Hike service

Volunteers and Forest Service crews clear the Border Road trail after the 2021 tornado

It is quite rare to hear of tornado activity in northeast Minnesota. However, in October 2021, an isolated area within the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCA) experienced just that.

As Forest Service crews winterized equipment and prepared for the long winter months, a tornado touched down north of Clearwater Lake in Cook County.

“We can see some damage around the north side of Alder Lake, then we headed north to Clearwater Lake, then into Canada,” said Cathy Quinn of the US Forest Service.

In November, Quinn and Forest Service crews conducted aerial surveys to assess the damage. Afterwards, nature crews spent more time in the field to determine the full extent of the damage.

Quinn said she was impressed with the tornado trail. She mentioned that the tornado looked different than most straight-line wind events from the air.

While the 2021 tornado was unusual, it wasn’t the only special and significant event in Quinn’s long history with the U.S. Forest Service. She was involved in clearance efforts after the infamous 1999 explosion.

“It’s funny to have these events in your career,” Quinn said. She added that the 1999 tornado and blowdown damage bore a resemblance while crews conducted ground assessments.

As the snow finally melted this spring in the BWCA, Forest Service crews, alongside volunteers from the North Country Trail Association and the Border Route Trail Association, hit the trails to begin clearing the hundreds of felled trees. Initial clearing efforts on the Border Route Trail began during the third week of May.

“Most of the people on the ground doing the actual work are volunteers. And that partnership is key,” Quinn said.

Quinn said volunteers helped prepare the trail so a team of four Forest Service rangers could come in and clear with four- and six-foot chop saws over the tallest and most dangerous trees.

With hundreds of trees to clear, the Forest Service had a tough call to make before clearing work could begin. The Wilderness Act, established in 1964, limits the use of motorized and mechanized equipment in the wilderness area.

So if crews were to clear the Border Route Trail, they would have to do it with a little more legwork and without the aid of a chainsaw.

Quinn was happy to report that Forest Service crews had decided to comply with Wilderness Act regulations and use chop saws instead. She added: “We’re quite proud that we were able to do this in accordance with the Wilderness Act.”

Although there are still some downed trees along the trail, especially east of the portage from Clearwater to Mountain Lake, the trail is open to hikers and outdoor enthusiasts.

Quinn said, “We’re pretty proud that we just reopened the trail so quickly.”

Maintaining the Border Route Trail and other trails in and around BWCA would not be possible without the hard work and dedication of volunteers.

“Almost all of the trails in Cook County, at least on Cook and Lake Counties Forest Service land, are run by a group of volunteers,” Quinn said.

She is impressed with the efforts of volunteers and appreciates the relationship between the Forest Service and trail partners such as the North Country Trail Association, Superior Hiking Trail, Border Route Trail and Kekekabic Trail Chapter. Quinn wanted to share a big thank you to all the volunteers who spent their days clearing and maintaining the trails for the use and enjoyment of the general public.

WTIP’s Kalli Hawkins spoke with Cathy Quinn, recreation and wilderness specialist with the US Forest Service, for an update on the Border Route Trail. The audio of the interview is below.