I made it across the Boundary Waters! Or at least this portion of it. The Wilderness extends West quite a bit further and the Border Route Trail is just a section of it from the East side to the Gunflint Trail, running up into the heart of the main unit.
The trek started at 4 am - a decision made to get through the more traveled and thus more defined trail during the dark hours to maximize daylight in the Wilderness itself. I was joined the first 13 miles by Brendan Davis, a professional photographer and trail runner who has joined other runners on similar projects. He’s already shared a few of his shots on his social media and he’s also working with our Campaign and Patagonia for more photos to share in the near future. Brendan had to turn around at the Wilderness border due to U.S. Forest Service regulations, and I was on my own for the next 40 or so miles through the Wilderness itself.
Once in the Wilderness I was acutely aware of both how far I’d already traveled, but how far I had to go. And that I was on my own. I had to carry any food I anticipated needing to eat during the trip but thankfully since this is the Boundary Waters with the most clean and pure water in the world, I started with a running pack and water bladder that I was able to fill up in streams along the way!
My other supplies in my running pack were:
- Patagonia 8L Slope Runner pack
- small first aid kit with water proof matches
- change of socks and shirt
- electrolyte powder
- steak sauce (my secret ingredient for long runs. It’s basically just ultra concentrated salt)
- food: energy bars, nutella and tortillas, and oatmeal pies (yes, seriously they’re just sugar)
- GPS tracker with data for messages and SOS button just in case
- SPF and DEET lotion
Next I’ll describe various aspects of the run rather than a chronologic narrative.
First, the trail:
The Border Route Trail (BRT) runs east to west along the US-Canadian border up and down palisades, alongside lakes, over streams past waterfalls, through marshes and bogs, past beaver dams and more. It travels through every micro-ecosystem of the overall Boundary Waters area - low lying areas with the streams, bogs, marshes and lakes; hillsides both sunny or shaded with cedar groves; 300 year old white and red pine stands, aspen stands, cleared areas from forest fires and any combination of all the above. The iconic 500 foot cliff faces with sweeping views of Canada did not disappoint, but I more enjoyed running along the lower portions of the trail alongside the lakes with more trees (and shade) and wildlife.
The trail was the most technical trail I have ever run on. In trail running terms, “technical” meaning how challenging the trail surface is. There was maybe 3 miles the entire journey where it was flat, level and relatively free of rocks or roots. Everything else was either: rocky, covered in tree roots, blocked by fallen trees, straight up a hillside, straight down a hill side, climbing up 3 foot rocks, a combo of the above or all of the above! Most runners look forward to the down hill as a way to make up some time, stretch the legs out a bit and have an easier time. These downhills however were often too steep to run down, full of rocks and roots, or on the side of a cliff where it’s definitely safer to walk vs run. If it was flat, other than the 3 miles from above, much of the trail had too many obstacles to run, or was obscured by a thick bush of raspberries, thimbleberries, roses, and other vegetation, often times as high as my head or shoulders.
At one point I had to unexpectedly bushwhack for half a mile around a flooded part of the trail, had to head due west and then north again until I met up with the trail once more. The thick forest and bush is insanely hard to get through and my bruised and battered shins are a testament to the struggle through the bush.
The trail is 100% maintained by an awesome group of hikers with the Border Route Trail Association. If you’ve ever been on this trail in any of the segments, you owe them a huge debt of gratitude! Any trees cleared, boardwalks over marshy bogs and bridges over rivers were built by them with their volunteer work and hours. I’ll definitely be signing up to help out on future trips with them. This trail wouldn’t exist, even in its rugged and wild form without their constant work.
Trail running comes with some risks, obviously. With the technical nature of this trail in particular, I was most worried about rocks - tripping and falling and hurting myself. Thankfully I only tripped and fell from a rock or root 5 times, even more thankfully without hurting myself too badly. However on one such rock (around mile 17) I took it squarely on my middle left toe sending pain up my leg and back. I stopped and assessed the situation and the pain subsided so I continued on. Everything toe-related was fine until around mile 44 where there’s a super steep climb up the hills of the palisades on Rose Lake up to the Stairway Portage area. Half way up the climb of switchbacks, boulders and loose ground with pine needles and having to dig in harder with my toes than normal the pain came back and didn’t get any better the rest of the trip.
When I finally got to the river and waterfalls of the stairway portage, I took a break to cool my feet off in the water and for the first time took my shoes and socks off to discover a swollen toe of a lovely shade of deep purple and red. I assumed at that time it was probably broken (which was then confirmed back home on Monday). I’ll spare pics of a dirty, sweaty swollen toe, but you can imagine it and assume it wasn’t a pretty picture. This slowed my pace quite a bit, I was averaging between 16 - 18 minute miles accounting for food breaks and hill climbs. I started out after the sock and shoe change at roughly 22 minute miles, eventually slowing further to 25, 30, and eventually hobbling along around 40 minute mile pace at the end. Basically limping the last few miles as best I could. This also caused my right leg to over compensate and take all the up and down hill steps, which by the end was almost entirely fatigued and unresponsive.
So this was one factor I didn’t take into account or prepare for. It’s northern Minnesota after all so who figured it would be 91 degrees and humid. In a time of climate change and swinging extremes, I guess I should have had it on my radar. Lesson learned. It was the hottest day of the year so far and the humidity made it impossible to cool down even by slowing my pace or walking.
Around mile 35 alongside Rove Lake I became a little dizzy and disoriented and knew I had to stop and take a break. I was clearly overheating, my heart rate was up and I couldn’t cool off. After drinking and resting the dizziness subsided and I jumped into Rove for a good cool down which was immediately invigorating and I instantly felt better. The next 3 miles on the trail were relatively easy, however this episode caused some serious stomach discomfort (I’ll spare you the details again) and I wasn’t able to eat any food for the rest of the trip. I did have some electrolyte mix and Brendan gave me some more when we met up again that had some decent calories with it as well, which helped at that time. So in addition to my toe, I was nutritionally depleted and definitely running through “the wall” from a lack of caloric intake which significantly contributed to the slow pace at the end.
I saw a black bear! For the first time after so many trips in the Boundary Waters I saw a bear in the Wilderness itself. We’ve seen them in developed areas where they are looking for food near cabins, but never within the Wilderness. I watched as it grazed along the forest floor eating whatever it was munching on. A couple times it caught my scent and looked up and around but I stood as still as possible hoping to not be seen. About 2 minutes after first seeing it the bear made me out and bolted straight away from me, crashing through trees and streams in a hilarious bounding move straight out of a cartoon scene.
Deer, roughed grouse, a giant snapping turtle, bald eagles, roughly 17 billion mosquitos and many but not enough dragon flies were the other animals I tallied on this trip.
The lessons learned
The Wilderness is to be respected. You can plan every thing you can possibly think of, take all precautions, bring all the gear and have everything planned out. But what comes at you each day will be at least partially unforeseen. In the Wilderness you are the guest, sometimes the intruder, but never the master.
Going through something like this where I was on my own is truly a humbling experience. Even with a GPS mapping system it’s easy to get lost and you constantly have to pay attention to every detail to stay on course. That alone is mentally exhausting.
The terrain, my toe, the heat, getting occasionally lost or having to bushwhack around flooded areas…every little bit of the trip is a challenge. But challenges strengthen and teach us. When you come out the other side, applying these lessons to every day life is essential. If I can climb up the side of the Rose Lake palisades after 30 miles on a broken toe and nothing to eat for 9 miles, I’m pretty sure I can suffer a bit of discomfort and delay back home. I can feel a sense of calm in me right now I didn’t have before. Reflecting back on the pain, the heat, the frustration and all that discomfort while at the same time surrounded by nature in its more pure and beautiful form is a juxtaposition that itself brings some perspective to life.
I put myself into the hardest situation I’ve ever put myself through - a humbling feeling knowing full well I knowingly did this to myself. There I was in the middle of the most physically and mentally exhausting challenge I’ve ever put myself to - but when I allowed myself to stop and watch the bear, or marvel at the 300 year old white pine or the cedar groves on the side of the hill I was on, or gaze out at the sunset from the top of the cliffs overlooking the border lakes and into Canada as an eagle soared on the updrafts…I couldn’t help but feel connected to everything around me. The sense of feeling small amidst the vast wilderness but part of it all is lost on me in my daily life in the city, buildings, cars, etc. The trappings of modern life have made our day to day easy and I know I find myself frustrated at seemingly small and innocuous discomforts. I am thankful for the experience to be immersed in this Wilderness under extreme circumstances, obviously happy I made it out the other side alive and mostly unhurt. I’ll carry this experience with me the rest of my life.
- 56 miles
- 5 people encountered
- 1 bear
- 3 roughed grouse
- 1 deer
- 3 bald eagles
- 1 giant snapping turtle
- 5 times I fell
- 1 broken toe
- 7 ticks on my legs
- 17 billion mosquitos
This was the first phase of my Running Through the Boundary Waters Project. More than just a passion project bucket list sort of deal, I am doing this with the intent of highlighting this place to trail runners and hikers as a way to also bring awareness of the imminent threat the Boundary Waters faces from proposed sulfide-ore copper mines. Trails like this and others across the country cross vast landscapes of protected public lands. We’ll lose access to these if giant industrialized minescapes replace what nature has had in place for tens of thousands of years. We as a country and society have a choice - priority of places like the Boundary Waters or priority given to foreign billionaires and multinational corporations with no vested interest in American public lands.
To keep this project going, this coming October I will run the Kekekabic Trail - which picks up at the Gunflint Trial where the BRT leaves off - east to west near Ely. It is another 40 or so miles through the Wilderness. Next year with both of these segments under my belt, with the experience of each trail and all the lessons learned I will run them both in one trip, what I’m calling the Boundary Waters Traverse.
Please tell your friends, family, neighbors, coworkers - anyone you know about the threat to the Boundary Waters and have them sign our petition. It all starts with people raising their voices and standing together to protect the Boundary Waters.