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Trail Maintenance 101: Volunteers learn how to help with the North Country Trail

DEERTON — Trails typically don’t clean themselves.

And when they do get help from humans, sometimes those humans need help on the proper way to maintain them.

Members of the North Country Trail Hikers Chapter of the North Country Trail Association met at Mangum and Sand River roads on Saturday to learn the basics of trail maintenance.

Nancy Kreft, a member of the NCTH Trail Crew Committee, said the event was called “Trail Maintenance 101.”

“What we’re trying to do is help people feel more comfortable for being out on the trail, what needs to be done, when they are maintaining the trail,” Kreft said.

Brad Slagle, a trail crew leader, said this year the local NCT segment was split in east, central and west sections, with him in charge of the east section.

“I volunteered on the trail crew a few years ago because I wanted to do something when I retired,” Slagle said.

Kreft said the hope is to get more volunteers along the way too.

Providing Saturday’s lessons was Kenny Wawsczyk, regional trail coordinator of the NCTA.

He said local chapter members are in charge of maintaining just a section of the trail, but credited them for helping with a larger undertaking — the entire North Country Trail.

“You’re all part of something much, much bigger than that,” Wawsczyk said. “We’re over — we’ll just say 5,000 miles at this point, pretty much — from Vermont to North Dakota.”

Volunteers probably don’t want to perform trail work dressed as if they’re going to the beach, even a Lake Superior beach.

Standard trail maintenance, then, requires the proper attire.

“You want good boots, because all you kind of do is kick stuff,” Wawsczyk said.

Among other necessities he listed were pants, long-sleeved shirts, safety glasses, gloves and even a hard hat if major maintenance is needed.

On a more bureaucratic note, if trail workers are in a group, liability waiver forms are a good idea — as is what he called “tailgate safety.”

“If you talk about it right away, people kind of think about it — just covering the job, what you’re going to do that day, what the hazards might be,” said Wawsczyk, who stressed that if a worker is alone, the individual should alert someone beforehand about the trip’s details.

Of course, he addressed the basics of actual trail care, which included overall inspections of any structure.

“You’re going down the trail, you’re looking to clear the trail — prune it, looking at the tread if there are erosion problems,” Wawsczyk said. “There’s ways to get water off the trail.”

The goal, he said, is to maintain a trail three times a year: before Memorial Day, in the summer and before the snow falls.

The standard for a trail corridor, Wawsczyk said, is 8 feet tall and 4 feet wide, which because of the presence of trees, will vary along the trail.

“You don’t have 8-foot people walking around, but you do have big backpacks,” Wawsczyk acknowledged.

However, it’s not about precise geometry.

“You’re not going to have this perfect rectangle, and that’s not what we’re asking, but what we’re asking within that corridor, whether there’s a tree there or not, make sure it’s wide enough for people with big backpacks that come through,” Wawsczyk said.

That involves “looking up” to find branches and lopping them off to clear what needs to be cleared, he said.

Wawsczyk demonstrated the proper way to prune: getting to the base, making a clean cut and throwing the cut part off the trail.

“The goal is to make it look like nobody was there,” he said.

Wawsczyk discussed various tools used in trail maintenance, including loppers; a clinometer, which measures the angle or elevation of slopes; a hazel hoe, which pulls off dirt; a Pulaski axe for digging out roots; and a McCloud tool, which has a rake and a sharp end — “a great tool for building new trail.”

As with trails, tools themselves have to be maintained.

“Keep them clean. Keep them sharp,” Wawsczyk said. “Trail work’s hard enough as it is. If you have a semi-dull tool, you’re just going to be working even harder.”

The hard work, though, should have often-unseen benefits, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Know that every hiker that goes through is appreciative of having somewhere to go,” Wawsczyk said.

For more information about the NCTH chapter, visit it on Facebook or at http://northcountrytrail.org/nct.

Christie Mastric can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 250. Her email address is cbleck@miningjournal.net

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