BWCA Stairway Portage Replacement Project a career highlight for project manager Cathy Quinn
Superior National Forest
Outdoor News

BWCA Stairway Portage Replacement Project a career highlight for project manager Cathy Quinn

A 2022 project to replace the Stairway Portage wooden staircase in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness has won national recognition.

Superior National Forest officials announced on Tuesday, Jan. 24, that the Stairway Portage Replacement project in the BWCA was awarded the 2023 National Wilderness Award for best use of ‘traditional skills and minimal tool leadership.’

“For me, in my career, it’ll be a highlight when I look back on it. And it’s something I’m really proud of,” Cathy Quinn, the Stairway Portage Replacement project manager, said in a recent interview with WTIP. “I feel like we’ve done really good by the wilderness.”

The Stairway Portage Replacement project involved replacing the two sets of wooden staircases between Duncan Lake and Rose Lake in the BWCA with stone steps, or ‘rock check dams.’ The project also involved replacing a smaller stairway portage between Flyer and Gotter Lake west of Round Lake in the BWCA.

The 80-rod portage between Duncan and Rose is among the most highly trafficked areas on the eastern side of the BWCA. According to Superior National Forest officials, as many as 100 people use the portage per day in the summer months.

The former wooden staircase consisted of dimensional lumber and was installed decades ago to prevent soil erosion caused by visitors traveling between the two lakes due to the steep terrain. The wooden staircase required consistent maintenance and replacement throughout the years.

“So we started to look at ways of getting around the same old, same old that had been there for decades,” Quinn said. After numerous conversations and planning, it was decided that the U.S. Forest Service would hire a contractor to replace the wooden staircase with stones.

Enter Willie Bittner, owner of Wisconsin-based Great Lakes Trailbuilders.

Bittner and his company spearheaded the project in collaboration with the U.S. Forest Service, Conservation Corps of Minnesota and Iowa, and other stakeholders.

“I spoke with Willie, and he was very interested. He likes a challenge,” Quinn said. “He wanted to be involved early on.”

Quinn said the expansive and complicated project involved over 30 people from start to finish. As project manager, Quinn helped ensure all the puzzle pieces, logistics, and trail crews worked together to complete the project. “I basically kind of coordinated everything, from the very beginning to almost the end.”

Construction of the project took place during the summer of 2022 and entailed over 100 work hours by crews. The wooden 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 stones were built with smaller rock fills and rock-retaining walls, restoring the natural look and function of the wilderness. In total, Bittner and the supporting crews constructed 130 check dams. It took the team of six people approximately one month to complete the project.

“They did everything by hand,” Quinn said. “They were splitting rocks. They were crushing gravel. They were moving huge rocks with rock slings.”

The old wooden staircase demolition materials were then staged at the end of the Stairway Portage until a sled dog team backhauled the materials during winter 2023. The task entailed two teams of ten sled dogs and took crews on 26 separate trips, working 180 hours to remove the waste materials from the Wilderness.

“I think that just kind of put an exclamation point on the project for us,” Quinn said. “We really got creative, like start to finish. And so that is the spirit of the award.”

Quinn said the 2023 National Wilderness Award ceremony took place virtually in Dec. and had a turnout of several hundred people. As project manager, Quinn gave a speech during the ceremony. Even though she was nervous, she had a strong showing of Superior National Forest officials and trail crews to support her.

“We had a really good turnout. Really supportive group, which was fun,” Quinn said.

Since receiving the award and following regional and national news coverage, Quinn said she has encountered a lot of support and positive feedback from community members and her former boss. “That means a lot to me.”

“It kind of fires you up to want to do more good work and maybe inspire other people to do similar type projects,” she said.

As Quinn basks in a career highlight and the 30 other individuals involved in the project, she said, “I’d say thanks and congratulations to my fellow teammates.”

WTIP’s Kalli Hawkins spoke with Cathy Quinn, the project manager for the Stairway Portage Replacement project that received a 2023 National Wilderness Award. Audio from the full interview below.