Pioneering foodie James Beard said, “Food is our common ground, a universal experience.”
No one knows this better than Thelma Johnson. The 81-year old who lives outside of Cumberland, Wis., has spent over a decade volunteering along the 1,200-mile Ice Age National Scenic Trail in Wisconsin. But instead of clearing brush or building boardwalks, Johnson works as head camp cook for the Mobile Skills Crew projects. Over the past 12 years, she has served more than 30,000 meals to the legions of ravenous volunteers who work the weeklong trail construction events, often at remote sites without running water or electricity.
Her dedication has gotten people’s attention. Johnson was recently honored with the National Park Service’s Hartzog Enduring Service Award, an honor given in Washington, D.C., annually to outstanding volunteers. Indeed, one can’t help but marvel at all she has contributed over more than 2,300 hours of service.
Long before Johnson heads out to the far-flung locales along the Ice Age Trail for anywhere from three to six major projects each year, she is clipping coupons and planning menus.
“I look at all the ads to get the best buys on the meat first and then work around that,” she said.
After weeks of preparation, she loads up her little Toyota Prius to the brim with ingredients and pre-baked goodies. She’s even willing to swap out her own personal effects for meal fixings before heading to base camp.
Lasting anywhere from four to 12 days, the Mobile Skills Crew projects involve upward of 125 volunteers who work on new trail construction and other infrastructure. To feed all of those hungry mouths, Johnson relies upon a 16-foot trailer — a mobile kitchen unit — that hauls everything from the food that doesn’t fit in her car, to generators, stoves, propane tanks, roasters, pots and pans, and a freezer.
While the other volunteers set up their tents and build fires, Johnson unpacks, cleans and preps her kitchen for the morning.
“Up until this year, Thelma slept in a tent, getting up at 4:30 in the morning in all types of weather — miserable, cold, rainy and muddy,” said Tim Malzhan, trail operations director for the Ice Age Trail Alliance. “She’s a total trouper and always giving of love and support to everyone around her.”
Although Johnson has swapped a tent for a camper, she is still up long before the sunrise to light the burners and get the coffee percolating. Eggs, sausage, fried potatoes and pancakes are in steady rotation in her kitchen. Cinnamon rolls are a base camp favorite among regulars. These she starts at home before toting the frozen dough into the woods to make them fresh, as she does with the majority of dishes.
After the crew finishes its morning grub, it’s time for cleanup and preparation of the sack lunches to send out into the field with the workers.
“Thelma has helpers, but she’s the boss,” said trail volunteer coordinator Dan Watson. “For lunches she puts out like five loaves of bread on the table and assembles sandwiches, cookies and fruit.”
While the other volunteers are out digging, hauling and building, Johnson works on preparing dinner. Ham, chicken, roast beef, roast pork, meatloaf, beef stew, homemade dinner rolls, and mashed potatoes and gravy are all welcome sights after a long day afield. Johnson has even been known to peel potatoes in her car with the heat on when the mercury drops.
Around 6:30 p.m., she clangs the steel chuck wagon dinner bell, and base camp lights up with activity as volunteers eagerly line up to serve themselves. For Johnson, who first honed her cooking skills raising four children on a farm with her husband in Wisconsin, this is a welcome sight.
“They are pretty hungry when they come off the trail,” said Johnson. “They are so enthusiastic about my cooking, it’s really fun. Who would have thought I’d have this opportunity to make people happy?”
Dinner is followed by dessert — often Johnson’s famous bread pudding. Also always on hand are dozens upon dozens of cookies she has baked at home and hauled to camp.
While Johnson’s food is certainly a highlight for volunteers, it is the woman herself who seems to make the biggest impression.
“It wouldn’t be an understatement to say she’s the most loved volunteer on the trail,” Watson said. “She fills such a giant need in a tremendous way, and everyone loves her.”
“She loves talking with folks and sharing stories, and she inspires just about everyone she comes into contact with,” Malzhan added. “She just works so hard and enjoys it and is able to share that joy and help folks go away feeling like, ‘Maybe I’m a little better person and maybe this world needs a little extra from me.’ ”
To be sure, Johnson’s service doesn’t stop there. When she isn’t cooking in the woods, she works as a certified public accountant and provides pro-bono services to local nonprofits. She also regularly travels to the Philippines, where she has trained a group of women to use sewing machines so they can sell goods and support their families.
“I have a wonderful life that I wouldn’t have dreamed would be so exciting,” Johnson said. “I never realized I would have so much fun at this age.”
Mackenzie Lobby Havey is a freelance writer. She lives in Minneapolis.