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Kekekabic Trail: No walk in the park

The Kekekabic Trail runs about 46 miles from the Fernberg Road east of Ely to the Gunflint Trail northwest of Grand Marais, according to the U.S. Forest Service. It's a little-used wilderness trail maintained primarily by volunteers with supervis...

The Kekekabic Trail runs about 46 miles from the Fernberg Road east of Ely to the Gunflint Trail northwest of Grand Marais, according to the U.S. Forest Service. It's a little-used wilderness trail maintained primarily by volunteers with supervision from the Forest Service, said Mark Van Every, Forest Service district ranger at Ely.

"Like any of those wilderness trails, it's not maintained to high standards," Van Every said.

The 1999 windstorm and blowdown and subsequent fires have allowed new growth to emerge. Even with volunteer trail clearing it can grow rapidly in one season and obscure the trail, Van Every said.

"There are sections of the trail that will be difficult to follow because of the amount of brush that grew up over the summer," he said. "Beaver dams and ponds are always an ongoing thing that can create complications as well.

"We are in a wilderness setting. It's a wilderness trail. It's not like walking down a path in a park. It's a not a simple, easy trail."

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"It's rough terrain," said Cook County Sheriff Mark Falk. On a scale of 1-10, with 10 being the most difficult, "it's 7.5 overall and 10 in spots. It's very hilly and steep in spots."

Falk said he believes the missing women are experienced hikers and that they trained for the trip.

The Kekekabic Trail Guide, published by the Kekekabic Trail Club, says the trail is "one of the toughest, meanest rabbit tracks in North America. The trail struggles its way through swamps, around cliffs, up the sides of bluffs and across rocky ridges. It is choked with nightmarish patches of clinging brush. It is blocked with tan-gles of windfalls and standing timber. ... Sometimes it snakes its way over old river beds, slippery, rocky and treacherous."

The trail was originally used by Forest Service rangers as access to a fire tower and cabin on Kekekabic Lake.

History of the Kekekabic Trail

Late 1880s -- Eastern 2 1/2 miles of what's now the Kekekabic Trail was a wagon road to pits and shafts of the Paulson Mines.

1938 -- The entire 38-mile Kekekabic Trail was completed from near Ely to the Gunflint Trail in order to provide access to fire towers in the canoe country.

1940s -- Airplanes come into use for fire surveillance, leading to eventual abandonment of fire towers.

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1960s -- Backpacking grows more popular. The "Kek" is cleared and upgraded as a hik-ing trail by the U.S. Forest Service.

1970s -- Use of the Kek Trail peaks at about 445 permits annually.

1982 -- Forest Service ceases to maintain the trail as other, more scenic hiking trails are developed in Superior National Forest.

1989 -- Use of Kek dwindles to 25 permits per year.

1990 -- The Kekekabic Trail Club, a volunteer group, is formed. Clears the Kek with support and cooperation of the Forest Service. Sixty volunteers remove 2,000 downed trees across trail with axes and crosscut saws.

1992 -- Trail accurately mapped using GPS (Global Positioning System) coordinates by Kekekabic Trail Club.

Summer 1999 -- The Kek is covered with extensive blowdown as a result of the July 4 windstorm.

Fall 1999 -- Forest Service brings in trail crews from around the country to begin re-opening the Kek by removing thousands of blowdowns.

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Spring 2000 -- Forest Service crews return to continue clearing Kek Trail.

Fall 2000 -- Forest Service trail crews clear the remaining nine miles of the Kek Trail.

SOURCES: U.S. Forest Service; Kekekabic Trail Club.

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