People, groups, initiatives focused on future of Superior Hiking Trail
Larry Sampson’s retirement from work for the federal government in 2005 coincided with the Superior Hiking Trail’s expansion from Two Harbors, through Duluth, and on to the Wisconsin border near Jay Cooke State Park.
By 2007, he was trail maintenance chief for the southern 100 miles of the trail — with the final segment completed just last year with the installation of a bridge over the Red River.
Talk about second careers.
Now, the Superior Hiking Trail Association is stepping up its plans for trail maintenance, while Sampson, 69, attempts to step back. His new title is trail renewal consultant, with responsibility for fewer, special projects. “I feel very good about [the work]. It has been my passion. I love doing it. It keeps me in shape,” he said.
In late July, Sampson led volunteers on one of those special projects. Over two days, they worked on the new Ely’s Peak Loop near Spirit Mountain. It’s about 95 percent completed. He scouted the new loop two years ago and has worked with the city of Duluth on getting it established. Volunteer teams cleared trail, put in treadway, and placed timber and rock steps where needed. Ely’s Peak already is regarded as an iconic overlook atop the bluffs. Now, the new loop takes hikers higher, with views of Ely’s Peak itself.
The loop when finished will be about 3¼ to 3 ½ miles, Sampson said, with about 1½ miles of new trail, which will connect with the Willard Munger State Trail.
Sampson said he is hoping people will continue to support the trail with sweat — as well as money — to make needed repairs or build new sections like the loop he’s working on. He said the association’s emphasis on new resources and structure for rehabilitating and sustaining the trail is “overdue.”
Sustainability was somewhat of a foreign concept when the trail was built in the late 1980s and ’90s, he said. Now, there is need for rerouting, new structures such as bridges, boardwalks and steps, and regular maintenance. “[The work] needs to be done. The trail needs to be protected, or it will just degrade even more,” Sampson added.
And the need never ends. “It’s a trail hopefully that will be here for the long term, but what we fix today will need work again.”
Focusing on hot spots
In its recent newsletter, the trail association said the path’s popularity has it “at risk of being loved to death.”
The trail is one of 20 U.S. “Hot Spots” getting special attention this year from The Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics in Boulder, Colo.
The center highlights locations — this year including the Indian River Lagoon Aquatics Preserves in Fort Pierce, Fla., and the Pictured Rocks Lakeshore in Munising, Mich. — as places in need of supportive programs and service projects.
On the Superior trail, the center specifically cited the Bean and Bear Lakes Loop.
“Nowhere on the Superior Hiking Trail has been as impacted by human use as the Bean and Bear Lakes Loop,” wrote trail development director Jo Swanson to the Hot Spot program. “Heavy traffic, overused campsites and hikers traveling off trail are all changes facing this section of trail.”
The Leave No Trace Center is focusing on the Superior trail Sept. 10-17, with trainers, public workshops and more. A Leave No Trace workshop is planned Sept. 11 at Bent Paddle Brewery in Duluth, followed by workshops at Tettegouche State Park and public outreach on the trail at Bean and Bear lakes on Sept. 15 and 16. Go to superiorhiking.org for more details and links to register.
‘The trail doesn’t fix itself’
Steven Coz was fresh off work at Mission Creek, south of Ely’s Peak in Duluth, and how apropos. He has been devoted to the trail for going on 30 years.
Coz has been tethered to the Superior Hiking Trail since 1989 when he and his wife first discovered it and took a hike near Carlton Peak and the Temperance River valley. He’d soon answer the call for volunteers for various jobs on the trail, before becoming a section leader — someone who maintains the same section of trail. He cleaned and cleared the path from Beaver Bay to Silver Bay for 20 years. He also leads hikes for the trail association. Coz currently spends a few days a week assisting Larry Sampson, who has led maintenance work for more than a decade on the southern portion from Jay Cooke State Park to Two Harbors.
“I enjoy the work,” said Coz, 67, who tries to help two days a week. “And I can’t overstate the value of the friendships I’ve made.”
Whether it’s helping with a reroute or lugging 2-by-8 deck stringers for bridge work like that at Mission Creek, Coz is all in. “The trail doesn’t fix itself,” the retired attorney said.
Filling gaps, directing efforts
Formed in 2014, the Northwoods Volunteer Connection is one nonprofit whose work touches the Superior National Forest and by extension the Superior trail that courses through miles of it. Volunteers have a connection to the land. But it’s more than personal, said the group’s executive director. They value these natural resources, too, for what they bring: visitors.
The nonprofit considers itself an umbrella organization that supports smaller volunteer groups immersed in Superior National Forest projects wherever they are, said executive director Laurel Wilson. That means it helps write grants, supports field work, or even recruits volunteers for its own projects. Those can entail clearing brush around portages in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness or lining up YMCA campers to clear brush on a popular spot on the Superior trail.
Local young people have helped yank St. John’s Wort, an invasive weed, in the trail system around Pincushion Mountain the last two years, with more projects scheduled, Wilson said. There also are plans with the North Superior Ski and Run Club to plant native trees in the Pincushion trail system, which the club maintains for all-season use — including for the Superior trail hikers who hoof along part of it to scale the overlook on Pincushion Mountain.
Northwoods Volunteer Connection had 256 volunteers work on 24 different projects in 2017.
A key supporter and partner is the U.S. Forest Service, Wilson said, but the agency’s limited resources in money and manpower have been well-publicized. The needs never end. That’s where the nonprofit sees a gap to fill. “We’re trying to work every angle to get the work done that needs to be done,” Wilson said.
“A lot of people are active and enjoy these resources,” she added. “And they want to continue to enjoy all the beauty. We have a great connection with the land here.”