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Superior Hiking Trail runs on army of volunteers

Each year 300 people donate more than 7,000 hours of work to keep the trail open and safe.

Volunteers using hand tools on trail in forest
Kat Nistler of Duluth uses a saw to trim a tree on the Superior Hiking Trail on Aug. 19, 2022 in Normanna Township.
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune
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DULUTH — Autumn in the Northland is a great time to take a hike. Fewer bugs. Cooler, less-humid weather. And the fall colors offer a spectacular incentive to keep walking.

But what if you went for a hike and the trail was blocked by a downed tree? Or dozens of downed trees? Or what if waist-high grass and brush obscured the path? What if the bridge over the river was out? What if the trail marker signs were missing? What if the path was just mud?

That would be the Superior Hiking Trail without the hundreds of volunteers who keep it open for us to enjoy.

Volunteers using hand tools on trail in forest
Jerome Lemke of Two Harbors clears brush on the Superior Hiking Trail.
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

Construction on the trail started in the mid-1980s and has never really stopped. But in 2016, after 30 years of work, the Superior Hiking Trail became a continuous footpath from the Wisconsin border just south of Duluth to the Ontario border near Grand Portage. It now stretches 310 miles, winding mostly parallel with Minnesota’s North Shore of Lake Superior.

The trail has become among the most popular in the Midwest, attracting casual day-hikers, serious through-hikers and even endurance-crazed athletes who run the whole thing.

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The original trail was mostly built by crews hired from local towns, including unemployed mining industry workers, or by the Minnesota Conservation Corps.

Superior Hiking Trail.jpg
Gary Meader / Duluth News Tribune

While the trail may not get any longer, it still needs almost constant work. Every year thousands of hours of labor are needed to keep the trail safe for people and safe from people, keeping the treadway from causing erosion, replacing bridges and changing routes.

“You can't just build a road and then walk away forever. … It’s the same with a trail, especially a natural surface trail like this. You have to come back and repair the tread, maybe find a better route, make repairs, do maintenance,” said Larry Sampson.

Sampson, of Duluth, has been hiking the trail for years. He retired from his federal office job in 2005 and became a trail volunteer. Eventually he became a trail maintenance contractor for the Superior Hiking Trail Association. He’s now in charge of 100 miles of trail, from Two Harbors through Duluth and on through Jay Cooke State Park to the Wisconsin border.

Volunteers using hand tools on trail in forest
A sign in Normanna Township shows mileage of trail sections on the Superior Hiking Trail.
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

“It’s never really finished,” Sampson said of the trail. But that’s OK with him. “It’s kind of my passion. I actually like working on the trail more than hiking on it.”

The tread is the surface you walk on, and it’s mostly dirt, rock and some wood on the Superior Hiking Trail. The goal, Sampson noted, is to keep water off the tread. Water is bad for hiking trails, not only causing muddy conditions for hikers, but also eroding topsoil. In some areas, including near popular North Shore destinations, the trail is indeed being loved to death. The goal is to keep those sections of trail hardened and dry so hikers don’t keep making the trail wider to avoid water or mud.

Volunteers using hand tools on trail in forest
Blue blazes mark the path on the Superior Hiking Trail.
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

Much of Sampson’s job is training and supervising volunteers to work on the trail. Each year an army of over 300 volunteers puts in more than 7,000 hours of work to keep the trail accessible and sustainable.

“If it wasn’t for volunteers, this trail wouldn’t exist,” Sampson said.

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In addition to individual volunteers, some people work as families. Others come in bunches, such as scout troops, clubs or conservation groups. Many of the volunteers are retirees. Some are teachers and professors who have time in summer to volunteer. Others are students fulfilling volunteer requirements for school.

Some volunteers adopt a section of trail or a campground and work on it all year. Others work a day or two per year. Many are local Northland residents, while others come from far away.

Volunteers using hand tools on trail in forest
Barbara Budd of Two Harbors talks about the various types of tools used for maintenance on the trail.
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

Steve Sharkey, a professor of marketing analytics at the University of Minnesota Duluth, volunteers on the trail often, mostly during summer and weekends. This year he’s put in more than 32 hours. He’d been hiking the trail for years when he started volunteering a few years ago.

“When I’d go to other areas of the country I noticed the trails wouldn’t be cleared as well or wouldn’t be marked very well. I started to realize what a great resource we have in our trail in our backyards,” Sharkey said. “So I felt I needed to give back to keep that going.”

Two years ago, Sharkey also joined the Superior Hiking Trail Association board of directors, the group that oversees trail routes and maintenance and offers maps, guides and trail condition information to hikers. One of the association's biggest jobs now, Sharkey said, is educating users, especially the throng of new users in recent years, on how to hike without impacting the environment, angering landowners or disturbing other hikers.

“I love to see more people out enjoying the trail,” Sharkey said. “But we can’t just keep encouraging more people to use the trail. We have to educate them on ‘leave no trace’ so we can keep this great resource.”

Who runs the trail?

The Superior Hiking Trail Association formed in 1986 as the nonprofit organization that builds, maintains and renews the Superior Hiking Trail. The association also provides trail condition updates and educational resources for trail users online and through its Trail Information Center in Two Harbors, where the association's office is located. That includes multiple guidebooks and trail maps.

The association has five full-time staff and two part-timers as well as contractors who do trail maintenance and construction. But most of the actual work is done by volunteers.

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“We are volunteer-powered,” said Lisa Luokkala, executive director of the association. “We don’t have a big staff, so volunteers are the heart and soul of our organization. It’s part of our culture.”

Volunteers using hand tools on trail in forest
Barbara Budd of Two Harbors uses a lopper to trim a branch on the Superior Hiking Trail.
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

Luokkala noted that virtually the entire 310-mile trail has seen someone’s fingerprints, either upgrading the surface, adding bridges, steps or walkways, putting up signs and annual weed-whipping.

“It’s a highly curated trail, but it doesn’t feel that way,” Luokkala noted. “It still feels wild, even though a lot of work has been done,”

This year the association’s budget will hit $1 million for the first time, about half from trail maintenance and construction grants and half from memberships and donations. In 2021, the association received 7,434 individual and business contributions totaling more than $433,000. Some 2,112 people were dues-paying members. (Memberships start at $45.)

“It’s expensive to keep up the trail. Materials, like lumber, cost more. Everything costs more. So the budget keeps going up,” said Luokkala.

The trail runs across private, federal, state, county and city lands. No one entity owns or controls the trail, but the association coordinates efforts across all of the land owners, including securing permission for the trail to cross each tract of public and private property.

“We deal with 200 different landowners along the trail route, so there are always some issues,” Luokkala noted.

Hargesheimer's book is first comprehensive accounting of how the beloved trail came to be.

In 2018 the association launched its Trail Renewal Program aimed at improving the trail where most needed and planning for future pressures such as increased use from more hikers and increased storm events spurred by climate change. In some cases, the trail route is re-evaluated to be relocated where there’s a drier or more stable option. In other cases, bridges and wooden walkways have deteriorated and new fiberglass bridges are going up.

“The trail was put in fairly quickly … and not always with the most sustainable materials,” Sampson noted. “Now, we’re going back in and using materials that will last.”

Other efforts are more mundane but still critical, like weed-whipping the entire length of the trail each summer to keep underbrush and grass from obscuring the route.

Volunteers using hand tools on trail in forest
Carolyn Kaufman of Duluth clears brush on the Superior Hiking Trail.
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

Sometimes, as in the case at Tettegouche State Park this spring when a flood took out the bridge over High Falls, nature dictates a reroute or construction project or both. Runoff is a constant issue along the steep North Shore ridge where the trail runs for much of its route.

In some cases, landowners don’t want the trail around anymore, or new owners don’t want the trail, so a new route is required. That happened near Gooseberry Falls State Park a few years ago, temporarily forcing the trail onto roads for 4.5 miles, including busy state Highway 61. The reroute has taken more than four years and $300,000 to complete but is now ready for hikers. A grand-opening celebration is planned for later this month.

“The goal for any trail like this is to avoid road walks wherever we can,” Luokkala said. “In some places, like in the city, it’s just not possible. In others, it takes time to find new routes and get them built.”

Other projects this summer included work on the Bean and Bear lakes trail segment near Silver Bay and a trail reroute in western Duluth near Stewart Creek, moving the trail off of Skyline Parkway and down to the DWP multiuse trail near the Magney-Snively forest.

Next summer the association will use electronic trail counters and human surveyors to get the first ever comprehensive count of how many hikers are actually using the trail each year.

Volunteers using hand tools on trail in forest
Volunteer education coordinator for the Superior Hiking Trails, Barbara Budd, talks to volunteers before heading out on the Superior Hiking Trail.
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

John Gellatly of Duluth is one of those volunteers who keeps coming back to help. Already this year he’s put in 66 hours of volunteer work, mostly on trails in western Duluth where he grew up playing in the same woods.

“I’ve always liked hiking the trail. … But I started feeling guilty for having this really well-maintained trail to use and I wasn’t giving back at all,” said Gellatly, 67. “So I started volunteering after I retired. ... I really enjoy the work. It’s a great chance to be out in the woods.”

Gellatly and his wife, Tracey, hiked the entire length of trail over 13 months in 2018 and 2019. Now he’s in charge of maintaining a 5-mile section of the trail in western Duluth’s thick forest near Spirit Mountain, part of a growing list of people who adopt sections of trail.

National hiking trail will extend 4,600 miles from Vermont to North Dakota, and cross the Northland on the way.

“We do the things you can do on our own, or with a little help, and then we call in the contractors if there’s a big tree down, or lots of trees down, or a bridge out or something,” said Gellatly, who lives just a 5-minute walk from the tail.

“We are so lucky to have this amazing resource,” he said. “I’m just glad so many people are using it.”

Learn how to fix a hiking trail

Superior Hiking Trail Association staff have been offering several group events this summer teaching new people how to become trail volunteers. Experienced crew leaders offer tips on how to keep brush and water off the trail. No experience is necessary. All tools and training are provided. The next training event is set for Saturday, Sept. 10 from 9 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. at the Normanna Road trailhead just north of Duluth. Expect less than a 1-mile hike from the trailhead to the project. To sign up, or for more information, go to superiorhiking.org/volunteer .

Trail project near Lutsen needs 100 volunteers

The Superior Hiking Trail Association needs 100 volunteers for a 5-day trail renewal project Sept. 20-24 to rehabilitate a half-mile of the Superior Hiking Trail near Lutsen. The project will need 20 people per day to rehabilitate damaged tread between the Poplar River Bridge at Lutsen Mountains and the trail’s Mystery Mountain campsite.

Volunteers will join professional trail builder Tim Malzhan on the project. Activities will include hardening the trail surface, building rock structures, preparing wood materials for future construction, building drainage features and reshaping tread with hand tools.

No experience is necessary. All tools and training will be provided. Expect a 0.3-mile hike from the trailhead to the project.

The project is open to anyone who is physically able to help. Youth ages 12-17 are welcome if they are accompanied by a parent or guardian. Free camping is available nearby, but you have to have your own transportation. Tools also are provided. (And it should be just about peak color for maple trees in the area.)

For more information or to sign up, go to superiorhiking.org/volunteer .

Join the SHTA

For more information on joining the Superior Hiking Trail Association, go to superiorhiking.org , call their office in Two Harbors at 218-834-2700 or email them at info@superiorhiking.org.

John Myers reports on the outdoors, natural resources and the environment for the Duluth News Tribune. You can reach him at jmyers@duluthnews.com.
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