Just 25 miles from Grand Marais, Minnesota, the Twin Lakes Canoe Route [pdf] offers canoeists a five lake adventure that unlike the nearby Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness doesn’t cost a dime and doesn’t require a permit. The US Forest Service describes the the Twin Lakes Canoe Route as a quiet, wilderness-like lake experience featuring five water accessed campsites, four portages and plenty of fishing. While we’ve day tripped on the lakes before, we never camped, so with only one night to spare, we decided to give it a go.
The Twin Lakes Canoe Route Put-In
The put-in for the Twin Lakes Canoe Route is 16.5 miles up the Gunflint Trail from Grand Marais to South Brule Road for 6 miles and then 4 miles south on Lima Grade. The road cuts between East and West Twin Lakes with a boat ramp on each. We parked our car after loading the canoe on East Twin Lake figuring that we would camp on East Twin and then do the loop and come back and camp. After we got away from the shoreline and it’s protective canopy of aspen, birch and spruce we were out into the wind. It carried us past an island and down the north shore to a campsite (with a picnic table!), but it was exposed and in the wind, so we decided to float down to the southeast corner of the lake to a small bay and another campsite.
The campsite was grassy and boring without a good view of the west for sunset pictures, so we paddled back to the boat ramp in winds gusting to 20 mph. At the boat ramp, we portaged our gear a few rods (16.5 feet) to West Twin Lake. Both the south shore and north shore of West Twin Lake are dotted with cabins, so, although the Forest Service calls it wilderness-like, it’s everything but wilderness if you define wilderness as the Wilderness Act of 1964 does:
A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain. An area of wilderness is further defined to mean in this Act an area of undeveloped Federal land retaining its primeval character and influence, without permanent improvements or human habitation, which is protected and managed so as to preserve its natural conditions and which (1) generally appears to have been affected primarily by the forces of nature, with the imprint of man’s work substantially unnoticeable; (2) has outstanding opportunities for solitude or a primitive and unconfined type of recreation; (3) has at least five thousand acres of land or is of sufficient size as to make practicable its preservation and use in an unimpaired condition; and (4) may also contain ecological, geological, or other features of scientific, educational, scenic, or historical value.
We knew this going in, but if you just pick up the pamphlet at the Grand Marais Forest Service office, you may be in a shock to learn that Kemo and Pine also have lots of houses on them.
Towards Kemo Lake
One treat of paddling the Twin Lakes Canoe Route in the fall is that the shore of each lake is covered with aspen and birch, which means bright yellows reflecting against blue sky on mirror-calm lakes, except this year with four days of 20+ mph winds many of the trees along the windward shores were denuded of leaves. They just blew off. On the protected leeward shores, the trees were still full of golden leaves. West Twin was mainly denuded. We paddled along the bare branches of the birches listening to the sound of rifle and handgun target practice punctuated with the snore of a chainsaw bucking wood for the coming winter.
Just past a campsite on the northern shore, I smelt something rotting, like the body odor of an unwashed canoeist just back from a two-month trip — something like a stinky bear. We searched the woods to see something — anything — move. And then heard something breaking twigs and sticks, and the sounds quickly faded as it put distance between us.
The 70-rod (which felt longer and is marked in the wrong bay on the Forest Service map. It’s actually in the southern most bay) portage at the west end of West Twin leads to Talus Lake, a triangle-shaped lake surrounded by cedar with branch that reach right to the water. If trees could move, it would be easy to imagine them reaching their branches to the water to scoop up a cup. At the end of Talus, a 30-rod portage puts us on Kemo Lake, which we decided to camp on. It was mid-afternoon and the sun was already low in the sky compared to mid-summer. The northwest wind pushed us quickly the quarter mile distance to our campsite.
Because the campsite faced west, the wind blew into the open straight into the fire pit area and made sitting there in the lower 40 temperatures and wind miserable. Luckily, a large tent site was protected out of the wind and away from the lake. I crawled into the tent after we put it up and took a nap.
When I woke up, Ilena and I paddled to the northern part of the lake to get out of the wind and she fished eventually catching a small brook trout. The area is known for having abundant walleye, lake trout, brook trout and rainbow trout. As the sun got lower, we could sense that it was going to be a good sunset, so we raced back to our campsite and the sky turn purple, pink, orange and yellow. A layer of clouds that hung over the lake reflected those colors into the lake, and the wind calmed enough to stand out on the shore and enjoy the show.
With the wind almost gone, we started a fire, cooked dinner and enjoyed the light of the moon until it was time for bed.
In the morning, the wind had picked back up and shifted to due west. We paddled down the shore to the 75-rod portage into Pine Lake. The portage started out wide, but soon enough was covered in ankle twisting rocks. We could see scratches on the surface of some where snowmobiles had left their claw marks. We checked out the campsite on Pine and decided that it was a nice one with plenty of open space and a nice view of the sunrise and then paddled/sailed to the weathered-gray trestles for a old, long-gone railroad bridge. There we portaged back to the car.
It was a quick overnight on the Twin Lakes Canoe Route, but it was nice and refreshing. I’m not sure I’d come to the Grand Marais area to specifically do this route, but if you have an overnight to waste and you’re in the area, it’s nice enough.