Trekking the tough Kekekabic Trail

  • Article by: LARRY OAKES , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 3, 2010 - 8:35 PM

When a pair of hikers tested themselves against Minnesota's tough Kekekabic Trail, they discovered wonder in its wildness.

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After hiking about seven miles on their first partial-day on the trail, they pitched their one-man tents on the eastern shore of Disappointment Lake. Two men fished the lake from the canoe. They turned out to be the only other humans Oakes and Colburn saw on their hike.

Photo: Tim Colburn, for the Star Tribune

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It was one part inspiration and at least one part Lagavulin.

Emboldened by the smoky magic of that single-malt scotch in front of a fireplace last winter, my neighbor Tim Colburn and I resolved that in 2009 we would finally pull the trigger on our dream to hike the Kek.

The Kekekabic Trail is renowned among hikers to be Minnesota's meanest, wildest trek. It slithers like an agitated snake almost 40 miles from Snowbank Road, east of Ely, through the heart of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness to a point about 50 miles up the Gunflint Trail, west of Grand Marais.

Named for a lake near its midpoint with a name derived from the Ojibwe, "Kekequabic" (meaning hawk-cliff or hawk-iron lake), the trail emerged when foresters hacked through the brush in the 1930s to make a footpath for fire-suppression crews.

In 1949, Boy Scout Whitney Evans captured some of the trail's traits in a description timeless enough that Martin Kubik and Angela Anderson used it in their Kekekabic Trail Guide in 1996:

"The trail struggles its way through swamps, around cliffs, up the sides of bluffs, and across rocky ridges. It is choked with nightmarish patches of clinging brush. It is blocked with tangles of windfalls and standing timber. It is pressed in places on all sides by outcroppings of rock.

"Sometimes it snakes its way over old river beds, slippery, rocky and treacherous. In other areas it is a peaceful path loping through open stands of timber with a soft, mossy carpet underfoot."

It went from tough to impassable for a couple of years after the infamous 1999 blowdown flattened the forests along miles of the trail's eastern half. More recently, wildfires ravaged the dead timber, scouring the landscape to bare rock in many places and obliterating all traces of the path.

Intrepid hikers took to building rock cairns or tying bits of ribbon to mark the treadway, but officials of the Superior National Forest have been reluctant to make an exception to the BWCA's rules against permanent markers -- even after a pair of hikers lost their way in the late fall of 2008, prompting a search and rescue by helicopter.

That incident only made Tim and I more determined to test ourselves against the Kek.

Yes, we decided under the influence, but as September neared we prepared in sober earnestness. We made lists and decided our pace: 8 to 10 miles a day. We packed the smallest and lightest tents, sleeping bags, sleeping mats and quick-dry synthetic clothing we could find.

We chose tough, broken-in boots with room for two pairs of socks, to prevent blisters. Tim ordered freeze-dried meals to cook on his tiny butane stove. I bought a hand-pump micro water filter. We were pleased to find our packs each weighed less than 35 pounds.

Tim acquired detailed McKenzie maps and a GPS unit, but then we discovered that waypoints -- latitude and longitude coordinates -- weren't readily available for much of the trail. So we navigated the old-fashioned way, by dead-reckoning, map and compass. We used the GPS only to record waypoints, to post to websites and share with other hikers.

When the day finally arrived, we set out from the western trailhead near Ely under clear skies that stayed with us for five days.

There's not enough space here for a blow-by-blow of the hike, but here are some impressions of this wild and wonderful trail:

It's an odyssey, a series of adventures to experience and problems to solve.

As we journeyed eastward the trail switched back and forth along ridges and through gullies rubbly with boulders and cross-hatched by gnarly roots of 200-year-old pines. It jumped rivers where only a log or two had been laid down for a bridge. It traversed boot-sucking swamps where tops of beaver dams often afforded the only dry crossing.

When the trail disappeared in a grassy slew or on a bare-rock bluff, we continued our direction of travel until the terrain or vegetation changed to something that would give definition to a footpath, then zigzagged or circled until we reacquired it with a shared smile of relief.

The first night, as we watched the sun slip behind the western shore of Disappointment Lake, we talked in hushed tones about how a broken leg or even a twisted ankle could turn the hike of a lifetime into a living nightmare. We resolved to keep our boots tight and our eyes open.

A waxing, nearly-full moon rose in the eastern sky, flanked by Jupiter. They became our nightly companions.

It's a slog. The average person could walk 10 miles on level ground in a day and not feel exhausted. We walked 8-10 miles a day carrying 35 pounds over steep, jagged, and blocked terrain, and each night we were so tired we almost fell into our sleeping bags.

"That was a death march," Tim, a lifelong runner and basketball player, panted as we sloughed off our leaden packs at a campsite along the tumbling Agamok River after a 10-mile day.

After dinner, chasing Ibuprofen with nips from a flask, we decided the Kek's drain on a hiker was two-fold: Each step required not only the exertion of a stride, but also a quick decision about where to plant the foot, and often a balance shift in midstride, when a rock would wobble or a log would roll.

We agreed that a good part of our fatigue was from spending hour upon hour in a state of hyperawareness, our brains firing double-time to do the countless calculations required to make a good pace without injury.

It's a worm hole -- a pathway to a former time, when a person could walk one direction for days in Minnesota and not encounter another human.

The Kek is so challenging that in the past five years the BWCA issued an average of only 56 overnight hiking permits a year for the trail during it's "quota" season, May through September. (In addition, an average of 90 permits were taken out each year for day hikes and off-season hikes.)

Other than a pair of fishermen in a canoe on Disappointment Lake, we saw no one during our five days on the trail - not a single other hiker.

After two days of walking we were so far into the BWCA's interior that we no longer heard even the faint drone of airplane or boat. Campsites got so little use that dead wood for fires lay everywhere -- no need to scrounge.

There, crouched in silence on the shore of an undisturbed lake with a fire flickering and Jupiter on the rise, a guy could believe with newfound certainty that while life is hard, its rewards can be great -- and some moments are perfect.

Larry Oakes • 612-673-1751

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