17 June 2014

Hiking the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness

In the early Autumn of 2011 I was in the Boundary Waters Canoe Wilderness Area, the thoughts and pictures from that trip can be found here; The Waters of the Soul. Roughly forty miles away from that area, the Pagami Creek Wildfire was raging, first discovered on August 18 the fire had smoldered in a bog for several days. The fire would go on to consume 93,000 acres of wilderness.

Within that burn area was the Pow Wow Trail, as you can see in this map. The red is the fire line, the Pow Wow trail falls entirely within the burn area.


The Pow Wow Trail is also the area in which Jason Rasmussen disappeared in the fall of 2001. A relatively simple backpacking trip into the wilderness turns into an ordeal that very nearly kills him. he becomes lost and separated from his camp and equipment, he writes farewell letters to his family on birch bark and prepares to die. His account is captured in the book Lost in the Wild, Danger and Survival in the North Woods by Cary J. Griffith. The book also details the story of Dan Stephenson, a guide who went missing in the Quietco in 1998. Both stories of being lost in the North Woods, of some of the challenges therein as well as what they did to ultimately survive their ordeals. Well worth the time to read.

I had made the decision to attempt to travel the Pow Wow trail as it is now, three years after the fire. I'd read that some work had been done on the trail and that about twenty three miles of the thirty odd miles had been cleared.

I made plans, packed my gear and attempted to source a partner for the venture as everyone recommends against trying the trail solo. The path is faint, getting lost seems to top the list of concerns followed by injury due to the rugged nature of the trail. Thousands and thousands of blow downs, fallen burned trees that stretch for miles in all directions make navigation and progress nearly impossible. Unfortunately, for completely understandable reasons, my partners for this adventure couldn't make it and I was going to be hitting the trail solo.

I checked and rechecked my gear and loadout for the trip. I cut ounces where I could because this would be a long trek in adverse weather over exceedingly rough terrain. Finally loaded and tripped the pack weight with water and food included came in at 39.9 pounds. This was also inclusive of some tools I thought I might need and was heavier on food than it needed to be but I wanted a buffer in case something went wrong.

The pack is a Kuiu ICON 7200 which was much larger in size than needed but it compresses down very well, it is also a lightweight pack capable of some heavy loads. It's still in trial mode with me but so far it's doing okay.


For shelter a BCUSA 10x10 tarp and a Bearpaw Wilderness Designs Net Tent 1.5. I had originally put the combo together with a 10x7 UL BCUSA tarp, that set up can be seen below. At the last minute the weather forecast changed, much colder temperatures and more rain, thunderstorms included. So I swapped the 10x7 for the 10x10 to give me more side coverage. This would turn out to be a wise decision.


The plan was three nights four days to make the circuit. The only good weather day in the forecast was Friday so I was expecting to get wet and packed accordingly.

I arrived at the trail head with only about three hours of daylight left, not enough time to make it from the trail head all the way to Pow Wow proper and set up camp. I amended the plan to stop at the first reasonably decent spot I could find and get camp situated. Rain was pretty heavy and the initial walking while easy, was through head high young aspens. Not a mile in and my outer layer was wet. Clouds were heavy and a mist was forming.







The first section of the trail is easy and mostly open save for a few blow downs and a water crossing. Still, I wasn't going to make it to the westerly trail before nightfall and there were no good spots that I could find in the half light, I had planned on trying to spend the night at the Isabella Lake campsite but it was occupied with some canoeists when I came through. With less than a half hour of light I cut off the trail to the left and walked till I found a reasonably flat spot with few trees of size in the immediate vicinity.

I knew the trees would be dead going in, and I knew blow downs and widow makers would be of concern. What I had not accounted for was the wind. Because no trees within thousands of acres had any leaves or needles on them there was nothing to slow the wind. Instead it was a constant whistling in the dead tree limbs, creaking was nonstop and a tree fell every few minutes. It dawned on me just how dangerous the situation was, hundreds of thousands of trees for as far as a man could see or even walk in nearly any direction, all of them waiting to fall. Every dead tree waiting for the right wind to topple it. This was eerie, the dead stood before me seemingly countless, blackened and spindly, they creaked and groaned, even in death they fought the wind. Futile for they would tumble over eventually, no life in them.

Anyone spending time here needs to seriously take this into account. There were virtually no spots that I could find that would not be impacted if the nearby trees succumbed to the wind. Not a single spot would be immune from falling trees. Frankly there wasn't a single truly safe place to camp, there were lesser degrees of danger meaning the trees in some areas were smaller than others and one had to gauge the impact not from a no chance but from a 'if that one hit me I'd likely survive' perspective.

So night one was spent on some rough, soggy, and rough ground where the trees were the smallest that I could find because there was not a single spot large enough for a tent that did not have trees.


I ran the sides of the 10x10 down tight to the ground and sides of the net tent. The wind was up and carrying the rain sideways. This set up resulted in 100% dry interior, and while the ground was rough I was able to get a decent night's sleep. For pad I was using a Klymit Static V insulated pad and the HPG Mountain Serape.

Dinner was prepared in the tent, beans and rice. Temp at 10:45 was 45 degrees with a projected low of 37F. Since the wind would not stop I figured it was low 30s with the windchill in that area.



There was a clearing in the night and moonlight broke through the clouds just after 2 a.m., a precursor to the only nice weather day of the trip.


I was awake before dawn but tossed and turned in a half sleep state drifting in and out of consciousness. I finally drug myself out of the bag and got some water going for coffee. I wasn't hungry so I skipped breakfast, I did put a oatmeal, raisin, & walnut bar in my chest pack for a late morning calorie intake. Flavor isn't bad on these and they match my requirement of 100 calories per ounce o weight. 240 calories at 2.4 ounces to be exact.

The Snow Peak Hotlips fit the HC Ti canteen cup but not perfectly, it's good enough for me.


I struck camp, packed up and hit the trail. The sun felt good though the wind had kicked up enough that I needed an insulation layer on to keep the chill at bay.
















Along the trail I did find moose, black bear, and wolf sign. No whitetail deer but they were never very populous in this area anyway.

At times the trail was fair to follow and others it was a nightmare. Young head high aspens would crowd the trail reducing visibility to less than a trekking pole in front of me. Bad scenes played out in my head. Running into a sow with cubs or worse a moose with calf would have not ended well at all.

This is what the trail looked like when it wasn't obscured or blocked by blow-downs.


Once past Marathon Lake the trail degrades, once past Campfire Lake it's a crap shoot, parts become impassable. Detours off trail were frequent and some of them were not short distances. While the FS listed the trail as passable and minimal maintenance I saw no sign of activity on the trail, I'd guess the last time a crew came through was sometime in 2012, perhaps early 2013 but not since. This was the section of trail they say is being maintained, I was dreading what I would find on the section they are not maintaining at all.







I was struck by the surreal nature of what is left of the forest. It's summer here now and life is everywhere yet the forest was barren, only weeds and shrubs, some young aspens but most of those were growing on the trail itself and not so much through the old forest.

With every wind gust I would hear or see more trees fall. The soil depth here is not much to begin with, post fire the soil seemed to lift, it's soft, spongy and shallow. Bedrock is only a couple inches down for most of the area. I'm surprised there are as many trees left standing as there were considering the circumstances.

By the time I made it to Superstition Lake the trail was gone. There were two short sections of forest past Campfire Lake that were somewhat intact. The one just before Superstition Lake was perhaps a half a mile long, but once out of that and near Superstition there was no trail of any kind that was passable. It was simply gone.



The trail did not really make a come back after this point, sections of it became visible but not for any decent length. Blow downs, overgrowth, the area becomes more treacherous. Either by choice or by force I was off trail here more than on it. At times it was easier to follow the moose trails and I did this for a few miles. Constant navigation was required, it was easy to get turned about because you could not make progress without meandering around obstacles. Most of the forest looked the same, dead trees and more dead trees.

This was something I hadn't accounted for, much like the wind that never stopped because the trees were bare, I had not accounted for the impact this would have on me. Hundreds of thousands of dead burned trees at a time when everything else is green and blooming and exploding in the ease of early summer. Instead this area was twisted, gnarled, dead, burned and scarred. The experience was not 'pleasant' to me. I'm still not sure how to classify it, I struggle to find the right words to describe it.


When the FS says the trail beyond Horsehoe Lake is not maintained, what they mean is not only is it not maintained but that is is also nigh unto impossible to pass through. Navigation is incredibly difficult, it's slow going, it's brutal and body beating. The bugs run in company size detachments, terrain is insanely hard because of all of the downed trees. In short, I would never recommend nor will I ever attempt this section of the trail again.

In fact, I could not recommend any part of this trail. It's dangerous for one thing, there are hundreds of thousands of dead trees waiting on the right wind to fall. There isn't a if here, it is a matter of when. ALL of them must fall sooner or later. As a result where you are might be the worst possible place to be when it does fall. Further, the trail will never be able to be maintained until the trees that are along either side either fall and are removed or removed prior to falling. There simply is no feasible way for the Forestry Service or volunteer group to maintain this trail in the foreseeable future. There's just too much work and too many trees still standing near the trail. All of the campsites save the one on Isabella appear to either be gone or destroyed. There was a fire grate at Campfire Lake but there was no suitable place to camp nearby.

Dispersed camping is permitted here for these very reasons but even so, there simply are not that many places to safely pitch a camp, particularly true in inclement weather with winds expected.

The below as an example, was the best I could do in terms of a place to camp over the duration of the trip. Just beneath that moss which was less than two inches this was nothing but rock. Hammocking is out of the question too, all the trees are dead and with minimal effort I could push many of them over by hand.


The bugs were rough throughout the trip, at times the swarms were cloud like, all encompassing and surrounding me. The collective buzz was maddening after a while. My head net quite literally saved my sanity as these bastards seemed immune to bug repellent. I tried Repel, I tried Lemon Eucalyptus, different grades of Deet, lotion, spray, even the Thermacell seemed useless. All that worked was covering up, netting, and developing a tolerance level for them.

I did on several occasions when trying to take a break,  put my Emberlit stove together and got a smudge fire going to try and drive them off for at least a brief respite.


Nights were almost as bad as the days. While physically it wasn't bad, sleep was fitful at best. Listening to trees fall in the darkness was nerve wracking. While I was careful to set up where the threat was as small as possible, often pushing some trees over in the area, there were still hazards. The ones I couldn't push over I hoped would stand firm against any wind in the night.


The net tent under the tarp performed very well. I didn't have any issues and have no complaints as to its durability. I liked the flexibility of the tarp being open or battened down. It was particularly muggy and warm at the end of the second day and I had the tarp wide open allowing for a steady breeze through the tent. Later as the rains came on I dropped the sides tight and remained very dry during the rain showers.










Outside of the falling trees my other primary concern was meeting a mother bear with cubs or a moose with calf. I'd seen copious amounts of moose and bear sign as well as wolf sign but moose by far was predominant. Running into a moose with visibility less than a trekking pole in length would not end well, nor would meeting a bear in such conditions. So I made more noise than usual and talked aloud to myself while trekking through the thick stuff.

I didn't adhere to this method at one point, going up a hill in thick overgrowth. It was raining and trudging through the head high brush resulted in saturation regardless of what I was wearing.


As I came through a particularly thick portion there was an explosion of water and fur and hissing and a gnashing of teeth in front of me, and it was barreling directly at me! In pure reaction I hissed and hollered and clashed my trekking poles together before I even realized what the thing was. It veered off the trail to my left and I was surprised to see it was a very large river otter!

He slipped quick off the trail and into a smallish body of water, if you look close in the image below you'll see him swimming towards the 11 O'clock position, he is nearly in the center of the photo, look for the wake.

I have to say that was a new experience, never been charged by a otter before!


He swam across the small water and then scrambled up the center crevice of this rock and scampered out of sight.


My heart continued to pound for a while afterwards as I imagined what the outcome would have been had instead of the otter it was a bear or moose. From this point on I was devout in my noise making as I trekked through the thick bush.

I saw a couple of grouse but rabbits and squirrels were noticeably absent. I saw no sign of whitetail deer, only moose, bear, and wolf. Birds were in pockets but not in significant numbers. I saw hawks frequently and heard their screams on a regular basis.

At one point I stopped because a hawk in a tree off the trail simply sat there and let loose the high pitched scream every couple of minutes. I tried to figure out what wast happening but couldn't piece it together, I couldn't find the reasoning for the constant screeching.

It has been my experience that when you get in a tree bound hawks territory they'll vacate pretty quickly unless they have young or prey nearby. I couldn't see anything so after a time I started moving again.


I'd turned the camera off after taking the picture of the hawk and as I was ducking under a blown over tree there was movement above and to my left, I felt the whole leaning tree move! I looked up over my left shoulder into a pair of giant golden orbs set in a grey face seemingly as large as my own. A great grey owl was staring at me and me at him as he unfurled giant wings and lifted off. I could feel the air moving across my face as he flapped those enormous wings. He turned and as he shot off down the trail behind me it looked like his wing span was as wide as the trail. The hawk that had been screeching dropped from his perch at speed, directly for the owl. They touched for mere seconds, the hawk with talons deployed hit the owl in the back. They both dipped and the hawk disengaged, the owl streaked off into the dead trees.

I sat motionless for a moment beneath the leaning tree. Never in my life had I witnessed anything like that, nor have I ever been that close to such a gigantic owl. I knew I'd seen a rare event, something likely to never be seen again. I'll never forget looking into the face of that owl from less than six feet, definitely an incredible moment.

I continued on down the trail, both the hawk and the owl gone except from my memory.



The trail runs the gamut from highlands to lowlands, crosses ridge lines, beaver dams and more than one bog had to be navigated around. I did find quite a bit of active beaver sign at multiple locations.

The walking in some sections wasn't too bad but these were few and far between. There was a brief bout of sunny weather midway through the third day but I didn't expect it to last long.





The rain returned and I continued.

By the last day I was dead tired. I knew going in that this would be a rough trip but I wasn't completely prepared for how challenging some of it would be. At a little less than eight miles to go from the trail head I was happy to have passed Pose Lake and knew that late in the afternoon I'd be exiting the now seemingly haunted woods. I didn't take many pictures on the final day. I was tired, worn out and now was focused on moving forward.

I passed the area where Jason Rasmussen had gone off trail back in 2001. I tried to imagine that ordeal in the October woods. What a harrowing experience that must have been. I shook the thoughts of it from my head, checked my compass and GPS once more and concentrated on one foot in front of the other.

The cairn of stones in the image below is supposed to be the trail marker, it indicates the split of the westerly trail heading to Superstition Lake  to the left, and the northerly trail to Pose lake on the right. The stack of stones felt more like a headstone than a trail marker to me.






Trail marker just beyond the parking lot at the Isabella entry point. I stood and looked at the stack of stones for a few minutes before heading out to the truck. I wondered at the number of people that had in the past came this way. At what used to be here before the Pow Wow trail even, when there was a town here called Forest Center, a thriving logging community, complete and functioning and yet now there was no sign of that prior community. It was amazing that the area showed no real signs of that former habitation, and I wondered, in how many years would the sign of the Pagami Creek Fire vanish?

One day someone would stand there, upon that same spot before heading off into the forest, they would wonder too at that stack of stones, and who had passed before.

4 comments:

  1. What an adventure... what a tale!!!
    Right up there with the huntingtales.....

    I'll be waiting for "The life and times of Croatoan" and I want my copy signed!!!

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  2. awesome pictures. sounds like a horribly awesome trip.

    one of the most intense moments to ever happen to me while hunting was a great horned owl taking flight in the middle of the day. i was still hunting late morning into afternoon and it just detached itself from the tree and flew straight in front of me, effortlessly through the woods. and silent, so silent i was amazed. for sure one of the coolest things to ever happen to me. it helps that i changed direction to follow it and got a doe a bit later.

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  3. Fantastic trip log. I remember camping out in the relatively benign designated sites in the Boundary Waters & being alarmed at how precariously the trees around our tent site seemed to be clinging to the thin soil. Keeping your nerve for days on end in conditions like that is commendable. Thanks for sharing.

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