Not Your Ordinary Walk in the Woods

Ely guide finishes his trek through the Quetico Park and Boundary Waters.

Ely outdoorsman recounts walk, swim across canoe country (with video)

The idea occurred to Ely canoe outfitter Jason Zabokrtsky last spring as he stood before a wall of canoe-country maps: A 90-mile walk across Quetico and the Boundary Waters.

By: Sam Cook, Duluth News Tribune

The idea occurred to Ely canoe outfitter Jason Zabokrtsky last spring as he stood before a wall of canoe-country maps.

Zabokrtsky, owner of Ely Outfitting Co. and Boundary Waters Guide Service, was thinking about where he should go on his annual fall trip in the wilderness north of Ely.

Already, he had paddled and guided dogsledding trips across much of the 2 million acres in Minnesota’s Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and Ontario’s Quetico Provincial Park.

But nearly all of that was on the water, in either liquid or solid form.

“It struck me that what I hadn’t experienced were the brown places on the map, the places with all the trees,” said Zabokrtsky, 39. “I thought it would be interesting to see what’s back there.”

“The Walk” was born.

For 15 days in late October, Zabokrtsky hiked — and occasionally swam — alone for 90 miles through the rugged bush from Atikokan, Ontario, south across the international border to Ely. Carrying a 54-pound pack and a dry suit to make water crossings, he averaged about one-half mile per hour on his two-week trek.

He called it, “Bushwhacking the Boundary Waters Without a Boat.”

He heard wolves. He saw moose. He muscled through dense thickets of spruce and fir. He endured several days of wet snow and temperatures at or below freezing.

He is, by all accounts, the first person to have made such a crossing. A few others have snowshoed similar routes or cross-country skied from Atikokan to Ely. Many have paddled the route. But nobody has come forward claiming to know anyone who has walked and swum the route in open-water months.

As he planned the trek, Zabokrtsky said several people asked him, “Is this even possible?”

He researched the route closely, loaded his iPhone 5 with topographic maps and satellite photos of the terrain and took recommendations from Quetico park officials about possible routes. He carried a satellite phone to call in updates on his progress.

The original plan was for Zabokrtsky, who grew up on an Iowa farm, to be accompanied by three others. But a month before the trip, all had to drop out.

“I was too psychologically committed not to give it a try,” he said.

Adventurous community

Zabokrtsky credited some of his fellow Ely residents — polar explorers Paul Schurke, Will Steger and Tyler Fish — for inspiring him.

“We live in a very special place with people who have a real adventurous spirit,” Zabokrtsky said. “If you want to live in a place where people are supportive of doing things in a little different way, Ely is the place for you.”

Zabokrtsky has worked for 10 winters at Schurke’s Wintergreen Dogsled Lodge guiding trips.

“He’s trail-savvy as can be,” Schurke said. “He’s spot on. What’s most striking about Jason is his upbeat, full-steam-ahead attitude about anything he tackles.”

“A lot of people I talk to want to go somewhere ‘special’ or ‘exotic’,” said Fish, who made an unsupported ski trip to the North Pole with John Huston in 2009. “Or they want to use the gear I’ve used or have a sponsor. To me, that’s superficial. Then there are people like Jason who decide to go out there and do whatever they can to get into the spirit of something bigger than yourself. That’s adventure, and doing that, in whatever way is accessible — that’s inspiring.”

For much of the trip, Zabokrtsky had to barge through dense stands of conifers or aspen.

“I’d put my hands behind my back and lean into it,” he said. “Reflecting on the trip, it really seemed like there was a lot of pushing through thickets.”

But occasionally, the forest would open into vast stands of Norway or white pines, and sometimes the going was good.

“You could just walk around on a pine-needle floor and see way off in the distance in all directions,” he said. “That felt very expansive.”

Taking stock

When Zabokrtsky awoke on day five, a rainy day, he assessed his physical condition. He was well-trained for the trek, but the brush was taking a toll on him.

“I was feeling pretty physically beaten up,” he said. “My legs were bruised from my ankles through my thighs. The backs of my hands were scraped and bleeding. I needed to treat my body a little nicer.”

He took the day off to rest. When he started moving again, he decided to veer around the densest thickets, then steer back to his line of travel. All went well for a time. And then the snow came. Three to four inches of dense, wet snow. It piled up on boughs and sloughed off as he passed beneath them.

“It looked like mid-December, not mid-October,” he said. “It was so wet and humid. It was far less comfortable than winter camping at 30 below.”

Along the way, Zabokrtsky came across the bones of recent and long-dead animals.

“It really opened up a whole new world of what lies behind the trees,” he said. “Behind the trees is where moose and wolves live their whole lives. I was privileged to spend 15 days behind the curtain of trees to see their world in a special way.”

Close encounter

One day near the center of Quetico Park southeast of Poobah Lake, he was listening to a pack of wolves howling at very close range, Zabokrtsky said.

“Then it got quiet, and I heard crashing behind me,” he said. “Real-deal crashing. A bull moose in full rut chasing a cow came up right behind me.”

The two moose passed within 40 feet of him, Zabokrtsky said, and veered directly toward the wolves.

At times, the forest gave way to the water crossings Zabokrtsky knew he would have to make. Five times, he put on his drysuit, sealed his pack in a dry bag and swam. His longest was the crossing of Sturgeon Narrows on Sturgeon Lake, about one-fifth of a mile. At narrow, shallow crossings, he would walk from rock to rock using his trekking poles for balance.

The swims went without incident, he said. Crossing the Basswood River on the international border, he affixed his iPhone to a trekking pole and shot a video of his swim. The video is now on YouTube.

High-tech navigation

Navigating by his iPhone GPS worked “seamlessly, even in the forest,” Zabokrtsky said. He stayed surprisingly close to the route he had planned. Although he camped by water most nights, he didn’t camp at an actual campsite until the evening of day 12.

He never saw another person on his walk, he said.

He came out of the Boundary Waters by way of Range Lake and hiked down the Cloquet Line, a primitive road, to Ely and back to his outfitting business. He was welcomed back by a large group of friends. Many people followed Zabokrtsky’s trek on Facebook, where his friends posted transcripts from his satellite-phone calls.

Since returning, he has received many emails from his followers, including a former Babbitt resident now living in Uzbekistan who wrote, “Thank you for taking the world with you on this trip.”

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