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.

hide

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

CameraStar Tribune photo galleries

Cameraview larger

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

  • related content

  • An imbalance in the equation

    Sunday January 3, 2010

    Mature bucks are few and far between in Minnesota. That's not what Mother Nature intended.

  • Tim Colburn

  • Larry Oakes

  • Larry Oakes shakes dew off his tent.

  • Evidence of 1999 BWCA blowdown.

  • get related content delivered to your inbox

  • manage my email subscriptions

Click here to send us your hunting or fishing photos – and to see what others are showing off from around the region.

ADVERTISEMENT

Detroit 6:00 PM
Washington
Atlanta 6:30 PM
Miami
Toronto 6:30 PM
New York
Memphis 7:00 PM
Minnesota
Brooklyn 7:30 PM
Dallas
Milwaukee 8:00 PM
Utah
San Antonio 8:00 PM
Phoenix
Buffalo 2:00 PM
Florida
Detroit 2:00 PM
Nashville
Carolina 4:00 PM
NY Islanders
New Jersey 4:00 PM
Columbus
Arizona 4:30 PM
Boston
Toronto 6:00 PM
Montreal
NY Rangers 7:00 PM
Philadelphia
Minnesota 9:00 PM
Colorado
St. Louis 9:00 PM
Edmonton
Ottawa 9:00 PM
San Jose
Kennesaw St 75 FINAL
Lipscomb 94
Navy 57 FINAL
Loyola-Maryland 47
Bucknell 70 2nd Half 0:12
American Univ 69
NC State 63 FINAL
Boston College 79
East Carolina 71 FINAL
UCF 66
Georgia Tech 60 1st OT
Clemson 60
Lehigh 55 FINAL
Colgate 61
Louisville 81 FINAL
Florida State 59
Missouri 44 FINAL
Georgia 68
Army 64 FINAL
Lafayette 74
Michigan 56 FINAL
Maryland 66
Georgetown 65 2nd Half 0:47
St Johns 79
Rhode Island 53 2nd Half 6:50
La Salle 49
Western Carolina 34 2nd Half 20:00
Citadel 25
Nebraska Omaha 39 2nd Half 20:00
IUPUI 34
Maine 43 2nd Half 10:03
New Hampshire 48
Samford 38 2nd Half
Va Military 26
Presbyterian 32 2nd Half 17:10
Winthrop 43
Utah State 6 1st Half 15:50
Air Force 5
Vermont 12 1st Half 13:48
Albany 10
UMBC 0 1st Half 17:42
Binghamton 4
Indiana State 8 1st Half 15:39
Bradley 4
Butler 7 1st Half 15:35
DePaul 4
Illinois State 0 1st Half 17:32
Evansville 4
Wright State 3 1st Half 17:01
Ill-Chicago 0
Fla Gulf Coast 7 1st Half 15:46
Jacksonville 9
Ole Miss 8 1st Half 15:04
LSU 9
North Carolina 2 1st Half 19:03
Miami-Florida 0
Wagner 1 1st Half 15:25
Mount St Marys 6
TCU 7 1st Half 16:08
Oklahoma 6
Delaware 5 1st Half 16:50
Towson 5
Cincinnati 7 1st Half 14:30
Tulane 4
Dayton 0 1st Half 15:30
VA Commonwealth 5
Northern Iowa 8 1st Half 15:18
Wichita State 12
Drexel 4 1st Half 15:44
William & Mary 2
Oakland 4 1st Half 18:59
Green Bay 2
Villanova 8 1st Half 15:18
Xavier 10
Campbell 4 1st Half 15:25
Longwood 2
Sarah Lawrence 1:30 PM
NJIT
Middle Tennessee 2:00 PM
UAB
UNC-Asheville 2:00 PM
Liberty
Southern Utah 2:00 PM
North Dakota
Utah Valley U 2:05 PM
Chicago State
ULM 2:30 PM
Appalachian St
Bowling Green 2:30 PM
Miami-Ohio
Long Island 2:30 PM
Sacred Heart
West Virginia 3:00 PM
Baylor
Holy Cross 3:00 PM
Boston Univ
MD-Eastern Shore 3:00 PM
Delaware State
Wofford 3:00 PM
Furman
Montana State 3:00 PM
Idaho
Hofstra 3:00 PM
James Madison
Iowa State 3:00 PM
Kansas State
Arkansas 3:00 PM
Kentucky
Missouri State 3:00 PM
Loyola-Chicago
Fordham 3:00 PM
Massachusetts
Nicholls 3:00 PM
McNeese State
East Tenn St 3:00 PM
Mercer
Coppin State 3:00 PM
Morgan State
San Diego 3:00 PM
Portland
Gardner-Webb 3:00 PM
Radford
St Francis-PA 3:00 PM
Robert Morris
Duquesne 3:00 PM
St Bonaventure
Creighton 3:00 PM
Seton Hall
Oklahoma State 3:00 PM
Texas Tech
Alabama 3:00 PM
Vanderbilt
Virginia Tech 3:00 PM
Virginia
Bethune-Cookman 3:00 PM
NC Central
St Francis-NY 3:00 PM
Bryant
Drake 3:05 PM
Southern Ill
High Point 3:30 PM
Char Southern
Central Conn St 3:30 PM
Fair-Dickinson
Eastern Mich 3:30 PM
Western Mich
Texas 4:00 PM
Kansas
Chattanooga 4:00 PM
UNC Greensboro
SE Louisiana 4:00 PM
Central Arkansas
South Dakota St 4:00 PM
South Dakota
Montana 4:05 PM
Eastern Wash
Georgia State 4:15 PM
Troy
Old Dominion 4:30 PM
North Texas
Arkansas State 4:30 PM
Texas State
Texas Southern 5:00 PM
Alabama State
Tennessee St 5:00 PM
Belmont
Princeton 5:00 PM
Brown
Dartmouth 5:00 PM
Cornell
Tennessee 5:00 PM
Florida
Jacksonville St 5:00 PM
Morehead State
San Jose St 5:00 PM
Nevada
Florida A&M 5:00 PM
NC A&T
Iowa 5:00 PM
Penn State
Loyola Marymount 5:00 PM
Pepperdine
Miss State 5:00 PM
South Carolina
Savannah State 5:00 PM
SC State
Miss Valley St 5:30 PM
Jackson State
Alcorn State 5:30 PM
Southern U
Prairie View 6:00 PM
Alabama A&M
Harvard 6:00 PM
Columbia
George Washington 6:00 PM
Davidson
Syracuse 6:00 PM
Duke
Tenn Tech 6:00 PM
Eastern Ky
UNC-Wilmington 6:00 PM
Elon
Stony Brook 6:00 PM
Hartford
Hampton 6:00 PM
Howard
Northwestern 6:00 PM
Illinois
Western Ill 6:00 PM
IUPU-Ft Wayne
Buffalo 6:00 PM
Kent State
Incarnate Word 6:00 PM
Lamar
Cal State Fullerton 6:00 PM
Long Beach State
TX-San Antonio 6:00 PM
Louisiana Tech
Fla Atlantic 6:00 PM
Marshall
Richmond 6:00 PM
Saint Josephs
George Mason 6:00 PM
Saint Louis
Austin Peay 6:00 PM
SE Missouri St
Murray State 6:00 PM
UT Martin
Ball State 6:00 PM
Toledo
Penn 6:00 PM
Yale
Milwaukee 6:00 PM
Youngstown St
Stetson 6:00 PM
North Florida
USC Upstate 6:00 PM
Northern Ky
Grand Canyon 6:05 PM
UMKC
Abilene Christian 6:15 PM
New Orleans
Northeastern 7:00 PM
Coll of Charleston
Tulsa 7:00 PM
Memphis
Wyoming 7:00 PM
UNLV
Central Mich 7:00 PM
Northern Ill
Denver 7:00 PM
Oral Roberts
Charlotte 7:00 PM
Rice
Boise State 7:00 PM
San Diego St
St Marys-CA 7:00 PM
Santa Clara
Texas-El Paso 7:00 PM
Southern Miss
Sam Houston St 7:00 PM
TX A&M-CC
New Mexico St 7:00 PM
TX-Pan American
FIU 7:00 PM
Western Ky
Stephen F Austin 7:00 PM
Houston Baptist
Ga Southern 7:15 PM
Louisiana
Ark-Little Rock 7:15 PM
Texas-Arlington
Grambling St 7:30 PM
Ark-Pine Bluff
Auburn 7:30 PM
Texas A&M
Arizona 8:00 PM
Utah
Northern Ariz 8:00 PM
Northern Colorado
UC Davis 9:00 PM
Cal Poly
New Mexico 9:00 PM
Fresno State
BYU 9:00 PM
Gonzaga
Pacific 9:00 PM
San Francisco
Idaho State 9:00 PM
Weber State
Sacramento St 9:05 PM
Portland State
UC Riverside 9:30 PM
CS-Northridge
Washington 9:30 PM
USC
CS-Bakersfield 9:30 PM
Seattle
UC Irvine 10:59 PM
UC Santa Barbara
Michigan 60 FINAL
Illinois 72
Lipscomb 57 FINAL
Kennesaw St 75
North Florida 21 2nd Half 13:57
Stetson 52
Samford 46 2nd Half 13:29
Mercer 32
Liberty 33 2nd Half 18:58
Campbell 27
North Texas 21 2nd Half 20:00
Old Dominion 42
St Francis-NY 34 2nd Half 10:44
Bryant 40
St Francis-PA 30 2nd Half
Robert Morris 30
Long Island 38 2nd Half 17:26
Sacred Heart 34
Sam Houston St 37 2nd Half 13:56
TX A&M-CC 34
Kent State 41 2nd Half 11:41
Miami-Ohio 43
ULM 31 2nd Half 18:31
Appalachian St 37
Boston U 37 2nd Half 11:17
Holy Cross 59
Nicholls 32 2nd Half
McNeese State 39
Akron 7 1st Half 14:34
Buffalo 10
Ball State 1:00 PM
Western Mich
MD-Eastern Shore 9 1st Half 16:28
Delaware State 6
Northern Ill 2 1st Half 19:00
Eastern Michigan 0
Bowling Green 7 1st Half 15:42
Ohio U 7
Central Michigan 3 1st Half 15:36
Toledo 13
Coppin State 1:00 PM
Morgan State
Bethune-Cookman 16 1st Half 14:07
NC Central 2
Central Conn St 12 1st Half 13:28
Fairleigh Dickinson 8
Memphis 2 1st Half 15:41
(1) Connecticut 10
Georgia Tech 9 1st Half 14:39
Wake Forest 10
East Carolina 10 1st Half 15:45
Temple 4
Marist 0 1st Half 19:45
Rider 0
Michigan State 10 1st Half 15:30
Purdue 4
Fairfield 10 1st Half 16:03
Manhattan 4
Niagara 1:00 PM
Iona
East Tenn St 2 1st Half 11:43
(18) Chattanooga 15
Furman 0 1st Half 20:00
Wofford 0
Longwood 4 1st Half 14:26
Charleston Southern 5
UNC-Asheville 10 1st Half 15:51
Coastal Carolina 4
Northern Ky 3 1st Half 18:33
USC Upstate 0
Winthrop 4 1st Half 15:12
Presbyterian 7
Western Ill 1:30 PM
South Dakota
Detroit 1:35 PM
Valparaiso
Cleveland State 2:00 PM
Milwaukee
Lafayette 2:00 PM
Army
Arkansas State 2:00 PM
Texas State
Georgia State 2:00 PM
Troy
Portland State 2:00 PM
Sacramento St
IUPUI 2:00 PM
South Dakota St
Tennessee St 2:00 PM
Belmont
Eastern Illinois 2:00 PM
SIU-Edwardsville
Jacksonville St 2:00 PM
Morehead St
Kansas State 2:00 PM
TCU
Cincinnati 2:00 PM
SMU
SE Louisiana 2:00 PM
Central Arkansas
Denver 2:00 PM
Nebraska Omaha
Tulane 2:00 PM
Tulsa
IUPU-Ft Wayne 2:00 PM
Oral Roberts
Air Force 3:00 PM
Utah State
San Diego State 3:00 PM
Boise State
Fresno State 3:00 PM
New Mexico
Florida A&M 3:00 PM
NC A&T
Gonzaga 3:00 PM
BYU
South Florida 3:00 PM
UCF
UCLA 3:00 PM
Washington
(3) Baylor 3:00 PM
Iowa State
Miss Valley St 3:00 PM
Jackson State
Tenn Tech 3:00 PM
Eastern Kentucky
UMKC 3:00 PM
Grand Canyon
Seattle 3:00 PM
CS-Bakersfield
Texas Southern 3:00 PM
Alabama State
Santa Clara 3:00 PM
St Marys-CA
UNLV 3:00 PM
Wyoming
Savannah State 3:00 PM
SC State
Alcorn State 3:00 PM
Southern U
Bucknell 3:00 PM
American Univ
Oakland 3:00 PM
Illinois-Chicago
Eastern Washington 3:00 PM
Montana
Idaho 3:00 PM
Montana State
Weber State 3:00 PM
Idaho State
Radford 3:00 PM
High Point
Green Bay 3:30 PM
Youngstown St
Austin Peay 3:30 PM
SE Missouri St
Wagner 3:30 PM
Mount St Marys
Portland 4:00 PM
San Diego
Nevada 4:00 PM
San Jose St
Stephen F Austin 4:00 PM
Houston Baptist
Incarnate Word 4:00 PM
Lamar
Abilene Christian 4:00 PM
New Orleans
Pepperdine 4:00 PM
Loyola Marymount
San Francisco 4:00 PM
Pacific
Prairie View 4:00 PM
Alabama A&M
Hampton 4:00 PM
Howard
Chicago State 4:00 PM
Utah Valley U
Murray State 4:00 PM
UT Martin
Cal Poly 4:00 PM
Cal-Irvine
UC Santa Barbara 4:00 PM
UC Davis
Marshall 4:00 PM
Florida Atlantic
UAB 5:00 PM
Middle Tennessee
Western Ky 5:00 PM
FIU
Georgia Southern 5:00 PM
Louisiana
Grambling 5:00 PM
Ark-Pine Bluff
Ark-Little Rock 5:00 PM
TX-Arlington
Cornell 5:00 PM
Dartmouth
Columbia 5:00 PM
Harvard
Brown 5:00 PM
(14) Princeton
USC 5:00 PM
Washington St
(24) California 5:00 PM
(7) Oregon State
Yale 6:00 PM
Penn
Loyola-Maryland 6:00 PM
Navy
Jacksonville 6:00 PM
(21) Fla Gulf Coast
Long Beach St 6:00 PM
Cal State Fullerton
Rice 6:00 PM
Charlotte
Colgate 6:30 PM
Lehigh
CS-Northridge 7:00 PM
UC-Riverside
Kansas 7:00 PM
Oklahoma
Oklahoma St 7:00 PM
Texas Tech
TX-Pan American 8:00 PM
New Mexico St
North Dakota 8:00 PM
Southern Utah
Northern Colorado 9:00 PM
Northern Ariz
Connect with twitterConnect with facebookConnect with Google+Connect with PinterestConnect with PinterestConnect with RssfeedConnect with email newsletters

ADVERTISEMENT

ADVERTISEMENT

ADVERTISEMENT

ADVERTISEMENT

question of the day

Poll: Should the lake where the albino muskie was caught remain a mystery?

Weekly Question

ADVERTISEMENT

 
Close