ON THE POWWOW TRAIL – A hefty backpack slung from his shoulders, hiker Martin Kubik places a hand on a fallen tree blocking his path and groans. "I hate this," he mutters as he lowers himself beneath the trunk, one knee scraping the ground, to pass under. It is a labored routine he repeats again a few hundred yards farther down the trail at the next fallen tree, and then again at the next one. And again.

Each obstacle on the Powwow Trail in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness brings more protest from Kubik.

"This is what they want," he grunts, as he stands back up. "It will become so overgrown and then they will close it."

The U.S. Forest Service will stop clearing the trail to allow the forest to recover from a devastating fire five years ago. A few years from now, or maybe 10, it will be easier to remove debris from the trail when the trees recover enough to block sunlight from the forest floor, said Forest Service spokeswoman Kris Reichenbach.

She insists there are no plans to permanently close the path.

But the decision to stop maintaining the trail is unnerving to hikers like Kubik, a longtime Minnesota hiking advocate, author of trail guides and president of the hiking organization Friends of BWCA Trails. Kubik and a group of dedicated hikers worry that priorities will change, and fear they are seeing the end of a beloved Boundary Waters backpacking trail, one that was threatened with closure before.

Susan Pollock of Minneapolis, a Kubik friend and a frequent hiker in the Boundary Waters, said she's hopeful the Powwow will come back.

The trails "are gorgeous and people need to know about them," she said.

Isolated trail

To get to the trail, drive to the end of a dirt road north of Isabella, park on a gravel lot near a sign that says "Forest Center Helispot," fill out a self-reporting permit and hike into the woods. The Powwow is one of a handful of Boundary Waters trails long enough to offer a full backpacking experience. Shaped like a lariat, it starts north of Isabella on a long-abandoned logging road before it forks.

Go left to take the trail clockwise, go right to do it counterclockwise, and expect in either direction to face 29 miles of some of the toughest hiking in the state.

Struck by a devastating fire in 2011, the Powwow is a stark lesson in forest biology. The tree canopy is gone, not a leaf in sight, but many of the tree trunks still stand like busted, bent antennae. Some trees tower 30 or 40 feet above the ground, but without branches or greenery, they do little to block the sunlight from the forest floor, where brush grows vigorously alongside, and sometimes, across the trail.

The trail's open, officially, but the Forest Service said it could be dangerous to walk the route given the fallen trees and underbrush obscuring the trail. Only experienced hikers should attempt it, according to the Forest Service website. Hikers will need navigational aids, "exceptional way-finding skills" and will see little shade or water. It is one of the longest hiking trails in the state, but still shorter than the Kekekabic, the Border Route and the Superior Hiking Trail.

The Powwow drew about 40 overnight permits annually before the fire, and just eight last year. The most popular Boundary Waters hiking trail, the Kekekabic, draws about 80 to 90 permits a year.

Kubik knows that his beloved hikes don't draw nearly the numbers of people who come to the Boundary Waters to canoe, but that's also the allure.

"I like backpacking, because for me it's an intimate way to connect with the forest," said Kubik. His long history with the Powwow Trail includes lobbying for its survival when it was threatened with closure in the early 1990s. The trail, built shortly after the BWCA Wilderness Act of 1978 was passed, goes to areas not accessible by canoe.

"That's why hikers prized it before the Pagami Creek fire," Kubik said.

Fire damage

Ignited by a lightning strike, the 2011 Pagami Creek fire engulfed 92,000 acres of forest.

The Forest Service sent some of its employees along with a young Conservation Corps group onto the Powwow in 2012, and again in 2014 and 2015, said Reichenbach. Armed with handsaws and clippers, they hacked at the underbrush and fallen trees. And then nature stormed back.

"They estimated that they put in something like 3,600 hours of work combined," she said. "They found they would start working on sections of the trail, and by the end of the summer the area had grown back and sprouted vigorously," she said.

Straight-line winds and reoccurring rain weaken and drop more of the dead-but-still-standing trees, Reichenbach said.

The trail hasn't been completely forgotten: a 6-mile stretch from Isabella Lake to Pose Lake has been kept relatively clear, and the Forest Service asked volunteers a year ago to come help clear that section. No one's taken up the offer so far, Reichenbach said.

Kubik, who's been hiking the region for decades, said he worked with the Forest Service until 2013, when the requirements were increased to include calling in twice a day. He found it onerous, and quit working with them.

Budget shortfalls

A 2013 Government Accountability Office report found that the Forest Service was largely underfunded, saying just 37 percent of the agency's 158,000 miles of trails had experienced some level of maintenance. The backlog of work will cost $314 million to clear, and another $210 million is needed for annual maintenance, the report found.

It also recommended better training for the Forest Service on how to collaborate with and manage volunteers.

A spring hike of the trail this year took Kubik and hiker Paul Stelter four days. Stelter said the pair lost their way several times.

"Sometimes we had to actually leave the trail and walk around these piles, these mountains of brush," he said. "There were literally times when we were almost swimming through jack pines maybe 5 feet high. They were thick as grass. It was absolutely phenomenal."

They counted 4,648 tree falls on the trail. "The good news," Kubik said, "is that eventually we are going to run out of trees to fall down."

Matt McKinney • 612-217-1747