From October 3 through October 6, 2013, I hiked the Kekekabic Trail westbound with three new friends and utilizing a key swap with an additional group of hikers heading eastbound.
The Kekekabic Trail is a great experience for a confident backpacker. I would recommend it for a second (or later) BWCA backpacking trip, but not a first. Although this was my first BWCA backpacking trip, it was essentially a guided hike with an extremely experienced guide.
This story (but not the photos) originally appeared on the Boundary Waters Advisory Committee website. The article below has been edited. Additional photos are available at the link above.
After 5,000 miles of backpacking you’d think I wouldn’t be a weenie anymore, but you’d be wrong. Though I have hiked all over the country, I was never brave enough to tackle one of the best trails in Minnesota. The Kekekabic Trail was too intimidating and too wild for me.
The Kekekabic Trail had intimidated me since one fateful backpacking trip on the Superior Hiking Trail. There weren’t many people on the trail, so I was excited to meet a young couple hiking the opposite direction. “We were going to hike the whole Kek,” the woman said, her eyes wide with horror, “But it kicked our ass.” They told me about getting turned around and stumbling out of the woods, bruised and suffering. In comparison, the SHT was literally a walk in the park.
It wasn’t until I came across a Friends of the Boundary Waters Meetup group when tackling the Kek seemed possible. For a month I accumulated gear, went on practice hikes with my future hiking buddies, and terrorized my mother with fun facts about the trail.
“That’s the trail where those people got lost,” I helpfully told her.
“Oh, good,” she responded.
Nevertheless, she drove me to Banning Junction to meet up with the vehicles heading north. My group included three men of varying sanity. They demonstrated their questionable judgment right away: rather than beginning our westbound hike in the daylight, we instead opted to eat a leisurely supper in Grand Marais.
Reaching the trailhead just as the sun dipped below the horizon, we donned our headlamps and began the trip in the dark. We night-hiked the first few miles, making it to Bingshick Lake just as it started to sprinkle. A perfect October evening.
The next day was cold and wet. We packed up and hiked under heavy clouds across previously-charred terrain. The views were expansive, unobstructed by leaves. At one point we reached a short ridge with no fewer than 38 rock cairns leading the way. I wondered why I had been so nervous about getting lost on the Kek. It was easy to follow. . .
. . .until the trail completely disappeared. An ambitious beaver worked hard to obliterate any sign of the trail, and I was relieved to be following Martin Kubik, KGE (Kekekabic Guru Extraordinaire). It took only a few minutes before we were back on visible trail. A short break at Gabimichigami Lake relaxed us before we were hit with the worst section of blowdowns that I have ever experienced. On any trail. Ever. When I have nightmares about blowdowns, this is a section which comes back to haunt me. I crashed through it, relieved again to be following people who knew for sure where the trail went. Their sanity levels were questionable; their navigation skills were much more established.
Happily, we were soon out of the purgatory of the blowdowns and atop a ridge where we could see unburned terrain in the distance – easier trail ahead! Down a steep hill and over the beautiful Agamok Bridge, we were finally on unburned land. Agamok Bridge is my favorite place along the Kek and I look forward to returning someday – but on this trip, we still had miles to put in. We camped at Harness Lake, where we barely squeezed four tents into the tiny campsite.
On our last full day of hiking, the rain kept us moving. We slowed down on frequent slippery rocks but had to keep a decent pace to stay warm. We encountered sections fully cleared of blowdowns, and our pace and happiness increased dramatically. We probably went an entire hour without engaging in what we like to call “language arts.”
After lunch, I looked at the one-board “bridge” above a fast-moving creek. While the guys ambled across nonchalantly, I knew that my lack of coordination and fear of heights were going to strike me if I tried to cross. Luckily, I am a practiced butt-scooter, and I slowly slid across the “bridge.”
Another beaver had obscured the trail, but we blazed on. Our site at Drumstick Lake was large and beautiful. I enjoyed eating almost everything left in my foodbag, knowing that the next day would bring Real Food. I fell asleep in the utter quiet that had been the soundtrack each night – punctuated by just a few snores from nearby tents.
Our last day dawned cold, but with a hot shower at Smitty’s calling us, we walked quickly toward the end goal. As excited as we had been to enter the wilderness, we were equally excited about re-entering civilization. The western edge of the Kek proved no easier than any other section, with many blowdowns and an ambitious climb. Boardwalks and rare blazes helped ease us back into civilization, and before we knew it we popped out onto a road. Despite hundreds of blowdowns, cold rain, and a few places where the trail disappeared, we had survived.
Hiking the Kekekabic Trail was not nearly as scary as I thought it would be, but I am glad I could share the journey with folks who made unpleasant moments laughable. The Kek was one of the highlights of my year: it’s a beautiful, wild trail, needing a little bit of love to ensure its continued existence. Don’t wait as long as I did to tackle this trail.
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