Trail Vandalism in the BWCAW

August 25, 2022

In mid-July, the U.S. Forest Service discovered that the Angleworm Trail in the Superior National Forest had been vandalized. Someone spray painted blue blazes on trees and bedrock along the 12-mile wilderness trail in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW).

This blue blaze was illegally painted by someone on the Angleworm Trail in July 2022. Photo courtesy of the U.S. Forest Service.

Due to the color, it appears likely this person was familiar with either the Superior Hiking Trail or the North Country Trail because our blazes are the same color.

Wilderness trails are not blazed or signed. This is not an oversight or a trail not being maintained; the lack of blazes is due to federal law.

We have been asked by the U.S. Forest Service and their partners to share with our community that people should never mark, place cairns, or alter a wilderness trail like the Angleworm Trail. Unauthorized alterations are illegal on any trail in the Superior National Forest.

The Wilderness Act of 1964 and the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness Act of 1978 designated certain areas of the U.S. and Minnesota as wilderness.

“A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.

“An area of wilderness is further defined to mean (…) land retaining its primeval character and influence, without permanent improvements or human habitation, which is protected and managed so as to preserve its natural conditions,” according to the Wilderness Act of 1964.

These trails are also managed under the Superior National Forest Land and Resource Management Plan and National Wilderness Management Policy.

The U.S. Forest Service is seeking information about who painted the blazes along the Angleworm Trail. If you have any information, please contact the Kawishiwi Ranger Station at (218) 365-7600 or the Superior National Forest Supervisor’s office at 218-626-4300.

The SHT is a footpath and a gateway

The Superior Hiking Trail often inspires people to expand their adventure horizons after people building confidence and skills on the SHT.

“The SHT was the gateway drug. Once I got that completed, I was like ‘What’s next?’,” said Zach Johns, a long-time SHT backpacker, volunteer, and supporter.

Minnesota has more than 800 miles of the North Country National Scenic Trail, hundreds of trails in State Parks and Forests, and 50 Superior National Forest trails, including 12 wilderness trails inside the BWCAW.

Whoever spray-painted the blazes may have meant well. They may be someone from the SHT or NCT community who has started to expand their hiking horizons, and genuinely thought that they were providing a service by recreating the blazes featured on the SHT or NCT. But spray-painting blazes on the Angleworm Trail violated the wilderness management requirements of the BWCAW.

“These blazes deface the natural, scenic, and primitive qualities of the Angleworm Trail, detract from a wilderness experience, and degrade its wilderness character,” said Ann Schwaller, Forest Program Manager for the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.

When we expand our outdoor adventure horizons to new trails, it is our responsibility to learn the rules and regulations of that trail.

What to expect from wilderness trails

BWCAW trails are beautiful and remote. They offer a truly wild experience deep in the Northwoods, but their remote locations also present additional challenges.

Zach Johns (in the very back) and friends ford an unbridged river while backpacking in the BWCAW in 2017. Photo courtesy of Jo Swanson.

“The hiking trails of the Boundary Waters are not like your typical state park trail or even the Superior Hiking Trail. They are the real deal. In many places you are barely able to tell there is a trail at all,” Johns said.

Johns has been backpacking the SHT since 1995 and started backpacking BWCAW trails in 1999. He backpacked the Angleworm Trail in 2018.

BWCAW trails are very minimally signed, and don’t have blazes. Motorized tools are not permitted for trail maintenance due to wilderness management regulations.

Severe weather events and wildfires routinely impact the area. The combination of these factors means that trails are more difficult to maintain than the SHT, are more difficult to navigate, and are sometimes impassable like after a tornado hit the Border Route Trail last year. Guides exist for some of the BWCAW trails, like the Kekekabic Trail and Border Route Trail, but not all. All wilderness trails require good map reading and navigation skills.

If SHT backpackers want to try a BWCAW trail, Johns recommends they go with someone who has been before.

A hiker crosses a beaver dam in high grasses on a wilderness trail in the BWCAW. These are common conditions found on wilderness trails, and users are expected to be able to navigate conditions like these without blazes or signage.

“The Boundary Waters trails are so raw. On the SHT, you almost have this comfort factor that you will cross a road every few miles or so. The Boundary Waters trails, you almost get this sinking feeling. You’re 20 miles in. There is no road. There is no ride back to the trailhead. There is no where to go out. You have to be more prepared, over-prepared, in my opinion,” Johns said.

Superior National Forest trails require in-depth research to stay safe and have a good trip. Forest visitors are welcome to call U.S. Forest Service Ranger Stations to ask for for information and advice, Schwaller said. She recommends starting your research here:

Johns was disappointed to hear about the vandalism on the Angleworm Trail.

“The whole wilderness aesthetic is man is a visitor; leave no trace. That’s a trace when you put paint on stuff. It’s a privilege to have a place where it’s harder, where it’s more primitive,” Johns said.

By Annie Nelson, SHTA Development and Communications Director