Wilderness Volunteers Toil to Restore Trails

Trail building on the Superior Hiking Trail. (Photo by Mark VanHornweder, courtesy Superior Hiking Trail Association)
Trail building on the Superior Hiking Trail. (Photo by Mark VanHornweder, courtesy Superior Hiking Trail Association)

A hiking trail is never done. Trees fall down, beavers build dams, bridges wash out, boardwalks disintegrate. Heavy snowstorms last winter clogged several northwoods trails with bent and broken trees badly enough that some are still being cleared.

Here’s a rundown of the maintenance and the people who give their time and bodies to keeping the trails clear.

Superior Hiking Trail

The northeast end of the trail was hit worst by the wet and sticky snow. Trees were left drooping over the path. But weather hampered restoration, as work weekends kept getting cancelled due to lightning. ”

“We can clear in the rain,” says Gayle Knutson, executive director of the Superior Hiking Trail Association. “But not in the thunder.”

Rain had previously caused its own problems, though. As reported in the summer issue of Wilderness News, increased rainfall due to climate change is carving wider river channels. Banks are eroding, so new bridges have to be bigger. More extreme rainstorms mean a lot more work.

I hiked the trail around Lutsen at the end of September and it was in its usual excellent condition. For that, I can thank the SHTA’s 300 volunteers, who put in more than 6,000 hours last year. Every section of trail, trailhead, and campsite has a volunteer assigned to it, who goes out once or twice a year to maintain it. Click here to volunteer.

Blazing the Border Route 

The Border Route Trail, which starts at the Superior Hiking Trail and goes west along the Canadian border, also got beaten up by the blizzards, and then again in June by a severe windstorm.

In May, thru-hiker Pam Wright reported, “I expected rough, however, many points we were bush-whacking with small indications of trail. [It’s] very easy to lose the trail if you’re not paying attention in some places.”

But after a big combined effort by volunteers and the Forest Service, the trail was just declared clear. Border Route Trail advocate Ed Solstad reported on October 16 that clearing the trail outside the Boundary Waters wilderness had been completed by volunteers.

Yesterday, the Forest Service announced its crews had completed clearing the wilderness portions, using only hand tools. Click here to learn about future work trips.

Powwow has a pulse

It wasn’t snow or ice that obliterated much of the Powwow Trail, along the southern edge of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. It was fire.

When the Pagami Creek Fire whipped through the area in September 2011, it torched countless spruce and fir. Those dead toothpicks break and blow over easily—blocking the trail and endangering hikers.

Trail advocate Martin Kubik has been pressuring the Superior National Forest to clear the trail, which is widely acknowledged as impassable at many points. Kubik and a friend hiked the trail this spring, and counted 4,648 deadfalls. It took them four days to cover the 29 miles, as reported in the Star Tribune.

The Forest Service attempted to clear part of the trail in 2013 and 2014, but was discouraged by regrowth. Without a forest canopy, alders and other brush grow fast and thick.

“Despite efforts by the Forest Service, the Conservation Corps of Minnesota and Iowa, and volunteers, it has not been possible to maintain a locatable trail tread in this section of trail,” the agency says on its website. “The trail was cleared after the fire, but is now obscured again by heavy regrowth and fallen trees.”

The agency says it plans to leave the trail alone for several years and wait for the shade to return, then clear it.

In the meantime, volunteers keep doing what they can. The weekend of Oct. 27-30, a crew of nine will work with the Forest Service to clear a six-mile section from Isabella to Pose Lake, which was not hit as hard by the fire and has been kept relatively clear. Click here to learn more.

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