DULUTH - The Kekekabic Trail in northeastern Minnesota's border country is a hiking path so wild that it literally disappears in many places.
In the 1970s, a skier lost his way and died of hypothermia. Last fall, two Duluth hikers were three days overdue and nearly out of food when they were found off the trail by a rescue helicopter.
Now, hiking clubs have renewed their call to Superior National Forest officials to make the trail if not less wild, at least easier to follow.
Martin Kubik of the nonprofit Boundary Waters Advisory Committee said members of the committee will meet Tuesday with U.S. Forest Service rangers to make a case for placing trail markers, though rules governing the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness prohibit signs and most other human-made objects. Forest Service officials, acknowledging that overgrown condition of the "Kek" presents a public safety issue, say they're willing to discuss possible compromises.
The 42-mile footpath snakes from a remote trailhead east of Ely to a spot on the Gunflint Trail, about 50 miles northwest of Grand Marais. Kubik, who hiked the trail over three days in November, said the need for markers is especially critical on the eastern third, which has been obliterated in many places since the 2006 Cavity Lake fire.
The fire burned the forest down to bare rock in many places. With no tree canopy, thick grass and brush grew up, obscuring the terrain and landmarks.
"It's a surreal environment in that burn area," Kubik said. "There are many segments where the trail simply disappears. Two or three times, I had to bushwhack until I found the trail again."
In early October, Maria Jacenko and Grace Knezevich, both of Duluth, weren't so fortunate. The co-workers are experienced hikers but lost their map, then the trail, near Bingshick Lake. Using a compass, they kept working their way slowly east toward the Gunflint until searchers in a Minnesota State Patrol helicopter spotted them and picked them up, three days overdue and nearly out of food.
"I understand the philosophy of the wilderness," Jacenko, 42, said last week. "But if it's designated as a hiking trail, it's almost deceiving to have the trail and markings just vanish."
Once was marked
Kubik said it was an incident in which hypothermia claimed the life of a cross-country skier in the early 1970s that led the Forest Service to mark the Kekekabic by tacking small, blue diamond-shaped signs to trees. Nearly all of the signs are gone now, and Forest Service officials have been reluctant to replace them.
"If you go back to the basics of wilderness, it's where man's presence cannot be felt," said Mark VanEvery, the district ranger in Ely. "When you place signs, you take away from that experience." He said the same strict federal wilderness rules that prohibit markers on hiking trails also prevent the Forest Service from marking canoe portages, despite complaints from canoeists that some are difficult to locate and follow.
But VanEvery added that the "explosive growth" of underbrush after the Cavity Lake fire and the historic blowdown of 1999 present special challenges to hikers that may warrant some type of trail aids. He said one option might be to publish satellite GPS coordinates to assist hikers with GPS devices.
"We certainly aren't interested in people going out there and getting lost," VanEvery said. "The main point is that we're willing to sit down and talk and to try to come up with some solutions."
One option some hikers have proposed are cairns -- conical piles of rocks like those that have been used to mark pathways for thousands of years.
Mark Stange, president of the Kekekabic Trail Club, said there's precedent for allowing man-made structures in the wilderness. He said a hiker's 10-day ordeal after getting lost near the Pow Wow Trail in 2001 led the Forest Service to install a wooden arrow to keep others from losing their way at a particularly tricky spot. And the Forest Service's approval of a few designated campsites on the Kekekabic Trail enhances its wilderness nature by discouraging hikers from camping anywhere they wish, he added. The Forest Service also allowed a 32-foot footbridge over the Agamok River gorge on the trail.
"The wilderness should be kept looking like the wilderness," Stange said. "However, chasing around looking for lost hikers with airplanes also detracts from the wilderness.''
Larry Oakes • 1-800-266-9648