Justine Kerfoot–Woman of the Boundary Waters

The US Forest Service reports that just a quarter of visitors in the BWCA Wilderness are women, and that percentage has been relatively consistent for the last few decades. One of the most well-known women of the Boundary Waters, Justine Kerfoot, still inspires women to venture out into the wilderness.

Justine, born Justine Spunner in 1906, grew up in the Chicago area. She first visited the wilderness area in 1927 when her mother traveled from Illinois to look at buying the Gunflint Lodge from Dora Blankenburg. 

While Mae Spunner negotiated the purchase, Justine and a friend from college set out with a guide to travel from Gunflint Lake to Saganaga Lake. Immersed in the wilderness, Justine was hooked on the Boundary Waters.

Having completed her undergraduate studies, Justine planned to become a physician. She agreed to spend the summer break from school in Minnesota, helping to run the resort her mother purchased in 1928. When Mae bought the resort, it had five cabins and a small lodge building with a store carrying supplies and a dining room. It had no electricity or plumbing. 

When the Great Depression started in 1929, the Spunner family lost everything except the Gunflint Lodge. Justine moved up here in 1930.

She quickly learned how to live in the wilderness, becoming an in-demand guide for hunters and fishermen. She fixed plumbing, did carpentry, built furniture, and welcomed visitors to the Lodge.

One day, she met Bill Kerfoot camping on a beach on Gunflint Lake. Kerfoot’s father was president of Hamline University in St. Paul, and Bill dreamed of serving in the foreign service. Like many others, the Great Depression put those dreams on the back burner. He told Justine he was desperate for work, and she offered him room and board in exchange for work around the resort. The two found a familiar spirit, and they married in 1934.

Justine and Bill were leaders as active members of the Gunflint Trail Association, a group of resort owners and outfitters who have called the Gunflint Trail home since the early 1900s, according to its website. Justine served as a Cook County commissioner in the 1960s. 

Miss Justine Spunner, August 20, 1932, at the dock at Gunflint Lodge. J Kerfoot Photos

The Kerfoots went on to raise three children, eventually handing over management of the Lodge to their son, Bruce, and his wife, Sue. The Kerfoot family owned Gunflint Lodge until 2016, when John and Mindy Ferguson bought it. 

Justine died in 2001. She was 94 years old.

Justine wrote with beauty and grace about the essence, vitality, and delicacy of the boundary waters area. She published two books. 

In “Woman of the Boundary Waters–Canoeing, Guiding, Mushing, and Surviving,” she expresses a deep reverence for the nature that has become her way of life and the people of the Gunflint Trail.

In “Gunflint: Reflections on the Trail,” Justine chronicles a year of experiences and insights living on the Gunflint Trail. It is a delightful memoir that captures the spirit of Justine.

For almost 50 years, Justine wrote a weekly column for the Cook County News Herald. She wrote about everything from neighbors’ new and old activities to the experiences she had in the wilderness during those decades. To say that Justine was an institution at the newspaper would be an understatement. She survived six publishers before retiring in the late 1990s.

As you think about the trip you’re planning to the BWCAW in the coming months, take some time to read one or both of Justine’s books. You will be inspired.