Unmarked trail has ‘nice parking lots’

Last week’s news of two hikers becoming lost on the Kekekabic
Trail came as no surprise to my cousin Don Perich, who hiked the
route with a friend last May. After completing the hike, Don phoned
to tell me it was a tough trail to follow due to extensive
blowdowns and burned areas, as well as no markings along the
route.

The Kekekabic Trail traverses the Boundary Waters Canoe Area
Wilderness for 38 miles between Ely and the Gunflint Trail. It is
maintained by volunteers, because even though hiking has surged in
popularity in recent years, the U.S. Forest Service, which manages
the BWCAW, focuses its efforts on maintaining campsites and
portages for canoe and kayak recreation.

“I could see how someone could get turned around, especially in
the middle section,” said Don when I phoned him at his home near
Duluth last week.

He and his friend, Jon Peterson, also from the Duluth area, are
experienced woodsmen. They had recently returned from a wilderness
moose hunt in northern Ontario when I called. They make excursions
to the interior of the BWCAW throughout the year, though last May
was their first trek across “the Kek.” Lakes were still frozen and
some snow lingered on the ground during their hike from the
Gunflint Trail to Ely. They made the trip in three and a half
days.

“It wasn’t bad,” Don says. “We didn’t kill ourselves.”

Bear in mind that my cousin has the physique of a Sasquatch,
although his arms are somewhat shorter. Nevertheless, what he calls
“kind of dicey,” might be a little more challenging for other
folks. Consider his recollections about the hike.

He said the first five miles or so were relatively easy because
the trail leads to a remote brook trout water called Bingshick
Lake. Beyond there, they passed through areas burned over during
the wildfires of 2006 and 2007. Although they enjoyed the unusual,
open scenery of the great burns, the trail was not well marked.

“There weren’t any rock cairns or other markings,” he said. “It
was hard to find north of Gabimichigami Lake, which was part of the
burn.”

As they went westward, the burns gave way to blowdowns near
Kekekabic Lake, remnants of the infamous July 4 windstorm in 1999.
The pair found they had to leave the trail to make lengthy detours
around massive blowdowns (the forest was essentially flattened by
the storm) and then try to find the trail again.

“It might have been a little easier if there wasn’t any snow on
the ground,” he said. “Once in a while we’d find a sawed log, which
was about the only marking on the trail.”

As they approached Thomas Lake, travel became especially
difficult. In one place, they had a lot of trouble finding a foot
bridge crossing a river running high with spring runoff. Don
thought the bridge was likely easier to locate if they’d been
walking from the west to east.

Approaching the Ely end of the trail, they left the BWCAW, but
following the trail was still difficult. In one place they crossed
through a large clear-cut. Someone had marked portions of the trail
with plastic ribbons, but not enough of them. Even though they had
more or less returned to civilization, it was still hard to follow
the path. All in all, Don said, the difficulty in navigation made
what would have been a stiff hike for the pair into a tough
trek.

“I was lucky that my buddy is pretty good in the woods or I
might have ended up in Manitoba,” he quipped.

After they returned home, Don paid a visit to the Superior
National Forest headquarters in Duluth to report on the condition
of the trail. He was concerned that if someone went on the hike
expecting a marked trail, they might run into trouble.

“Some sections were just fine and maybe followed an old road in
places, but other portions have not been maintained in a long
time,” he said. “I expected a little more of a marked trail.”

Although he was treated politely by the U.S. Forest Service
staff, he was also informed that the Kekekabic is considered a
wilderness trail. He was told that if he thought more maintenance
was needed, he could join a volunteer organization and participate
in a trail-clearing expedition.

“That’s not the point,” Don said. “There’s a nice parking lot on
each end of the Kekekabic Trail, and not much in between.”

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