ALONG THE NORTH COUNTRY TRAIL — In the woods of the Town Of Superior in Wisconsin, about five miles south of Duluth, a crew of 10 volunteers was busy building the longest hiking trail in the United States.
On a sweaty June afternoon, they were blazing and leveling a footpath, erecting signs, building bridges and boardwalks and working to prevent erosion on the new segment that, for the first time, links Minnesota and Wisconsin portions of the North Country National Scenic Trail.
Yes, this new segment is only a 1.3-mile stretch out of a total 4,600 miles of trail. But when hundreds more stretches like this are completed it will be the longest contiguous hiking trail in the nation, stretching from Vermont to North Dakota. No one knows when that will happen — about 3,101 miles of completed foot trail are open now with 1,500 miles to go.
First proposed in 1968 and authorized by Congress in 1980, the North Country National Scenic Trail will cut across the heart of the Northland — through Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, across northern Wisconsin and into Minnesota near Jay Cooke State Park. From there it meanders through Duluth, up the Superior Hiking Trail, then head back west on the Border Route Trail before ambling back south on the Kekekabic Trail through the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.
From there to North Dakota, the trail remains uncertain. But planning is underway and the route across northern Minnesota is slowly coming together.
Half-century in the works
On Oct. 2, 1968, President Lyndon Johnson signed into law the National Trails System Act. This law set in motion a process to create a network of national scenic trails while also officially establishing the Appalachian and the Pacific Crest trails. The law ordered federal agencies to study up to 14 additional trails, including the North Country Trail route.
While the scenic trail system is administered under the National Park Service, the idea of a northern-tier hiking route across the U.S. appears to have sprouted from the U.S. Forest Service and a plan to connect northern national forests. (In the Northland the trail will indeed traverse and connect the Ottawa, Chequamegon-Nicolet, Superior and Chippewa national forests.)
This summer’s newest section, from the Minnesota state line to about Douglas County Highway W in Wisconsin, was ready to go in 2016 but needed special approval from the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources to cross the St. Louis River Streambank Protection Area, a mostly inaccessible and wild area of forest set aside with little or no development to prevent erosion into the St. Louis River and Lake Superior.
That DNR approval finally came in February, and crews worked on the trail for a week in April and another week in June, with one more week of work coming in July.
“It’s frustrating sometimes when things slow down and we have to wait for so many different (government) agencies and landowners to say yes. But when it all comes together, like it has here, it’s worth it,’’ said Bill Menke, Wisconsin coordinator for the North Country National Scenic Trail Association, the private, nonprofit organization that oversees the trails’ development.
Across the 4,600-mile trail, there are 160 government agencies involved in the trail route and thousands of private landowners.
Menke is overseeing this summer’s newest construction. On the day we stopped by, volunteers were using hand tools, called a McLeod — a combination rake and hoe — to scrape away leaves and topsoil and flatten-out a 24-inch wide trail. They were taking care to keep the trail as flat as possible and avoid potential erosion hotspots while also keeping grades on hills to a minimum.
The goal is a “sustainable trail” which means more work to divert water where it will do the least damage. But the goal also is a scenic experience, so trail mappers look for scenic overlooks, streams and even unique trees to pass by.
“Someday I’m going to hike this whole trail and it’s going to be great,” said Tess Mulrooney, of Madison, one of the hard-working volunteers.
“This is my retirement job’’ joked Mel Baughman, of Hayward, a trail volunteer and former University of Minnesota Extension educator who once taught classes about hiking trail design.
Richard Lutz, a trail volunteer from Ohio, stopped by for a day of work on the new Wisconsin segment on his way home from hiking the Superior Hiking Trail.
“It’s amazing to me that so many people keep showing up to help, because it’s really hard, grunt work,’’ Lutz said.
The next big step across northern Wisconsin will be connecting the new Minnesota-border segment with about 180 miles of trail already completed across the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest. The route across Douglas County has been mapped, but still hasn’t been finalized, with some private landowners not yet on board. (It’s possible to hike the entire 4,600 miles of the trail now, but more than 1,000 miles of that is on roads for now, Menke noted.)
“We’re building what trail we can as (landowner permission) and money comes in, and we try to eliminate the road sections as we go along,” Menke said.
Minnesota gaps narrowing
In Minnesota, North Country Trail advocates were excited earlier this year when Congress finally approved simple legislation that allowed them to redraw the official trail route across the state. The original plan approved by Congress aimed the trail straight west from Duluth to Remer, across bog-covered wetlands, requiring hundreds of new bridges in an area where no trails existed.
Instead, in 1992, organizers decided to move the route to follow the Superior Hiking Trail, already largely in place, then the Border Route Trail and eventually the Kekekabic Trail that pops-out of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness near Ely. After 27 years of almost happening, that simple route change finally passed Congress in March and was signed by President Trump, part of a massive public lands bill.
The delay highlights the fits-and-starts progress of the national trail.
“It wasn’t controversial. It wasn’t partisan. It just never quite got done. Now it’s done and the Superior Hiking Trail is officially part of the North Country Trail,’’ said Matthew Davis, Minnesota/North Dakota coordinator for the North Country Trail Association.
In north-central Minnesota, a major segment of the North County Trail exists from about Detroit Lakes to Remer — 180 miles of boot-ready trail that connects scenic areas like Itasca State Park, Paul Bunyan State Park and the Chippewa National Forest.
But that leaves a 150-mile gap from Remer to Snowbank Lake northeast of Ely, and club volunteers and organizers are getting ready to scout a potential hiking route to close the gap. They eventually must convince both private and public land managers to allow the trail to cross their lands, then find money to actually build the trail. The association can accept easements or, if sellers are willing, can buy the land through the National Park Service, an option allowed by Congress only in recent years.
“We already are working with the Forest Service on some of the easier routes, like getting from the end of the Kekekabic into Ely… But getting across the Iron Range, and avoiding the whole mining thing, that’s going to be more of a challenge. We have some work cut out for us,’’ Davis said. “We’ve engaged the Arrowhead Regional Development Commission to help us in the planning on where we should go and, sometimes more importantly, where the trail shouldn’t go.”
In the short-term hikers may be routed onto the Mesabi Trail, a multi-use hard-surfaced trail that runs across the Iron Range. But the long-term goal is a “primitive footpath” for hiking only whenever possible, as the North Country Trail legislation demands.
Davis is hoping small communities along the possible routes get excited about the energy — both recreational and financial — that a national hiking trail can bring.
“Small towns like Marcell and Soudan and Ely someday may be able to market this. People will stay in hotels and eat in restaurants and maybe do laundry in towns along the trail,’’ Davis said. “Maybe in 80 years the North Country Trail will be as popular as the Appalachian Trail.”
Farther west, parts of the trail already are built in North Dakota. But between Minnesota forests and the Missouri River Breaks, much remains undone. Getting a public hiking trail across the Red River Valley may be impossible, Davis said, because the area has so little public land and agriculture is so intensive.
“It may be that the trail will always run on roads in that area,’’ Davis conceded.
Which begs the question, why end the trail in North Dakota anyhow? Apparently the original North Country Trail planners thought it would be a good idea to connect what is mostly a forested route with the prairie vistas of the Lewis and Clark Trail, although that is a water route with no accompanying hiking trail. There’s no westward hiking trail proposed yet beyond the Missouri River.
“That’s still the plan that was proposed back (50 years ago) and we do have a small but active group of volunteers in North Dakota,’’ Davis said. “But it’s going to take time.”
And that begs the question, when will the entire, 4,600-mile national scenic trail be finished? When will it all run on a “primitive path’’ and not roads or multi-use pathways?
“Probably not in my lifetime,” said Davis, 43. “It’s just such a massive undertaking, with so many different landowners. But we keep plugging away.”