Tom Funke, Tammy Krembs, Keith Otis, & Mike Otis at the eastern terminus of the Kekekabic Trail
Article by Tom Funke
Photos by Tammy Krembs, Keith Otis, and Mike Otis
Videos by Mike Otis
Having the goal to section hike the entire North Country Trail in my lifetime, two trails that have been on my list for twenty years are the Kekekabic & Border Route Trails. Both cross significant wilderness areas in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area. Both have been ravaged by storms, forest fires, and minimal maintenance, due to the nature of being in a wilderness and having little or no access to the interior parts of the trail.
The vast majority of the 4600 mile long national scenic trail crosses a road about once every mile or so. Not on the Kekekabic. Number of road crossings? Zero. Zip. Nada. Zilch. None. Not even a spur trail, not even an abandoned forest road. You either hike its 40 mile length or you push that SOS button on your Delorme and helicopter it out of there.
The Border Route Trail has a 23 mile segment without a road or spur trail. It crosses one road its entire 60 mile length, and thats on the far eastern end. There are spur trails to the Gunflint Trail (paved road) but some of these are a day’s worth of hiking.
That being said, I constantly read “you need to be an experienced backpacker to hike these trails”. I’d disagree with that statement. What you need to be is BRAVE and SMART about your hiking.
This is the trail. Really. See it?
When I say BRAVE, it is mostly because for 100 miles there isn’t a single trail marking. What you look for, though, is signs of trail maintenance. A cut stump. A tree that has been trimmed back. Cut brush, a bent over branch. When you lose the trail (and we lost it well over 100 times, mostly on the Kekekabic) we looked for these signs. Put someone in the lead who is well versed in tracking animals, as, you’ll be following a faint tread that is mostly obscured by all the tag alder, honeysuckle, and popple growing up around the tread. The Border Route, for the most part, had a “lane” you could follow. The Kekekabic? Not so much, we were staring at the tops of our feet for most of our hike.
Therefore, if you can take a deep breath, and, have yourself and a couple of others on your hike, many eyes make for keeping your feet and eyes on the trail. Hiking the fall, as we did, we had the fortune of others before us who put up the occasional piece of flagging tape to keep us on track and boost our confidence. Everytime we lost the trail, we would flag the “before” and “after” to help the next group find their way.
On the Kek, you will also hike across about 10 beaver dams. The first one was the Hoover Dam of beaver dams. You either fell off into 8 feet of beaver pond, or downslope into a marsh. You just need to come to terms you will post hole at least once.
Oh yeah, boulder fields, too.
When I say SMART, you have to come to terms this isn’t Pictured Rocks, Isle Royale, or any other well traveled trail. Maybe 100 people a year hike the Kekekabic. Probably less than that hike the Border Route. This is a wilderness trail that puts forth conditions you won’t experience on well traveled trails.
Signs of trail maintenance led us to believe we were still on the trail.
We tried a few things on the Kekekabic that we didn’t utilize on the Border Route. First, we assigned whistles to everyone. I had a howler and so did the first person in our party. We decided that we would always remain close to each other. Being the vegetation is so thick, most of the time if someone got more than 100 feet ahead of another, you couldn’t see them. Therefore, we decided that one blow of the whistle from the trailing party told the leading party to stop and wait. A blow from the leading party was to tell the trailing party their location, and it was usually at a place where the trail was easily lost. We blew our whistles countless times each day on the Kekekabic. On the Border Route, we used voice commands and were were always within 50 yards of each other, most of the time much closer. It is smart to stay close and in communication.
Cairns (the good kind) kept us on the trail.
Another smart thing we did was deliberately planned out our day on the Kekekabic. We planned on where we would take breaks, how long they would be, and where our final destination would be. If we arrived early, we could take a longer break, late, a shorter break. We also plotted out potential places to camp in case we didn’t make it. What helped was we programmed into a handheld GPS (we called here Gypsy) stream crossings, beaver dams, vistas, and campsites. That way we could know the distance to each place and let our bodies know how much longer it would be to get to these points.
On the Border Route Trail, we overestimated how many miles we could hike in a day, and, constantly fell behind. On the Kekekabic, we hit our targets every day. It is smart to know that you need to cut your miles per hour at least in half. We barely made one mile an hour. I am a 2.3 mile and hour backpacker under normal conditions.
The trail is very rocky, you typically cannot take more than five steps without kicking, stepping on, glancing, or tripping over a rock. Additionally, the deadfall over the trail was frequent and challenging to go over, under, or around. We had to crawl on our bellies on several occasions. This feat really slows you down and does sap you of energy more than you’d think.
You’d be very smart NOT to wear trail hikers. We all wore thick soled boots, three of the four of us had leather uppers. Our feet, at the end, looked like someone took a sledge hammer to them. Bruises, blisters, and bloody scabs covered our feet. I cannot imagine what they’d look like if someone wore trail hikers. Ouch….just….ouch.
Oh, it rained on us while hiking the Border Route Trail.
You’ll also hear “you need to be well versed in map & compass, and, bushwhacking”. Map and compass was helpful on the Border Route Trail as there are multiple opportunities a day to triangulate your position. Not so much on the Kekekabic. Bushwhacking? We would constantly look into the woods around us and ask ourselves if we needed to bushwhack, how far we’d make it. The general consensus was “not very far”. The entire Kekekabic goes through second growth that is about 20 years old. We only saw one small patch (less than a couple acres) of pines of any size. The forest was too thick to do any meaningful bushwhacking. If you lose the trail, the best thing to do is keep looking for signs of trail maintenance.
Lots of topography made it easy for us to triangulate our position on the Border Route Trail
We also set the goal of 30 pound packs without water. We were able to share equipment amongst each other and minimize our weight. We had two hammocks, a bivy, and a one person tent between the four of us. I think we all wore the same clothes everyday, and, we all ate dehydrated/freeze dried foods.
I used to tell folks Isle Royale was not a good place for noobs on their very first backpacking trip. I’ve reconsidered this position. Isle Royale is a cakewalk with a few rocks for good measure. The Border Route Trail is Isle Royale on steroids. The Kekekabic is a rocky rabbit track where Isle Royale is a paved highway.
We only saw six humans on the Border Route Trail. All within an hour of each other. We only saw one human in six days on the Kekekabic
So, if you have either of these trails on your bucket list, if you are BRAVE and SMART about your hike, you should accomplish these feats that few others have.
Leaving he BWCA from the Border Route Trail.
Tom Funke has hiked over 2000 miles of the North Country Trail. He is the author of “50 Hikes in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula” and “50 Hikes on the North Country Trail”.