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Forest Service portage replacements earn 2023 National Wilderness Award

A Forest Service portage improvement project was awarded the 2023 National Wilderness Award for best use of “Traditional Skills and Minimum Tool Leadership.”

Funding came from a variety of sources including the Great American Outdoors Act, BWCAW use permit fees, the Timber Sales Pipeline Restoration Fund and Secure Rural Schools grants.

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 add 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, prior to European settlement of the area and passage of the 1964 Wilderness Act.

The boreal forest climate on 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 conditions of hundreds of portage trails and thousands of campsites annually for 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 human-made erosion (as many as 100 people use the portage per day in the summer).

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 Forest Service employees. 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 on 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. 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.

During January 2023, a group of Forest Service employees and sled dogs came together to mush materials out of the BWCAW. Using two teams of 10 sled dogs, the crew made 26 separate trips (four miles round trip), 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 at times exceeded 30 below.

In addition to the structures located on the Stairway Portage, the Flying Lake to Gotter Lake Portage also had a 30-foot long structure made from treated dimensional lumber that were in decline. With no rot resistant tree species in the vicinity or viable reroutes available, another set of stone rock checks were 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.

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.

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