When he’s not piloting a big old jet airliner, Eric Chandler likes to be outside and in motion. He’s an avid Nordic skier, marathon runner, bike rider and paddle boarder and is a prolific writer about all of those activities and much more.
But one of his favorite Northland activities is taking walks. Notably long walks, with a 50-pound pack on his back and his dog, Leo, at his side.
Chandler spent much of the summer of 2014 hiking 41 different segments of the Superior Hiking Trail and eventually finished it all (the new, Jay Cooke-to-Wisconsin segment in in 2016) save for about one mile near the Ontario border. (More on that later.)
In 2018 he hiked the rugged Kekekabic Trail from Snowbank Lake near Ely to the Gunflint Trail, an area hard hit by multiple windstorms over the past 20 years that left the trail in disarray. It took him five days to hike the 40 miles and it wasn’t easy.
“On the third day, in the Cavity Lake Fire area, I got lost seven times in one day... Not lost so much as I lost the trail, where I had to go back and find it and work it out,'' he said, noting the lush post-fire growth was nearly impenetrable in places.
In other areas, Chandler said, he had to go around, over and often under dozens of big, wind-fallen trees blocking the trail.
“That’s the first trip I used trekking poles, my wife’s ski poles, actually, and now I won’t go without them,’’ he noted as a tip to prospective hikers. “I used them to get back up on my feet after crawling under trees.”
"One late night, a beaver amused me as it slapped its tail a dozen times as it crossed Medas Lake beside our ledge rock campsite. The tail slap sounded like a full-grown man doing a cannonball. That’s freaky in the wee hours,'' Chandler wrote in a Northern Wilds article on his solo Kekekabic hike. "We saw several ruffed grouse, so tame that they wouldn’t flush. Up and down ridges, past views of an ocean of trees stretching to the horizon. No bugs worth complaining about. Swimming in Gabimichigami Lake. Watching the sun light up the mist over Parent Lake at sunrise. Seeing my buddy Leo with his pink tongue flapping in the breeze coming back to check on his slow companion."
For this summer Chandler has his eyes and legs set on the Border Route Trail, 65 miles of rugged, lake-studded terrain from Gunflint Lake on the west to the Otter Lake Road not far from Grand Portage. It crosses over the top of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness along the Minnesota-Ontario border.
He will try to keep his gear to 50 pounds, including a ceramic water filter, a sleeping bag, small tent, his food and Leo’s food.
“I started one trip at 60 pounds and then said, nope, not at my age. So I got it down to 50 and even that’s a load,’’ said Chandler, 52.
When he finishes the week-long border trek he will have completed all 400 miles of established Northeastern Minnesota segments of the national North Country Trail that's slowly stretching from the Appalachians on the east to North Dakota to the west.
“I found out after the fact that I missed .9 miles of the Superior Hiking Trail that goes to the border that I didn’t know was there. So I’m going to do that when I finish the Border Route,’’ Chandler said as he laid out his summer trip plans.
For Chandler — who has lived through the excitement of flying an F-16 in combat, is responsible for hundreds of people’s lives as a pilot for United Airlines, raised a family and authored several books — back-country hiking is a way to dial life back to its most basic elements.
“There's something about (hiking) when everything comes down to a smaller scale,’’ Chandler said. “It usually takes about three days for my head to clear from being in town. But then it boils down to real simple, basic things: Eating. Water. Sleeping. Making campsites. It clears your head.”
Left to his own planning Chandler probably would have picked September to make the hike, when bugs and heat are less of an issue. But he’s going in July in hopes of convincing his college-age son and high school-age daughter to join him and 9-year-old Leo before they go back to school.
“I think I can talk them into it,’’ he said. “Otherwise it’s me and the dog.”
Chandler, a U.S. Air Force Academy graduate, published a book of poetry Hugging This Rock (Middle West Press, 2017) and is the author of two other books; a collection of outdoor essays called Outside Duluth and a novella titled Down In It. He’s also a veteran of both the Air Force and the Minnesota Air National Guard. He has over 3000 hours at the helm of an F-16 and flew 145 combat missions in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Thinking about going?
For more information on the Border Route Trail go to borderroutetrail.org, the website of the Border Route Trail Association, including covers maps, campsite information and more. If you plan to hike outside the Boundary Waters Canoe Area (east of McFarland Lake and west of Crab Lake) you do not need to obtain a permit. If you want to go on an overnight trip and want to camp within the BWCAW, which the BRT crosses between Crab Lake in the west and McFarland Lake in the east, you need to obtain a wilderness permit from the Forest Service. For day hikes within the BWCA, you can obtain a self-issue permit at the trail-heads.
You can obtain your overnight permit over the phone by calling 1-877-444-6777 or online at recreation.gov. Some outfitters are also able to organize permits for you. A permit fee of $12 per person applies and the group size is limited to a maximum of nine participants.