|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
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.
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
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!