These Volunteers Keep the Trails of the Boundary Waters Alive

A Minnesota nonprofit group fulfills what the U.S. Forest Service is no longer able to do: keep BWCAW trails open to hikers and backpackers
Tiffanie Ellis and other volunteers on the Powwow Trail
Tiffanie Ellis and other volunteers on the Powwow Trail

Photo by Martin Kubik

Imagine getting up at 5:30 a.m. to drive from Duluth to a remote Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW) entry point. You hike in with a backpack full of saws and nippers to a remote part of the Powwow Trail—a rugged lollipop trail, so called because the 3-mile out-and-back stem leads to a 25-mile upper loop. You spend all day sawing and removing dead trees from miles of the lonesome trail. Then you struggle back out by 9:00 p.m. and cap it off with a drive back to Duluth.

Does this sound like the rough day of a paid U.S. Forest Service summer intern? It’s actually a day in the life of trail maintenance volunteers from the Boundary Waters Advisory Committee (BWAC). This all-volunteer nonprofit organization has a mission to preserve existing historic and intrinsically beautiful trails in the BWCAW. These volunteers from around Minnesota fulfill what the Forest Service is no longer able to do: keep BWCAW trails open to hikers and backpackers, making this treasured wilderness accessible to more than just canoeists.

BWAC is the brainchild of Martin Kubik, a now-retired 3M consultant who moved to Minneapolis for college after immigrating to New York City with his family from then-communist Czechoslovakia in 1969. The Soviet invasion of their country triggered Kubik’s family to search for freedom abroad, and Kubik found that freedom specifically in the Boundary Waters. To this day, it’s the place where he feels most free.

Kubik has built a 33-year legacy of service to the BWCAW, organizing first the Kekekabic Trail Club in 1990 and then BWAC in 2002. BWAC volunteers mix hardcore trail clearing (stewardship) with public presentations (education) and advocacy for BWCAW trails, helping to lobby the U.S. Forest Service and Congress to keep trails maintained and open for hikers. Together, these functions demand a high level of dedication, organization, and passion.

So, how does it work? BWAC goes through a three-step training process with new volunteers. Kubik has heard anecdotally that BWAC is the only hiking trail maintenance organization in the state that trains its volunteers.

First, prospective volunteers are invited to a presentation, where they learn about what BWAC does and why. Then, incoming volunteers attend safety training. According to BWAC member Tiffanie Ellis, “There’s been a number of participants who have purposely joined BWAC trips because they’re new to wilderness trail maintenance, but they see the organization’s focus on safety, and they feel comfortable learning and doing trail clearing.”

Kubik concurs. “We don’t compromise safety because of our mission. We can always come back with another trip.” Kubik is proud that, in 33 years, “We have never had any serious injuries other than scratches and bee stings.”

The safety session involves learning how to use the non-power tools permitted in the BWCAW, such as hand saws, as well as how to give the “heads up” command when volunteers are throwing a log off trail. Kubik says two things happen when someone yells to command: “Everyone knows to stay away at that moment, and if you hear that all day long, you get this feeling that the group is working together. They are getting their job done and fulfilling the mission. It’s rewarding.”

Following the safety training, which lasts two hours for Twin Cities chapter volunteers and an hour and a half in greater Minnesota chapters, a third training step has participants do a pre-trip gear check and hike together. This is a chance to get to know the others in the group, to ask questions, and to do a gear review, followed by a 2- to 4-mile hike with packs.

Ellis, who is now a crew leader, says this meet-and-greet hike is essential, even though no trail maintenance is being done yet. “[It’s] where we, as a group, get to know each other and interact so that, when we’re on our trail maintenance trip, we’ve already crossed those barriers of ‘Who are you?’ We’re working together.”

Kubik calls this hike the “training wheels.” He also stresses the need for crew leaders to establish expectations ahead of time. “We manage the expectations for the upcoming field work, which really helps,” he says. “I give an analogy: I was in a whitewater club, and you better be scouting the whitewater first, with your buddy, and figure out the moves ahead of time. Once you are in the throes of the rushing water, it’s going to be hard to change direction. We’ve learned by the school of hard knocks.”

Finally, when the trail clearing trip day arrives, volunteers carpool to the BWCAW trailhead from one or more locations. In Duluth, BWAC is sponsored by the Frost River outdoor clothing and equipment shop, which provides a company van for transporting volunteers on the trips, which can be one long day or multi-night.

Once together in the woods, working as a team, the BWAC volunteers quickly build camaraderie.

Ellis explains that knowledge sharing is a great benefit of being part of BWAC. “In the downtime, when we’re eating lunch or taking a water break, we’re sharing camp stories and sharing knowledge of gear. … You just get a bunch of different ideas, and, if you’re new to camping, it’s a double bonus because not only are you getting to experience the trip, you’re also getting tips on things you otherwise may not know.”

BWAC president Rod Markin also cites a double bonus. “As I got deeper into the BWAC organization, two things became the best part of volunteering – establishing new relationships with similar minded people, and developing my own leadership and wilderness skills (skills I would not have without BWAC).”

What is the ultimate motivation for Kubik, Ellis, and other BWAC volunteers? For Ellis, it’s the reward of seeing the group’s accomplishments. Ellis describes an epiphany on her initial volunteer trip in 2018: “One of the things that really stuck out on my first trip —a weekend-long one—is that we worked our butts off, and then we came back to camp through the section we had just cleared. While you’re doing it, you know you’re doing work, but it isn’t until you turn around and go back to your campsite that you realize, ‘Wow, this is completely different.’”

“It’s very rewarding,” Kubik agrees. “Even though you work all day long, and the hike back takes only 20 minutes, there’s definitely a ‘wow’ effect. If volunteers didn’t do what they do, 120 miles out of about 200 miles of wilderness trails would be gone. The Forest Service either doesn’t have the resources—or chooses not to commit the resources.”

Markin, BWAC’s current president, credits Kubik for building the organization into what it is today. “He has modeled, taught, challenged, and directed the core of our long-time volunteers in many of the key areas of our operations, including promotion and recruitment of new volunteers, wilderness leadership, team building, and advocacy.  In turn, those same volunteers have attained organizational skills that they have been able to impart to new volunteers.  We now have a cadre of committed volunteers, who are also friends with each other, that make it all happen.”

The Boundary Waters hiking trails, still thriving today thanks to BWAC, represent a distinct opportunity for true solitude in the wilderness and exploration of our state.

Being from Prague, Czechia, Kubik has his own reflection on the importance of preserving the BWCAW. “As somebody who comes from Central Europe, where there’s such a high population density, you actually cannot camp in protected lands. You can only camp on farming land or some official campgrounds. In Europe, here’s your car, here’s your tent, and here’s the next person’s car and tent. The Boundary Waters is something very unique, coming from my heritage, and something to be cherished.”

Besides the Powwow Trail, BWAC groups have done work on the Sioux Hustler and Eagle Mountain Trails in 2023, all in the BWCAW.

For more about the organization, visit

Christopher Pascone is a Minnesota outdoorsperson who lives in Duluth with his wife and three daughters. He went to Macalester College in St. Paul, and now teaches in the School District of Superior (WI) and Northwood Technical College. His passions are exploring the outdoors with his family and urban farming. He prioritizes low-tech adventures with a paddle, skis, or fishing equipment.