Off the beaten path

Hikers account for the largest piece of the recreation pie in Minnesota. According to a study done at the University of Minnesota Tourism Center in 2009, "Minnesota is home to about five million people of whom 54.4 percent participate in walking-...

Hikers account for the largest piece of the recreation pie in Minnesota.

According to a study done at the University of Minnesota Tourism Center in 2009, "Minnesota is home to about five million people of whom 54.4 percent participate in walking-hiking, 29 percent participate in biking, 14.2 percent participate in running, 10.3 percent participate in ATV riding, 10 percent participate in snowmobiling, 6.3 percent participate in cross-country skiing, and 4.5 percent participate in horseback riding.

"Overall, recreation participation in Minnesota is expected to decrease or plateau by 2014. However ... running and walking-hiking are expected to increase."

Helping contribute to those tourism statistics and trails is the North Country National Scenic Trail.

When completed, the trail will run 4,600 miles from New York to North Dakota.


"In a nutshell, the best way to describe the North Country Trail is a primitive footpath," said Matt Davis, regional trail coordinator for Minnesota and North Dakota.

It will be the longest continuous hiking trail in the United States, linking natural, historical and scenic areas across seven states -- New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota and North Dakota.

Hiking trails, he said, are usually quite welcome because they are "light on the land and bring people in."

Last week, Davis met with individuals in Vergas to discuss the Otter Tail County portion of the trail, specifically from Vergas to Maplewood State Park.

There are pieces here and there already created and designated along the North Country Trail, but those working on the trail have a lot of work ahead of them yet.

"The whole Red River Valley is one big gap right now," Davis said of a map of where the trail will go. It's the biggest gap in the 4,600 miles of trail right now.

In 1982, a plan was published as to where the trail should run through the states. While there is that basic idea of where the trail would likely go, it's a 10-mile-wide corridor, so there is nothing specific about the trail route in areas where it has not yet been established

"It was a guide," he explained. "It was more for planning purposes.


So with that plan running through the Vergas area to Maplewood State Park, Davis was on hand last week to ask where area citizens thought the trail should run.

With Davis was Ray Vlasak, who serves as the president of the Laurentian Lakes Chapter of the North Country Trail, which serves Clearwater and Becker counties. According to their website, the Laurentian Lakes Chapter "trail section runs from the intersection of the Nicollet and Eagle Scout Trails in the middle of Itasca State Park through Clearwater County to the Becker-Ottertail county border south of the City of Frazee."

Vlasak was on hand not only to promote the trail but to help find volunteers to serve under the Laurentian Lakes chapter until they can break off and form their own new chapter that will cover Otter Tail County.

While the trail isn't completed to Frazee yet, there are plans and the construction is happening this summer. Where to go from there is the big question.

"It's been a definite challenge getting to Frazee," Davis said, because the majority of the land is privately owned. Some people have a bad taste from other trail experiences or have heard stories about landowners who were sorry they allowed various types of trails, he added.

Besides possible resistance from landowners, there is also the challenge of the land -- or rather, the need for dry land.

"There are very few places from Frazee to Vergas that aren't lakes," Frazee Mayor Hank Ludtke said.

He suggested a few routes -- the Five Lake area, the Wymer Lake area and the Camp Cherith to County Road 17 area -- as doable ways that would avoid crossing water.


Once the trail is completed, volunteers take care of its maintenance, similar to the Adopt a Highway program.

History of the trail

Congress designated the North Country National Scenic Trail in 1980. It is one of 11 national trails in the United States. The Appalachian Trail, which runs from Georgia to Maine, is one of the more well known national trails.

Once Congress designates the trail and it is built -- mainly by volunteers and workers through the Minnesota Conservation Corps via grant funding -- the trail is turned over to the National Park Service.

Davis said there are various kinds of trail-users: day trip people who hike a few miles for enjoyment will get the most use out of the trail.

Then those hard-core hikers who traverse the entire trail. One of those hikers was M. J. Eberhart, known as Nimblewill Nomad, who went on to write "Trekking the North Country Trail."

Hikers from throughout the United States will come to hike the Minnesota portion of the trail in 2014, when Minnesota hosts a hiking meeting that happens very seven years and rotates between states.

As the trail is constructed, primitive campsites are created at various points along the way. There is space for two tents, a wilderness toilet and a fire ring. Everything else brought in must be taken back out with the hiker.


"Everything we put up in meant to blend in," Davis said.

Money to fund the construction of the trail comes from the National Park Service and donations, but one large benefit to the Minnesota portion of the trail is funding from Legacy Funds.

Homeowners sharing their land

When the trail is created, workers mow a four-foot strip and then create an 18-24-inch trail tread (of dirt) down the middle. They try to avoid putting in bridges, boardwalks, and other structures because of the added cost of materials and maintenance.

The group doesn't take out any sizable trees either.

The trail is strictly for foot traffic, which means walking and hiking in the warm months and snowshoeing or cross-country skiing in the snowy months. The landowners are the determiners of the trail usage, too. Some may even permit horseback riding along the path.

Landowners would also have a say in whether primitive campsites would be allowed on their land or not.

Davis said that ideally, landowners would give an easement for the trail, but some landowners simply give verbal approval.


"We want to do what's most comfortable for the landowner," he said.

When going near or through towns, the trail may have to share sidewalks and other existing trails through town, but out in the county, it will be surrounded by nature.

A couple of landowners at the Otter Tail County meeting held in Vergas last week expressed concerns over having hikers walking through their property, what they may leave behind, if they're injured and if they can get a tax break for allowing the trail on their property.

"Hikers are a totally different mentality than the motorized (trail users)," Vlasak said.

He added that hikers are there more for nature and the environment and can't do much damage as opposed to motorized recreational vehicles.

"The opportunity to create environmental damages is a lot less (on foot)," he said.

For those worried about damage to their property, though, Davis said, "typically the county passes an ordinance protecting the trail." With that, the county sheriff's office can enforce any damages done to the trail or surrounding property.

Landowners are not held liable for any injuries to hikers on the trail. Davis and Vlasak said they've never even heard of any cases being filed against landowners since the trial began. In fact, they said, there is not one documented incident of anyone suing a landowner on any of the national trails.


As for a tax break for allowing the trail to go through a landowner's property, Davis said there has been a bill proposed to give a tax break, but it hasn't been passed into law yet.

"Right now there's no incentive other than the warm fuzzy they feel" for giving access to their land for the trail, Vlasak said.

"We come to an agreement to make everyone happy," Davis added.

Though there may be years worth of work left on the entire trail, Davis said the finished product will be a benefit for years to come, just like the Appalachian Trail is now, 75 years after it was completed.

"We're building a legacy for future generations to get out and enjoy," he said.

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