MUKOODA LAKE TRAIL — The view of Voyageurs National Park bursting in fall colors from a new scenic overlook wowed a couple last week.

And they would not have experienced it without the work of youth crews who created the trail that lead to it.

Accessible only by boat, the Mukooda Lake area, with its historic Tom Filben cabin site and and adjoining campsites, is already a popular draw for local people and visitors.

Just officially “completed” that day, the couple were among the first to walk the new 2.7 mile trail that’s expected to add significantly to the visitor use of the area.

“We’ve been coming here for 20 years, and this is just great,” the woman said last Wednesday about the trail as she passed the six members of the Student Conservation Corps who worked on it.

“This is the best part of the job,” one of them said of the couple’s reaction. The crew had just spent the last six weeks slashing through northern Minnesota’s thick brush to complete the trail, and living at the site to do it. They would experience an informal park appreciation day by seeing the visitor sites on the day, and take off for new experiences that Friday.

The day served as a “look-see” of the completed trail for Seth C. Nelson, VNP supervisory facility operations specialist, Namakan District, who leads the youth work corps the park contracts with for such projects; Brian Harmon, VNP’s head of Resource Management, and Catherine Crawford, VNP collections manager.

The crew

The Mukooda Trail was completed one week ago by an SCA leaders crew, made up of Paul Turowicz, 23, Clio, Mich.; Kelly Graner, 25, Pittsburgh, Penn.; Simon Fierst, 26, Bethesda, Maryland; Jared Burris, 28, Indianapolis, Ind.; Dan Faris, 31, Berlin, New Jersey; and Lauren Kennedy-Little, 31, Pittsburgh.

A different crew started the trail six weeks before the leaders crew began.

The crew members are, each described in their own way, experiencing a lifestyle more than a career or job doing the outdoors work they do.

All are experienced trail builders, and each have led less experienced crews. All are accustomed to living and working in often remote and isolated areas of the United States as members of the Student Conservation Association. SCA is a national conservation program that links national and other parks and cultural landmarks to young people who want to work to protect and preserve the nation’s wild places.

Not all the days of this crew’s six-week stint were as gentle in temperature and work effort. But despite any of the challenges brought by nature, they say they each regularly wonder how they can be so lucky to get paid for doing what they do.

And doing what they do seems even more relevant and valuable during the pandemic because it creates more opportunity for people to experience the outdoors, its peace, wonder and beauty.

“It takes a special kind of passion to do this kind of stuff, you just really have to be in love with the environment and nature, and have this urge to work in conservation,” said Turowicz, who plans to do the work for a long time.

Graner said her motivation is a mix: “Selfishly, I want to come out here and be away from the world and what’s going on and be one with nature, but also recognizing there’s a need for certain things to be done and wanting to use my abilities to help with those needs.”

At some stints, crew members know one another, while other times they do not and get to know one another quickly and become their own community. Because of the pandemic, the crew had to agree to protocols while living in their “bubble,” they said.

Graner tried to describe a theory of group dynamic, getting some help from the other members as she tried to recall, and all laughing together when finally putting them together: forming, storming, norming, performing, and adjourning.

“We’ve come to find we’re a pretty amicable bunch, but we storm over food topics,” Kennedy-Little said grinning, drawing laughs and agreement from the others about the “deep philosophical differences over food.”

SCA budgets for meal supplies and the crew takes a week to 10 days out with them.

“We do a week of healthier meals, and then we do a week of, like, boxed instant stuff,” Kennedy-Little said, adding they have a chore list that is rotated.

For most, this was their first time in Minnesota, and Kennedy-Little said the hail was an interesting “welcome to Minnesota” moment.

Burris said it was like a “moment of I might need a new tent,” with Turowicz adding it was a “moment of my boots getting soaked.”

They said they were relieved Minnesota’s reputation of being cold all the time, didn’t play out, with Faris adding that it was colder in his home state of New Jersey than in Minnesota.

Local connection

Nelson has a deep respect for the youth crews that work at VNP, because of the work they get done and because a similar program helped him to find a career he was passionate about. He is an alumni of the Minnesota Conservation Corps, serving two years as member and two years as supervisor as a young adult.

As he approached the gathered crew Wednesday morning, he was greeted with a clearly important question from Graner: “Did you bring donuts?”

Nelson reluctantly admitted he had not this time, and added to the mocked disappointment of the crew when he said he’d left watermelon intended for them in his refrigerator. He promised to make up for it the next day.

Nelson said the youth crews play an integral role in the park’s visitor experience: The work they do wouldn’t likely get done otherwise.

“They provide six to 10 members and the work they can get done, for the amount money it would cost (the park service) to have a crew out there like that, it’s not comparable,” he said. “Without these youth crews we wouldn’t keep up our trails or a lot of our sites like they are.”

SCA is the program most often used for trail work by the park, which also works with Conservation Corps of Minnesota and Iowa and American Conservation Experience.

The need for trail work in Voyageurs National Park is serious. The 2.7 mile Mukooda Trail, added to the other trails in the park, brings the total hiking trail miles in the park to 60.7 miles, including the 26-mile Kab-Ash Trail. The park also maintains 110 miles of snowmobile trails.

As the hike up the new trail begins, each of the crew notices a thing or two along the way they would like to improve, and they joke that even though the gig is officially over, they still had a few final touches they’d hoped to accomplish.

“It never ends,” Burris said smiling, toeing a small stump of a sapling.

The physical work on this trail started when Nelson blazed, using GPS and topography maps, the trail along a route that would offer scenic views of Mukooda and Sand Point lakes, but also avoid archaeologically significant areas and difficult walking areas.

The SCA crews, following the mapped and blazed trail, cleared brush, cut and smoothed roots, re positioned rocks into steps, and built rock cairns at strategic points to lead a hiker along the trail. They may also replace tread or boardwalk at some sites.

“They camp out, they work, and they’re excellent crews,” Nelson said. “We want to get the youth involved, and a lot of them are just getting into it to see if they like natural resource work. Whether trail work or at a historic structure, we want to get them engaged and to experience this.”

Harmon agreed with Nelson’s assessment of the work, crediting not only their effort, but their dedication to the larger conservation picture through their work with SCA.

In addition, he credited the funding sources that help pay for SCA crew’s work: Voyageurs National Park Association, the the park’s official charitable partner; the National Park Foundation, the official nonprofit partner of the National Park Service; and REI, an outdoor equipment retailer that invests some of its profits into nonprofits dedicated to the outdoors.

Harmon also offered thanks to the crew for their work.

“It’s nice to see it come together, the whole completion of it,” replied Fierst.

Plans

Meanwhile, the idea for the Mukooda Lake Trail has been on the books, in the form of a general management plan, for years, Nelson said, adding there are few trails in the Sand Point and Crane lakes area.

A trail established 20 or more years ago by the Crane Lake community was reclaimed by Mother Nature when trail maintenance fell by the wayside, and then renewed interest in trail came resulting in recent talks with park officials in recent years.

In addition to the creation of the trail, the Mukooda Lake Campground is being redesigned to provide more privacy to each site. A raised trail has been started and will be completed by park staff that will lead hikers and campers around the campsites, and will provide small feeder trails to each site. Now, the campsites are accessed through one another, Nelson said.

The dock at the Mukooda Lake will also be expanded to allow for more access.