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SHT and the Border Route Trail, MN
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Matt F
(matt_f) - MLife
SHT and the Border Route Trail, MN on 05/12/2010 10:02:34 MDT Print View

Ok Minnesotans: this one is for you....

For a few years I've had the Border Route Trail on my radar but haven't been able to find much information about it and was generally told not to hike it by Park-Ranger types.

From the evening of May 1st through the morning of May 9th a couple buddies and I hiked from pincushion mountain (above Grand Marais) north to the northern terminus of the SHT (53+ miles), then west via the Border Route Trail to Heston's Resort on Gunflint Lake (54+ miles), the proprietors of which helped us with our car shuttle.

Anyway, I was very impressed by the BRT, and feel a little bit of an obligation to spread the good word about it as there seems to be minimal info on-line and perhaps even a bit of fear regarding how rugged and remote the trail is. This is a trail that would benefit from a broader base of advocates.

To make a long story short, I am a huge fan of the SHT and through-hiked it last fall. I feel that the BRT offers a fantastic continuation of this trail and perhaps even better views with a much wilder feel. It was better cleared/maintained than I had anticipated and there was a consistent tread to follow for the entire ~54 miles of trail that we walked. That said, it did have a distinct feel compared with the SHT and our hourly hiking pace was generally about 2/3 of what we were able to do on the SHT.

The BRT is more rugged, remote, and does have some issues with somewhat frequent downed trees and underbrush encroaching on the trail in some places (a result of the "big blow" of 1999 during which significant sections of the forest cannopy was destroyed resulting in more sunlight reaching the forest floor and promoting the growth of smaller plants and trees along the trail).

However, the recent efforts of trail crews are very much apparent and as I
mentioned, the trail was generally in decent shape for this early in the year and very hikeable.

Specifically, the trail was by far most overgrown within the BWCA where there is about a 10 mile section starting 1.5 miles east of stairway portage/falls continuing west to roughly mucker lake that suffered from a fair bit of overgrowth and made for some draining hiking (though the veiws in this section are amazing).

I am posting a trip report in a couple of sections: first, here are some shots a brief description of our 53 miles on the SHT. I'll post the BRT report in my next post.

Also, a note. I did this trip with UL gear but my buddies didn't, (and they did just fine): I guess that is the joy of being 25...

Me, Randy and Tyler

pincushion parking lot, after being dropped off by Barb Heston.

bear bags 1

Bear bags hangin in the morning

kadunce log hopping

No bridge over the Kadunce river? No problem.

sea gulls

Sea gulls on the lake walk.

lake walk

Lake walk

looking southwest

looking southwest


another shot.

cuben tarp

5.5 ounce homemade (myog) cuben tarp: my home for the week.

on the road again

On the road again

A couple shots of the brule river:

brule 1

brule 2

Trees at Hazel camp (snack stop)

trees at lunch stop

carlson pond

Carlson pond

End of the sht

End of the SHT.

At this point we had finished the SHT portion of our trip in just over three days, giving us four full days to do the BRT. So far we had a relatively plesant trip with moderate weather, a well cleared trail and no bugs. The BRT was absolutely an unknown to all of us, so it was fun to be walking toward the trailhead for three days: how rugged would it be? Will we have to turn back? Are we actually in danger of losing the trail or getting lost? We set up camp at a small site beside Swamp River along otter lake road, and figured we'd find out in the morning. For the tie being, temps were dropping, and we decided to make some dinner and rest up:

Dinner along the swamp river

swamp river

Shortly after eating the sun set and we went to bed. It started to drizzle...and get windy...and pour sideways rain...

Next post coming up later this morning.

Matt F
(matt_f) - MLife
BRT trip report on 05/12/2010 10:41:17 MDT Print View

I had foolishly set up my shelter high and exposed to the winds and heavy rain that began wipping through the Swamp River valley. The hood of my water-resistant (momentum) bivy sack started to get soaked, and at some point around 11 PM I resigned myself to the fact that I had to lower my tarp to the ground if i had any hope of staying dry, and that I would have to do this during the storm. Some how I managed to (from the inside of my shelter) pull out the stakes one by one, and restake the tarp directly to the ground without getting everything wet. This took me a good 20 minutes, but seemed to work. This is when things got a little wierd:

Shortly after the storm subsided a bit, I began to hear a loud, slow, rhythmic, deep "snort" migrating around our camp. It stayed for about five minutes (I saw nothing when I shined my somewhat weak petzl e-lite headlamp out the one side of my tarp that wasn't staked tightly to the ground), then I heard thundering hoof beats take off up the small gravel road adjacent to our camp. This was far to large to be a deer: we had a moose in our camp! What he was doing there, I'm not sure, but given the thousands of piles of moose droppings and ever-present tracks, its not surprising we had at least one run in with one of these enormous animals.

Here is a photo of my re-pitched tarp in the morning mist:

morning tarp

After drying out our gear a bit in the brief morning sunshine, we finally started the BRT:

starting the brt

We were treated with this overlook just one mile into the BRT:

first overlook

bridge over swamp river, still the first day of hiking:

swamp river bridge

South fowl lake:

south fowl lake

Taken after a two-hour soaker of a rain shower moved in while we were hiking. Little John Lake, next to Lake McFarland campsite:

little john lake

A soggy evening camped at McFarland Lake:


Entering the Boundary Waters Canoe Area in snow flurries:


The chilly morning continues:


The joys of the BRT:


West Pike Lake (i think):

west pike

One of the benefits of hiking through the BWCA is staying at the well-established (and pretty) canoe campsites. Here is a site on the east end of clearwater lake:

east clearwater

One of the locals:


A nice way to end the day:


At this point, we had done 13 miles the first day and 14 the second. The trail was fairly smooth going, but the wet weather made everything a bit more treacherous and the forecast (as far as we knew) was for more of the same. We elected to wake up early in the morning so that we'd have the option of putting in a higher mileage day if the weather agreed, or have the option of retreating from really bad weather under a tarp or tent if need be.

Two more days of photos coming up in the next post.


Matt F
(matt_f) - MLife
Final two days on the BRT on 05/12/2010 11:19:53 MDT Print View

We were out of camp a little after seven in the morning (not all that easy to do when it is this cold and wet...), and were off to the ridges of the BRT.

A shot of mountain lake, just before Tyler nearly led us off a cliff...

mt lake

More BRT fun:

brt fun

Overlooking Rove lake, a nice spot for a snack:



Ice still hanging around on the Arrow River:


Toppled giants along Rose Lake


The brushiest stretch of trail is in the Rose Lake/Rose cliff section, though I am told there are plans to clear this very soon:


Yep. Brushy. We pushed our way through this stuff for 8 or 9 miles this day.


Stairway falls, a popular canoe-in destination:


Rose Cliffs (one of many rose cliff lookouts)

rose cliffs

The snow begins at mile 18 of the day, and we start to get a little goofy:


Camp! The snow continues, and we finally reach Topper Lake after the toughest 20 mile day I've hiked.


Topper lake looking serene in the snow:


Our snow-dusted camp:

snowy camp

Our food bags the following morning: each containing about a pound of food at this point.

food bags

Thankfully, my homemade tarp proved up to the task of the rain and snow we were hammered with on the BRT. Here it is the morning after the snow storm:

tarp in snow

On the road again, walking out 7 snowy miles on our final morning.


Someone woke up before we did:

moose tracks

Nearing gunflint lake, walking through a burn area:


The last photo of the trip: Apparently we were too interested in finding beer and cheeseburgers to take a proper parting shot. Oh well.

last photo

Edited by matt_f on 05/12/2010 11:27:26 MDT.

j lan
(justaddfuel) - F

Locale: MN
Re: Final two days on the BRT on 05/12/2010 11:41:41 MDT Print View

Incredible trip report! Very nice! Do you know anything about the kekakabic trail? My friends and i are trying to plan a trip hikinh from grand marais to ely, getting in canoes and paddling back.

I had never seen the BRT trail before, but have visited some of the lakes in your shots by canoe. Very sweet.

Matt F
(matt_f) - MLife
Kekekabic on 05/12/2010 13:45:16 MDT Print View

Hi James -

Glad you liked the report...hopefully we can surprise a few people with just how interesting hiking in the midwest can be.

As far as the Kek goes, I've not hiked it but have heard that it is a lot different than the BRT: it stays lower and has a more direct route through the woods. I'd say getting the McKenzie maps for it may give you a good idea of what the terrain will be like. I think your idea of hiking west then paddling back east has a lot of potential and I hope you pull it off (then report back here).

take care,


Hiking Malto
(gg-man) - F
Great Report on 05/12/2010 13:59:23 MDT Print View

I have done two different trips into BWCA by canoe. May have to hoof one in the future. Also, I was very surprised That there was no snow or ice left on the ground or lakes. I expected the snow to be hanging around well into May

Andy Berner
(Berner9) - MLife

Locale: Michigan
SHT and the Border Route Trail, MN on 05/12/2010 14:18:37 MDT Print View

Great report. Im in south west Michigan and have been wanting to get up there. Pictures show it all.

Thanks for sharing.

Sam Haraldson
(sharalds) - MLife

Locale: Gallatin Range
SHT and the Border Route Trail, MN on 05/12/2010 14:55:37 MDT Print View

Matt, thanks for sharing the awesome pics of the BRT. Consider getting in touch Ed Solstand with the Minnesota Rovers and joining them on one of their BRT trail-clearing trips.

Jim Colten
(jcolten) - M

Locale: MN
Re: SHT and the Border Route Trail, MN on 05/12/2010 16:27:10 MDT Print View

Very nice trip report!

I've long shied away from BRT due to some folks I know who told me about their death march experience there. But like Sam said, the Rovers have been more actively maintaining the trail and your report seems to confirm their success.

Jeremy Gus
(gustafsj) - MLife

Locale: Minneapolis
re: SHT and the Border Route Trail, MN on 05/12/2010 16:35:52 MDT Print View

I'm planning on doing that portion of the SHT the first weekend in June. Wish I had more time to do the BRT as well. Maybe I can do that the next trip. Thanks for sharing!!

Colin Dunlap
(ColinDunlap) - F
BWCA on 05/12/2010 21:10:46 MDT Print View

I spent a week or so at Boundary Waters a few years ago with my dad and some friends canoeing around. Very nice. Great pictures. We actually camped in that same campsite on Clear Water Lake.

j lan
(justaddfuel) - F

Locale: MN
Re: re: SHT and the Border Route Trail, MN on 05/13/2010 06:16:32 MDT Print View

Did you use GPS at all?

Philip Delvoie
(PhilipD) - MLife

Locale: Ontario, Canada
SHT and the Border Route Trail, MN on 05/13/2010 07:12:53 MDT Print View

Great report.

Matt F
(matt_f) - MLife
BRT on 05/13/2010 07:17:32 MDT Print View

Greg - We had an incredibly dry and warm April: most years we would have encountered much more snow. There was actually a fire ban when we started the trip, which for us meant no fires for the duration as we had no way of knowing if it was lifted (though we suspected fires would have been ok by the end...)

Sam - I've been in touch with Ed Solstad since returning...I've got to give the guy credit not just for the great job he's done getting the trail into better shape but also for always knowing when people are thru-hiking and touching base when they finish.

James - No GPS for me, just a compass and some McKenzie maps (though they are flawed in one or two key areas...). We didn't have any big troubles with the trail. We also did use parts of the BRT trail guide, though that is written in a West-to-East fashion and has a lot of "extra" information in it.

also, I linked a gear list to my profile: I did this trip with just over an 8 pound baseweight and was sitting right on the edge of comfort for the temps, but not safety.

Glad everyone is enjoying the report,


John M. Ek
( - F

Locale: Minnesota
BRT on 05/13/2010 08:38:01 MDT Print View

Great post! I have been on a few parts of the BRT, mostly around the Gunflint Lake/Topper area. It is a great walk. Lots of work has been done in the past few years. I always try to clear a few thing each time I go thru. When we all do that, the trails pretty much maintain themselves. I really enjoyed this post! Thanks.

Mark Roberts
(redwedge) - MLife

Locale: Lapland
Thanks! on 05/13/2010 09:13:48 MDT Print View

Great report and photos Matt.

I'm planning to do something up there in the next few weeks, and the BRT was on my list, along with the Pow-Wow Trail.

I did the Sioux-Hustler last year - and 'enjoyed' a lot of tree fall on that also!

Aaron Klemz
(aaronklemz) - F
Hi Matt on 05/17/2010 15:17:44 MDT Print View

Hey, I'd really like permission to use one of these photos in a newsletter about the BWCA and the North Country Trail. (It's the one with the BWCA sign) Could you contact me at a a r o n f r i e n d s - b w c a o r g ?

Colin Dunlap
(ColinDunlap) - F
GPS on 05/17/2010 16:40:28 MDT Print View

No, we didn't use a GPS. We got maps from our outfitter and used those the whole time.

Todd McMahon
(isawtman) - F
I hiked the Border Route in May on 08/03/2010 05:41:02 MDT Print View

Hi Everyone

I was on a Border Route Trail Crew in May, then I backpacked the eastern half of the Border Route. The Border Route is very scenic with dozens of overlooks and some beautiful waterfalls. I have the best combination of descriptive trip reports and thousands of photos of the Border Route on my Website. The best way to find it is to google "isawtman" It truly is a wonderful trail and the BRTA are taking extra measures this year to make sure the interior of the Border Route is clear. i worked on a trail crew on the bluff east of Stairway Falls

Peter Boysen
(peterboysen) - MLife
Re: SHT and the Border Route Trail, MN on 07/23/2014 09:24:44 MDT Print View

I just stumbled across this. Looks like a great trip. Have you done it (or part of it) since then?