The Kekekabic Trail is a 41-mile long thru-hiking route that transects the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCA) from (near) the top of the Gunflint Trail to the Fenberg Road, 17 miles northeast of Ely. You can hike the trail from either direction, but by road, the two trailheads are about 4.5 hours apart, which makes this a logistically challenging and time-consuming shuttle. The Kekekabic Trail is a rugged deep wilderness trail that displays many of the natural wonders that make the BWCA such a special place. Most permits issued for the BWCA are for canoeing, but hiking the “Kek” offers a different view of this wilderness as you trek through wolf, moose, bear and beaver habitat, from lake to lake along its length. Considered one of Minnesota’s most challenging trails, the USFS recommends that only experienced hikers with good backcountry navigation skills attempt this route.
History of the Trail
- 1930s – the trail is established by the USFS to provide access to a fire tower overlooking Kekekabic Lake
- 1940s – the use of USFS airplanes to surveil the BWCA makes the fire tower obsolete
- 1960s – USFS clears and upgrades the trail and establishes it as an official hiking trail
- 1970s – permits issued for hiking the trail peak at 445 per year
- 1980s – the USFS stops maintaining the Kek, trail permits dwindle to 25 per year
- 1990s – the Kekekabic Trail Club is born and volunteer organizations partner with the USFS to maintain the trail
- 1999 – an intense July 4th windstorm makes the trail impassable
- 2000-2018 – the trail cleared in 2000 and then there are more storms and fires, with the last notable storm in 2016, make the trail virtually impassable
- Spring 2019 – volunteer trail organizations complete work on opening the trail and blazing the route
In mid-September 2018, a group of friends and I attempted to hike the Kekekabic Trail from Ely to the top of the Gunflint Trail (west to east). By the time we were eleven miles in, we’d had enough of the over, under, and around as we faced mile after mile of the blown down trees that were still blocking the trail from the 2016 windstorm. While trail crews had made great progress clearing the trail, a few sections were still nearly impassable, and we decided to spend our time camping in the Disappointment Lake area rather than continue fighting the blown down.
The July storm of 2016 was so big that it engulfed the entire Arrowhead Region (NE Minnesota), produced straight-line winds clocked at over 100mph, and knocked out power to a good portion of the city of Duluth for four days during the hottest week of the year.
I’m not the type of hiker that seeks to set records or push boundaries or get overly extreme in any of my adventures, but I do have just enough hiker pride to make not finishing the Kek something that would stick in my craw and nag at my boots. Fast forward to this past winter, over a lunch break spent at the local climbing gym with my friend Jim Shoberg, and a new trip was born. I shared how much I needed to finish that entire trail, how it was nagging at me, and how I’d heard that by June (2019) the trail would be completely free of the 2016 obstructions. I think I had him at “on belay,” because he agreed that it was a must-do and we made a plan to hike the Kek come summer.
To hike the 41-mile Kekekabic Trail, east-to-west from Gunflint to Ely in four days, averaging about ten miles per day, while staying each night at a noteworthy BWCA campsite.
The Car Shuttle
The first and last challenge of hiking the Kek is the car shuttle. The two terminus trailheads are 180 miles apart and due to the terrain that drive takes about 4.5 hours one-way. Jim and I each had a car, and we left Duluth after work and drove to Fenberg Road trailhead just northeast of Ely. We dropped Jim’s car at the western terminus and then proceeded on Highway 1 through the Superior National Forest to Highway 61, which runs along the North Shore of Lake Superior. We spent the night at my parents’ cabin on the lake near Tettegouche State Park, and then my Dad drove us to the top of the Gunflint Trail on Friday morning, taking my car back to their cabin where we would pick it up after exiting the Trail outside of Ely.
Day 1: Gunflint Trailhead, to Agamok Bridge, 12.5 miles
After enjoying a big breakfast in Grand Marais, and driving 47 miles up Hwy 12 (Gunflint Trail), we started down the trail at 9:30 am. At that time of the morning, the temperature was in the high 70’s and the forecast called for four days of 80 plus degrees. It was hot, muggy, and buggy! We spent most of the day skirting the edges of lakes and working our way along the low shoulders of higher ridges in an area that had been noticeably impacted by multiple fires. For many parts of the hike, there was no tree cover and the sun-baked us as we walked. 3.3 miles in, at Bingshick Lake, we found a wonderful campsite and took a much-needed swim. We passed by campsites at Howard Lake and Gabichimigami Lake, and even though we had done enough miles to camp, these sites were not inviting at all. By this time, we were hot and tired from trekking in nearly 90-degree heat, but we needed a nice campsite and Agamok Bridge seemed to be the best option. At about 7 pm we arrived to find a wonderful campsite situated near the bridge, which is an impressive wood bridge crossing the churning caldron draining down from Agamok Lake to Mueller Lake.
Day 2: Agamok Bridge to Strup Lake, 9.5 miles
The trail consisted of going up and coming down as we were now into the “hilly” section of the Kek. Generally, we worked our way from 1500 feet to 1800 feet, ascending and descending 300 feet repeatedly for what seemed like forever as we hiked to the highest point of the trail and found the site of the old fire tower and the spur down to Kekekabic Lake. From there it was mostly downhill to our campsite on Strup Lake, which was a quintessential BWCA campsite on a lake loaded with hungry bass. Jim had a good run catching and releasing the same fish over and over before the mosquitos chased him back to the fire.
Day 3: Strup Lake to Medas Lake, 7.8 miles
We were now moving through lowland areas on a gently undulating trail. This was by far the easiest hiking on this trek and a relief after a hard day 2. The heat was still cooking us and the bugs were steady in their pursuit of our blood. We kept ourselves covered and well hydrated, though this section had long stretches without access to good water, which is challenging when the temperature is so high and the need for water is intense. We found our campsite at Medas, and it was large and beautiful, but surrounded by tall, dead Jack Pines and very few good tent sites. We ended up pitching our tents on an incline within feet of the lake to avoid any window makers coming down on us at night. After dinner, a huge thunderstorm moved in and we huddled under the outer edge of a big pine canopy for safety as the lighting passed over us.
Day 4, Medas Lake to the Fenberg Rd. Trailhead, 11.2 miles
I knew that the day would end with pizza and beer in Ely, and that is always a good motivation to get up and get going. It had rained during the night and it was threatening to rain again as we hit the trail. It was hot and steamy and all of the waist-high vegetation crowding the trail made us both soaking wet head to toe. The bugs were vigorous, and the only relief was when it started to rain. The net result was that we just kept moving and did 6 miles without once dropping our packs and taking a break. When the rain stopped the bugs got worse, and Jim, who had been using some natural hippy-dippy bug juice combined with spruce boughs woven into his hat to keep the bugs at bay, was at his wit’s end and he finally broke down and asked me for my little vial of 100% DEET. Better living through chemistry! We made it to the car by mid-afternoon, and we were tired, stinky and completely soaked from head to toe, but the Kek was behind us and it was time to eat!
For the most part, there were very few downed trees or other obstructions along the entire route. The trail volunteers did an incredible job clearing the trail. Getting the downed trees from the 2016 storm cleared from the trail was a herculean task, and what a difference a year makes.
Much of the trail is covered with vegetation and the tread is small and rough with rocks and roots that require near-constant attention if you want to avoid a fall. Some sections of the trail have a visible tread, but that is the exception and not the rule. This trail is lightly used and there is still much work to do to widen out the shoulders and open up the track. That said, it was surprisingly easy to follow and we only got off track a couple of times, but easily found our way back again.
The trail is completely blazed and marked with rock cairns and blue and pink ribbons from end to end. This is especially helpful in areas where the trail becomes confusing and getting lost is more likely. We had no significant issues with navigation, which is notable for a trail known to be hard to navigate.
Kudos to the groups that have volunteered to make this trail great again!
We were able to find three great campsites on the trail, and I am aware of a few others from my 2018 attempt that were spectacular. In my view, it is imperative to find a fantastic BWCA campsite while hiking BWCA trails because it’s the reward for working your way through the deep woods all day.
Some of the campsites along the trail need significant improvement, and I am sure that this is on the list of things to do for trail volunteers in coming years, and increased use of the trail will drive improvements to the campsites no doubt.
Notable Campsites – rated 1-10 (1- bad, 10 – great)
- Bingshick Lake Campsite – 10
- Howard Lake Campsite – 1
- Gabichimigami Lake Campsite – 2
- Agamok Bridge Campsite – 8
- Strup Lake Campsite – 8
- Medas Lake Campsite – 7
- Disappointment Lake Campsite (first one off the spur trail from the Kek) – 10
- Benezie Lake Campsite – 8
Unless you are a glutton for punishment, four days is not the ideal amount of time to complete this trail. Every mile on this trail is hard, and ten miles can easily feel like fifteen miles, especially when it is hot. We agreed that five days to hike this trail would have been much better and that six days would be downright fat and sassy. There are plenty of places to camp and explore on this route that we did not have the time to experience. The tread on this trail is rough, and after six or seven miles of hiking, I really started to feel the impact on my feet. I would have been happy to make camp if not for the mileage requirements of our four-day trip.
We also agreed that mid to late summer is not the ideal time to do this trail. Heat, bugs, and thick vegetation make a challenging trail much more so. I can see this trail being a spectacular trek in the fall when temperatures are in the 50’s and 60’s and the leaves are turning colors. One benefit of an early August trek on the Kek is that the blueberries and the raspberries were ripe and everywhere. Every season has its charm.
Jim purchased this trail guide from the Kekekabic Chapter of the North Country Trail Association for $17, and it served as our primary navigation tool. The guide is broken up into 2.5-mile sections with narrative descriptions of each section, information on campsites, and maps at a 1:24,000 scale.
I purchased all three of the McKenzie Maps that cover the entire distance of this trail. They are a bit bulky, especially if you need to have three of them to cover the entire route. These maps provided 1:31,680 scale, they are water and tear-proof and detail the declination for each section. I do not recommend doing this trek without the entire map set.
I used this app to track our progress on the trail and to compare our location to the maps. This app has always shown itself to be remarkably accurate, and it tracks mileage, pace, elevation gain/loss and much more. I use this app in airplane mode and download the trail map before leaving on a trip.
Gear that Worked Best
Outdoor Research Echo Sun Hoody – The OR Echo Sun Hoody became the shirt I wore nearly the entire time I was hiking. It provided me with much-needed protection from the sun while breathing enough to help me keep cool. The polyester Airvent fabric dries quickly, and on this trip, I was always wet from sweat, rain or vegetation. I had treated this shirt with permethrin and it did an excellent job keeping the bugs away. I used the hood most of the time while hiking to keep the mosquitos off the back of my neck and to dull the noise from a deer fly that kept buzzing around my head from the top of the Gunflint Trail to the Fenberg Rd.
Fjallraven Absiko Lite Zip-Off Trekking Pants I’ve had these pants for a few years now, and they are what I use in the warm summer months when keeping cool is the priority. Made of lite G-100 fabric with back and side stretch-mesh panels, these zip-off trousers worked great on a trip in which they were always wet or damp while on the trail. They dry quickly, they don’t hold water, they clip onto your boots laces, cinch around your ankles, and provide leg pockets for your map, compass, and phone.
Pocket Chainsaw – Jim brought a pocket chainsaw, which is a chainsaw chain with two roped handles rolled up neatly in a little tin can. Once in camp and setting up the night’s wood for the campfire, Jim swung into action and cut some big logs quickly and with minimal grunting. It was so quick and easy he never said, “it’s your turn.”
Fjallraven Keb Trekking Hat– I absolutely loved how this hat performed on a trip in which it was constantly wet. I treated it with Permethrin and it provided a nice bug barrier for my head while wicking the moisture from my face. It held up well in the rain and kept the water off my glasses. It’s made from Fjallraven’s G-1000 fabric with stretch mesh panels on each side, fits well, and performed in tough conditions.
Eagle Claw Trailmaster Fishing Rod and Case – Jim purchased this rod and case for the trip for about $45, and it proved to be quite a steal. The kit comes with a four-piece fishing rod with a case that’s large enough to hold a fillet knife, some tackle, and a small spinning reel. but can easily strap to the back of a pack or be stuffed in a side pocket. The rod has a nice action, and the entire set-up is light enough to warrant consideration as an option for any backpacking kit.
Future of the Kekekabic Trail
Now that the Kekekabic Trail is part of the larger North Country Trail (NCT), which runs from Northern New York State to North Dakota, it may be that the popularity of this trail will increase. At present, it is obvious that this is a lightly tracked trail, and the only other people we saw were canoeists crossing portages.
The NCT enters Minnesota at the Wisconsin border near Jay Cooke State Park and then follows the Superior Hiking Trail to the start of the Border Route Trail and then across on the Kekekabic toward trails yet to be developed. I think that perhaps next fall, a trip on the Border Route from the top of the Gunflint to outside of Grand Marais will be in order. One thing is for certain, I’ll be looking for cooler weather and will plan to give myself another day or two to keep my required daily mileage around seven miles. It’s not a race and the best part of backpacking in the BWCA is simply being out there.