Skiing Minnesota's Gunflint Trail

Gunflint Legends, Past and Present

One of the chief lures of the Gunflint Trail and the rest of Minnesota's Boundary Country is the palpable frontier feel the area still exudes. Boundary Country has been the stage of some colorful periods of history: It was first the homeland of the Ojibwe or Chippewa, who mastered the northwoods wilderness, becoming skillful hunters and fishers, developing maple sugaring and harvesting wild rice, and building northwoods icons like the birch-bark canoe. During the heyday of the fur trade from the 17th century into the early 19th century, the lakes, rivers, and footpaths of the area were traveled by the legendary Voyageurs—long-distance workhorses of the fur trade, they annually traveled from the wilderness all the way to trade centers such as Montreal to deliver stacks of furs. Mineral prospectors and loggers in search of giant white pines filtered into the northwoods in the late 19th century, and it was during this time that the earliest version of the Gunflint Trail—merely a mowed-down route through the dense woods—was hacked into the wilds.

When city-dwellers first began to be attracted to the idea of a wilderness respite away from the hurly burly of modern life, lodges began to spring up along the Gunflint Trail; in those early days of tourism in the area, the road was truly a rough one. Barely wide enough for the passage of a single Model-T, it made for the sort of journey that the wise traveler would prepare for by stowing an extra spare into his trunk. The last 50 years have seen the Gunflint Trail become a well-maintained, paved artery, but in the story of one of the pioneers of travel in the region, it's easy to see that though things may have changed on the surface, the Gunflint's past is still very much alive.

Justine Kerfoot's legend stands as tall as the tallest white pines lining her beloved Gunflint Trail. At 94, the wiry little woodswoman—who has owned and operated the Gunflint Lodge for almost 70 years—looks organic, as if she sprouted from underneath the rocky Superior National Forest soil. With a deeply creased face, closely-cropped hair, and clothed in fur-lined parkas recalling a long-ago era, Kerfoot is the perfect embodiment of the romantic frontier spirit of the Gunflint Trail. But it's a badge she's earned the hard way.

Kerfoot landed in northern Minnesota in 1929—and not by choice. A budding chemistry graduate student at Northwestern University with a promising future as a physician, the upper-middle-class intellectual was abruptly shaken out of her life of privilege and high society when her father lost almost everything he owned in the stock market crash. The family's only choice was to eke out a living from their last remaining chunk of real estate: a rustic hunting lodge 45 miles up a dead-end logging road. To Justine, it might as well have been sitting at the end of the world.

It took five years for Kerfoot to learn the ways of the wilderness, thanks to patient coaching from some local Chippewa, the family's only neighbors; they lived in teepees across the lake. "If we didn't keep our word, we'd be in bad shape," says Kerfoot of her taskmaster teachers. But Kerfoot was a natural, learning how to chop ice and drive dogsled teams in the winter, and guiding hunting and fishing trips during the summer. But even this far removed from the world, the unspoken rules of society still applied—most clients, judging by her alternative lifestyle, thought she was a man. Enjoying the freedom of her mistaken identity, Kerfoot did little to set her naive clients straight. Plus, says Kerfoot, "there was so much work to do that we didn't have time for fiddly-do."

Despite the Gunflint Trail's reputation as one of the coldest pockets in America, Kerfoot was less hindered by subzero temperatures than by the snow. "All of the winters were cold," she recalls. "But the worst winters were when the snow was up under your armpits." Her disdain for the fluffy stuff was simple: The road to Grand Marais was plowed only twice a year, at Christmas and Easter. Too much snow meant impassable roads, which meant lonely winters. Snow and cold aside, Kerfoot's biggest blow as a business owner came in 1953 when a drifter broke into the lodge to steal some beer. He was so drunk that he fell asleep smoking. By morning the lodge, and Kerfoot's life, was in smoldering ashes on the ground. Armed with little more than a pep talk and $1,000 from a benevolent neighbor, Kerfoot grabbed a piece of butcher paper, sketched out a new lodge, and started to rebuild.

One would think that at the venerable age of 94, Kerfoot might be allowed a respite from life's trauma. She has handed the lodge over to her son and his wife in order to enjoy woodcarving in her workshop, playing around with her computer, and re-covering an old wood-canvas canoe, but Mother Nature recently dealt Kerfoot another blow. It came during 1999 in the form of a freaky Fourth of July storm, the most devastating tempest Kerfoot has ever seen. The "blowdown" toppled an estimated 12 million trees, 15 of which landed on Kerfoot's cabin. "I felt like I was kicked in the gut," moans the tough old icon. "It looks like hell." But it's in times like these, when life on the Trail can't get much worse, that Kerfoot resorts to her favorite Indian proverb: "No man can live among the pines who is not at peace." And if she's learned anything in her 70-year tenure in the woods, Kerfoot has learned how to be at peace.

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication

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