Paddle - BWCA, Quetico, Sylvania, and other paddling places

Trek or Treat - Round 3

By Riley Smith Print Icon Print Report View/Leave Comments (0)
Dates:October 29-30, 2022
Entry Point:74 - Kekekabic Trail West/Snowbank (BWCA)
Lakes:Ahsub, Alworth, Disappointment, Drumstick, Grub, Medas, Moiyaka, Snowbank, Wooden Leg

The adventure actually started on Friday the 28th. Though I live in Ely, I ended up being the last to pull into the lot well after dark. The group gathered with open car trunks to discuss the plan. We could sleep in the lot; we've done it many times before (including the two previous Trek or Treats.) But we decided instead to hike into one of the national forest sites on Snowbank as it would be nice to wake up along the lake. Lil Grumpy and I had done both the previous year's Trek or Treats, Dan-in-the-box had joined us for round two, and Gramps (ironically the youngest of the crew) was along for round three. The first order of business was for me to unveil the costumes I was so excited about. For Little Grumpy (a pumpkin and a super hero the past years), a lovely bumble bee costume. Dan would get the Fred Flinstone, Gramps the clown, and that left me with the Santa onesy. Sigh, nothing if not flattering.... We took a snack break and started packing to hike in. We donned our costumes for the sake of it and made good time to the portage. Then we made the silly mistake of stepping off into the woods since the campsite was "just over the ridge." It wasn't. Thus a few poorly dressed former wilderness guides found themselves lost an hour into a weekend-long trip. Classic. Soon enough though, we stumbled back onto the trail and continued north. The campsite we ended up in is not marked as a site on our maps, but it had a biff (two in fact) and a grate. We settled in for the night.

Now, I should mention that I was wrapping up a bout of covid before the trip. Nothing too bad, but the impact of that would play out this day. We started early in weather that felt truly like fall. No snow or harsh wind to tempt thoughts of winter. We packed up a bit of garbage laying around the campsite and up in a tree or two, ate breakfast, and headed north. The point about coming off covid started to come into play as I learned how steep the Snowbank trail actually is. I like to think I am fit for a wilderness trip as I head out hiking and canoeing regularity. Every up hill though, I ran completely out of air and struggled to catch my breath. This may be a long hike for me. Thankfully it was scenic and we enjoyed the views across Snowbank.

Staring off into the distance, we took note of Disappointment Mountain, a landmark for the far side of Snowbank and one which never felt to get that much closer. Wooden Leg Lake was cool to see especially since I had failed to hike there from the nearest bay with a group my very first guide season (they had opted to turn back beforehand.) The whole Snowbank loop was impacted by the 2016 blow which contributed nicely to the sprawling overlooks of the lake. As morning began to turn to afternoon, I couldn't help but notice how warm it was! Is this truly the same dates as the past years' trips!?! We all started removing layers, careful to leave our costuming as intact as possible. Though I couldn't help but empathize for any poor souls we may encounter with four shirtless guys in various, odd costumes! Grub Lake was beautiful and we stopped for a snack and more water. It was warm enough to make staying hydrated a problem, especially on a trail with limited water access. We all tried to down more water before leaving the lake. From there, the trail turns steeply up and down again. Finally drastically overheated and turning towards dehydration, I turned to Lil Grumpy's first aid kit for help. I didn't want to take the fleece-onesy Halloween costume off (that would be decidedly unfun.) Instead, we cut the sleeves and legs off of the Santa costume. Just great, now there's a Santa Clause cyclist hiking through the BWCA! Just awful. There's a very steep climb before the boot portage offering our last big overlook of Snowbank. We could see Disappointment Mountain looming closer now as we took in the late afternoon sunlight. If I wasn't so warm and if breathing wasn't so hard, this weather would be impeccable! It's a far cry from the snow and heavy winds we hiked through on the PowWow! We crossed the Boot portage reflecting on the many trips we've made with canoes across this same trail. We turned east at the split and made the Ahsub portage at sunset. We geeked out over the PH of the water at Ahsub, enjoyed some fancy truffle cheese, dug out our headlamps, and prepared for a long evening. In the dark we headed eastward still and it became clear we would be acting as two separate units. Gramps and Dan-in-the-box would surge ahead while Lil Grumpy and I fell back. They'd wait awhile and we'd catch up. It was discouraging though to look out in the darkness and see the light of two headlamps climbing a steep ridge well in front of us! We were making it along fine in any case. We finally pulled in late to the campsite on Alworth. Tired and sore, we ate some dinner and set up camp. I climbed down the ridge for a water bottle fill up. Soon we tucked in for a well-earned sleep.

The next day, we were up a little after sun-up. It's always interesting to get into camp late and never truly see where you stayed until morning. It's a bit of a surprise to see the beautiful view looking up the lake you only imagined the night before. We headed south around Moiyaka taking in the remote wilderness scenery and musing that we hadn't seen anyone to trick-or-treat this year, and wondering if we even will. As we crossed the main grade of the Kekekabic, it was fun to think of the history and the old rangers that have headed to and fro between fire towers. Just south of the trail, we turned off to the Medas campsite. Suddenly a loud crash took off through the woods. Despite our best efforts, we didn't see that moose again. However, it seemed we disturbed it from its favorite scratching post. There was a tree mid-campsite full of shed moose fur. So cool! We also found the holes for the previous fire grate. This was a much cooler site then when the grate was by the water (it's now tucked back into the woods a bit more.) It was fun to think of the Backpacker mag article about this very site and to experience a lake so comparatively few people get to. We continued south with anticipation. I as a forestry degree from college and a MAJOR tree and forest ecology nerd, was practically salivating at the hope of walking amongst the ancient pines of Old Pines Trail. Part of me was holding back as I didn't know what 2016 had done with it, but a guy can hope.
The first of the old pines was magic. It was twisted, adorned with a broken top, and filled with character only centuries of endurance can sculpt. The following hour would turn into a practical recreation of a parent trying to drag their kid from the amusement park once time is up. The group knew we were far from the parking lot and they all had long drives home. I was in Eden, amongst thousands of the most ancient of pines, each with a story of storms, harsh winters, close calls with fire, and lives bountifully lived. I wanted to go and introduce myself to each and every one! Don't think me totally crazy. As an environmental educator, one thing I have told every group is that nature is a storybook. As we learn to understand each piece, we gain one page of the story of this landscape. And these trees had quite the story to tell. Though I have a single day's perspective on this parcel of northern Minnesota forest, these trees have the perspective of centuries, and oh to hear their stories! It was obvious from my educated perspective that this stand is on its way out. The space between the big pines is over 50 feet most of the time which lends to a wide open, pretty sunny aesthetic. Even still, I have to find a way back to old pines before they are gone. The place is marvelous beyond measure and singlehandedly transports a person walking through it into the depths of history before the logs of ancient pines were used to build our cities and towns. Such forests are strangers to our modern world, like something distant and isolated, and I could have spent the entire day there. Alas, my group's pleading pulled me asunder from the venerable pines. I'll be back.
We continued west on the Kekekabic, stopping for water and some grouse hunting near Drumstick Lake. The campsite has one of the saddest biffs I have ever encountered! Also, water retrieval is a challenge. Even still, the old saw blade was a cool connection to history, and a reminder of what the Old Pines avoided. Still further west, we happened upon something disturbing. Next to the path, on the north side, lay a backpacking pack. It had been there for awhile as evidenced by the leaf-litter sprinkled on top. This kind of spooked the group. No one leaves their gear behind unless they are in trouble. And a full pack could mean someone is lying hurt or worse not far away. We decided to rummage into the pack and see what was left with the thought being that if the essentials were gone, perhaps they grabbed an item or two to make a quick exit. It seemed many of the main items were gone and the pack was fairly empty. Though it would definitely be a burden, we decided to haul the pack out with us. If the person had left the pack and made for the nearest trailhead, then they would be able to get it back from there. If someone was missing that we hadn't heard about, we'd pass important info along to the USFS about where we had found it. Though there was some risk we were stealing someone's gear (unlikely from how long it had been in place), we figured leaving it at the parking lot would get it out of the wilderness and allow whomever left it to find it. The Kekekabic was flat compared to the steep hills of Snowbank and we made good time till the BW line. Past the line, a few steep ridges slow us down some as we also found ourselves momentarily distracted by overlooks and rock faces. By the time we had made the timber land, the sun had started to set. We had a snack and some water, and set off to finish the last couple miles in the dark. Even with the extra pack, Gramps and Dan-in-the-box still outpaced us to the finish. Lil Grumpy and I had the time to reflect on this tradition and on how many of our adventures turn to nighttime travel. On the PowWow, we were still very far from the finish when the sun set and we had nearly six hours of night walking through the snow before reaching our cars. Even with the hardship, the beauty surpasses it all in our memories, and tonight would be no different. The weather couldn't be anymore unlike that year as we hiked close to the finish. And as we came through the trees with the cars in view, we celebrated another successful trip. This edition of Trek-or-Treat was challenging for me in different ways than before. On PowWow, where I had sprained an ankle half way through, and we found ourselves crawling over hundreds of still-down trees, that was challenging in a whole different way than post-covid tough breathing. In every trip here, I know that I am blessed to continue to get to share these experiences with good friends in an incredible place that means so much to all of us. Another trip's in the books. As I drive home to Ely, I reflect on these past three trips, smile every now and again at the fun and the humor of costume-clad hiking through some rugged and wild spaces, and dream ahead to the trail we'll explore for Trek-or-Treat 4.

New Messages