RIP: Ken Oelkers, SHT trail angel & builder extraordinaire

Birthday cake delivery, March 25, 2005, somewhere on a backroad along the north shore of Lake Superior

I first met Ken Oelkers in March 2005, seven months into the Sea-to-Sea Route. His beloved Superior Hiking Trail was buried under feet of snow, and he understandably was looking for an excuse to keep him out of the house and close to the trail after a long winter in Silver Bay, Minnesota, a small blue-collar town on the Lake Superior. I became that excuse.

As I moved up the North Shore, admiring the sturdy bridges that Ken had helped construct as the trail’s Trail Maintenance Supervisor, he met me at various road crossings, offering a warm truck, fresh water, an endless supply of Spanish nuts, and — on March 25 — even an angel food birthday cake. In typical thru-hiker fashion, I ate most of it on the spot. The birthday cake photo and story was a standard part of my slideshow for many years.

In contrast to my ultralight 800-fill parka and moisture-wicking base layers, Ken proudly wore a blue cotton sweatshirt with American flag and Superior Hiking Trail patches, in both 2005 and 2007, when I hung out with him again during a January hike from Duluth to Ely. Salt of the earth, no pretense, 100 percent real.

Trail angeling

When the logistics worked out, Ken would ferry me back to Silver Bay, sparing me another night of camping in the snow and near-zero temperatures. In the 2.5 months prior, I had snowshoed about 1,000 miles from Battle Creek, Michigan, and didn’t feel like I had anything to prove still. We’d sit around his wood stove, which he never seemed to think was burning too hot, and talk or read.

Ken had an extensive collection of books about Alaska, which at the time he had never before visited. Perhaps fittingly, the last time I saw Ken was in 2011 or 2012, at a presentation in Minnesota about the Alaska-Yukon Expedition. He was coping with health issues at the time, but managed to attend briefly. His obituary says he was able to experience Alaska first-hand before his death — I’m glad he finally had the chance to go.

Thanks for the memories, Ken. Among many people I have met in my travels, you stand out. I’ll see you on the other side.

At South of the Border Cafe in Grand Marais with Sam Haraldson, January 2017, during my “Ultralight in the Nation’s Icebox” hike

Posted in , on December 28, 2017


  1. Karen Skurka on December 28, 2017 at 6:01 pm

    I remember being so grateful to Ken for taking care of you during that trip. The world lost a good man. RIP Ken.

  2. Hunter G Hall on December 28, 2017 at 7:27 pm

    Dang. Sounds like a great guy.

    This is very nice of you. 🙂

  3. Jo Swanson on December 29, 2017 at 12:44 pm

    Thank you for these wonderful memories. The Superior Hiking Trail would not be what it is without Ken. We are so grateful for all he accomplished.

  4. 1armJoe on December 30, 2017 at 4:56 pm

    Sounds like Ken was a good friend when you needed one.

    And you didn’t forget him.

    So you eulogized him, in a lovely, touching way.

    A pair of good men, I’d say.

    Very different on the surface, but very much alike where it counts, I reckon.

    Godspeed, Ken. Well done, Andrew.

  5. Beth K on January 2, 2018 at 11:54 am

    Here I was looking you up to let you know Ken was gone and you already knew. He truly was one of a kind and very dear to my husband’s and my hearts. Thank you for your kind words, he really enjoyed you and your adventures!

  6. Karen Reis on January 2, 2018 at 9:00 pm

    Andrew, thank you for the beautiful tribute to my dad. He enjoyed his times with you so much and was thrilled to get to know you and help in any way. He was very proud of you and your accomplishments! I was with him when he visited you at the presentation in Roseville, MN and I remember how much he looked forward to seeing you. Dad loved that Trail and those that hiked it! Your memories brought smiles to all of my family, even as we are sad to lose him, we are grateful for the memories! So thank you for that and for loving the outdoors and sharing some of your moments with my Dad.

    Love, Karen and family

    • Andrew Skurka on January 3, 2018 at 7:45 am

      Hi Karen –

      Deepest condolences for your lost. I hope during this tough time for your family that you can also celebrate your dad’s life.


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