The Kekekabic Trail presents some of the most remote and challenging experiences for both hikers and volunteers on the North Country Trail. Matthew Davis, Regional Trail Coordinator for North Dakota and Minnesota gives an insider’s look at this unique section of trail from a recent trail clearing trip.
Hikers often find portions of northeastern Minnesota’s Kekekabic Trail (the “Kek”) in pretty rough shape. The Kek is a portion of the North Country Trail’s “Arrowhead Re-route” – making up the western most 41 miles of the contiguous 400 miles stretching from Snowbank Lake Rd. to Jay Cooke State Park along the Kek, Border Route Trail, and Superior Hiking Trail. Since it cuts across the heart of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW) and is lightly used, the Kek offers by far the most remote hiking opportunities found along the entire NCT.
The challenge of hiking the Kek comes from the combination of its remoteness; the catastrophic ’99 blowdown, which flattened 370,000 acres of the 1-million acre BWCAW; and the resulting 2006 Cavity Lake wildfire.
Some of the blowdown’s worst damage was centered along the Kek while the Cavity Lake fire burned the Kek’s easternmost 12.5 miles. These natural disturbances resulted in the removal of a mature forest canopy which resulted in a profusion of woody and herbaceous regeneration. This situation has proven to be a huge challenge for the volunteers of the Kekekabic Trail Club (KTC) which is celebrating its 25th Anniversary this year.
The newly formed Kekekabic Trail Chapter of the NCTA (a re-organization of the KTC) scheduled four trail clearing trips this spring to tackle “the worst of the worst” as identified by Derrick Passe’s group hike last September.
- Terry Bernhardt and I led an American Hiking Society Volunteer Vacation crew that tackled the eastern-most targeted section of the Kek – from Gabimichigami Lake east to Seahorse Lake.
- Derrick Passe led a Volunteer Vacation “Reunion Crew” that worked from the Kekekabic Lake west to Strup Lake.
- Bruce and Matt Johnson of the Itasca Moraine Chapter led a trip from Kekekabic Lake east to Harness Lake.
- Mark Stange led a trip from the Agamok Bridge west to Harness Lake.
The challenge of maintaining the Kek also comes from its remoteness – all of these trail clearing trips require a significant paddle in to reach the Kek, and the overgrown conditions. Only hand tools can be used in the trail clearing within the designated Wilderness. If you’ve ever been on a BWCAW canoe trip, you know that paddling trips entail portaging all of the group’s canoes, camping gear, food, when you are portaging between the lakes. When trail clearing you also need to portage your trail clearing tools.
The work of clearing the Kek is slow and arduous…because it involves not just clearing the downfalls lying across the Trail (of which there aren’t many in the blowdown and burn areas) but also cutting with loppers the thousands of individual stems of brush and small trees that are growing adjacent to and often, within the trail corridor. This work entails bending over for hours at a time. Other work can include placing additional trail markers (hanging blue flagging tape and building cairns) and putting step stones or logs across wet areas.
Another challenge of maintaining the Kek by canoe can be weather. If a storm comes in and wind kicks up waves on a lake you need to cross, you might just have to take a “zero mile day” and remain in camp. We had a day like that on my trip – we spent the entire day huddled in our campsite while the temperature dropped to the high twenties and the wind blew snow horizontally. The wind can also sometimes work in your favor, as Bruce Johnson’s crew found. Art Hopkins, who volunteered on the trip with Bruce Johnson had this to say…
“We had a tail wind from the west on the way in, and a tail wind from the east on the way out.”
“By the end of our stay, we had cleared a little more than our allotted section of the Kekekabic Trail, about 2 miles in all. Hikers approaching Harness Lake will suddenly emerge from a tight green tunnel into our sunlit corridor, cleared to 5-6 feet wide and fully eight feet tall. I imagine those future hikers thanking us, as they pick up the pace and look around them. Maybe they’ll wish we’d cleared it half as wide but twice as long. Oh, well, there’s always next time.”
Have you ever hiked or volunteered along the Kekekabic? We’d love to hear your stories in the comments below.
The North Country Trail couldn’t exist without the help of many volunteers. Find out how you can volunteer here. Projects range from trips like this one, to regularly walking a section of trail to report its condition, to helping with office work. We need you!
Photos from the Kekekabic Trail Clearing project (all photos by Matthew Davis).
Click on a picture to see it larger and scroll through the gallery.