A Guide to Backpacking and Hiking the Boundary Waters
By Zach Johns
Another wave splashed over the bow of the canoe, hitting me in the face as my dad and I paddled straight into a headwind on Knife Lake. It was one of those days where you normally would just stay in camp and not paddle, but I was due back at work the next day.
Yes, one of the very things that we go to the wilderness to escape was causing me to struggle across this huge lake.
I closed my eyes and paddled hard. “One...two...three...four…” I counted each stroke until I got to 100 then opened my eyes again. The shore didn’t seem an inch closer. In fact, it almost seemed farther away!
I gritted my teeth and began to fantasize about that wonderful portage at the end of the lake.
Yes, I used the words “wonderful” and “portage” in the same sentence.
I admit - I love portages! It’s not just on those windy days, either. Most of my time in the wilderness tends to be on foot as I am more of a backpacker than a canoeist. Don’t get me wrong, I love to paddle, I truly do, but there is just something wonderful about mucking around the bush on your own two feet.
Like many Minnesotans, my first experience in the “backcountry” was when I discovered the Superior Hiking Trail, an amazing footpath which weaves its way among the Sawtooth Mountains of Lake Superior’s North Shore. With over 300 miles of sweeping mountaintop vistas, cascading rivers and endless forests, I could probably hike it for the rest of my life and never tire of it.
However, every person who likes testing themselves in the outdoors needs to raise the bar every now and then. After completing the entire Superior Hiking Trail (what was done at that time) in 1998, I looked for a new challenge. I decided to explore some of the trails in Minnesota’s only true wilderness: the BWCA.
First on my list was the Kekekabic trail.
“The Kekekabic Trail is one of the toughest, meanest rabbit tracks in North America … It is the kind of trail that would break the heart of a man who didn’t have what it takes to go into the wilderness and try to ‘smooth it.’” Those words were written by Whitney Evans on a Boy Scout trip in 1949. 50 years after they were written, I wanted to see if I had “what it takes.”
Unfortunately, 1999 was the year of the epic Fourth of July windstorm that decimated much of the BWCA. In that mostly pre-internet era, I failed to do enough research, but figured three months was enough time to get the trail cleared.
We set off. My companions and I hiked straight into the heart of the blowdown and straight back out with our trails between our legs and a hernia to show for it.
And so began my introduction to the trails of the BWCA. It quickly became a torrid love affair.
The hiking trails of the Boundary Waters are NOT like your typical state park trail or even the Superior Hiking Trail. They are the real deal. In many places you are barely able to tell there is a trail at all. You can’t just let your mind wander and hike on cruise control. You have to pay attention to where you are, otherwise you might find yourself turned around, confused and scrambling to retrace your steps.
You can also leave trail luxuries like bridges and puncheon behind for the most part. You might find yourself rock hopping, balancing atop beaver dams or wading through deep water. Plus, most of the trails in the BWCA have no escape route. Cell service is virtually nonexistant and unlike the Superior Hiking Trail, where there is a trailhead every ten miles or so, once you’re in, you’re in. You are committed to either make it to the end of the trail or go back to where you started.
That’s what I love about hiking in the Boundary Waters.
It’s raw and real and trekking there has a real sense of danger. In many cases, the distance just getting to most trailheads can be quite the expedition. Once you’re just a few yards down the trail, all you will hear is the sounds of the wild: Birds and squirrels, the wind and the rain, the wolves and the loons. And running into any other hikers? It’s very rare indeed. You’re more likely to cross paths with someone hauling a canoe over a portage than another hiker. Even that is pretty unlikely.
I think my last canoe trip in the Boundary Waters was in 2002. Since then I have backpacked the Kekekabic twice and the Border Route, Angleworm and Sioux-Hustler trails. I’ve day hiked to the summit of Eagle Mountain a half dozen times and have winter camped on Hegman Lake three times, hiking to its pictographs a half dozen times as well. This last Memorial Day weekend I went on a dayhike on the Powwow Trail. I can’t wait for volunteers to clear it so I can backpack its length.
Sometimes I wonder why I spend so much time in a place called a “Canoe Area Wilderness” on foot. It’s not that I don’t enjoy canoeing — I love it! But on foot, it just seems like you can get a little deeper into places few have ever seen. You still get to enjoy the beautiful lakes as most campsites are nestled beside them and I challenge you to find a more spectacular spot in the Boundary Waters the high upon the cliffs of the Border Route.
For those of you who are curious, below is a guide to a few of the most popular routes in the Boundary Waters. Think of it as an appetizer for future adventures. Hopefully you’ll be inspired to lace up your boots, load a pack and venture into the wilderness to find out if you have “what it takes.”
A SELECTION OF BWCA HIKING TRAILS
By Matt Davis
First thing to keep in mind is that while volunteers tirelessly work to open and maintain, these are wilderness trails. Unlike popular trails most of us are used to there is not always a bridge and sometimes, there’s not always a trail. Pile of rocks or a piece of red ribbon tied to a tree might guide you. Even then, getting lost is easy. And, just like in “Oregon Trail,” sometimes you need to ford the river.
The Border Route Trail
Distance: 65 miles from the Magnetic Rock Trailhead to the eastern terminus at Otter Lake Road.
Difficulty: Hikers should be in good physical shape and have solid navigation skills. Even if there were no fallen trees, overgrown sections or places where the trail simply disappeared, the Border Route would be a challenge. Numerous steep climbs and descents, along with the remote nature, makes this one tough puppy.
Access Points: The Border Route Trail (BRT) begins at the Magnetic Rock Trail head, which can be accessed by following the Gunflint Trail (Country Road 12) west from Grand Marais. For those wishing to begin at the eastern end, follow Otter Lake Road, just north of Hovland.
Why you should hike it: Bragging rights — this is after all, the longest trail in the Boundary Waters! It’s also affords stunning views from the top of cliffs and takes you to parts of the BWCA no paddler sees.
Description: The idea for the Border Route trail, to create a wilderness hiking trail that would follow the border chain of lakes (the Voyageur highway), was conceived of in the 1970s by volunteers from the Minnesota Rovers Outdoors Club. It was completed in the 1990s,
Known for its rugged topography and for dramatic vistas. About half of it — from the east end of Gunflint Lake to above John Lake — passes through the Vento unit of the BWCAW. It is still maintained by volunteers of the non-profit Border Route Trail Association during spring and fall trail clearing trips.
At its western end, the ambitious hiker can connect the Border Route Trail with the Kekekabic Trail and the Superior Hiking Trail (in the east). Recently, these three trails have become part of the 4,600-mile North Country National Scenic Trail.
The Kekekabic Trail
Distance: 41 miles from the Snowbank Lake Road trailhead east to the Gunflint Trail.
Difficulty: Difficult. Rocky, rugged, remote, with plenty of deadfall to crawl around, the Kekekabic goes through the heart of the Boundary Waters. Like all the trails in the BWCA, be sure your navigation skills are tuned.
Access Points: From Ely, access the eastern end of the trail at entry point #56 and take out at entry point #74 on the Gunflint trail.
Why you should hike it: Solitude, great camping, full immersion in the wilderness, sights like Mueller Falls, and the list goes on.
Description: The Kek is famous for being very remote, it’s very primitive wilderness character (it crosses countless beaver dams), and for providing great opportunities for finding solitude.
The Kek was built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s to provide access from the Fernberg Road to the fire tower above Kekekabic Lake. It was built for utility instead of for maximizing scenery. The eastern half was built by Boy Scouts in the late 1940s to connect the fire tower with the Gunflint Trail.
After being nearly forgotten, the trail was brought back to life in 1990 by volunteers affiliated with the non-profit Kekekabic Trail Club. The Club reorganized in 2015 as the Kekekabic Trail Club Chapter of the NCTA and continues to do trail clearing trips, trail promotion, and publishing of the Kek guidebook.
Distance: 30 mile loop.
Difficulty: Even when the trail is cleared and reopened, this is a challenging hike, for all the reasons other wilderness trails in the BWCA are challenging.
Access Points: From Ely, entry point #86.
Why you should hike it: The Powwow skirts 15 lakes, which is reason enough. Plus, once it is fully cleared, later this year, take the opportunity to make some of the first steps on this newly-restored trail.
Description: The Pow Wow trail got punished by natural disasters. The 1999 blow down, followed by the 2007 Pagami Creek Wildfire threatened to erase this historic trail from the wilderness. In the last couple of years, volunteers put in hundreds of hours to reopen the trail. As of 2018, 25 of the 30 miles have been cleared and volunteers plan to clear the rest — thereby reopening the trail — by the end of 2019.
Distance: 32 miles
Difficulty: Very, very difficult. Experienced backpackers have been turned back. Be prepared to get frustrated, maybe even scared.
Access Points: Boundary Waters entry point #15, right off the Echo Trail.
Why you should hike it: If you’ve hiked the other trails in the BWCAW, and want an even burlier challenge, with more blowdown, more isolation and more opportunities to get lost this is your ticket. Obviously, this isn’t for everyone. But, you’re not “everyone.”
Description: Of all the multi-day hikes in the BWCAW, the Sioux Hustler might be the most challenging. At times the trail simply disappears. Other times it gets swallowed by a swamp and bog or is blocked up by a beaver dam. To repeat: This is not a trail for the faint of heart. Competing it will make you grateful for the hard work volunteers put into these trails.
Making the trails connection
On a final note, after twenty-five plus years of advocacy by Minnesota hiking trail volunteers and twelve-plus years of work with Congress by the North Country Trail Association (NCTA), the Kekekabic (Kek) and Border Route Trails (BRT) are FINALLY official parts of the North Country National Scenic Trail (NCT)!
This happened in March 2019 with passage of the John D. Dingell, Jr. Conservation, Management, and Recreation Act, which contained the NCT's Route Adjustment legislation in it. This legislation made the Arrowhead Re-route official, updated the NCT's estimated length to 4,600 miles, and also extended the NCT into Vermont to meet up with the Appalachian Trail.
The North Country National Scenic Trail now extends 4,600-plus miles from Lake Sakakawea State Park on the west side of the Missouri River in North Dakota through Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York to the Appalachian Trail in Vermont (see the attached map).
The inclusion of the Kek and BRT within the Boundary Waters drastically increased the amount of miles of the NCT passing through Wilderness Areas. This section is by far the most significant Wilderness hiking to be found along the entire NCT. The North Country Trail Association is partnering with the National Park Service, Superior National Forest, the Border Route Trail Association, and our Kekekabic Trail Club Chapter to find, train, and equip the volunteers needed to maintain these two great hiking trails.
ABOUT THE AUTHORS
ZACH JOHNS grew up in the St Croix River Valley idolizing Grizzly Adams, Jeremiah Johnson and Smokey Bear. His childhood was full of car camping and day hikes. While attending the University of Minnesota-Duluth his life was changed when he discovered backpacking and canoe camping. After graduating in 1995 he moved to the Iron Range to be closer to the BWCA and North Shore of Lake Superior. He’s been hiking, paddling and skiing ever since.
MATTHEW DAVIS lives in Detroit Lakes, Minnesota and has worked since 2006 as the Minnesota & North Dakota Regional Trail Coordinator for the non-profit North Country Trail Association. He is an avid hiker, skishoer, mountain biker, and also a long-time trail volunteer. His family has visited and hiked in all of Minnesota's State Parks.