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Volunteers sought for North Country Trail

Put on the hiking boots and head down the trail. (Nicole Vik / Enterprise)

 North Country National Scenic Trail (NCT) runs 4,600 miles through seven states; it is the longest National Scenic Trail in the United States.

     In 1980, the congressional authorization of the NCT prompted the North Country Trail Association as the volunteer organization to partner with the National Park Service in the building and maintaining of the trail.

     Today the trail is brought to numerous communities, including Park Rapids, through the work exclusively of volunteers.

     The North Country Trail Association is always looking for additional volunteers and trail adopters.

     North Country Trail Adopters do “a lions’ share” of the trail maintenance by adopting a section of the trail to do routine upkeep and report larger issues such as blowdown trees to ensure it is functioning fully.

     According to Matthew Davis, Regional Trail Coordinator for Minnesota and North Dakota, volunteer opportunities extend beyond digging in the dirt or mowing the trail. Each section of the trail is unique and the amount of work required varies.

     Volunteers keep the trail passable, safe and enjoyable for hikers but they also help build websites and manage social media or stock trailhead kiosks with brochures, write grants and make trail signs.

     “There are other ways people can contribute,” Davis reiterated. “Pretty much we can use any interest or ability to help on the trail.”

      According to Davis, the majority of the current volunteers are “retired folks,” having the time to dedicate to conserving the trail.

     “They’re trying to payback and build a legacy for their kids and grandkids to give them access to this amazing resource right in their backyard,” Davis said.

     “Volunteering on the trail is a great family activity,” Davis said when talking about how he brings his own kids out to volunteer and help keep the trail clear. “It’s unsafe for them to mow, but there are things they can do and they love being a part of it.”

     The Association is trying to recruit a younger group of volunteers; the next generation of outdoor enthusiasts. They have adopted a great partnership all across the trail by outreaching to Boy and Girl Scout troops as a great way to begin recruiting younger kids to volunteer and get them interested in the outdoors.

     Davis recalls being a young kid exploring outside, which instilled within him a deep connection to the land and nature. With the millennial generation coming into adulthood, many of them have an interest in preserving the environment but they lack an intimate connection to the land itself; even the kids that grew up in rural areas.

     Davis attributes it to children’s time outdoors being more structured now rather than nurturing a love for their natural surroundings.

     “If nobody gives a lick, the future of the trail is going to suffer,” Davis explained about the importance of volunteer involvement.

     With the publication of books and movies such as “Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail” by Cheryl Strayed and “A Walk in the Woods” by Bill Bryson, Davis has seen an interest in hiking increase.

     The North Country Trail is conveniently located within a day’s drive of 40 percent of America’s population.

     “With our monthly hikes at Itasca drawing good crowds and our Hike 100 Challenge ongoing, local interest in the use of the trail is at an all-time high,” Davis said.

     Even though the NCT does not have the same ecological impact on it as that of the Appalachian Trail it is well utilized and the need for volunteers is well short of the demand. According to Davis, the ultimate goal would be to obtain one volunteer for every mile.

     Volunteerism is also crucial to the NCT as grant money is matched with volunteer labor hours. Funding helps pay for tools to groom the trail, build signs and structures along the trail such as boardwalks and bridges. 

     In 2015 1,095 volunteers worked a total of 66,166 hours which is valued at $1.5 million by the independent sector, according to Davis.

     To get started volunteering with the North Country Trail Association contact one of the two local chapters.

     Eric Haugland, Chapter President of the Itasca Moraine Chapter (Itasca St. Park east to Longville, MN) can be reached by email at: itm@northcountrytrail.org

     Or contact Barbara Jauquet-Kalinoski, Chapter President of the Laurentian Lakes Chapter (Itasca St. Park west to Frazee, MN) by email at: llc@northcountrytrail.org

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