100 miles of Rabbit Track: The Border Route & Kekekabic Trails

 

Image may contain: 4 people, including Tammy Krembs, people smiling, people standingTom 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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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Signs of trail maintenance led us to believe we were still on the trail.

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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.
Image may contain: plant, outdoor and natureCairns (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.
Video: Negotiating a deadfall
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.
Video: Death by Tag Alder
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.

View of Arrow River from Border Route Trail
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”. 

 

NCT M123 to Naomikong Overlook

Hiking a linear trail has its challenges, foremost, avoiding the dreaded double-back. Worse, someone forgets to bring you back to your vehicle. Therefore, either leave your car where you want to end and ride to the start point or employ a spotting service, which is what I did when hiking a section of the North Country Trail just south of Paradise.

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The North Country Trail exits Tahquamenon Falls State Park and is a road walk on Tahqua Trail and M123. It passes the Rivermouth unit then juts into the woods sharing time with a snowmobile trail. The trailhead is well marked but there appears to be no place to park. So, I left my car at the Naomikong Overlook Trailhead on the Whitefish Bay Scenic Byway.

I would like to note the scenic byway is an excellent place to explore, if you are not up to a ten mile hike. Numerous places to park and spur trails bring you right to Tahquamenon Bay on Lake Superior. Several pullouts have interpretive graphics. All the trails in the are well marked and easy to follow.

My first mile or so was on a snowmobile trail, until it crossed Silver Creek, then it became a tread through a tunnel of trees. Although well marked and having a definite trail corridor, the late summer vegetation was knee high in places.

After 2.2 miles from Silver Creek, the trail comes out to the scenic byway, and, you’ll have to walk a marked road walk before the trail goes back into the woods. For the next 4 miles, the trail follows the shore of Lake Superior. On this particular day, a stiff wind out of the northwest, compounded with water that was barely 40 degrees, made for a day where warm clothes were a requirement. I also witnessed a seche, where water is pushed from the north and was higher than normal on this day.

For the next 4.8 miles, the trail has to use the road to cross the Ankodosh, Roxbury, and Naomikong Creeks, and to circumvent where Lake Superior ate away the beach. Keep following the blue blazes in and out of the woods and you’ll find your way.

Although lightly used, I did run into a trail maintainer, two groups of dog walkers, and a grandfather with his grandkids fishing one of the inland creeks.

Tahquamenon Bay is very shallow, and, was under water for quite a period of time after the glaciers retreated. Today, many of these inland areas are conifer swamp. This is evident when the trail turns inland for the final mile as you utilize several boarwalks in cedar swamps. Climb up several set of stairs to the overlook and hopefully your car will stll be there.

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Tom Funke is the author of 50 Hikes in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.

Notable Segments of the North Country Trail

Looking for a good hike? The North Country Trail has plenty

I have recently inked a deal to write my second book, which will cover 50 different segments of the North Country Trail. To celebrate, I thought I’d share some notable sections of this 4600 mile long trail. 

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My dad and I hiking Trapp Hills

In the same class of trails as the Appalachian, the North Country National Scenic is over twice as long as its older cousin. However, few Michigander’s have heard of this trail let alone walked any part of it.  Here are some notable segments worth noting. .

 The longest & wildest section of trail that crosses the fewest paved roads runs from Copper peak (near Ironwood) to Sidnaw. This segment is about 110 miles long and is a true wilderness experience.  Traversing through the Ottawa National Forest, experience hills, waterfalls, and deep forests during this wild hike. 

Although the trail passes through some federally designated wilderness areas, I believe the wildest segment can be found on this stretch in the Trapp Hills. Deep in the hilly forests of Ontonagon County, encounter high peaks, gorgeous views, low swamps, rivers, and hardwood forests. These features will allow for a scenic, but strenuous hike.  Make a day trip starting at M-64 and end on Forest Road 222.  Make sure to pack a lunch and enjoy your siesta gazing over the treetops. This is bear country so take the usual precautions, since you are more likely to see these furry creatures than another human. 

The closest segment? You probably have walked on it without even knowing it.  If you have stepped foot on the Linear Park, you’ve walked a certified segment of the trail.  Next time you are eating a meal at Clara’s, stare out the window and wonder if the hiker in view is on their way to Crown Point, NY or Lake Sakakawea, ND, the eastern and western ends of this longest National Scenic Trail.  

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Backpackers on the North Country Trail

The most used segment hosts well over 10,000 backpackers a year. Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore has a very popular 42 mile long stretch that parallels Lake Superior. Although it is a high quality experience, best to hike before Memorial Day or after Labor Day to avoid the crowds

 The trail is not designed to isolate the user from surrounding land uses.  As it does in Battle Creek, the trail penetrates downtown areas in other cities, too. From small towns like Petoskey to metropolises like Cincinnati & Duluth,  the trail shares sidewalks, old railroad grades, and bike trails winding its way through many urban centers 

A segment worth mentioning is the stretch in Minnesota that parallels Lake Superior. The trail is within eyeshot of Lake Superior most of its 300 mile stretch but only comes into contact with Lake Superior one time. The name of this segment? Superior Hiking Trail! 

Finally, there is a segment of this National Scenic Trails that is only open for one day a year, and a very short time at that.  Walk the Mackinaw Bridge on Labor Day and claim you’ve walked the least accessible segment of this trail. 

For more information: www.northcountrytrail.org

Tom Funke is the author of 50 Hikes in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. His next book, “50 Hikes on the North Country Trail in Michigan and Wisconsin” will be out in the summer of 2015.

 

 

 

 

 

 

I am my own boss

Well, I finally did it. 

I stepped down from my full time job to pursue my writing & outfitting businesses full time.

Such a decision was not taken lightly, and, was years in the making. 

I have leveraged a career and income opportunity using my 50 Hikes in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula book (you do have a copy, right?). It all started with the Tahqua Trekker at Tahquameon. My wife and I, while at Tahquamenion, had a couple of people bum rides off of us. Upon calling the park manager, we found out there was no shuttle service. That was in 2007. 

In 2010, we started the Pictured Rocks Shuttle Service. We also contracted with another vendor to run shuttles on the Kal-Haven Trail. The Kal-Haven Trail shuttle shut down temporarilly as we were competing directly against the county bus, which was charging $3 a ride. They have stepped aside and we will be resuming shuttles shortly. 

At Pictured Rocks, we still compete directly against the county transit system, although, we clearly offer a better service with more routes, flexibility, and knowledge of the trail. Hopefully, they will step aside like they did on the Kal-Haven but I don’t see that happening anytime soon.

In 2014, we opened Fort Custer Outfitters, operating as the state park concession at Fort Custer Recreation Area. We offer rentals and food service, but will be moving into programs, tours, trips, retail, and gear rental. 

So, you can probably see why I cannot work a full time job!