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BWCAW portage work earns 2023 National Wilderness Award

Jan 23, 2024 08:30AM ● By Content Editor
Photo: After project completion. Stairway Portage stone checks-2022. USDA Forest Service photo by C. Quinn

From the US Forest Service - Superior National Forest - January 23, 2024

The Stairway Portage located in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW) within the Superior National Forest is one that many of the thousands of annual visitors know well and probably have a story about venturing over it. BWCAW visitors use portages to travel from one lake or water system to another to avoid hazards such as waterfalls or dangerous terrain. The Stairway Portage is approximately one-quarter miles long with a 50-degree slope that parallels a cascading stream and waterfall called Rose Falls. Portaging is not easy and adding numerous wooden stairs with up to 100 pounds on your back, it’s very challenging. Indigenous people have traveled the same lakes and portage trails for hundreds, if not thousands of years, before European settlement of the area and passage of the 1964 Wilderness Act. 

The boreal forest climate in the Superior National Forest includes cyclical freezing and thawing patterns that wear down and decompose soil and other elements. Superior National Forest wilderness staff continually monitor the conditions of hundreds of portage trails and thousands of campsites annually for the safety of visitors, following wilderness ethics in backcountry maintenance. High use requires a creative approach to management to provide public access while preserving wilderness character. Staircases made of treated dimensional lumber were installed decades ago to prevent soil erosion caused by visitors traveling between the Duncan and Rose Lakes due to steep terrain. Annual monitoring showed increased rotting with natural and humanmade erosion (as many as 100 people use the portage per day in the summer [1]).

 Before: Old staircase of Stairway Portage-2021. USDA Forest Service photo

During the summer of 2022, two sets of chemically treated wood staircases were removed from the Stairway Portage with hand tools, over approximately 100 work hours by Superior Staff. Both staircases were made of treated dimensional lumber. The wood staircases were replaced with ‘rock check dams’ to improve the primitive element of wilderness character, promote sustainable trail-building techniques, and protect water quality. The ‘rock check dams’ were built with smaller rock fill and rock retaining walls restoring the natural look and function of the landscape, resembling rock steps designed to last longer and channel the water down the step checks to the lake.

Over 130 check dams were constructed with local stone by a professional trail builder and crew from the Conservation Corps of Minnesota and Iowa [2]. It took the team of six people approximately one month to complete the project. The old wooden staircase demolition materials were then staged at the end of the Stairway Portage until they could be backhauled by dog sled teams in the winter. 

 Photo: Willie Bittner of Great Lakes Trail Builders & the Conservation Corps of MN & IA (CCMI) Crew at Stairway Portage-2022. USDA Forest Service image. 

During January 2023, a cadre of Superior NF wilderness rangers and sled dogs came together from across the Forest to mush materials out of the BWCAW. Using two teams of ten sled dogs, the crew made 26 separate trips (four miles roundtrip), working around 180 hours, to remove the waste materials from the Wilderness. The work was performed during difficult conditions including deep snow and exceptionally cold temperatures where windchills rarely exceeded minus 30F (see photos 7-8 in PDF).

Funding for this project came from a variety of sources including the Great American Outdoors Act, BWCAW use permit fees (Recreation Enhancement Act), the Timber Sales Pipeline Restoration Fund, and Secure Rural Schools grants. The project was awarded the 2023 National Wilderness Award for best use of ‘Traditional Skills and Minimum Tool Leadership’.

In addition to the structures located on the Stairway Portage, the Flying Lake to Gotter Lake Portage also had a 30’ long structure made from treated dimensional lumber that was in decline. With no rot-resistant tree species in the vicinity or viable reroutes available, another set of stone rock checks was constructed. Later in the 2022 field season, the same contractor and CCMI crew spent approximately three weeks building 30 native stone checks using the same traditional tools utilized in the Stairway Portage project (photos 3-4 in PDF). In addition, Wilderness Rangers spent three days hauling the demolished stair materials two miles by canoe, and foot over three lakes/portages, to the Wilderness boundary, where they were removed by snowmobile the following winter.

[1] Superior National Forest statistic


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