ARDEN HILLS, Minn. — It's easy to spot Boundary Waters' enthusiast Keith Myrmel's house.
Nestled between manicured lawns on his street in Arden Hills is a slice of land that looks as if it was lifted right out of the woods. The trees that make up his front yard seem to follow you indoors where birch branches are used as decorations and shelves are lined with natural souvenirs from Up North.
Mingled in with the bottled sand, bark bits and fireplace made from river rocks are colorful oil paintings by Myrmel. Their themes speak to his three favorite things: God, nature and art.
Myrmel, 63, a retired landscape architect, has woven those themes into two Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness maps that have become very popular with North Shore hikers who use them on the trail or hang them on the cabin wall. His second map of the entire Boundary Waters Wilderness hit stores in May.
"It's the most detailed map," said Kyler Anderson, store manager for Trailfitters in Duluth. He estimates he's sold 120 of Myrmel's map of the Superior Hiking Trail that came out last spring. Overall, that map sold over 2,000 copies its first year.
"It's 6 feet tall. Just the layout of it was what first appeals to people," Anderson said. "Once they look at it, they are drawn in by the details."
Camping and knitting across the USA
Born to a schoolteacher father and creative mother, he inherited his dad's love of camping and learning and his mother's eye for beauty.
"We traveled every state except Hawaii and Alaska," he said.
To keep him from fighting with his two brothers and sister on the long road trips to the next campsite, his mother kept them occupied by teaching them to knit. They all eventually knitted a wool sweater.
Myrmel grew to enjoy hiking and camping, but the love for what would become his favorite hiking spot, the Boundary Waters Wilderness, happened while he was still in college studying landscape architecture at the University of Minnesota and Bemidji State.
The North Country Trail
In 1977, Myrmel landed an internship with the Chippewa National Forest. The government was mulling over the creation of the North Country Trail, which has since become the longest National Scenic Trail in the National Trails System.
"They’d just come out with this draft proposal for the North Country Trail," Myrmel said. "My supervisor had me design a triangle-shaped piece of aluminum with NCT on it like you’d see on any of the hiking trails."
The trail, which got its official start in 1980, now stretches 4,600 miles over eight states, from North Dakota to Vermont. It meanders through a national grassland, 10 national forests, more than 150 federal, state and local public lands, near three of the Great Lakes, past countless farmlands, over many rivers and into the famous Adirondack Mountains.
On its way, it passes through the Boundary Waters Wilderness. Minnesota's section of the trail includes the Superior Hiking Trail, the Border Route Trail, the Kekekabic Trail and the Mesabi Trail.
Myrmel has probably hiked most of it, having taken regular trips there since 1984. He worked 17 years for the Amherst H. Wilder Foundation at which time he took several groups on guided tours into the Boundary Waters Wilderness. Along the way he met hikers who carried small sections of maps with them and wondered why someone hadn't made a map of the entire area. This was the inspiration for what would become "Myrmel Maps."
After retirement, Myrmel tried to make it on the art show circuit selling his oil paintings, which proved to be too much work. So, remembering what he'd learned on the trail, he experimented with map making.
"It’s fascinating how many people are map lovers," Myrmel said. He has an extensive collection of Boundary Waters Wilderness maps dating back to the 1950s. "I said, if I’m going to do this, I’m going to do this old-school style. It’s all by hand."
Using pencils, markers and watercolor paint, he put down information from books, maps, the internet and personal experience on a 2-by-13-foot map. The process took hundreds of hours, he said.
When Jen Theisen, 47, of Crystal invited him to speak to her hiking group, he came, toting the map in his backpack.
"I have a picture of him unrolling it like a sacred scroll," she said. "It was very impressive."
Attention to detail
Myrmel is all about details.
On the map he marked 2,000-plus campsites, all the trail heads with descriptions on parking and bathrooms, details about towns along the way, including phone numbers for lodging, grocery stores and outfitters. The map lists all the waterfalls with their heights, state park information, cellphone-tower locations, mileage marked every five miles and what to know about hiking in all four seasons.
Some of his handwritten notes are so small a magnifying glass is needed to read them. The thousands of tiny notations throughout were made tinier when Myrmel had to shrink the original down to 26 by 40 inches so it would fit on the largest sheet of waterproof paper the printers could find. The map is split in two so that it can be spliced together if people want a long wall map, or used separately for hiking.
His maps are something of an "I Spy" game, too, with hidden pictures and personal markings throughout. Can you find the angel wings? What about a hammock? Do you see the Aspen leaf surrounded by two oak trees in his logo?
The maps are bordered with sayings about nature, some are Bible verses, others quotes from literature. But his favorites are things his grandchildren have said while camping, such as, "This is not a hiking day," proclaimed by a tired little grandson who was ready for a break.
Crystal hiker Theisen took the map with her on the 310-mile Superior Trail.
"I didn't touch a book or my Kindle the whole time," she said. "I laid in my tent and read his map. All his little sayings and quotes. All the stuff that surrounds the map is very interesting to read, especially when you're sitting around doing nothing."
She uses a Sharpie to mark her progress on the trail and plans to frame it when she's done.
"I think he’s an incredible artist," she said. "He’s got the skills to back it up."
The maps cost between $29 and $35 and can be found at 25 stores around Minnesota and online. Myrmel hopes the maps will bring attention to the Boundary Waters Wilderness, specifically the need for volunteers.
"That’s the idea. Get people outside and maybe volunteer," he said.