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North Country Trail is extended 21 miles in area

Laurentian Lakes Chapter volunteers work in the Tamarac National Wildlife Refuge. (Submitted photo)1 / 2
Laurentian Lakes Chapter volunteers Ray Vlasak, Chuck Church, Jim Eisele, Karen Stenberg and Gary Narum proudly stand atop one of the puncheons they built this fall in the Tamarac National Wildlife Refuge. (Submitted photo)2 / 2

"2012 was an amazing year on the North Country Trail," by Regional Trail Coordinator Matt Davis' standards.

The North Country National Scenic Trail was extended 21 miles in Becker County, including 14.5 miles in the Tamarac National Wildlife Refuge.

"We've been planning this trail for 20 years," said Kelly Blackledge, Visitors Services Manager with U.S. Fish and Wildlife. "Now that it's done and walkable, it's really a treasure."

Prior to the trail's construction, the refuge was home to just two designated hiking trails, totaling 2.5 miles, she explained. The remaining 43,000-acre area was accessed by service roads.

"This is amazing," she said of the hiking, snow shoeing and cross country ski trail, affording opportunities to watch and photograph wildlife. And, now, hunting.

"The heart of this is volunteers," said Ray Vlasak, Laurentian Lakes Chapter president said.

Work began in early April at the Greenwater Lake Science and Natural Area, the crew working south and west to the Tamarac, completing work this fall just north of Hubbel Pond.

The refuge's abundant wetlands and the winding Otter Tail River proved a challenge in routing, Davis explained.

The pathway, Blackledge said, must be balanced with wildlife and habitat.

"And these are particularly sensitive areas," Vlasak added.

In 1938 Congress established the refuge to serve as a breeding ground and sanctuary for migratory bird and wildlife. The property was purchased with funds from the sale of federal duck stamps.

The refuge, Davis explained, "is on the higher end of resource protection." Ultimately, "this provides a better experience for users of the trail."

After the trail route earned approval from partners - the county and the refuge, construction of the treadway began.

A Minnesota Conservation Corps crew arrived, thanks to a $100,000 Legacy grant, working most of the summer removing stumps and rocks.

Laurentian Lakes chapter volunteers, sometimes as many as 15 a day, began work after clearing was complete. Their mission was to create puncheons - planks on sills - and board walks.

The distance the material had to be moved proved "particularly challenging," Vlasak recalled. One of the puncheons is 966 feet in length, the 3-inch by 10-inch by 12-foot pieces of wood, three placed side by side, create a pathway in a tamarac and spruce bog.

"People are in awe," Vlasak said of the bog walk. All tolled, 1,200 feet of puncheon were constructed, most in the Rice and Johnson lakes areas.

The first hikers set off on the trail Oct. 6.

The trail in the Tamarac Refuge can be accessed directly west of 400th Avenue, with parking available. Signs will be added in the spring. The NCT is also accessible from Blackbird Wildlife Drive until Dec. 15.

The refuge constructed a new parking lot, adding kiosks and toilets to the landscape, notable for colorful names - Big Egg Lake Teacracker Trail and Lost Lake among them.

"Normally, volunteers would do all of that," Davis said. "This was a joint project."

Meanwhile, a few miles east, Itasca-Moraine chapter volunteers completed the four-mile Waboose Lake loop north of Nevis.

"This is an amazing year for the two organizations," Davis said of the two projects.

The National Park Service's goal is to certify 25 new miles in a seven-state area each year. The two chapters met that goal in a two-county area.

Now, 150 miles of contiguous trail runs from Remer in Cass County through Hubbard, Clearwater and Becker counties, most of it forested.

Each chapter has a defined work area, per their charter, Davis explained.

Next on the to-do project list is to write a guidebook on the 150 miles, highlighting access points as well as history and geology.

And extend the trail from Remer to Ely.

Minnesota differs from other states in that it has no long contiguous section of trail, Davis said.

The Superior Trail runs from north of Duluth up to Grand Portage, meeting the Border Route and Kokekabic Trails, heading west through the Boundary Waters.

The only thing that would top this year, is going from Remer to Grand Rapids to Ely, Davis said, hopefully gaining more Legacy funds.

But first, the issue will head to Washington.

"The change will require an act of Congress."

To learn more about volunteer opportunities, go to or e-mail