When Granite Gear created its Grounds Keepers program last year, the Minnesota backpack-maker’s goal was to recruit hikers to remove trash from parks and trails around the country. But two Minnesotans who have joined in the effort for 2018 had an added objective — they wanted to remove frustration. Their own.
“It’s frustrating when you’re out there trying to enjoy the outdoors and you’re looking at trash,” said Alyssa Hei of Duluth. “It’s frustrating that people feel the need to leave their stuff there.”
“The past few years I’ve tried to pick up trash on my own,” added Brock Johnson of Minneapolis. “It gets frustrating seeing it all.”
Hei and Johnson are joining 23 other Grounds Keepers picked by Granite Gear who have pledged to clean up at least 300 miles of trails, parks and public lands this year across the nation. In 2017, the Grounds Keepers’ inaugural year, 17 people removed 1,117 pounds of trash.
The Grounds Keepers program took its inspiration from Packing It Out, an endeavor that started in 2015 when founder Seth Orme and some friends (including Lakeville, Minn., native Paul Twedt) picked up trash along the Appalachian Trail, said company marketing manager Shelly Smith. The next year, they packed out 720 pounds of litter on the Pacific Crest Trail.
Orme and his crew showed up at Granite Gear’s booth at an AT festival, early on in their undertaking, sporting the company’s packs, said Shelly Smith, the company’s marketing manager.
“When we found out they were out there picking up trash, and they were already Granite Gear fans, we thought ‘How do we support them?’ ” Smith said. Granite Gear, based in Two Harbors, ended up supplying the Packing it Out hikers with some of the company’s gear, as well as monetary support, she said.
Grounds Keepers was then hatched as Granite Gear’s effort to make trail cleaning a national effort. Orme was active in helping the company get the program set up, Smith said.
Granite Gear was pleasantly surprised by interest in Grounds Keepers, said Smith, with more than 200 applicants for 17 positions in 2017, when the program was limited to the country’s longer trails.
In 2018, even with little publicity and an added requirement that prospective members submit a video as part of their application, the number of applications increased, Smith said. Granite Gear had expanded the scope of the program to include shorter trails and local parks.
“We really wanted more people who may not have the time to take six months off their job to hike a long trail,” she said. “It’s just a really good group of people who want to do good and leave the trails better than they found them. They’re really fired up, and I think they’re going to do an impressive job.”
As of mid-May, this year’s team had already toted out close to half of last year’s trash total.
Johnson, a marketing manager for an engineering firm in Fridley, was accepted into Grounds Keepers after proposing an unusual task — cleaning up along trails but also on lakes and rivers.
“I kayak a lot, and there’s nothing worse than paddling along and seeing heaps of trash on the shoreline,” Johnson said. He’ll be picking up litter on local excursions, but also during trips to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area, Canada’s Banff National Park and the John Muir Trail in California.
“I see this as an opportunity to do a service, to make the parks and trails a better place for other people, and to spread the Leave No Trace mantra,” Johnson said. He also intends to produce a video that could draw further attention to the problem of trash on the trails.
When Hei applied for the program, she saw an opportunity to help remove garbage from her favorite walking path, the 310-mile Superior Hiking Trail, which begins not far from where she lives. But Hei is also cleaning up local parks in Duluth and via Instagram is recruiting others to help. “Instead of doing little hikes in the parks by myself, I’m trying to turn it into more of a community effort,” she said.
Each member of the Grounds Keepers is provided with a Granite Gear pack of their choice, gloves, a scale, stuff sacks and other gear, along with shoes and gaiters provided by Altra Running, one of Granite Gear’s partners in the effort.
A thick, sturdy garbage bag is also a necessity, Hei said. “I used a cheap bag my first time out and ended up sticking it in my car, and it still smells in there,” she said with a laugh. “I didn’t make that mistake twice.”
Smith said Granite Gear keeps in touch with team members — and team members with each other — via a private Facebook page and Instagram account. “It’s a good way to talk about areas that may need more attention, and just to keep in touch,” Smith said.
The Grounds Keeper effort is timely, Hei said. She has noticed increased litter on trails during the past few years during hikes with her husband (with whom she owns a food brokerage) and two dogs.
“There’s been a bit of a change in the attitude toward the outdoors,” she said. “These days it’s not always about respecting nature, it might be more about trying to get a photo. There has definitely been an increase in people on the trail, and not all of them seem to understand that a lot of people are in the woods for the quiet and calm and a clean, natural setting.”
Promoting better stewardship of the outdoors is part of the Grounds Keeper mission.
The easiest way to take care of the trails, Hei said, “is to just not take a lot of stuff out there. Try to keep things minimal. And everyone should put a garbage bag into their pack — you know there are going to be things you want to throw away. It’s simple — carry those things out.”
“It’s not just about garbage,” she added. “It’s about leaving things the way they are, not creating new campsites or trails, staying where you’re supposed to stay, and keeping things natural.”
Jeff Moravec is a freelance writer and photographer from Minneapolis. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.