May–June 2021


Running Trails, Finding Power

Kyra Paitrick-Johnson and Michelle Defoe run for health and connection in Kwe Pack, a group for Native women.

Angie Hong

The first time that Kyra Paitrick-Johnson ran on the Superior Hiking Trail, it rained. “I was running with a few other women and we just kept going for miles and miles with the mist and the rain. I remember thinking, ‘Wow. I can’t believe this is my life now.’”

Before joining Kwe Pack, Michelle Defoe had never run. In fact, she was not physically active at all. “I started running by myself, working my way up to one mile, in hopes of eventually joining the group,” she says. “My friends were in Kwe Pack and I wanted to be able to run with them.”
Kwe Pack is a running group for Native women that has roughly 100 members in and around Cloquet, Duluth, and the Fond Du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Reservation.

For Paitrick-Johnson and Defoe, Kwe Pack offers a pathway to good health and a means to connect with nature. Most importantly, it helps them to build relationships with other Native women who can run beside them, both literally and figuratively, through the sorrows and joys of life.

Q | Where are your favorite places to run?
Defoe: I love to run along Lake Superior on the Lake Walk and see all of the seasonal changes that the lake goes through. 
Paitrick-Johnson: Having a 2-year-old, it often ends up being a matter of convenience, but my favorite places to run are definitely along the Superior Hiking Trail. It feels more natural and wild, like you’re a kid again outside, exploring in the woods.

Q | What do you like best about running with Kwe Pack? 
Paitrick-Johnson: You develop strong bonds with the other women. When you’re running with people you know well and who share some of your same experiences, you feel open to sharing your sorrows and joy with them. 
Defoe: When I first started running, I was at a point in my life that I needed something that would impact me in a powerful and positive way. That’s what Kwe Pack has done for my physical and mental health. Now I am meeting other Native women in the Duluth area and building a circle of friends. The amount of support is phenomenal. 

Q | Do you have a favorite segment on the Superior Hiking Trail?
Defoe: Every time I run a new segment of the trail, it becomes my new favorite. You are out in the woods, weaving in and out of trees and jumping over rocks. It is amazing. The trailhead near Getchell Road and Highland Avenue in Duluth is where I go the most.

Q | Have you had any cool nature experiences while running on trails?
Defoe: Every time. That’s why I love running on trails. You connect with the spirits that live in the trees and your ancestors. When I’m in the midst of trees, I always feel humbled because they are bigger than you and older than you. It reminds me of my connection to the Earth that I sometimes forget when I’m in the city. In Ojibwe culture we have stories about trees and animals and the things that they do. When you’re visited by animals while out running, you remember those stories.

Paitrick-Johnson: Once, my friend Chelsea and I were running on the Summer Trail at Jay Cooke State Park. At first it was beautiful. Then we got to the lower part of the trail and it was pure swamp and we were trying to duck below branches as we ran. We went through two miles of swamp before it finally ended. Then we saw fresh bear tracks and spent the next two miles wondering what would come out of the woods. We got done and said, “Oh my gosh! We survived that!” 

Q | What else do you want people to know about Kwe Pack?
Paitrick-Johnson: Native communities face a lot of hardship—suicide, drug and alcohol abuse, historical trauma. Kwe Pack helps women to cope with this grief and turn it into power and strength instead of being destructive.

I lost my brother to a drug overdose in August of 2019. This past summer, I committed to raising money for drug abuse services and running one mile for every $10 donated. I ended up raising $2,300, which is 230 miles. That’s a lot. I had 230 miles to reflect on my brother’s life and the work toward rehabilitation and recovery.

Kwe Pack helps us to turn hard things in life into something positive. There are moments when you surprise yourself with how strong you are. You run 25k and think, “If I can do that, I can deal with other hard things.” The best part of this group is that it’s changing the way that Native women lead our lives. We’re taking back our power.