Paddling, pedaling the Gunflint Trail

The pandemic did little to diminish an annual family trip.

Heading back down the Gunflint Trail 12 miles from Gull Lake to retrieve our vehicle at the Gunflint Lake landing at the end of our trip.

My family made its annual pilgrimage to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness last week, and not even the taint of the COVID-19 pandemic could spoil the experience. In fact, I’d argue the opportunity to step away from our day-to-day precautionary routines and to truly socially distance ourselves from others for a short while actually deepened our appreciation for this still-largely-unspoiled bastion of nature.

This year, we chose to explore a part of the Boundary Waters we’d not yet visited. We entered through Magnetic Lake by way of Gunflint Lake, traveled up the Pine/Granite River chain into Saganaga and then headed back out via the Seagull River and Gull Lake.

A bike and canoe loaded and ready to hit the road en route to the Gunflint Trail. (Peter Passi /

In a normal year, we might have arranged a shuttle ride from the Gull Lake landing back to our car waiting 12 miles down the Gunflint Trail at the launch on the south shore of Gunflint Lake. But as you know, these are not normal times.


Rather than cramming ourselves into a vehicle with a stranger, potentially putting both us and the driver at risk of infection, we tried something I’d always toyed with doing but never had actually attempted.

I brought a bike.

We dropped off the bike at Trails End, aptly named for its location at the terminus of the Gunflint Trail, and then drove back down to the Gunflint Lake launch to begin our trip on a Sunday. We asked Mark Darling at the Way of the Wilderness Canoe Outfitters where he thought we might most safely stow a bicycle, and he kindly offered to let us store it on their property.

Heading back down the Gunflint Trail 12 miles from Gull Lake to retrieve our vehicle at the Gunflint Lake landing at the end of our trip. (Photo courtesy of Jill Hinners)

We set out on our trip, fully expecting to encounter traffic, as I’d anecdotally heard the Boundary Waters had been overrun this year by people seeking sanctuary from the pandemic. But we found our route to offer plenty of camping options, with only a handful of sites claimed. We also encountered not a single other party on any of our portages. The bandanas we carried as makeshift masks went largely unused.

While our fears of crowded conditions proved unfounded, we did discover ample evidence that the Boundary Waters has drawn a fair share of visitors less concerned than one would hope about preserving the pristine nature of this wilderness area. In the past, we’ve usually been impressed with the conscientious stewardship fellow travelers have shown.

But this year, we ran into more trash than we’ve seen in nearly two dozen years of annual trips. We packed out almost as much refuse from others as our party itself created — a broken camp dish, dental swords, cigar and cigarette butts, a guzzled six-pack of Busch beer tossed in a fire grate, a half-used bar of soap, stray fishing tackle, a pot lid, a wooden spoon, cords and snack bar wrappers, to name just a sampling of the finds we collected.


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A couple we left behind: a potentially sorely missed roll of toilet paper in a plastic bag found sitting by a camp biffy and a two-burner camp stove someone had inexplicably tossed into the water from a site on Clove Lake.

In our daily travel log, I wondered: Why would people travel into the wilderness only to deface it?

At a Saganaga Lake campsite where we stopped for lunch halfway through our trip, we ran into a pair of Forest Service rangers who said they’d noticed a marked uptick in litter as well. One of them held aloft the bag of garbage they had collected just that day visiting campsites and clearing trash from fire grates.

New to the area, we asked Ranger Richard Pulsfus if he had any campsite recommendations. My wife pulled out our McKenzie map and handed it to the officer. He backed away, stretching out his hand to accept the map at arm’s length and mentioning the need to maintain social distance in these days of COVID-19.

View from Lake Saganaga's Clark Island on final night of our trip. (Photo courtesy of Jill Hinners)


Jill and I knowingly looked at one another, maskless and embarrassed for the oversight. After a few days on the trail, we admitted that our thoughts of the pandemic had sort of melted away with other worries.

“I guess that’s why we come here,” I told Pulsfus.

After six days in the wilderness — with a moose sighting, woodchuck encounter, misty mornings and other favorite memories far eclipsing visions of litter — we made our inevitable return to civilization. I retrieved the bicycle and pedaled about an hour back to Gunflint Lake, puffing my way up and down the trail, alongside Seagull and then Larch Creek, the landscape unfolding at a measured pace before I climbed back into the motorized metal vehicle that soon would return us and our canoe all too swiftly to Duluth.

Peter Passi covers city government for the Duluth News Tribune. He joined the paper in April 2000, initially as a business reporter but has worked a number of beats through the years.
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