Ely man ‘Bushwhacks the Boundary Waters’

UPDATE III: From Ely Outfitting Company and Boundary Waters Guide Service:

UPDATE II: Marshall Helmberger of the Timberjay reported on this morning’s KAXE Morning Show that Zabokrtsky is nearing Ely and that friends plan to welcome him home sometime today.

UPDATE: As expected, Jason Zabokrtsky’s updates from his bushwhack across Quetico and the Boundary Waters have been fascinating. Just yesterday he crossed the border back into the United States and is on his home stretch back to Ely. Watching the weather here in northern Minnesota, one can only feel sympathy and awe for Zabokrtsky’s journey, which has been wet, cold and difficult. An excerpt from earlier this week:

When I first guided in the Boundary Waters in the summer of 1997, I worked at a youth group based canoe trip outfitter.  A tradition I learned there was to pack a bag of “Secret Spinach.”  Labeled “Spinach” on a piece of masking tape, a small nylon stuff bag got only little attention from the teen campers on trail. Unbeknownst to them, the secret, was that the “Spinach” bag contained very desirable Snickers candy bars.  I’d save these high-calorie crowd-pleasers for a particularly arduous travel day when the group needed a little extra energy or a morale booster.  Today is the day of this trek that I dig into my “Secret Spinach” bag.

I awoke to about an inch of snow and sub-freezing temps.  It was the type of wet, damp snow that sticks to everything and then melts at the slightest warmth.

After several days of at least some rain, most of my primary gear is wet.  Even the stuff I partially dried around the fire is fully soaked once again.

It was one of those mornings that started by putting on cold, wet boots and hiking through alder thickets at seemingly every turn.  And then it started to snow again, and the wind howled, biting at me as it whipped in full force off each of the lakes I encountered.  Another inch of the cold, damp white stuff piled on the fir branches, showering me constantly as I plowed through the thickets.

Then, yesterday:

I awoke to a new dusting of snow, and then more snowflakes while packing up camp.  This is day four of slogging through snow.  Bushwacking in these conditions is like being in a constant blizzard.  Even when it is not falling from the sky, it careens from every tree branch and covers me head to foot.  The temps continue to hover just below freezing and the snow continues to coat my hiking boots.

With these snowy conditions, I must be extra careful with my footing because the ground is particularly slippery when it is coated with snow.  Also, it can be difficult to know if good footing lies under a pile of the white stuff.

My swim across the Basswood River was quite enjoyable.  The water is warmer than the air and the two rapids just upstream from my crossing are quite scenic.  I took a video and will share it upon my return.

I reread my journal entry from a couple days ago stating, “There is no place I’d rather be than right here.” I’ve been thinking about that statement and I’ve been thinking about chicken wings with Jack Daniels sauce and a cold Summit at the Grand Ely Lodge.

Here’s to the adventurers!

For background on Jason’s journey, read on:

bushwack trip

Today Ely’s Jason Zabokrtsky is across the border in Ontario, Canada, where tomorrow he will slip quietly into the Quetico National Forest with just a wet suit and a pack of supplies. If all goes to plan, he’ll emerge from the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in about two weeks. He doesn’t know exactly how long it will take. And he doesn’t even really know exactly what route he can take. He’ll be off-trail and expects at least a dozen swims in the frigid October lakes of Quetico and the BWCA.

The trip is a once-in-a-lifetime challenge for any outdoorsperson, but is partly a promotion for Jason’s business, Ely Outfitting Co., so bear with the commercial messages in his press release:

zabokrtskyJason Zabokrtsky, of Ely, MN, is attempting to cross the BWCAW and Quetico on foot, alone, and off-trail from Atikokan, Ontario, to Ely, Minnesota, from October 11 – 25.

During two weeks on trail, Jason will experience the area he has lived, worked and played in from a totally different perspective.  As a Boundary Waters wilderness canoe trip and dogsled guide and outfitter, he has seen this region extensively, but in the same way virtually everyone who experiences the Boundary Waters sees it:  either from a canoe, on a portage trail, or around a campsite.

This journey flips convention on its head. The Boundary Waters region is an extremely water-rich environment experienced primarily by canoe.  However, this is an unprecedented journey without a boat.  Travel will be primarily on foot and off-trail.  But, it’s impossible to cross this region without getting wet.  So how will he manage without a boat?  Jason will don a dry suit and swim the necessary water crossings – his backpack stowed in a dry bag and floating beside him.  He’s minimizing this risky part of the trip by only swimming in the narrowest stretches and using extra caution around the frigid water.  The anticipated route has about a dozen significant swims.  The payoff is that he will experience remote wilderness that is virtually never seen.

Jason says this journey will also help him relate to the guests of his Ely Outfitting Company, a Boundary Waters canoe trip outfitter in Ely, MN, and improve his understanding of the region.  Guests of his business challenge themselves mentally and physically as they prepare to experience a new adventure.  While outfitting the information and gear for a canoe trip isn’t particularly challenging for Jason these days – he could probably pack out a canoe trip in his sleep – an unconventional trip like this bushwhack means learning new skills, evaluating new travel systems, and preparing for the unknown.  Jason says, “this journey will definitely provide me with a deeper understanding and better appreciation for this exceptional wilderness area that I love dearly.”

The approximate route is shown in green and red on the above map.  The red designates the bushwhack route within the BWCAW and Quetico.  The green designates the route outside of these wilderness areas.  The yellow line is the international border.

The total trip distance is difficult to predict because the bushwhack route doesn’t follow established trails, and the route will need to change based upon the best options found in the woods. With that said, Jason estimates the total trip distance will be around 80 miles.  The total horizontal distance of the anticipated route shown in the satellite map from the northern edge of Quetico to the southern edge of the BWCA is about 50 miles.  The route shown outside of the Wilderness is about 25 miles.

But how does a person stay on course and not get lost during this sort of bushwhack?  After all, Jason tells canoe trip guests that the way people get lost on trips up here is when they walk off-trail into the woods.  Canoeists may get turned around on the lakes, but they don’t get significantly lost when in a canoe.  People do get lost on foot in these dense woods.  Jason will stay on course with the help of the old reliable paper map and a navigation compass.  He’s also using an iphone gps app (MotionX), satellite imagery (particularly helpful for determining stream widths), and electronic topo maps (good for avoiding particularly rugged topography).

A satellite phone will allow Jason to make occasional updates from the trail.  You’ll find those updates at www.facebook.com/ElyOutfittingCompany.


  1. Wow. This sounds like the opposite of fun.

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