Superior Hiking Trail: Volunteer Weekend in Grand Marais

Before that weekend, I had no idea how much work goes into keeping a trail fit for hiking. Even though this trail looks as if it was worn into existence simply by many footsteps, it would quickly blend back into the landscape if not for the hard work of many volunteers. My daughter and I decided to give back to this trail we have both enjoyed in the past. On the first day we started at Jackson Road and got as far as the Caribou Pond campsite.

Birch tree with a sign, "Caribou Pond"
That is a brand new sign created by another volunteer and bolted to the tree by my daughter and myself. Sorry tree, we did not mean to make you cry. The sap is really running this time of year!

Originally we were scheduled to start from Finland, Minnesota. They had so many volunteers they asked if anyone was willing to form a new group so they could give attention to more miles of trail. Grand Marais is one of my favorite places to visit, so we agreed to a slightly longer drive and campground accomodations.

hiking boot and rocks and water
This is the image that comes to mind when I think of Grand Marais, Minnesota. Of course I am willing to change my plans to go there!

The weather cooperated. We were worried when 10 inches of snow fell on the area just days before we arrived but it was mostly melted by the time we got there. The first day we did trek through some deep snow but it was just one short section. By afternoon we had our jackets tied around our waists or stuffed in our packs. The second day was even more pleasant weather. My face and neck got a bit too much sun even with sunscreen. Reapply. Yeah, I know.

The second day we started from County Road 14 west of Covill, Minnesota.

Our teams had 4 or 5 people. Some to use the chainsaws and the rest of us were “swampers”. We used branch trimmers to lop off plants growing into the path. They encouraged us to trim way back so that it would be good for the season.

path of loose red rocks and green moss and trees
Someone in our group said this section reminded him of Isle Royale in Lake Superior. I think I would like it there.

Many times we came across trees that fell in the path. The sawyers (chainsaw operators) chopped them up and we pulled the pieces to the side. It took most of the day to go a couple miles. The walk back to the car was much faster because the way was clear. It was tempting to stop and trim the bits that we missed but we were going to be late getting back to the meeting point. No stopping allowed! That was hard for my perfectionistic self at first and then it was liberating. I liked that rule. The second day people did stop on the way back to trim more. I guess we were not as late. Ambiguity. Once I understood the mindset of the group I was OK with that too. I decided that if I was ahead of the group I would trim more, walk less. If I was behind the group, I would trim less, walk more. That worked pretty well.

A tree that fell across a trail has been cut to allow hiking traffic to proceed.
This spot was especially challenging. At first we could not even tell which way the trail went. We figured it out. Cut a big task into many small tasks.

If we came to a puddle and were not too far behind, we used sticks to dig channels for the water to run off the path. When we came to those places on the way back, they were noticably less muddy. That was satisfying.

A path in the woods with puddles.
The rain and melted snow needs somewhere to go. On the return trip it was much drier.

Another aspect of the weekend that was satisfying was the level of physical challenge. It was a lot of walking, hauling, clipping, reaching up, and reaching down. I’m grateful that my body was up to the challenge. It was acceptable to take breaks when needed. I tried to be honest with myself about what I could do and I found out I could do a lot.

A meadow with trees and an old stump and a view of distant trees.
Every so often we were rewarded for our hard work with a beautiful view. Of course the path in the woods is beautiful too!

Both days there were people in my group that had a lot of knowledge of the history of the trail and the mechanics of trail construction. I enjoyed learning and I enjoyed getting to know others who are passionate about the outdoors. Speaking of passion for the outdoors, I was in Grand Marais! When the work was done I had to go to Artist’s Point. It is just on the other side of the bay from the campground. It was surprising how much cooler it was near the lake. On the trail which is up on the ridge it was about 15 degrees warmer. I will guess that it went from 55 degrees Farenheit to 40. (12.7 C to 4.4 C) After coffee and pizza, we bundled up and spent time watching rocks and waves until it was too dark to stay longer. Returning to the campground we were welcomed to the campfire. Many of the other volunteers seemed to already know each other and I appreciated how they welcomed us.

Ink drawing with watercolor wash of waves and rocks.
Here is an ink drawing with watercolor from last summer at Artist’s Point in Grand Marais, Minnesota.

Making time for what is important is one of my mantras. This weekend was exactly that. Not only did I get to spend time with my daughter, we worked together on a necessary task to allow people to continue to use this trail. I also plan to use this trail and I am glad my daughter and I were able to help get it ready.

Steps leading down into the woods to a footbridge over a stream.
Can you imagine hauling the lumber, clearing the ground, building the steps and bridge, and hauling the tools back up the steep hill to the parking lot? The appropriate Minnesota colloquialism here is “Uff Da!” Those steps have been there a long time and will need replacement soon.

Do any of you know of other opportunities and experiences that benefit trails? I know now that trails do not simply exist, someone has to put them there and work to keep them there. If I had thought it through… I am sure I knew that already…but now I really know it. It was hard work that felt really good.

Wooden sign with trail info
This is the sign near the parking area on Jackson road near Hovland, Minnesota. I am told that often people want to buy the old signs when they are replaced. If you are one of those people, keep checking the Superior Hiking Trail Association website. This sign might be available soon!

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