Tired of conflicts, landowner closes part of Superior Hiking Trail

Superior Hiking Trail
The Superior Hiking Trail spans about 300 miles from Jay Cooke State Park south of Duluth, Minn., to the Canadian border. Throughout the length of the trail there are wooden boardwalks built over wet areas, like this section near Duluth, shown here on April 27, 2015.
Dan Kraker | MPR News

A popular section of the Superior Hiking Trail will close this week because a private landowner has kicked hikers off the land.

Randy Bowe, who owns 380 acres of land between the popular Gooseberry Falls and Split Rock Lighthouse state parks, said there have been too many smoldering campfires left by hikers and some have been hostile.

Bowe, a Duluth taxidermist, bought the property in the mid-1980s as work began on the trail, which extends 300 miles from Jay Cooke State Park, south of Duluth, to the Canadian Border. He granted permission for a 1.6-mile section of trail to cut through his property. But as the trail has grown in popularity, problems with hikers have increased, he said.

Some have berated him for driving an all-terrain vehicle.

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"I've had people cuss me out, my daughter and I riding our ATVs on our existing trails on our property," Bowe said.

The last straw, he said, came last fall when hikers harassed a friend he had invited to hunt.

"He encountered three male hikers who pretty much read him the riot act, called him every name in the book, followed him to his stand, and stood around his stand for almost an hour howling like wolves," Rowe said.

So beginning Friday, Rowe will no longer allow hikers to hike through his property — marking the first time a private property owner has kicked out hikers since construction of the trail began nearly 30 years ago.

Instead, hikers will have to detour on the paved Gitchi-Gami State Trail to the Split Rock River — a total of about six miles. A shorter route follows a 2.8-mile detour along both the bike path and a stretch of gravel county road.

Map of closure

"It's really hard because it's right in the heart of the trail," said Gayle Coyer, executive director of the Superior Hiking Trail Association, a private nonprofit that maintains and manages the trail. "It's on the northern boundary of Gooseberry Falls State Park."

Coyer said the group now faces two challenges: informing hikers of the detour and planning and constructing a new section of trail.

Gayle Coyer and Wendy Ruberg
Gayle Coyer and Wendy Ruberg of the Superior Hiking Trail Association, in the association's store in Two Harbors, Minn., pointed out on a map where a section of the trail will need to be detoured because of concerns of a private property owner whose land the trail crossed.
Dan Kraker | MPR News

"You work so hard to have this continuous trail so hikers can have this seamless experience," she said. "Now it's challenging. There's more choices for hikers to make. There's more communication effort that needs to go on to let people know what the issues with the trail are."

Although the hiking association aims to eventually reroute the trail across state and county land to the west of Bowe's parcel, the detour will be in place at least for several months.

The Superior Hiking Trail includes 93 backcountry campsites and largely traverses public land. But it crosses about 50 sections of private property.

Landowners can ask the trail association to post private property signs, so hikers know to respect the rights of the property owners who have granted trail access. That's what Bowe did.

But some hikers don't understand the distinction between public and private land, said Andrew Slade, author of "Hiking the North Shore."

"A lot of people think, 'well, it's the wilderness,'" said Slade, a former Superior Hiking Trail Association Board Member. "People don't understand that the North Shore is really this patchwork of public land and private land. Just because there's no picket fence, or even no 'no trespassing' signs, doesn't mean you can just do whatever you want."

Some landowners have granted permanent easements to the trail association. But others, including Bowe, only granted permits that they can revoke at any time. The Superior Hiking Trail Association is working to make those agreements permanent.

But Bowe said he's not going to change his mind.

"My family and I spent many a sleepless night trying to figure out what to try and do to try and rectify these problems," he said. "Now it's gotten to the point where unfortunately it's a few people who have ruined it for everybody."

Correction (April 28, 2015): An earlier version of a caption appearing with this article misidentified the person on the right in one of the photos. She is Wendy Ruberg.