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.

hide

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.

Photo: Provided by GREGG WESTIGARD • Inter-County Leader,

CameraStar Tribune photo galleries

Cameraview larger

 

Splat!

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





 

  • related content

  • Help Wanted: Volunteer opportunities in the outdoors

    Monday October 28, 2013

    Interested in volunteering but not sure where to start? These organizations have immediate needs for adults who love spending time...

  • River of the fall: A late-season tour of the Namekagon River

    Thursday October 24, 2013

    Wisconsin’s Namekagon River holds plenty of late-season appeal for well-prepared paddlers. Don’t forget to pack extra layers of warm clothing...

  • Cabin Country: Dreaming of grouse camp

    Monday November 4, 2013

    After years of enduring my absences during bird-hunting season, my wife, Caryl, decided that owning a grouse camp was a...

  • Volunteers recently built a boardwalk for a new stretch of the Ice Age Trail near Luck, Wis.

  • get related content delivered to your inbox

  • manage my email subscriptions

Click here to send us your hunting or fishing photos – and to see what others are showing off from around the region.

ADVERTISEMENT

San Francisco - WP: M. Bumgarner 8 FINAL
Pittsburgh - LP: E. Volquez 0
Minnesota 7:25 PM
Green Bay
Buffalo 10/5/14 12:00 PM
Detroit
Chicago 10/5/14 12:00 PM
Carolina
Cleveland 10/5/14 12:00 PM
Tennessee
St. Louis 10/5/14 12:00 PM
Philadelphia
Atlanta 10/5/14 12:00 PM
NY Giants
Tampa Bay 10/5/14 12:00 PM
New Orleans
Houston 10/5/14 12:00 PM
Dallas
Baltimore 10/5/14 12:00 PM
Indianapolis
Pittsburgh 10/5/14 12:00 PM
Jacksonville
Arizona 10/5/14 3:05 PM
Denver
Kansas City 10/5/14 3:25 PM
San Francisco
NY Jets 10/5/14 3:25 PM
San Diego
Cincinnati 10/5/14 7:30 PM
New England
Seattle 10/6/14 7:30 PM
Washington
Washington 1 FINAL
Buffalo 6
Carolina 3 FINAL
Columbus 6
Pittsburgh 2 FINAL
Detroit 0
Montreal 3 FINAL
Chicago 1
Arizona 2 FINAL
Edmonton 3
Fla Atlantic 6:00 PM
FIU
UCF 6:00 PM
Houston
Arizona 9:30 PM
(2) Oregon
Louisville 10/3/14 6:00 PM
Syracuse
San Diego St 10/3/14 9:00 PM
Fresno State
Utah State 10/3/14 9:15 PM
(18) BYU
(6) Texas A&M 10/4/14 11:00 AM
(12) Miss State
Ball State 10/4/14 11:00 AM
Army
Iowa State 10/4/14 11:00 AM
(21) Oklahoma State
Marshall 10/4/14 11:00 AM
Old Dominion
Southern Miss 10/4/14 11:00 AM
Middle Tennessee
(20) Ohio State 10/4/14 11:00 AM
Maryland
Purdue 10/4/14 11:00 AM
Illinois
Florida 10/4/14 11:00 AM
Tennessee
SMU 10/4/14 11:00 AM
(22) East Carolina
Virginia Tech 10/4/14 11:30 AM
North Carolina
Eastern Mich 10/4/14 1:00 PM
Akron
North Texas 10/4/14 1:30 PM
Indiana
Massachusetts 10/4/14 1:30 PM
Miami-Ohio
Tulsa 10/4/14 2:00 PM
Colorado State
New Mexico 10/4/14 2:30 PM
TX-San Antonio
(3) Alabama 10/4/14 2:30 PM
(11) Ole Miss
(14) Stanford 10/4/14 2:30 PM
(9) Notre Dame
(17) Wisconsin 10/4/14 2:30 PM
Northwestern
Navy 10/4/14 2:30 PM
Air Force
(7) Baylor 10/4/14 2:30 PM
Texas
(4) Oklahoma 10/4/14 2:30 PM
(25) TCU
Wake Forest 10/4/14 2:30 PM
(1) Florida State
NC State 10/4/14 2:30 PM
Clemson
Buffalo 10/4/14 2:30 PM
Bowling Green
Ohio U 10/4/14 2:30 PM
Central Mich
Oregon State 10/4/14 3:00 PM
Colorado
Vanderbilt 10/4/14 3:00 PM
(13) Georgia
Kansas 10/4/14 3:00 PM
West Virginia
Kent State 10/4/14 4:00 PM
Northern Ill
South Alabama 10/4/14 5:00 PM
Appalachian St
Texas-El Paso 10/4/14 6:00 PM
Louisiana Tech
(15) LSU 10/4/14 6:00 PM
(5) Auburn
UAB 10/4/14 6:00 PM
Western Ky
Texas Tech 10/4/14 6:00 PM
(23) Kansas State
Michigan 10/4/14 6:00 PM
Rutgers
Hawaii 10/4/14 6:00 PM
Rice
Toledo 10/4/14 6:00 PM
Western Mich
ULM 10/4/14 6:00 PM
Arkansas State
Georgia State 10/4/14 6:00 PM
Louisiana
Idaho 10/4/14 6:00 PM
Texas State
Memphis 10/4/14 6:00 PM
Cincinnati
Arizona State 10/4/14 6:30 PM
(16) USC
So Carolina 10/4/14 6:30 PM
Kentucky
Pittsburgh 10/4/14 6:30 PM
Virginia
Miami-Florida 10/4/14 6:30 PM
Georgia Tech
(19) Nebraska 10/4/14 7:00 PM
(10) Michigan State
UNLV 10/4/14 7:00 PM
San Jose St
Ga Southern 10/4/14 7:00 PM
New Mexico St
California 10/4/14 9:30 PM
Washington St
Utah 10/4/14 9:30 PM
(8) UCLA
Boise State 10/4/14 9:30 PM
Nevada
Winnipeg 10/3/14 6:00 PM
Ottawa
Calgary 10/3/14 9:00 PM
Saskatchewan
Edmonton 10/4/14 3:00 PM
Toronto
Brt Columbia 10/4/14 6:00 PM
Hamilton
Hamilton 10/10/14 6:00 PM
Toronto
Ottawa 10/11/14 9:00 PM
Brt Columbia
Connect with twitterConnect with facebookConnect with Google+Connect with PinterestConnect with PinterestConnect with RssfeedConnect with email newsletters

ADVERTISEMENT

ADVERTISEMENT

ADVERTISEMENT

ADVERTISEMENT

question of the day

Poll: Should the lake where the albino muskie was caught remain a mystery?

Weekly Question

ADVERTISEMENT

 
Close