BOUNDARY WATERS — The famous Stairway Portage got a facelift this summer when the steep wooden steps were replaced with native stone.
The portage, one of the busiest in the million-acre federal wilderness, was beginning to collapse, and Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness officials decided a more permanent solution was needed.
“It’s at least the third and possibly the fourth time since I’ve been there that the steps have failed and needed to be replaced. So it made sense to try and do something more sustainable,’ said Cathleen Quinn, recreation and wilderness specialist in the Superior National Forest’s Gunflint District. “I think this will be the last time we have to do this for a very, very long time.”
The portage that connects Duncan and Rose lakes had 122 wooden steps and now has 78 stone steps, each piece being quarried from nearby springs, moved and installed by hand. Federal wilderness regulations did not allow the use of wheels or power tools.
“We extracted rock from six or seven quarry sites all around the portage. … There are a lot of rocks in this area,” said Willie Bittner, owner of Great Lakes Trailbuilders. The LaCrosse, Wis.-based company specializes in low-impact, sustainable trails.
Bittner, along with a five-man team from Conservation Corps Minnesota and Iowa, followed the same rules as BWCAW Forest Service campers and staff.
Each step weighed up to 200 pounds and had to be cut with chisels and hammers, then put in place and adjusted using only human strength. “We used plastic ice fishing sleds. …and using the old wooden stairs as a kind of rock slide,” Bittner noted.
The crushed rock essential for the foundation of the march was also made on site, by hand. They found smaller stones and took turns swinging a 10-pound sledgehammer to make their own gravel.
The crew packed up their gear and camped on the north side of Duncan Lake, then paddled to work each morning. They put in over 2,000 combined hours of work. Bittner was there for the entire 40-day project that ended in July while his team had a few four-day breaks.
“My specialty is dry stone masonry, so it really wasn’t new to me. … But it was an interesting place to try to work,” Bittner said. “I love passing on my knowledge of stone to the next generation of trail builders.”
The portage is one of nature’s busiest spots, Quinn said, used both by day visitors who canoe from nearby lakes just outside the BWCAW and by overnight campers. that sink deeper into nature. It’s even a place where people go in the winter, she says.
“It’s kind of an iconic place, really. This is the Staircase portage. … It’s a badge of honor for some people to say they did it,” Quinn said. “And it’s true – it’s no small feat to do this portage with equipment or a canoe.”
Quinn said it’s unclear if Aboriginal people or travelers used the same route centuries ago, but there are historical records of the portage being used as far back as the early 1900s, when local logs were cut down to provide a point of support.
The place is also popular because of the scenic little waterfall along the portage route.
“It’s a kind of forced carry. Most portages take the easier routes between the lakes, usually along low streams, because it makes sense. … And most follow the wilderness principle of having no structures,” Quinn said. “But, in this case, stone blends into nature much better than dimensional wood. And it will make it easier for people.
The portage project cost about $100,000 and was funded in part by revenue from national lumber sales and money from the Great American Outdoors Act approved in 2020. Deeper into nature, another 30 wooden steps on the portage between Flying and Gotter lakes were also replaced with 24 stone steps.
Portage work was delayed last fall due to the number of wildfires in the area, then delayed again last spring due to late ice breaking of the BWCAW lakes. Construction during the summer had to allow safe passage for anyone wishing to cross the portage, which meant that the crew often had to stop work and help campers move canoes and packs up or down the steep slope.
“One day we put 100 people through in 22 canoes,” Bittner said. “We spent a lot of time moving gear on the portage. … But it worked out pretty well.
Quinn said there is another set of wooden steps in the BWCAW between East Bearskin and Moon lakes that could be replaced with stone.
“We try not to have permanent structures like stairs in the desert. But in those cases, it’s really for the protection of resources” from erosion, Quinn noted. “And if that can make the experience a bit better for visitors, that’s great too.”
The BWCAW is the most heavily used wilderness area in the country with approximately 150,000 visitors per year. This number has increased to 165,000 in 2020 with more intensive use during the peak of the pandemic and the closure of the Canadian border.