About the Author: Located in central Wisconsin, Holly Thompson wears many hats carrying the title of host, housekeeper, accountant, landscaper, snow plow operator, lumberjack, website designer, social media director, security guard, and more for the five lakeside cabins her grandfather built as family vacation rentals. She is a mother of two amazing teenage humans, two high-energy dogs, and two elusive cats. Throughout the winter season, her husband works out of state within some of the nation’s finest ski resort towns, so, whenever possible, Holly takes the time to travel and explore the mountains (oh yeah, and visit her husband, too!). Her hobbies include hiking, photography, and creative writing, but her ultimate passion is the National Scenic Ice Age Trail as she is aspiring to segment hike the entire trail spanning approximately 1,200 miles across the state of Wisconsin. You can find her on Instagram @holmysticperception.
Whether I’m spending time in the woods, exploring the mountains, or wandering along a riverbed, my time with nature is my escape from the real world (where I happen to be a habitual workaholic). It is where I clear my mind and cleanse my soul. For me, stepping foot on the trail and navigating through the wonders of Mother Nature and all her glory is awe-inspiring, but it wasn’t until recently that I realized I had been missing something. I had been missing something paramount. With every step I’ve taken, despite how many times I’ve glanced down to watch my footing, it never really dawned on me to actually look at and appreciate the undeniable privilege of a trail right there beneath my feet.
Next time you’re on a public trail, look down. Really. Look. Down. Look at that trail literally right in front of you. How did it get there? Contrary to what many of us may conclude, chances are that beautifully flowing and winding path was not naturally worn like that. As it turns out, many of the public trails that we call our sanctuaries were intentionally built and need continual maintenance. The process is complex, and there is a whole “secret” world of volunteers and dedicated craftsmen that make it all possible.
My perspective of the trail completely changed after having the opportunity to participate in a trail-building event on the National Scenic Ice Age Trail which spans about 1,200 miles across the state of Wisconsin. A few months ago, the Ice Age Trail (IAT) became my new addiction when I determined that, even if it takes me the rest of my life, I am going to segment hike the entire IAT! So like any obsessed woman, I mean…um…smart hiker, I started investigating. I downloaded e-books. I ordered the IAT guidebook and atlas. I signed up for the IAT newsletter. I followed various related groups and pages on social media when, one day, a Facebook Event popped up. The Ice Age Trail Mobile Skills Crew was going to be building a new two mile section of trail only a short commute from my home and volunteers were needed. Seeing this, the workaholic in me exulted, “Perfect! Who knew I would be able to conveniently turn my joy and passion into labor?”
The process to sign up as a volunteer was simple and painless. From the FB event page, I was directed to the the Ice Age Trail Alliance website to complete a fairly basic application for what would be a 4-day event. After filling in my personal information, I was able to select the dates and times that worked with my schedule. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner were graciously available to sign-up for at no charge, and I was given the option of volunteering for the kitchen staff or the trail crew. I opted for lunch and the trail crew with a focus on trail-building. I also learned that campsites were offered to participants commuting long distances to the event site. As a new volunteer, I was required to print, fill out, and turn in at the event a Volunteer Service Agreement in addition to the online application.
Before I knew it, the first day of trail-building had arrived! Heading out the door that morning, I was pumped yet anxious. The strong, independent woman in me was already swelling with pride knowing that by the end of the day I’d be able to officially say I helped build the IAT (even if it was only an itty bitty fraction of trail), but the socially awkward little girl inside of me got nervous. I was on my way to my newfound peace and solitude, but, not only was there going to be people there, all those people were going to be complete and total strangers. Whoa! I started to wonder what I got myself into when the fitting words of Nahko from the song “Manifesto” started dancing through my head, “They sang don’t waste your hate, rather gather and create. Be of service. Be a sensible person. Use your words, and don’t be nervous. You can do this. You’ve got purpose. Find your medicine, and use it…”
Upon arriving to base camp, I was greeted by the most welcoming mix of new and veteran volunteers. After a group meeting and some warm ups, we split into smaller groups and began hiking out on the existing trail toward our designated work areas. After about a mile in, we came upon the already established tool area where we grabbed shovels, pick mattocks, rake hoes (also known as a McLeod), a looper, a tamper, and “duff” buckets. After a lesson on how to CUSS (Carry, Use, Storage, and Safety) the tools, we continued on, tools in hand, to our assigned work areas. The corridor of the envisioned trail had already been predetermined and was defined with ribbons on the adjacent trees and flags in the ground marking the center line of what would become the trail tread. As trail crew, our job was to build the tread of the trail. This complex process can be broken down into 4 main steps.
Mark the tread line connecting one flag to the next. It is very important not to veer from the marked path. When building trails, the goal is to compliment and mimic Mother Nature, and the flags were placed keeping in mind many critical factors like the anticipated flow of precipitation, natural erosion, and what type of user is expected to use the trail. There is a scientific art to trail placement.
Once the tread line has been marked, start on the uphill side working your way downhill and use the pick mattock or McLeod to remove all the organic matter or “duff” from the defined trail bed (about 18-24 inches on each side of the flag markers) until you find yourself reaching mineral soil which will provide a good, stable tread for future trail users. Throughout the process, a looper will cut any tree roots obstructions, and it is possible a few rocks will have to be dug out.
After reaching mineral soil, it is time to cut the back slope of the trail by feathering the uphill side of the tread to match the existing slope of the land. Although you want the trail to have a nice level and walk-able feel to it, there should be a constant slight slope in the land to allow precipitation and debris to naturally run off the trail. This helps slow the process of erosion, and, for us hikers, leaves us with a drier, often less muddy trail. If there are any low spots or soft spots in the tread, fill material is used from a “borrow pit”. A borrow pit is created by digging a hole out of sight from the trail in search of good, usable mineral soil. The fill material is then compacted down with a tamper or the flat side of a McLeod.
Lastly, grab a “duff” bucket and clean up. A “duff” bucket is simply a 5 gallon bucket used to scoop up all the organic matter left behind. The debris is then carried off trail and dispersed back onto the land hidden from sight. Once you’re all cleaned up, stand back to take in the remarkable view of your newly constructed trail!
After spending only two half-days on the trail crew learning about and participating in this process, I will never look at the trail the same again. In fact, I’ll be spending a lot more time actually looking at the trail. I will be taking a lot more time to admire and appreciate the workmanship as I now realize it genuinely takes nothing less than blood, sweat, and tears from a variety of compassionate people to give us hikers a place to call home. On a personal level, I stepped out of my comfort zone of solo hiking and escaping, and, in turn, I was blessed with an experience that has completely changed my mindset while on the trail and was given the opportunity to connect with individuals who share the same passion as me. To top it off, the cucumber and hummus sandwich served by the kitchen staff for lunch was absurdly delicious. As a workaholic stuck in a hiker’s body, I think I may have found my medicine, and I’m absolutely going to use it!
If you ever have the opportunity to participate in a trail-building event, DO IT! There are several organizations out there like the Ice Age Trail Alliance. There’s the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club, the Pacific Crest Trail Association, and the Volunteers of Colorado to name a few, but I would encourage you to start locally. Research the trail clubs and volunteer organizations in your area, get out there, and have an hands-on experience with your favorite trail!