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What does it take to build a stone stairway in the BWCA?

DULUTH — When the Superior National Forest needed to replace a quarter-mile-long wooden stairway in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, its method intentionally evoked the past.

Crews worked hundreds of hours over two seasons to rebuild the Stairway Portage, with the aid of hand tools to construct and sled dogs to haul the old stairway across a frozen landscape.

The popular but difficult portage connecting Duncan and Rose lakes is about halfway up the Gunflint Trail. The rotting, treated wood climbed a 50-degree slope that parallels Rose Falls. To replace it with native stone, a six-person team worked with shovels, Pulaskis, rock hammers and chiseling tools.

Upholding the national wilderness' character is mandated by federal law, which means no motorized or mechanized equipment when it comes to projects.

Even so, it didn't occur to project manager Cathy Quinn to use anything but hand tools in the build, and canoe, feet and sled dogs as modes of travel within the BWCA.

"I also think we gain a little street cred with the public when they see us working out there the way we ask them to travel," said Quinn, a Superior National Forest employee who manages recreation programs for the BWCA.

The work for the completed stairway and another nearby was recently honored with the 2023 National Wilderness Award for best use of "Traditional Skills and Minimum Tool Leadership."

As many as 100 people use the portage daily during the summer months, hoisting heavy packs and canoes.

The area's boreal forest climate includes cyclical freezing and thawing patterns that wear down and decompose soil. After decades of erosion and heavy use, Forest Service staff removed the stairway during the summer of 2022, taking 100 hours in all.

Then, a crew led by a professional trail builder spent a month digging out nearby diabase, an igneous sub-volcanic rock. Using skills no longer prevalent in modern society, they crushed rock and shaped each piece by chisel to place it among rock fill and retaining walls. Called "rock check dams" that resemble steps, they reduce erosion by slowing water flow to keep the trailhead intact.

Over 130 check dams weighing between 80 and 100 pounds each were constructed by Great Lakes Trail Builders and a crew from the Conservation Corps of Minnesota and Iowa.

Old stairway materials were held at the end of the portage until they could be hauled out in January by Forest Service employees who own dog sled teams. Using two teams of 10 sled dogs, they made 14 2-mile round-trips over a frozen lake and through deep snow while enduring 30-below windchills over four days.

Ideally, the Forest Service would have rerouted the trail to even further reduce the human-made imprint, but area terrain was too rocky. This was the next best thing, Quinn said, removing creosote-treated wood with something natural that will last.

The check dams blend into the hill and eliminate the unnatural odor of creosote, an unexpected interruption to a wilderness experience, said Christine Kolinski, of the Superior National Forest.

"In addition to the smell as you paddle across the lake, you could probably see those steps quite a ways back," she said. "So the visual impacts on the landscape today with the rock is just night and day."

Funding for the $175,000 project came from the Great American Outdoors Act, BWCA permit fees, the Timber Sale Pipeline Restoration Fund and Secure Rural Schools grants.