Sandwiched between the Kekekabic Trail on the west and the Superior Hiking Trail on the east, the Border Route Trail runs along a fracture line of cliffs, rivers and majestic lakes that serve as the boundary separating northern Minnesota from Ontario, Canada.
Early October proves to be a superb week for my husband, Lee, and me to enjoy the vivid yellow, orange and red leaf pigments of the deciduous trees amid the prevailing greens of the pine and spruce as we trek the 64 miles of the Border Route.
The day before our journey, we obtain a backcountry permit at the Superior National Forest Office in Grand Marais, Minnesota. After October 1, there is no fee for this document. However, due to the destruction of the recent Pagami Creek Fire in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area, campfires are prohibited during our week-long trek. We park our vehicle at the eastern terminus of the BRT where the bridge crosses the Swamp River, 3.8 miles east of the Arrowhead Road along the Rengo/Otter Lake/Swamp Lake dirt road. In the morning, Lee's sister shuttles us 46.5 miles up the Gunflint Trail Road from Highway 61 in Grand Marais to the Border Route Trail's western trailhead at Magnetic Rock.
Fire & wind ravaged
The day is cloudy and unusually warm as we follow the blue tape markers into a landscape filled with scars from the 2007 Ham Lake Fire. We meander past charred tree trunks standing like toothpicks springing from the bedrock. It's encouraging to see the new life regenerating in young jack pine and aspen seedlings. Approaching the monolithic Magnetic Rock, we test our compass and find the readings do indeed deviate.
Lunch on the Cross River Bridge where it touches the western edge of the Gunflint Lake gives us the energy to hike up to the first of many panoramic overlooks of Magnetic and Gunflint Lakes. The damage from the Ham Lake Fire didn't stop at the border as it spread to the Canadian side as well.
After an 11-mile first day warm-up, we are rewarded with a pleasant campsite on Loon Lake complete with soothing loon calls as nightfall approaches.
In the morning it takes 90 minutes to leisurely break camp. We walk through a cedar forest along the Bryce-Breon Trail before it reconnects with the parallel, main south rim route of the Border Route Trail. The invigorating smells of cedar and peat distract me while I exert extra physical effort to go around, under and over the blown down trees in my way.
Dropping our packs at the tiny bridge at Bridal Veil Falls, we proceed down an overgrown pathway for a more expansive view of the picturesque cascade as it tumbles over moss-covered boulders. Back on the main trail, wind gusts send swirls of leaves downward, carpeting the ground in a colorful canopy. The trail is covered with leaves and needles, but indentations from years of use make the route still visible. My boots make a crunching sound as I shuffle over the decaying vegetation.
At the next overlook facing North and South lakes, we see the landmass called the Height of Land Portage separating the two bodies of water. This is also the Laurentian Divide where flowing waters go west to Hudson Bay and east to the Saint Lawrence Seaway. In the day of the voyageurs, new men were initiated after crossing the portage with a ceremonial induction involving cedar boughs, gun salutes and rum.
Because the Border Route Trail is strenuous and we are taking our time to explore the canoe portages of the BWCA, after an eight-mile day we opt for the spur trail to Sock Lake for an overnight stay. Blue insects flit past my face as I chow on freeze-dried chicken. They leave a white, powdery residue on my fingers as I try to snatch them from the air. We are satisfied with sequestered, compact campsite we find, but its drinking water, beyond the neutralized iodine flavor, has a mild distaste.
A third sunny morning quickly warms us up. Entering the swampy area of the well-named Mucker Lake, we tramp in the squishy, muddy freeway of moose prints. Scanning the shoreline, hoping to glimpse large, palmate antlers, I only see cattails and ducks.
In the jagged Rose Lake portion of the BRT, the uneven path becomes more arduous as we climb up the bluffs and cliffs. Peering 500 feet down to the lake, whitecaps blow across the steel-blue water, void of canoeists. On the Crown land's side of the horizon, aspens appear like amber-colored, powder-puff dots as in an impressionist style painting.
We hike down to a waterfall and Rose's shoreline via the Stairway Portage. Originally built in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps, these series of 29 and 92 steps make access to the lake easier.
At the east end of Rose Lake is an underused and spacious campsite. We enjoy the Fall Hunter's Moon, an orb so bright I can read by it at midnight. Just before dawn, this same moon, also called the Blood Moon, is a huge ball of orange-red as it sets while the sun rises.
After breakfast we walk the 1.5-mile Long Portage connecting Rose to Rove Lake. Separated only by the seven-foot-wide stream flowing from Rove to Rose, Canada is literally within reach if one wanted to cross the "dotted line" and set foot on impassible vegetation. The trail then meanders for five miles between Mountain and Clearwater Lake. As we lose sight of Mountain Lake, we no longer see Canada until we come to South Fowl Lake two days later. Lost in a hiking reverie, I am startled out of my daydream by a pair of grouse. For our fourth night, we choose an area at the east end of Clearwater. This evening's atypical hatches of mosquitoes force us into our tent earlier than normal.
In the morning we are blessed with a fifth perfect day as we set out for West Pike Lake. My body has adjusted to the weight of my pack and my aches and blisters are forgotten. Climbing over deadfalls is no longer a concern, although I am dismayed when I rip my pants.
In late afternoon, we reach the established campground on Pine Lake. As I am making myself at home, Lee announces we will bushwhack along the lakefront to a more secluded location. My protests fall on deaf ears, so I complain the entire seven minutes it takes us to reach the new spot. I won't give him the satisfaction that this is a nicer place.
The setting sun casts a soft glow on the boreal forest as a group of mergansers entertain us during supper. I notice my freeze dried dinner expired in 2007. It tastes okay and I hope I don't get sick. Since those days, the packaging has improved; they no longer contain the wasteful, plastic bag acting like a bowl.
Dampened gear & spirits
Thanks to earplugs, Lee sleeps through the overnight thunderstorm. A slow, steady drizzle continues past breakfast. Fog is creeping across the lake. During a lull in the rainfall, we quickly load our packs and leave. I make a major mistake of not wearing my rain pants. By the time we bushwhack back to the trail, my legs are drenched. I press onward. I try to stay positive, but I don't enjoy the overlooks where everything is gray and windy. Adding a fleecy vest under my raincoat helps to warm my core.
Bedraggled and damp, we arrive at McFarland Lake at 2 p.m. I take sanctuary in an outhouse with a roof and cement floor. Setting up a space blanket over a campground picnic table offers a dry place to boil water, drink tea and eat soup. By 5 p.m. there is nothing to do but get into the tent. I am dismayed to find that the raincoat for my backpack failed, leaving both pad and sleeping bag visibly wet.
Staring at the lake and wondering what to do, a woman with a canoe atop her car is checking out the boat launch. Running up to her, I ask if she will drive me 11 miles down the road to my vehicle. But as I am speaking, I see her car is absolutely stuffed to the brim. Stroking her cute, little dog, she explains she would like to help, except there is no place to put me. I thank her and saunter back to the space blanket.
Thirty minutes later, I hear a honking horn and in motors my savior. The woman has returned. Introducing herself while placing three large plastic storage bins under a spruce tree, Deborah says, "Rain won't bother these. Get in." I am giddy at the prospect of a warm, dry bed. Deborah does not want payment, only a promise that I pay the kindness forward.
I don't feel bad we only completed 54 miles of the 64-mile Border Route Trail. Being close to a hypothermic state can be dangerous. I believe we were able to experience the highlights of the BRT that is maintained by the efforts of some very special volunteers. It's nice to know that the seven states between New York and North Dakota have incorporated the Border Route Trail into the longer and more comprehensive North Country Trail system.
Another hike on it awaits me, when I will be better prepared with state-of-the-art rain gear.
Polly Keith Scotland lives in Bemidji, Minnesota.