overhead led us back across the portages to our campsite on Vern Lake. We dubbed the small pool between Vern, East Pipe and Homer ''Pinwheel Pond.'' I figure any body of water with three portages certainly deserves a label of some kind.

After lunch we packed up the tent and took off for Juno Lake. Although the scenery was not photogenic, it did portray the forces of nature. Fire damage might not be pretty, but it was still part of the area's history. Creamy white rocks contrasted against the black soil under the uprooted trees along the shoreline. Small white pines no more than two feet tall struggled to thrive on the bare hillside. It would be years before this forest would regenerate.

Juno had pockets of green where the fire had skipped over some of the land. Yet where the fire damage stopped, the blowdown area began, and the bare hillside on the east shore changed from charred telephone pole trunks to arched birch trees. Some half-dozen jets drew a latticework of lines across the deep azure sky, their vapor trails fading into feathery clouds. We found a campsite half way down the lake.

The tent site was on the upper level where a small clearing was nestled in the protection of balsam fir, spruce and birch; Labrador tea grew along the banks in the adjoining swampy bay.

I had to fix our campstove dinner in a sheltered area behind the tent for protection from the rising wind. Temperatures were in the high 60's a far cry from the night before. We marveled at the silence. There had not even been a squirrel, chipmunk, or mouse to antagonize us at dinnertime, and we had seen no other people since our trip began.

Our camp chores done, we explored the area in search of fallen wood. The back trail was littered with birch paper which was ideal for fire starters. We fixed a small campfire but then extinguished it within minutes when a gust of wind captured a spark. Surrounded by a constant reminder of the power and fury of fire, we weren't about to take any chances. With a feeling of contentment we eased back on the logs to enjoy the descending darkness. A beaver punctuated the stillness with his defiant tail, and the soft call of a great gray owl drifted across the lake. There was no need for flashlights on this bright moonlit night.

The sun was already up when I awoke at 5:30 a.m. A pair of loons glided past our site enjoying the clear, calm water; in the distance a tremolo added to the wilderness ambiance.

Moose Marbles?
The portage between Juno and Brule was fairly level and unusually grassy because of its exposure to sunlight. A thick tangle of blowdown extended on both sides of the path; wolf scat and moose marbles lay scattered on the walkway.

Brule Lake was dotted with islands, and I noted the increase of cedar trees. As we swept the water in perfect sync, the gentle waves took on a satin sheen wrinkled only by the sudden gusts of wind. The last half hour of paddling became arduous, however, as we turned toward our exit and faced a stiff breeze. We reached our landing by noon, and Marshall sat with the gear while I hiked the two miles back to the car at Homer Lake.

On the way home Marshall and I reminisced about our canoeing experiences. Although our return to Homer Lake had not been as eventful as our first trip, it provided yet another opportunity for us to enjoy the land we love so much. What a joy and privilege it is for us to be able share these experiences together!


       --article courtesy of BoundaryWatersMagazine


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