Clearing the Way in the BWCA
Though she grew up in Minneapolis, Michelle Kwan — who must often tell people that no, she is not an Olympic figure skater — didn’t know about the Boundary Waters until she was an adult. It wasn’t until she returned home from teaching English in China for four-and-a-half years that she was seized with an urge to see more of Minnesota’s wild places and experience the Boundary Waters for herself.
But like many first timers who would like to visit the Boundary Waters, she didn’t know where to start.
Michelle currently runs Keefer Court, which her parents — who immigrated from Hong Kong — founded almost 40 years ago. The oldest Chinese bakery in the Twin Cities has become an icon, and it happens to be across the street from another iconic Twin Cities business: Midwest Mountaineering.
At one of Midwest Mountaineering’s biannual Outdoor Adventure Expos, Michelle was introduced to Wendy Paulson, who has spearheaded a number of trail clearing trips in the Boundary Waters, and this is how Michelle first got to step into the northern wilderness.
Which is unique.
Most people first visit the BWCA in a canoe, a few might go hiking, but trail clearing is not a common way to see the Boundary Waters for the first time. It’s also what hooked Michelle. “I like everything about trail clearing. There isn’t a campsite or a destination you need to get to, so you can find your own pace,” says Michelle.
“Then there’s a sense of giving back to the land. Maintaining trails and campsites for future users keeps the Boundary Waters accessible while reducing impact, and I just feel a lot of gratitude to be able to be up there, and for the work. “
Michelle soon noticed that she was the only person of color on these trips. This didn’t make things uncomfortable, but it did make her think more about issues of access and why more people of color aren’t visiting the Boundary Waters.
Through friends and BIPOC Outdoors Twin Cities Facebook group she met others, importantly Lee Vue, the current Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness Board President. Vue has done incredible work to introduce people of color to the Boundary Waters and helped supply Michelle with gear that other folks wishing to go on a trail clearing expedition could use.
After participating on several trips and recruiting several people to join her, next year, Michelle hopes to lead her first trail clearing trip. She wants to continue to develop her skills and eventually guide more people and inspire them to venture out to wild places.
In addition, she is looking to combine her two passions — cooking and the outdoors — by making Asian-inspired camping meals that are flavorful and unique. For example, Congee, which is a common rice-based breakfast food throughout Asia. Michelle makes this by first concocting her own spiced duck broth, which she uses to boil down rice until it reaches the consistency of porridge. She then places it in a food dehydrator so it is shelf stable and ready to go on trail. As a savory breakfast option, it’s an alternative to what Michelle and so many loathe to eat on those otherwise beautiful Boundary Waters mornings: oatmeal.
Friends is proud to be connected with Michelle and to support her and her crew with daily stipends for their trail clearing work. We are inspired by her love for wild places and energy to introduce diverse populations and make the wilderness a more inclusive place.
Connect with BIPOC Outdoors Twin Cities (Facebook group)
On the Friends of the Boundary Waters podcast, we bring together people who share a love of the incredible BWCA wilderness in Northeastern Minnesota. The podcast will features scientists, political figures and experts in outdoor recreation and wilderness skills to help you learn new facets of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area, the most visited wilderness in the United States.Listen on Apple Podcasts Listen on Google Podcasts Listen on Amazon Music Listen on Spotify Listen on Stitcher
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