ELY—The Kekekabic Trail runs 41 miles between Snowbank Lake and the Gunflint Trail, traversing the heart of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. This year marks 25 years since volunteers reopened and took over maintenance of the trail. Their tenure has seen four major natural disturbances that have pummeled the Kek.
The first was a powerful storm in 1990, the same year volunteers first cleared the Kek. The storm was dubbed the storm of the century until in howled the 1999 windstorm, which provided copious fuel for the 2006 and 2007 Cavity and Ham lakes fires.
“We want a passable wilderness hiking experience, not a wilderness bushwhacking experience,” says Matt Davis, the Minnesota trail coordinator for the North Country Trail Association, the nonprofit that manages America’s longest footpath, of which the Kek is part.
Tom Kaffine, who has worked 33 years with the Superior National Forest, states the Cavity Lake fire scorched the middle section of the Kek. The fire burned the overstory and obliterated the tread. Increased sunlight resulted in grass and brush.
“You cut grass, it grows right back,” Kaffine said. This is the section where, in 2008, two hikers from Duluth got lost and were rescued after a three-day mission involving search parties and aircraft.
The Kek was built in the 1930s to access a fire tower on Kekekabic Lake. The U.S. Forest Service kept it clear in the 1960s and 1970s, as backpacking fever swept the country. Budget cuts brought an end to maintenance in the early eighties and for several years, the trail saw diminishing use and became increasingly overgrown.
In 1974, Martin Kubik underwent wilderness guide training on the Kek. He recalls the trail as a “swath through ferns, six feet wide and cut with a scythe.”
In 1990, Kubik, who has hiked the entire Kek 30 times, counted 3,000 downed trees blocking the trail. After receiving permission from the Forest Service, he recruited dozens of volunteers, founded the Kekekabic Trail Club and managed to clear the trail just in time for the 1990 storm.
This May, Davis led a weeklong Kek maintenance trip. His volunteer team included people from as far away as California and Connecticut. They paddled a day in, canoes laden with camping gear, crosscut saws, loppers and hard hats. The Superior National Forest supplies such equipment to support trail clearing crews.
David Glisczinski was on the May trip.
“Now I can’t go hiking without looking at every feature [of a trail] and thinking about how much work goes into that,” he says. “Getting to see the Boundary Waters with a group that knew the area was really comfortable and rewarding.”
“You can’t just pop up and work for a day,” says Kaffine. “Some parts of the trail take two days just to get to. The trail gives you that sense of wilderness and isolation.”
“I love to be in the forest,” says Kubik, “and the intimate connection that comes from hiking.”
Derrick Passe, who has been involved with the Kekekabic Trail Club for 15 years, expresses a similar opinion, “with hiking, you can feel and touch the wilderness. It’s always changing.”
The Kek is already the de facto route of the North Country Trail. The Kek, Border Route and Superior Hiking trails form what is known as the Arrowhead Reroute of the North Country Trail. Legislation has been proposed to make the reroute law. The Kekekabic Trail Club recently became the Kekekabic Chapter of the North Country Trail Association.
“It [the North Country Trail Association] brings in organizational support,” says Passe.
“I think it will be good for the trail,” says Kubik.