Hiking Minnesota's Kekekabic Trail

Updated on March 13, 2018
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Deb thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail and is a Search & Rescue volunteer and writer living in Flagstaff, AZ.

Snowbank Lake on the Kekekabic Trail in Minnesota's Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness
Snowbank Lake on the Kekekabic Trail in Minnesota's Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness

About the Kekekabic Trail

The Kekekabic Trail, constructed in the 1930s for forest management and fire protection, was named after its original destination, Kekekabic Lake, which derives its name from the Ojibway word "Kekequabic," meaning hawk-cliff lake. That lake is now located in the central portion of the trail. The fire towers along the original route were abandoned in the 40s when airplanes came into use for fire surveillance.

In the 1960s, with the increasing popularity of backpacking, the "Kek" was cleared and upgraded to a hiking trail, though use once again dwindled after the Forest Service stopped maintenance in 1982.

In 1990, a newly-formed volunteer group called the Kekekabic Trail Club, with the support of the U.S.F.S., once more cleared the trail, removed 2,000 downed trees with axes and crosscut saws, and using hand tools rebuilt a 32-foot bridge across the Agamok River. The Kekekabic Trail Club continues to maintain the trail, having recruited and trained more than 1,000 volunteers.

The Kekekabic Trail is mostly located within the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, in the Superior National Forest.
The Kekekabic Trail is mostly located within the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, in the Superior National Forest.

Day 1

July 13
Today's miles: 10
Total miles: 10
Destination: Near Kekekabic trailhead

Well, we did hike about 10 miles today ... but we're camped no more than half a mile from where we started! Our first day out and we get lost. Or at least, we thought we were lost.

Everything seemed to be going pretty much according to the guidebook and somewhat better McKenzie map, but suddenly we found ourselves at the west end of a very big lake and nothing appeared to jive. So out came the compass, and we studied the map some more. We backtracked to a fork in the trail and studied the map again. We took the other trail from the fork, came to a clear cut, didn't see any apparent treadway and backtracked once again. We kept backtracking, over the beaver dam, past the old logging road and the powerline and, six hours after we'd begun hiking, returned to where Doug had dropped us off just before noon. Where he'd dropped us off was not where we had expected to begin, as the trailhead has recently been relocated.

So here we are, camping at the edge of the powerline, the only clear spot we could find after re-starting from the trailhead. We just finished talking over the day and are convinced we know where we were when we turned back. I'd seen a powerboat on that big lake -- a boat Allen (a/k/a Stumped) didn't see. It wasn't until we'd gotten most of the way back to the trailhead that I voiced a question that had crossed my mind earlier.

"Hey, Stumped, are there any roads that go to Disappointment Lake?"

There aren't. Which means that the motor boat I saw could not have been on Disappointment Lake, since there would be no reasonable way to get it there. Not to mention the fact that Disappointment Lake is inside the Boundary Waters Wilderness Area, where motorized boats are not permitted. So we must have been at Snowbank Lake and hadn't gone as far as we'd first thought. Then I realized, I'd been walking at what I know to be a two-mile per hour pace, but I'd continually stopped to wait for Allen, who was feeling a bit sluggish on this first day out. We'd also stopped for some calories, because neither of us had eaten since 7a.m.

With that lower mileage in mind, I looked at the Kek guidebook, which indicates that the trail comes to a fork leading north to a primitive campsite on Snowbank Lake. That fork isn't drawn on the map, just noted by the word FORK, which is a little tough to see among all of the topo lines and other features. Further up the trail, however, where we originally thought we were, there is a fork drawn on the map. Thinking that's where we were, the big lake we were at made no sense.

Soooo ... tomorrow morning we head back to the fork, take the trail to the right, which leads to the clear cut, and look for the trail on the other side of that jumbled mess. Since we won't yet be in the BWCA Wildnerness, we might find a blue blaze. Once inside the Boundary Waters, we'll have only what there is of a footpath and possibly some cairns and occasional blue flagging tape to lead the way. Allen is wishing he'd brought his GPS, but I'm optimistic that we'll do just fine with the map and compass, some common sense, and a bit more diligence when we get to a tricky spot.

Allen has the alarm on his watch set for 5a.m., in hopes of getting on the trail at six. I'm sure I'll be awake before the watch beeps.


Day 2

Today's miles: 11.5
Total miles: 21.5
Destination: Campsite on Medas Lake

Sure enough, we found the trail through the clear cut and continued on. Today was a humid one, but I wore long pants to protect at least part of me from hungry mosquitoes and flies, and dense underbrush. Hiking behind Allen so we wouldn't get separated, I pushed my way through ferns and saplings, careful not to trip over all the roots and deadfall, which I could barely see. Some intermittent rain, the wet, muddy trail, sweat and the underbrush had us pretty well soaked. At one point, the trail crossed what is labeled on the map as a "boardwalk" -- a series of boards several inches underwater. We also crossed some beaver dams on our way to this beautiful campsite on the shore of Medas Lake. I'm hearing loons nearby and thunder in the distance.

Despite the overgrown trail and absence of vistas or lake views along most of the distance today, I enjoyed the hiking. I walked along at Allen's pace, making good use of my imagination. I'm afraid my hiking partner wasn't so content, however, frustrated by the conditions of the trail and his lack of energy, which he thinks may have been due to dehydration. I'm hoping he'll feel better and enjoy himself more tomorrow.

The thunder is moving closer as I lie here under the tarp and mosquito net, which I think I actually managed to put up without trapping a single mosquito in here with me.

I realized tonight that I don't have much of an appetite. I cooked two packages of Ramen noodles, which I mixed with a creamy tomato sauce and summer sausage, but I ate maybe a third of it. Stuffed and unable to eat even another bite, I had to put the rest in a baggie to pack out with my trash. Yuck.

Well, the wind just picked up and I'm chilly, so I think I'll crawl into my sleeping bag now and hope the storm will pass quickly.


Note: Apologies for the tiny photos from here on out. They were scanned (from slides) at too small of a size.

Parts of the "Kek" were very overgrown.
Parts of the "Kek" were very overgrown.

Day 3

Today's miles: 11.5
Total miles: 33
Destination: Campsite on Harness Lake

Counting the one I just plucked off my arm, that makes eight ticks for today. Good thing I tucked my pant legs into my socks and wore a floppy hat, or I'm sure there would be more than that one tick clinging to my skin. Just to be sure, though, I'll feel around a bit after I finish this entry about today's 12 hours of hiking. Make that bushwhacking.

There were times when the "undergrowth" was well above our heads. Sometimes, the only way Allen and I could determine the route was by looking for cut logs where a volunteer had removed a blowdown. At other times, we slogged through ankle-deep water and picked our way across beaver dams, hoping they'd hold and not have any holes hidden in thigh-high grass.

Speaking of holes, poor Allen found three of them the hard way. Down he went. He also slipped when crossing a stream. Cut his hand on that one. And he involuntarily ate two mosquitoes--went right down his windpipe, producing quite the coughing fit. Twice I heard hacking and wheezing behind me in the distance and wondered if I might have to go for help ... which is a long way from here. Luckily, Allen survived both mosquitoes, three wipeouts, one big splash and, I almost forgot, two head-clunks when he was looking down and didn't see the trees lying forehead-height across the trail, only to land on his butt just before we reached camp, when a small rock beneath his foot turned over. Each time he fell, clunked his head or inhaled a foreign body, I made sure he was okay before I did any giggling.

Oh, and about last night: that storm came right for us. The first big gust of wind was the strongest, but the rain came down hard for a while. It didn't take long for us to realize that we'd set up the tarp in a very bad spot. All of Allen's side and the lower half of mine were pools within minutes. As the lightning flashed, with simultaneous claps of thunder, I busied myself with Allen's orange cat-hole digger, making drainage ditches in a futile attempt to get some of the pooled water to run away from the tarp, not to mention distract myself from my fear of lightning. Luckily, the worst of the storm was over in about 20 minutes, but the rain continued. Somehow, I managed to keep my sleeping bag, Z-rest pad and my clothes bag dry.

We'd planned to choose a location for the tarp carefully tonight, in case we have another downpour or a long, steady rain, but, as it turns out, our options in this tiny campsite are limited to one, and it's definitely not a good spot if it rains. So far, the sky is clear and the temperature cool, but the night has just begun.

A thundering waterfall at the Agamok River Gorge
A thundering waterfall at the Agamok River Gorge

Day 4

Today's miles: 6
Total miles: 39
Destination: Campsite on Lake Gobimichigami

For a while today, as I was slogging through marsh and muck, pushing through underbrush, maneuvering over and under blowdowns, or sitting on a convenient rock or log while waiting for my hiking partner, I thought about what I might write in today's entry. Saw a grouse? Mm-hm, but that probably isn't interesting to anyone but me. Rained off and on today, giving way to blue skies this evening. So much for the weather report. And there was the thundering waterfall at the Agamok River Gorge.

When Allen and I stopped here at the Lake Gobimichigami campsite for a late and well-earned lunch at 2 p.m., that's pretty much all I had to report, other than the fact that I'm like one big mosquito bite welt that seems to be a tick magnet. I scratch-n-pluck, scratch-n-pluck.

But then we hoisted our damp backpacks to hike another six miles to the campsite on Bingshick Lake, and I finally came up with something to write about: the fact that we were this close (I'm barely touching my index finger to my thumb) to turning back. All the way back to the beginning. Why? Because when we left the campsite on a very distinct path -- unusual for the Kek -- the trail ended abruptly at a pond and small beaver dam.

For two hours we searched. There was thick undergrowth and impenetrable blowdown nearly everywhere we turned. Several times, we returned to the campsite, studied the map and guidebook, and considered our options before going back for another look. We wondered if perhaps, despite what we were told by the Forest Service and a member of the Kekekabic Trail Club, a section of the Kek had not been cleared from the big storm of July 4, 1999. On that day just over four years ago, the sky turned black as night in mid-afternoon. Twenty minutes later, the storm and its 100-mile per hour, straight-line winds had passed, leaving 350,000 acres of devastation. The vast majority of trees had been blown down or snapped off. Amazingly, while there were injuries and some of them serious, no one was killed. Sheryl Hindermann, the general manager of Gunflint Outfitters, told me "there were lots of dead trees that needed to come down, but you'll occasionally see a huge virgin pine that looks untouched." I've noticed that to be true.

Anyhow, figuring that part of the trail had not been cleared after all, I began scouting without my pack, sometimes getting down on my belly to drag myself under fallen trees when going over wasn't an option. Allen stayed on a high point near the beaver dam, so I could call back to him to get my bearings and he to me with directions about where he thought the trail might go.

Finally, I decided to give up. There was no sign of what is usually a faint trail anyway, and the jumble of tree trunks and branches appeared impenetrable in all directions.

As I began to make my way back to Allen, he yelled, "Is there a stream coming into the pond? Go to the stream and walk up it! I think the trail crosses it somewhere!"

Easier said than done, as the stream was hidden under more mangled blowdown as far as I could see, except for the last bit before it came into the pond. But I took a few steps towards the rushing water, and that's when I saw it -- a cleanly sawed log on the other side, as opposed to all the beaver-cut stumps in the area. A sawed log means trail maintenance! I stepped across the stream and saw another sawed log further up, and I knew I'd found the way. I was so relieved; the hike goes on instead of back. But that won't happen until tomorrow. By the time we found the trail on the other side of the flooded-out section (thank you, beavers), it was too late to hike another six miles before dark. There have been almost no camping possibilities other than at established sites, and the going has been sometimes tediously slow. So we called it a day here at this nice little campsite in the balsam fir, only feet from the water's edge.

As the huge cumulus clouds in the distance grow pink and the sky a violet-blue, I'm listening to songbirds and loons and the shhhh of the creek flowing into the lake. Time to put the pen away, do one last tick search for the day, scratch my numerous welts and try to get some sleep. Tomorrow, we'll pass the Kek's eastern terminus, turn onto the Border Route Trail and then down a side trail to Gunflint Lodge and Gunflint Outfitters, where our food drops, hot showers and soft beds await two very dirty hikers, one more worn out than the other, I'm afraid. I hope Allen will be rejuvenated after a night in a cabin.

We camped on the shore of Lake Gobimichigami.
We camped on the shore of Lake Gobimichigami.

Day 5

Today's miles: 13.5
Total miles: 52.5
Destination: Gunflint Outfitters/Gunflint Lodge

How beautiful night last night was, and today is absolutely gorgeous. In the distance, lightning lit up those huge cumulus clouds for hours, but the storm never came close enough for us to hear thunder. And when I woke up, I was treated to blue skies, loons and countless song birds. There was a chill in the air, but the cool temperature kept the mosquitoes quiet for a while and made for comfortable morning hiking, which began with me leading the way around the flooded section of trail to the creek, where we picked up the tread on the other side.

A significant portion of the distance to Bingshick Lake was extremely overgrown, the route barely discernible. At times, we expended considerable effort just pushing our legs forward through the woven underbrush. But I truly didn't mind. We passed several beautiful lakes and ponds, which glittered in the sun. When I'd stop walking and listen, I'd hear only the birds and bugs, until Allen got close enough for me to hear him pushing his way along the trail.

I stopped to wait for my hiking partner each time I came to a questionable spot where he might not go the same way, or when there was a significant obstacle in the trail. At one point, we had to pick our way around some fallen pines. Allen went first, inching along the trunk of a downed tree, breaking off branches as he went. Then he took a spectacular fall, ass over backpack, a reverse somersault down the slope. Thank goodness for the thick undergrowth, which padded and ultimately stopped his fall. That could have been a serious one.

So anyway, we stopped for a brief lunch break at Bingshick Lake, then hiked the remaining 3.5 miles of the Kek, most of which is outside the Boundary Waters and receives much more foot traffic than the rest of the trail. Most of those hikers come in for the day or spend a night or two at the Bingshick Lake campsites before heading back the way they came, following along the edge of Mine Lake and the remnants of old mines, some of which are visible from the trail, even with this thick summer vegetation.

After another four, hot miles, plus an extra mile thanks to a wrong turn, we arrived at Gunflint Outfitters, very ready for showers, cold drinks, pizza and calls home. We may spend tomorrow night here, also, if they have room. We need to sort out our food and discuss the Border Route Trail, which may very well be as overgrown and difficult to follow as the Kek. If we continue on course as planned, Allen wants to figure out where we'll camp each night, including some low-mileage days. The Kek really "kicked his butt," he says.

Oh, one last, really neat thing before I go to bed. Today there was a package waiting for me here at Gunflint Lodge, sent by A.T. hiker "Virginia Creeper" and his wife. A goody box! And we've never even met in person. "Creeper" and I have a mutual friend, known on the A.T. more as "Gaited Mule" than Frank Oliver. "Virginia Creeper" hiked with "Gaited Mule" in the south, while I met a "Thinner and Lighter Gaited Mule" on the trail in New England. "Creeper" and I have emailed some, and he'd asked me where I could get a maildrop on this hike. So I knew the package was coming. Still, it felt like a surprise. Reminded me of when I'd receive care packages at summer camp. Thank you, Mr. and Mrs. Virginia Creeper! Allen -- Stumped -- and I are enjoying the munchies and the thoughtful gesture even more.

Alrighty then, time for flashlight out. Ahhh, a night without mosquitoes buzzing in my ears. Bring on the thunderstorm! Cuz I'm cozy in a cabin.

The last few miles of the Kek are outside of the Boundary Waters Wilderness Area.
The last few miles of the Kek are outside of the Boundary Waters Wilderness Area.

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    © 2018 Deb Kingsbury

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