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Nathan Bowe, Forum Communications Co., Published June 28 2010

Volunteers build North Country Trail

For a dozen fearless volunteers working on the Becker County portion of the North Country Trail, selflessness has taken on a whole new level of meaning.

The volunteers – who work through the AmeriCorps National Civilian Community Corps – work on the walking trail for nine hours a day, travel in a single 15-passenger van, and sleep wherever they can find shelter. They’re currently staying in an area farmhouse.

The compensation for the program is slim, with volunteers earning the equivalent of about $10.50 a day, before taxes. Volunteers’ living and food expenses are also covered.

In addition, there is an educational stipend of around $5,500, which can go toward college.

Even so, it’s clearly not about the pay.

What drives these young men and women to voluntarily brave treacherous conditions for such relatively low pay? What motive could there be to spend long weeks digging a trail in a bug-infested forest?

For many, NCCC means an opportunity to spend time in beautiful northern Minnesota.

“I wouldn’t want to be anywhere but here,” said Mary Demasters, a volunteer whose job it is to hang behind and dig out any roots the others may have missed. “This is amazing.”

For others, signing on to NCCC meant a once-in-a-lifetime chance to throw caution to the wind and seek adventure in a foreign place – namely, Minnesota.

“We have people from Idaho, Maine, Michigan, California, New York, all over,” said Allison Hoensheid – an AmeriCorps NCCC member, adding that most of the crew has never been to the state before.

Hoensheid pointed out that most of the volunteers had no idea where in America they would be working until about two weeks before they left.

“That’s kind of the whole idea of the program – being flexible and going where the wind takes you.

“We travel around the north-central region of the United States,” Hoensheid said, completing a total of six projects in the span of 10 months.

The North Country Trail will eventually extend from New York to the center of North Dakota.

In Becker County, about 10 miles of trail are already built, and the NCCC hopes to add 10 more in the six weeks they’ll be working on the project — from June 7 to July 16.

The concept of 12 young volunteers working long hours on a transcontinental walking trail so people can experience nature without watching their feet has a certain sense of heroism, a poetic beauty about it.

Willis Mattison, who is a member of the Laurentian Lakes Chapter of the North Country Trail Association, described the trail as a “long, narrow ribbon of national park, running through our own backyard.”

Mattison added, “Becker County is lucky to have the honor of hosting the North Country Trail.”

Although the construction of the trail inevitably means that some damage to the forest will occur, the goal is to minimize that, to make the trail as accommodating to nature as possible without being uncomfortable to walk on.

“We try to leave as many trees as possible,” said Demasters, adding how concerned the team was to find that their root removal had caused one or two trees to tilt dangerously in the wind. Building the trail is a challenge, Hoensheid said, with “endless amounts of tree roots, rocks, and all that fun stuff” getting in the way.

And the untamed north woods presents its fair share of obstacles, such as rivers and nasty terrain that the trail must pass over.

“When we’re not building actual trails, we’re working on boardwalks,” Hoensheid said with a laugh.

But, everything considered, the NCCC volunteers feel like their efforts will be long worth the hard work, discomfort and modest recompense.

“One person can change the world if they start out in their little section and work from there,” Demasters said with a smile.

A public hike will be held at 10 a.m. July 10.

The public can hike a portion of the trail completed by the AmeriCorps group.

People interested in hiking can meet at the corner of Highway 37 and Elbow Lake Road in Becker County. A potluck lunch will be held after the hike.

For more information about applying to AmeriCorps NCCC or for general information on the program, call (800) 942-2677 or visit www.americorps.gov/nccc.

Applicants must be between 18 and 24 years of age and complete 1,700 hours of community service during the 10-month program.


Nathan Bowe is a reporter at the Detroit Lakes (Minn.) Tribune