Minnesota's 100+ Mile Wilderness trail

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Minnesota's 100+ Mile Wilderness trail

Postby kwpapke » Wed Aug 20, 2008 1:55 pm

In preparation for my "someday" thru-hike of the Applachian Trail, in May '08 I resolved to test my mettle: can I hike 100 miles with no resupply through a Northern wilderness? The AT requires this with its infamous "100 mile wilderness" approach to Mt Katahdin. It just so happens that Minnesota has its own version of this: hiking from the Magnetic Rock trailhead of the Border Route through the BWCA, then continuing down on the Superior Hiking Trail to Grand Marais is a journey of 120 miles, and few would contest the wilderness character of the route.

My trip began on the morning of May 23, 2008, picking up my BWCA permit at the Grand Marais ranger station:
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Armed with my permit and a 50 lb pack (25 lbs of food), Pat Scully shuttled me to the trailhead.

The Ham Lake fire had a real impact on the first few miles of the trail - Magnetic Rock looks like a sentinel in a field of dead trees:
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The Border Route trail has a bit of a reputation for being hard to follow. It was very well marked through the Ham Lake burn area, which was the area I was most concerned about, and I had no problems. By the time I made it to the Gunflint Lodge area, I was starting to get a little optimistic about what an easy cruise this was going to be - it sure looked like an easy trail:
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By the end of Day 1 I made it to the shores of Loon Lake, a total of 11.8 miles, a respectable day for me considering the late start with the shuttle. I set up my camping hammock not too far from the edge of the lake, and was serenaded by the namesake birds the whole night long. Its amazing how LOUD they really are when you are camping near the shoreline.

Day 2 took me past beautiful Bridal Veil Falls, Topper Lake, and a"rustic" river crossing that called for some serious butt-sliding on the log:
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I ended up the day at Partridge Lake, another 12 mile day.

Day 3 was filled with the spectacular vistas of the Rose Lake cliffs, and sweat. One of my concerns on making this trip in the Spring was cold weather, but so far my biggest issue was sunburn and keeping well hydrated in the heat, but this concern was not to last... Late in the afternoon the view from the bluffs above Watap Lake was spectacular:
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Sometime during the day my rainjacket, tied to the back of my pack, caught a snag and it was some time before I noticed it was gone. I backtracked several miles looking for it, but eventually decided that it was lost for good. I had a peaceful night along the portage between Mountain and Clearwater lakes.

Day 4 was to be a different story. The day began with a warm rain, but all day long the temperature dropped, until by noon it was snowing. And me with no raincoat. I was wet from the waist up, but my fleece pullover, keeping a fast pace (almost 16 miles that day), and a lunch of SPAM with ramen noodles kept me from getting too cold. Late in the afternoon the sky began to clear, which pleased me considerably, as I thought it would give me a chance to dry out. Of course when the sky clears after a cold front, even colder temperatures follow and I awoke the next morning to find all my clothing I had hung up to dry was frozen stiff as a board! My thermometer said 26 degrees.

Day 5 brought blue skies, sunshine, exit from the BWCA, and a completion of the Border Route ahead of schedule. I had budgeted 6 days for the 65 mile journey, and finished in under 5! It would be an understatement to say that I was starting to look (and smell...) a little scruffy, but as you can see in this picture from the south end of Fowl Lake, when you are warm and dry while backpacking, life is good:
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The transition from the BRT to the Superior Hiking Trail was a bit of a shock due to the logging activity along Otter Lake Road, but after slogging through the mud I made it to the Andy Creek campsite. It got even colder that night, 23 degrees, cold enough that my Jetboil was a little reluctant to fire up the next morning to make my hot chocolate. "Frosty" would be the apropos adjective:
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Day 6 brought wildflowers, beautiful vistas of Lake Superior, and a stellar campsite at South Carlson Pond. There I experienced my wildlife highlight of the trip: a mother and baby moose making their way across the pond. How I longed for a better telephoto lens!
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Day 7 was a gorgeous day, and ended with a bit of the SHT lakewalk. I decided to spend the night at a rustic campsite there, listening to the lap of the waves against the shoreline:
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It was a beautiful evening, and I retired to my hammock thinking I would have an easy hike into Grand Marais the next day.

Of course it rained and the wind howled most of the night. It gets a little chilly down by the Lake... The next morning it was pouring rain, 40 degrees, the wind was still blowing hard, and the weather showed no signs of clearing. When hiking in the BWCA, you know you have to push through and do Whatever It Takes, but when you are a few steps from busy Hwy 61 it is just too easy to stick out your thumb. Lo and behold, in just a few minutes I was in a nice warm car, being offered homemade hot bread from two friendly young ladies on their morning commute to work in GM. Life is good. Opting out early meant I completed only 100 of my planned 120 miles, but considering I had no rainjacket it seemed like the sensible thing to do.

I would heartily recommend this route to anyone looking for a 1-week true wilderness hike. It has it all:
    - A short, easy shuttle from Grand Marais
    - Not only spectacular scenery, but the variety of the combination of the BRT and SHT is has to be experienced to be believed. The BRT is a rugged ridgeline hike with constant views of lakes. The SHT is rivers and ponds, with views of Lake Superior.
    - A true wilderness experience. I met no other backpackers on the trail, and only a few dayhikers and canoeists along the way.
    - A feeling of real accomplishment: you begin your hike in an incredibly remote area, and hike back to civilization in Grand Marais. I felt like Survivorman.
This trip has given me the confidence to believe I can take on the wildest section of the Appalachian Trail and not only survive, but enjoy myself.

Caveats: one has to be prepared to carry food for over a week. I had a 10-day supply in my pack. Considerable planning and preparation was required, and a sturdy pack and shoulders are required to carry that much food. A GPS is really handy when traversing the Border Route. Prior to departure, I had digitized in a rough route from the McKenzie maps and was glad I did. There were a few occasions at trail junctions where I temporarily lost the trail, but with the aid of my GPS I quickly got back on track.

One gear note: the Border Route and BWCA are well-suited for hammock camping. This was my first wilderness experience with my Hennessey, and I really appreciated the ability to set up anywhere along the trail without having to search for a level clearing. A hammock can be pitched anywhere there are 2 trees the right distance apart.

-Kurt Papke, Chanhassen, MN 8/20/08
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