The Challenge and Joy of Hiking the Boundary Waters

Advocacy, Recreation By Annie Nelson

The night of my first trip to the Boundary Waters in 2011, my cousins and I were camped on Pine Lake. I was startled awake in the middle of the night. I couldn’t figure out why. I listened to the woods around me for the sound of a predator’s foot fall, or some other danger. All I heard was silence. It dawned on me: The depth of the silence was what had woken me. I’m not sure my city-kid brain had ever experienced such profound quiet.

Author Annie Nelson on the Border Route Trail

Author Annie Nelson on the Border Route Trail

The rest of the decade would have me chasing that intoxicating silence on annual canoe and backpacking trips to the Boundary Waters. I watched towering cumulus clouds float silently over Rose Lake. I listened to the wind drop and the quiet settle as dusk fell on Strup Lake.

I didn’t know how rare such experiences were.

Fast forward eight years to Memorial Day weekend, 2019. I was camped out near Five Lakes in Michigan’s Lower Peninsula. Local residents were celebrating with fireworks and target shooting. At 2 A.M., I bolted upright when the violent RAT-A-TAT-TAT of what sounded like an assault rifle woke me from a deep sleep.

I was on a 1,500-mile backpacking trip on the North Country Trail, which runs 4,600 miles from North Dakota to Vermont and includes a stretch through the Boundary Waters, where the trail routes onto the Border Route and Kekekabic Trails.

I had begun my five-month adventure at Croton Dam, Michigan. Before I set off, a local hiker gave me a heads up that target shooting was legal in national and state forests in Michigan. On Memorial Day weekend, I was only three weeks into my trek, but I’d already grown accustomed to hearing gunfire every day.

That weekend people also flocked to the multitude of motor trails on public lands near Kalkaska, Michigan. The forest here appeared to have been clear cut in the 1970s for oil and gas extraction, leaving mostly sandy plains behind, perfect for dirt bikes, ATVs, ORVs, and dune buggies. Hundreds zoomed by me all weekend. On this stretch of trail, it was also common to hike past metal oil pumps.

Johnson Falls in the BWCA
Johnson Falls in the BWCA

During my North Country Trail hike, I passed through beautiful forests and along the majestic Great Lakes, but also through many pine plantations where I watched single Harvester machines fell and de-branch 50-foot trees in seconds. When logging trucks used their air brakes, the roar traveled miles through the forest.

The North Country Trail gifted me with daily moments of awe. If you haven’t done any hiking on it yet, I highly recommend it. I came across beautiful, quiet places. In the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, the trail runs for about 40 miles along Lake Superior. I was often the only person on beaches that stretched for miles in either direction. In the Trap Hills in the western Upper Peninsula, I found a depth of quiet that rivaled the Boundary Waters.

Above Rose Lake on the Border Route Trail
Above Rose Lake on the Border Route Trail

However, during my time on trail, I estimate that I spent fewer than ten nights in camp without hearing human-created noise. I was shocked by how much human noise there was in the forest. Silence was a rarity.

I’ve had many conversations about how the Boundary Waters ruins you, in the best way possible. I don’t camp at state parks or state forest campgrounds anymore. They’re too noisy, with too many people. I always thought there would be many other quiet, wild places, I just had to find them. The farther I hiked on the North Country Trail, the more it dawned on me that the BWCA is unique.

After four and a half months, I arrived in the Boundary Waters. My first night inside the wilderness boundary, I camped at Gogebic Lake, a small lake in the Gunflint District. As dusk fell, the “magic hour” began. The wind dropped, the lake stilled, and the resident loons started calling back and forth. The lake reflected the forested ridges like a mirror. The perfect quiet stole into my soul. I felt connected to everything around me. No gunshots or roaring engines interrupted my reverie.

For more than a century people have been working to create and protect the Boundary Waters. I didn’t think I could become more passionate about continuing that work. I was so, so wrong.

Author, paddler and backpacker, Annie Nelson grew up in the Twin Cites and has hiked more than 500 miles of Minnesota trails and over 1,500 miles of the North Country Trail, ending in the Boundary Waters. She is the author of Thru-Hike the Superior Hiking Trail, available in print and as an eBook. To find out more about Annie and her adventures, go to www.wildstory.site

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