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With help, storm debris cleared from ski trails

Working with saws and croppers, volunteers and inmates at the Challenge Incarceration Program near Willow River clear downed trees from a cross country ski trail in the Fond du Lac State Forest earlier this month. Contributed Photo

­­Deep in the triangle between the cities of Cloquet, Floodwood and Cromwell lies the Fond du Lac State Forest with its miles of cross country ski and snowmobile trails. Developed by Cromwell area enthusiasts decades ago, the ski trails rise and fall over ridges of fir and poplar and scoot through marshes and across ravines to arrive at the pristine Rogers Lake. Last July's storm laid down tall lean trees like sticks over the trails, piling them into walls of greenery in some stretches.

At the end of February, for the third time in a year, I had the pleasure of trail-clearing with Sergeant Steve Whited and his team of nine men in our regional Challenge Incarceration Program (CIP), a partner to Carlton County's Restorative Justice initiative. Run and funded by the Minnesota Department of Corrections, CIP offers adult first-time offenders the opportunity to voluntarily participate in community service and earn early release. State Senator Mike Sundin recommended that I contact the CIP after hearing about our hopes to keep the trail open.

Based in the Willow River area, Whited and the men arrive in a large van that pulls a trailer full of tools: two-man saws, clippers, nippers, an impressive ax and two wheelbarrows with fat tires to tote the gear. Plus a big water jug and lunch. The men pile out and don colorful protective clothing, hats and gloves. I introduced myself as Ann to each man and learned their first names.

Each day has been unique and, of course, the cast of characters changes! Last year, we cleared in March and November, both with little snow cover. But last week, the snow was rather deep. I brought a durable plastic sled and piled my stuff and CIP's cooler with lunch on it. It took about 20 minutes to reach the site I had in mind: a seven-foot high wall of downed balsams, so thick you couldn't see the trail beyond.

Everyone pitched in, grabbed tools, approached "the wall" and talked over with Whited the best approach. Knowing we'd generate a ton of material, we created a side alley where we could dispose of whole branches and logs. With my shears, I began snapping off inch-thick branches and jettisoning them into the forest. I always enjoy feeling so many of my muscles brought into play.

The men took turns with the two-man saw — quite a workout when a downed tree is two feet thick. I saw quite a bit of powerful ax work, too, urging the mostly sawn prone trunk to give up. It's amazing how just two inches of fiber can conserve a tree's integrity.

The Rogers Lake Ski Trail was charted and built in the 1970s by Cromwell area volunteers Lonnie Gervais and Bruce Schoenberg, among others. In several short and longer loops, it crosses the snowmobile trail several times. They built small warming huts with wood stoves, still useable. One is poised on the east side of Rogers Lake, where Kenneth and Blanche Kingsley homesteaded long ago. The trail passes through pine and balsam forests, poplar plantations, mixed hardwoods, and cedar swamps. It crosses a wide ravine just past the nearer hut and offers a steep uphill climb.

A few years ago, we were worried that this would be the end of our ski trail. We had heard that the DNR would no longer pay for "smaller places" to be maintained and groomed. We collected four pages of signatures from the Cromwell, Eagle Lake and Wright areas — as well as Esko, Brainerd, Moose Lake, Grand Marais and Floodwood — petitioning the DNR to keep the trail open.

Our area voted in favor of the Legacy Amendment, the largest share of which goes to the DNR (and of that, the largest to Pheasants Forever). We haven't seen enough of what we pay in increased sales taxes flow back to us in many of the areas (arts and culture, environment, parks and recreation). So, with the district DNR's blessing, we clear it ourselves.

Come enjoy our ski trail.

Carlton County plows out to the parking lot, about five miles north of Cromwell on County 120 and the Ditchbank Road, past the fire tower, and marked with directional signs. It's more of a wilderness trail now: we haven't groomed it for three years, but we make our own tracks, keep the maps and signs up, and clear the trails ourselves several times a year. Maps of the trails are available at the trailhead parking lot. For just $20 a year (or $55 for three years), you can buy an annual state ski pass for anywhere on state lands, including state parks ( or your local license dealer). Kids 15 or under can ski for free.

On that February day, we knocked off about 2:30 p.m. and hiked back to the parking lot. We felt invigorated. When I'd slow down going up a hill, Steve or one of the others would give the sled I towed a bit of a push. The men always say they love being out of doors — some grew up on farms, are really handy with logging gear, and helped others learn how.

A huge thanks to the CIP and its leader and men for the muscle and smarts they put into the trail-clearing work. It's another great example of what our public sector, and our taxes, can do for our region.