On the Trail to Johnson Falls
A stay on the Gunflint Trail is almost incomplete without a trip to the verdant, untouched, two-tiered waterfall known as Johnson Falls. There are a number of ways to get to the falls but the two easiest are from the north starting at Clearwater Lake or coming in from the south and starting at East Bearskin Lake. Traveling from the north requires less paddling but more portaging and coming in from the south requires more paddling and hiking but less actual portaging. From Clearwater you have two different portages to choose from to get into Caribou Lake. Though they are both about the same length the western option is flat and muddy and the eastern option is drier but requires ascending and descending 125 feet. The western portage utilizes an old railroad grade for a time and has some turns that are not marked on the map that should be noted. Shortly after the first left at the Y look out for a 90-degree right hand turn down hill, this is the actual portage, if you do not take this right hand turn and continue straight on the railroad grade you will have to portage much farther and eventually will end up in the backside of the first campsite on Caribou Lake, which if occupied can be awkward to say the least.
From Caribou take the short portage into Little Caribou and paddle to the 80 rod portage to Pine. You have an option to not portage a canoe down to Pine Lake if you don’t want, but it will require some bushwhacking along the shore of Pine and some fording of the creek that flows out from the falls. On wet years this can be a very challenging bushwhack and portaging down to Pine to paddle over to the proper landing will be worth the extra effort. The trail up to the falls is not maintained but is traveled regularly enough so that it is very easy to follow. It meanders along the creek for a 1/3 of a mile or so before climbing up into the woods and depositing you just uphill from the first set of falls. From there its pretty much a choose your own adventure as there are not definitive trails, but just know there is a second set of falls up above the first one and both are great spots to swim if the water is not too cold or too high.
If you are coming in from the south and East Bearskin prepare for a little bit of a longer paddle and more walking to get to the fall and after two easy, short portages you will be into Canoe Lake. From Canoe Lake you can leave your canoe at the portage landing to Pine Lake and walk to the falls from there. It is a steep climb and gradual drop over the course of almost a mile to get into Pine and from the portage landing on Pine there is a spur trail that connects over to the trail to the falls.
Either way you come from you are looking at about 6-9 hours on the water depending on the wind and how long you spend at the falls, and either way you’ll have a blast.