The early-evening air is soft and warm on my skin as we march through a sea of calf-high grasses. It’s just under 5 miles to our night’s campsite at Portage Brook, an easy trek with June’s long-lasting light. I’m dreaming of the freeze-dried lasagna on tonight’s dinner menu when a cry rings out.
“Ticks!” yells Tom Lakner, one of my two companions and our lead hiker. Tom’s 6-foot frame is bent toward the ground as he vigorously swats at his legs, clad in tan hiking pants. “There are dozens of them on me!”
Keith Myrmel, my other hiking partner, inspects his own pant legs and flicks a few ticks back into the grass. My legs are tick-free.
We continue along, Tom still in the lead. Not five minutes later, he abruptly stops. “There are dozens more on me again!” says Tom, a Columbus, Minn., resident, resuming his slapping and smacking. Keith discovers several on his pants; my tick count remains zero.
“Having someone else lead is my trick,” whispers Keith, of Arden Hills. “The first person gets all the spider webs and ticks on them.”
Thankful to be bringing up the rear, I stay tucked behind the men. That night, as Tom continues to flick ticks off his body, albeit from the comfort of his hammock, I’m snugged in my tent, eager to begin discovering the beauty that awaits.
A trail undiscovered
Tom, Keith and I are hiking the Border Route Trail, or BRT, a 65-mile path that winds through the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCA). The Minnesota Rovers outdoors club began building the trail in 1971 to showcase the dramatic and rugged topography looming over the picturesque chain of lakes that separates Minnesota from Ontario, Canada. Ten years later, the largely completed path became the state’s first long-distance hiking trail created by volunteers.
Although the BRT begins at the northern terminus of the über-popular Superior Hiking Trail and traverses the legendary Boundary Waters — the most-visited wilderness area in the nation — few people realize it’s here or use it. Brian Hanson, president of the Border Route Trail Association, which coordinates maintenance along the BRT, says the main reason the trail is overlooked is its lack of accessibility.
The BRT has a mere handful of trailheads, clustered in the path’s midsection and western end. Most require hiking in from a parking area. There aren’t many shuttles operating near the trail, either, or many resorts or services. The Superior Hiking Trail, in contrast, has trailheads every few miles as it tumbles along the state’s beloved North Shore, making it easy to get on and off the pathway and access the area’s numerous tourist towns. Lots of trailheads also foster day-hikes, which many favor.
But even those who don’t mind the BRT’s remoteness are often cowed by its challenging reputation. Much like the Superior Hiking Trail, the BRT unrolls up and down steep cliffs. But the BRT dishes up a wilder experience. Many sections are overgrown and unkempt, due to a lack of volunteer maintainers and the fact that the BWCA is a designated wilderness area, which means motorized vehicles and equipment are banned, including power tools.
Trimming back a trail with loppers and hand saws is painstaking work, says Matt Davis, the North Country Trail Association’s regional trail coordinator for Minnesota and North Dakota. Recently, a crew of nine worked on the BRT for six days, clearing about two miles of trail. “If you have a [mechanized] brush saw, you can do 2 miles in a day-and-a-half,” Davis says.
Luckily, volunteers may be more plentiful in the future. This spring, after a decade of lobbying, Congress passed a law that, in part, allows for two minor reroutes along the 4,600-mile North Country Trail (NCT), which passes through seven states, including Minnesota. One of the reroute provisions allows the NCT to piggyback on the existing Superior Hiking, Border Route and Kekekabic trails in Minnesota’s Arrowhead region, rather than heading due west from Duluth.
While the new legislation won’t result in any major day-to-day changes for the three Minnesota trails which are now also part of the NCT, it may bring them more love. Not too long ago, Davis recruited volunteers from the entire NCT network to work on the Kekekabic Trail. “I can see doing that for the BRT as well,” he says.
Tom, Keith and I awake the following morning to dreary, gray skies. Yet that doesn’t dampen our enthusiasm. Every time we groan up an impossibly steep incline or stumble through shoulder-high brush, we’re rewarded by breathtaking vistas: Pine Lake, West Pike Lake, Rose Lake and more. We’re awed by the thundering Stairway Portage and Bridal waterfalls, whose might is unquestionable. We applaud when we reach the canoeists’ famous “Long Portage.” (Our 1.8 mile section of it is pancake flat.) And we delight in the tiny surprises our trek offers: a cheerful clutch of pink lady’s slipper, eight speckled grouse eggs resting in a damp bed of leaves, the haunting call of a loon.
At night, we camp along gems such as Sock Lake, which provides a stunning view of dense boreal forest and soaring cinnamon cliffs across its sparkling, blue expanse. No wonder “Outside Online” named the Border Route Trail Minnesota’s “absolute best hike” earlier this year.
Our final day, after struggling through long stretches of overgrown trail, we stumble onto an open area running along Loon Lake. A pair of comfy, wooden chairs sit facing the water. Whooping with joy at this unexpected sign of civilization, Keith and I toss our packs down and collapse into the chairs. Tom grabs a spot on a large, flat rock and begins soaking his feet.
As the water gently laps at the shore, I realize we’re probably three of a minute number of people who will ever set foot in this particular pocket of wilderness, who will have gazed down from rocky aeries on the route the voyageurs paddled a few centuries earlier. The thought is intoxicating. And makes every difficult step worthwhile.
Melanie Radzicki McManus is a freelance writer, and also the author of “Thousand-Miler” about her thru-hike of the Ice Age Trail in Wisconsin. She lives near Madison, Wis.