Celebration of North Country Trail's success comes with need for help

Annie Humphrey, an Ojibwe singer/songwriter and activist, is one of the featured speakers at an annual celebration next month in Walker, Minn., organized by supporters of the North Country National Scenic Trail, the 4,800-mile path that extends from North Dakota to Vermont.

Hers is a return appearance. Humphrey's participation — she performed with her mother, author and storyteller Anne Dunn, at the event in Bemidji in 2007 — reflects a shared connection and affection for the NCT and, more importantly, of the north-central land that it courses through in Minnesota.

The original section of the NCT in Minnesota was built in the early 1980s in the Chippewa National Forest, home to the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe and the reservation where Dunn grew up and her daughter now lives. About 65 miles of the NCT's 850 miles in the state are in the national forest.

Reservation land managers and the U.S. Forest Service share management of the white pines and oaks and waters where, for example, there are prescribed burns to build resilient habitat, wild rice beds to manage or hunting regulations to enforce. It's the only management arrangement of its kind along the NCT, which binds eight states and eight national forests in all.

"We want people coming [to the event] to learn more about the tribe and its history," said Matt Davis, the NCT association regional trail coordinator for Minnesota, North Dakota and Wisconsin. The forest was the first national unit established east of the Mississippi, at the time, in 1908.

Humphrey drew some parallels to her Native culture's synergy with the land and NCT caretakers.

"Our connections may be different, but the common thread is a necessity to be outdoors," she wrote in an email to the Star Tribune. "... The people who worked to bring this trail about and the ones who utilize it have a spiritual, physical, and mental need to spend time outside, hiking, walking, listening, looking, smelling, and working their bodies."

The year's celebration, which rotates among NCT states, is back in Minnesota Oct. 5-9 for the first time since 2014. Its focus is on the NCT's growth and own resiliency and comes at a vital time for stewards like Davis and his teams of volunteers. There are six chapters in Minnesota, and legions of several hundred who show up to cut trail or rebuild infrastructure are conceding to time and age, he said, and stepping aside.

The recurring measure when Davis worked on the Appalachian Trail was one volunteer per mile. By that metric, the NCT is in need in Minnesota.

"We have a lot of volunteers who have been with us who are already done or this is their last season," Davis said. "It is a challenge for many. A lot of the trail is in remote areas that don't have a lot of local people.

"We are losing a lot of volunteer horsepower."

Jerry and Melinda McCarty, members of the Itasca Moraine chapter of the association, represent that loss.

They'll retire as volunteers this year after the annual celebration. They've supported the trail since the autumn of 2010 after they retired from farming in Iowa and moving north to a spot on Ten Mile Lake, south of Walker. The two were hooked after spotting a notice of a NCTA chapter-led hike. Since then they've done myriad jobs, from mowing to coordinating trail section "adopters," to chain-sawing to leaving their area in "The Chip" to help other chapters in the region.

"We get along pretty good up here … it's a great group," said Jerry McCarty on Thursday after the two spent most of the morning with others putting in the last of the three puncheons on wet areas of the NCT. His Itasca Moraine chapter got some help from the U.S. Forest Service to get materials like lumber and bring them to their sites.

McCarty, 77, figures he and Melinda, 79, already have 200 volunteer hours in since May, and they have groomed a replacement to take care of a 4.3-mile section they adopted.

"Retired. Younger. And he wants to work on the trail," McCarty said. "You can't beat that."

The help shortage contrasts with a noticeable rise in hiking on the NCT, Davis said. After running, hiking nationally was the second-most popular activity in 2021, with an increase of 889,000 participants from 2020, the nonprofit Outdoor Foundation reported. Every sign is that interest continues.

Meanwhile, there are miles of trail to mow or vegetation to clear. Or acts of nature to clean up. A Memorial Day storm that hammered parts of Itasca County left almost a mile of blowdown on the trail east of the state park, Davis said. The trail at that point is so severely covered and tangled it is considered unsafe for hikers to navigate. They are using a detour that includes logging roads.

The converging winds of time and a need for some new blood make this year's annual gathering extra resonant. In Walker comes an opportunity to bring in newcomers to learn the trail's history in places like the Chippewa forest and see themselves in its future, Davis said. And to go deeper than recreation, like the McCartys and others.

"All the trails all around the United States are dealing with this on different levels," he added.

A comment box on Lake Erin lets the McCartys know their work is appreciated, and last year they were thrilled to encounter a thru-hiker on the trail while they worked. Such are the rewards that have fueled their volunteer spirit the past 12 years.

"We see people enjoying the trail, having a good time and that really lifts us up," he said.

North County Trail Association annual celebration

Oct. 5-9, Walker, Minn.Online registration closes Wednesday: northcountrytrail.org/celebration. Other ways to register, through Sunday: Abby Whittington at awhittington@northcountrytrail.org, 616-987-0964