FINLAND, Minn. – The morning woke up dry and with promise. It was warming fast in the early sun, which set the North Shore’s boreal tree line in sharp relief against an almost bluebird sky. It was outdoors weather, and good thing.
In the early light and quiet of May 13, a few dozen or more people huddled up in the parking lot of the Clair Nelson community center off Hwy. 7 for the day’s instructions before grabbing maps, hard hats, loppers and hand saws. Then, in groups of four or five, they lit out for sections of the Superior Hiking Trail and almost eight hours of trail clearing.
This scene truly was the public in public land. Like the Kekekabic, Border Route and other well-known Minnesota footpaths in the region, the Superior trail survives — and thrives — on the backs of stewards like those who gathered over the course of three May weekends to help prepare it for hikers. It seems volunteer hands have never been more paramount.
All had arrived here at the behest of the Superior Hiking Association to burn their weekend clearing downed trees and brush from a section of the trail from the state’s Caribou River wayside down to Split Rock. Volunteers had cleared nearly 60 miles the previous weekend near Schroeder, and some of the same people would go on to work 56 miles near Grand Marais on Memorial Day weekend.
Their actions are the crux of the National Forest System Trails Stewardship legislation that passed last November. Co-authored by Rep. Tim Walz, D-Minnesota, it put light on the necessity of volunteers like those in Finland to help agencies like the U.S. Forest Service accomplish its work. The legislation’s key detail: The agency must come up with a plan to enlist even more volunteers in national forests, owing to a backlog in maintenance of upward of $314 million.
“It’s great to have [legislation], but it really comes down to people on the ground,” said Kris Reichenbach, a spokeswoman for the Superior National Forest, in Duluth.
“When people get involved, there is another level of ownership and caring about the resource, which is of definite value in itself, in addition to the great work that gets done,” she said.
The trail association stands in that gap, and leans on a small staff and more than 300 volunteers annually to maintain the trail that courses 326 miles to the Canadian border. Beyond clearing, there also are boardwalks and bridges to mend, and this month, volunteers rerouted a section north of Gooseberry Falls. Volunteers also adopt sections of the trail or campsites, which they need to maintain and report back on twice a year, in June and October.
Jo Swanson is central to coordinating volunteers as outreach director for the association. In Finland, on the special volunteer weekend, her work also meant keeping volunteers well-fed and feeling appreciated. She and some helpers cooked a breakfast of pancakes for the group, and later restored them with a spread of meat loaf, roasted vegetables and banana splits in the Clair Nelson center’s gymnasium where they unwound after a day in the woods.
A mixed crew
The makeup of the work crew in Finland was a mix Swanson has come to expect: some young, some middle-aged, some hard-core trail veterans, some newcomers. But there are some relevant signs of change, too: The rosters were full-up for most of the three volunteer weekends in May, ending with two days near Grand Marais. “What an awesome problem to have,” she said. Last year, volunteers put in a record 8,000 hours.
Jennifer Berthiaume, 40, drove up from her home in Ramsey and rolled into the community center lot — on Mother Day’s weekend, no less — to pitch in. She’d grown up in Cook, and she recalled traveling up the shore to the Lutsen area as a youth. Yet she had never stepped foot on the trail.
“I thought it’d be great to come up here — even though I’ve never been up to the trail — to help out and get an idea about what this trail is like,” she said.
Berthiaume was in a group of four that worked several miles of trail near Egge Lake, north of Finland. Her group leader, Han Taylor, the association’s burly and gregarious trail maintenance supervisor for the northern 200 miles of the trail, stayed out in front, ripping through some downed balsams with his Husqvarna chain saw. Berthiaume and a few others followed closely, clearing Taylor’s log work deeper in the woods and also going after limbs and tangles of alder and red dogwood with lopping shears and handsaws.
Berthiaume was humbled and at times fatigued by the gnarly ascents and drops of the trail, but she was unbowed. “It was a lot tougher trail to walk on [than I expected], but it wasn’t discouraging in any way. I thought it was beautiful, and I am excited to come out and hike it.”
Kaitlin Thompson, 28, of Isle, also was new to trail work on the Superior — if not trails. Thompson solo-hiked the Appalachian Trail from April to September last year, a catalyst for focusing on home turf, she said. Her interests lie in helping on other major trails in Minnesota, too, such as the North Country National Scenic Trail, which includes a segment of the Border Route in the Superior National Forest.
“I want to make sure they continue to be there because a lot of them around the country are run on volunteer help,” Thompson said, recalling trail-adopting groups she encountered on the AT. “That’s the only reason that they stay open, that they stay passable.”
Good-natured and laid-back after the day’s work, George Dahm, 66, and Beth Kaszynski, 61, of Kerrick, Minn., talked about their trail experiences, recalling myriad past projects over decades of their lives. Like some of the fresh faces around them in Finland, they were users before becoming caretakers. They’d backpack and hike. Then they decided to get a different perspective, and offer their sweat. Now, the roots are deep. A couple in their 20s — first-time volunteers, if not hikers — were part of their crew the first day in Finland.
“I think they enjoyed it,” Kaszynski said. Dahm agreed. “Yeah, they did.”
John Storkamp has been using his voice as race director of the Superior 100 Mile and related runs to drive volunteerism. Storkamp was in Finland with his chain saw, and was in Schroeder the prior weekend (May 6-7), when volunteers that included some runners cleared nearly 60 miles.
Storkamp said he knows there aren’t the resources for federal or state agencies to preserve the footpath. His message to his charges: “You’ll be engaging in an area you love, just in a different way.”
“Everyone identifies with how they use the trail,” Storkamp said. “People call themselves backpackers, hikers, trail runners … I like the idea of ‘trail people.’ ”
Dahm, Kaszynski, Taylor, Thompson — all readily fit that description. Maybe someday, too, Berthiaume and others who gave their time this spring, and anticipate more time in the hushed beauty straddling Lake Superior.
“They are trail users who not only engage with the trail in one way but in a multitude of ways, including working on and caring for the trails,” Storkamp said.
Swanson, of the trail association, knows volunteers and association members will sign up and move on over time, but she is bullish about the stewardship and devotion for a trail that is ever-demanding, but also a gem worth burnishing.
“The trail is this amazing resource that we have, and new people are discovering it all the time,” she said. “It’s the kind of resource that makes people want to take care of it.”
Bob Timmons • 612-673-7899
How to pitch in
Interested in learning more?
• Superior Hiking Trail, shta.org
• Border Route Trail, borderroutetrail.org
• Kekekabic Trail, kek.org
• North Country Trail Association,
• American Hiking Society,
• Superior National Forest,
• Chippewa National Forest,