Volunteering for the outdoors: The sweaty, muddy appeal

  • Article by: STEVE BRANDT , Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 24, 2013 - 5:50 PM

What compels someone to spend a vacation digging, raking and chopping off tree roots? Our correspondent explains why he volunteers to maintain, build and extend a favorite hiking trail.


Wanda Brown, of St. Croix Falls, Wis., took a short break from her grueling trail work. Brown is a volunteer leader for the Ice Age Trail Alliance and has hiked 600 miles of the trail.

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The mud spattered across my glasses a split second after I’d slammed a pick mattock into the increasingly sodden earth at my feet.

We volunteers were in our first day of hacking a hiking trail from what the day before had been North Woods forest — cutting, excavating, cutting, scraping and leveling a foot at a time to extend the Ice Age Trail farther across Wisconsin, and Polk County in particular. But a steady rain was turning our diggings sloppy.

Trailbuilding projects can be planned to the nth degree, but weather poses challenges that force volunteers to adapt and overcome. We trudged back to the trailhead, deposited our tools and spent the rest of our afternoon as mules, ferrying timbers half a mile into the site of a future boardwalk bridge.

I’ve done three stints of up to five days each of creating trail as the Ice Age Trail is rerouted through a new state park. The park was purchased just as my wife and I erected a cabin on the 40 acres of Wisconsin woodland, meadow and marsh we’d owned for years. Part of the hiking trail ran half a mile from our front door, and we soon connected with the array of volunteers, both residents of this county across from Taylors Falls and weekenders like us, who maintain the existing trail and help extend it farther.

Why spend a week of vacation battling with mud, dust and mosquitoes?

Part of the answer lies in the mystique of creating something bigger than we are, a path where our footsteps may be retraced by our grandchildren and theirs. The trail will eventually cover some 1,200 miles of Wisconsin terrain (more than 600 miles are completed now) beginning northeast of Green Bay, dropping down almost to the Illinois border, snaking north past Madison, and eventually bending west to end in Interstate Park, a stone’s throw from Minnesota. The Ice Age Trail takes its name from its route mostly hugging the terminus of Wisconsin’s most recent glacier; the trail treats hikers to eskers, moraines and other features the glaciers left behind.

Part of the answer lies also in the camaraderie. These trailbuilding bees pull together people from multiple states, although the biggest supply of volunteers logically comes from within easy distance of a trail they’ll use. The volunteers range from rank newcomers, as I once was, to experts who can judge without measuring whether a trail will drain properly, or needs more shaping to pass muster. Some volunteers show up for a few hours, while others show up for many of the dozen or so events the Ice Age Trail Alliance hosts to bring new corridors into the trail inventory. (Plans for another Polk County trail construction blitz this month were put on hold by the federal shutdown. The National Park Service, which designated Ice Age one of its 11 national scenic trails, carries our group’s liability coverage.)

From these people, I’ve heard tales of hiking the famed Spanish pilgrimage trail El Camino de Santiago de Compostela, the Appalachian Trail, the Pacific Coast Trail, or closer to home, the Lake Superior Trail. I’ve met through-hikers who hoof the entire Ice Age Trail at one go, and those who bite it off in segments. They share tips on boots that wear well, on rain gear that keeps a hiker dry. The camaraderie continues after the 8-to-5 workday is done; after a shower, volunteers share a beer, a supper and a campfire.

Safety is the first goal of a workweek involving hard work and hand tools. Newbies get an orientation on safely handling tools developed for uses as diverse as fighting fires and maintaining trails. There’s the Pulaski, a combination ax and adz usually wielded by our most experienced pros. There’s the Reinhart, a flat shovel that’s ideal for scraping and leveling a trail. The McLeod looks like an oversized hoe with raking teeth, and it can grub out the detritus of the forest floor, do fine leveling and tamp loose soil. Rockbars are used to manhandle rocks out of the trailbed; in Polk County the rocks are usually basalt and run 170 pounds per cubic foot.

As these tools imply, building trails the Ice Age way is largely hand work. This is trailbuilding by the sweat of our brows. It’s also a reminder for desk workers like me of the differing types of fitness. I keep in good shape by running, biking or cross-country skiing almost daily. Yet I’m worn down by the upper-body rigors of swinging a pick mattock for hours. It’s the tool of choice for much of the heavy labor of trailbuilding. It can gouge a line in a hillside that marks the uphill edge of the trail, chop out roots, lever out small rocks. We saw off saplings of several inches in girth at waist height, then grub around the roots with the pick mattock, severing the roots one by one as they’re exposed. Still, brute muscle is often needed to wrest the entire rootball out of the ground, using the trunk for leverage. There’s no problem falling asleep at night.

With these rigors, size and upper-body strength are the advantages. One rangy retiree and long-distance hiker, Chet Anderson, was able to dig two postholes for bridge pilings for each one completed by another desk worker and me. But there are jobs for all abilities. One octogenarian keeps tools sharp at our Polk County trail events. Another, who supervises the kitchen, has served an estimated 27,000-plus meals to famished volunteers in the past eight years. Others not built for pick and shovel work stencil the trail’s characteristic yellow blazes on trees to guide hikers.

At the end of a day of trail work, bone weary and wearing the soil we’ve spent all day shaping, we trailbuilders trudge out with our tools. But we gain psychic energy as we tread the hundreds of yards of new trail we’ve created that day. Steve Brandt covers Minneapolis schools for the Star Tribune.

On Twitter: @brandtstrib


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