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NORTH COUNTRY TRAIL COLUMN: Beautiful trails built with volunteer labor

This photo was taken on arecent hike to view the new fence stiles built to enable hikers to cross fences on agricultural land. Gary Narum, a longtime LLC volunter, designed the stiles and built them along with other LLC volunteers this past year. (Submitted photo)

When I first hiked the North Country Trail (NCT), I thought of it as a beautiful path that simply meandered through the woods practically on its own. Little did I know of the physical work that goes into planning, building and maintaining it. I was about to learn!

Soon after joining the Laurentian Lakes Chapter (LLC) of the North Country Trail, I accompanied two experienced trail builders working on a re-routed section. We ventured out on snowshoes on one cold winter morning to decide the best location for the future trail, getting our snowshoes hung up as we moved about in deep snow. I discovered that new trails are planned in the winter because it's easier to locate the best views when there are no leaves on the trees.

Next I learned how a trail is built. That beautiful path I observed earlier was not a path but a trail built with physical labor. LLC volunteers and a group of young people working for the Minnesota Conservation Corps created the trail. There are rocks to dig out, roots to chop, trees to trim and holes to fill, all done to make a smooth trail for hiking. Builders follow the official dimensions of the National Park Service to produce a uniform trail.

This summer, a 2.5-mile "re-route" was built near the southwest corner of Clearwater County. The LLC worked with the Corps for six weeks to produce the new trail, paid for through a grant from the Minnesota DNR.

Signage for a trail comes next in the form of a trailhead kiosk, directional signs and painted blue blazes throughout the trail to guide hikers. Structures are built where necessary — stiles to enable hikers to cross a fence on agricultural ground, a causeway over poorly drained soil or a puncheon to cross-bogs and wetlands.

In all, it's 75 miles of rugged Minnesota land for the LLC to build and maintain, from just south of Highway 34 into Itasca State Park. Our volunteers mow the trails and clear it of fallen trees, re-fresh blue blades and repair structures as needed.

Hikes are scheduled to view newly built stiles, the re-route, and to dedicate a trail to someone who loved working on the NCT. All LLC sponsored hikes are advertised in the Park Rapids Enterprise, Chamber of Commerce electronic media and "Meet-up." Learn more about the NCT in Minnesota at www.northcoutrytrail.org/Minn.

I'm always curious how people choose their volunteer projects. For me, it was discovering that you just have to find a trail to access the incredible beauty of nature, whether you're on a bike or in hiking boots. I deeply appreciate the work of volunteers to make this happen. If anyone is interested in volunteering on the trails, please email llc@northcountrytrail.org.

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