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Two Harbors man to spend month in BWCAW

Derrick Passe of Two Harbors shows off the canoe he used in November to paddle across Snowbank and Perent lakes to scout him home for the month of May. Passe will spend the time clearing trails and campsites of trees toppled by last summer's wind storm. (Photo courtesy of Derrick Passe)1 / 2
The Kekekabic Trail was rendered nearly impassable by the trees blown down by a wind storm last summer near the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. (Photo courtesy of Derrick Passe)2 / 2

Last summer, brutal wind storms ripped across northeastern Minnesota uprooting trees and knocking out power from Duluth to Ely, and devastating some of the trails and lakes in northern Lake County and the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.

The storm blew apart a boathouse on Burntside Lake near Ely that was more than 100 years old. Snowbank Lake, near where the Kekakabic Trail leads hikers out of the BWCAW, was also hard hit. In May, Derrick Passe of Two Harbors will hike into the BWCAW areas hit hardest by last summer's storms to help clear out some of the downed trees and make the Kekekabic Trail passable once again.

Passe, the Rainy River coordinator for the Lake County Soil and Water Conservation District, has spent at least a week in the BWCAW clearing trails and performing other trail maintenance every year since 1996. He's led groups from the American Hiking Society (AHS) as well as groups of old friends to help clear and maintain trails. In October, he spent several days working with the U.S. Forest Service using chainsaws to clear downed trees and debris outside the wilderness, but what was going on inside the BWCAW remained a bit of a mystery.

"Nobody knew what was happening in the wilderness because nobody had been hiking in there. It was all kind of guess work, although I did recently talk to a thru-hiker that started on the Gunflint side and got almost all the way across and was ready to give up," Passe said. "He actually ended up bushwhacking out along the clear cut of Snowbank once he got out of the wilderness. I told him I really respected that he made it through because I couldn't even find the trail in a lot of places."

Passe won't be alone in the wilderness, however. The Kekekabic Chapter of the North Country Trail Association is leading two groups from the AHS to Thomas and Alworth Lakes to remove windfalls in those areas and the Conservative Anabaptist Service Program chose the Kekekabic Trail as its project for 2017. The CASP program will send seven volunteers ages 18 to 28 onto the trail from May 8 to June 4.

Passe has canoed all over the BWACW and enjoys the lakes, but to him the hiking trails offer a little more of what he is looking for. The lakes and canoeing offers a lot of the same scenery over and over and the lakes and portages are a lot more crowded. On lakes, you can see other canoeists for miles and there are people at almost every portage and campsite. On hiking trails like the Kekekabic there is a more solitary experience, huge pine trees that are more than 100 years old and ever-changing scenery.

"There's a lot more solitude. Sometimes you go by these 3 foot diameter trees and I can't resist," Passe said. "I put my hand up against and just feel the energy in them, because it's a lot closer link to the wilderness, at least for me, and it's always changing. You get the cliffs, you get the trees, you get the vegetation and the animals."

While canoe permits almost always fill up, hiking permits are rarely full and campsites offer an isolated experience. In fact, a lot of Passe's work will center on clearing underused campsites on the trails since brush tends to grow up more with less people passing through.

Passe also enjoys the self reliance required of the isolated hiking trails in the BWCAW. If a person gets hurt or stranded on a lake, a canoeist will soon be by and will probably help them paddle out. On the Kekekabic, if that person twists their ankle they are still going to have to hike their way out of the wilderness.

While some groups are already planning to join Passe in the BWCAW, he has also set up an online survey for individuals to sign up to meet him and volunteer to help clear trails and campsites. To volunteer or let Passe know availability, email him at

Jamey Malcomb

Jamey Malcomb started as a reporter for the Lake County News-Chronicle in August 2015. Malcomb is a native of North Carolina and holds a bachelor's degree in English and history from the George Washington University and a master's degree in education from George Mason University in Fairfax, Va. Malcomb moved to Minnesota in July 2012 and previously worked as a sports clerk and news assistant at the Duluth News Tribune. He is the beat writer for the Lake County Board of Commissioners, Lake Superior School District board of education and high school sports in Lake County. 

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