Each year, volunteers from across the state and beyond flock to MSC trail building events at different points along the Ice Age Trail.
Building a path along Wisconsin’s "Gift of the Glaciers"
Ice Age Trail Alliance Mobile Skills Crew volunteers are as unique as the trail.
Seventy people stand in a large circle on a cool morning, bending, stretching and warming up, each person’s breath visible as small puffs of frosted air. Volunteer Heidi Johnsen of Wausau laughs at a joke someone tells to those nearby. Jackie Treanor calls out her favorite stretch and demonstrates it for everyone to follow. Jerry Sazama of Chippewa Falls scribbles furiously to make last–minute changes as he organizes fellow volunteers into work crews for the day. Someone in the circle demonstrates a pretzel–like yoga position, and West Bend native Rich Propp — whose limbs don’t move like they did in his youth — lets out a laugh.
The now–limber volunteers are preparing for a day at a Mobile Skills Crew (MSC) project, an event hosted by the Ice Age Trail Alliance. The four–day project brought volunteers to Gibraltar Rock in southern Columbia County to build a new section of the Ice Age Trail at the iconic landmark.
The Ice Age Trail, one of 11 National Scenic Trails, passes through varied landscapes of Wisconsin — the shores of Lake Michigan, the streets of Janesville, and the deep Northwoods, among others. Those who volunteer to build the trail are as unique as the landscapes. Some are veterans, and others are here for the first time. MSC events bring them together to spend some days outside and advance the trail. Today’s gathering is no exception.
Each MSC project has a Crew Leader Manager charged with making sure volunteers are registered and have a crew to work with. Rachel Roberts, manager for this event, looks up from a name–covered sheet on her clipboard to a view of Lake Wisconsin.
“It’s kind of cool to know you are a part of something so beautiful,” she says.
The Middleton resident attended a trail building event in 2008 and has been coming back ever since.
“Having your camping spot and meals pre–arranged really takes the hard part out of camping,” she says of the free meals and camping the Alliance provides to volunteers who attend the events.
Roberts, who goes by “Fluff Tater” on the trail, also relishes the hidden–away places she finds at MSC events.
“I’m a sucker for any odd fungus or plant that you won’t see walking down the sidewalk every day. Volunteering for the MSC projects has taken me to areas of the state I probably would not even know about, let alone ever see.”
Roberts took time off of work to volunteer at this weekend’s project — a common theme for her and others.
“It’s some of the hardest, most fun, and rewarding work I’ve ever done,” she says. “We all seem to have a common bond when it comes to building trail and protecting our natural areas. That was the first thing I learned at my first project.”
Bob Funk wears many hats on the Ice Age Trail. The Wheaton, Ill. Resident shifts from crew leader to crew member to board member and even burger flipper.
“I truly enjoy the variety of doing whatever is needed at the time,” he says.
Today Funk has his crew leader hat on. Because his crew of volunteer trail builders consists of veterans and newbies, Funk takes time to CUSS each of the tools. In Ice Age Trail parlance, CUSS stands for Carry, Use, Storage and Safety. After the safety demonstration, Funk sets about giving crew members tasks and then jumps in himself. This sense of togetherness, he says, is what keeps him coming back.
“I keep returning because of all the great people,” says Funk. “MSC parti– cipants are a very friendly and open group. We work as a team, building skills in trail construction along with building relationships.”
Wendell Holl of Lodi watches as a crew of four moves a large rock, everyone holding a handle of the Feldman — a specialized sling designed by Ice Age Trail volunteers — taking the rock from where it settled into the landscape to a spot in a retaining wall.
Holl is a rock guy. He says that working on the Ice Age Trail gives him “the chance to work with others, both physically — some of the boulders we use are really big! — and creatively in order to help make for enjoyable hiking through even the most difficult terrain.”
He began taking dry stonework seminars in 2011 and has traveled from Kentucky to Newfoundland working on historic sites. Stonework is a chess game and does not happen quickly. “You work on your section and for the longest time it doesn’t look like much is happening, and all of a sudden this trail appears.”
As they place the rock, the crew shifts it an inch to the front and then another to the side until the rock tightens up. Holl says he enjoys working with rock, but the people are what make the experience.
“I have met some wonderful, dedicated volunteers who keep coming back event after event,” Holl says. “I am making friends with a lot of great people who share the enthusiasm for this remarkable undertaking.”
The trail guru
Tim Malzhan is walking ahead of the crews. He follows pin flags that delineate the future trail’s route, making notes and planning for the following day.
Quality hiking trails don’t just appear — they take months, and often years of planning before a tool touches the ground. As Director of Trail Operations for the Ice Age Trail Alliance, Malzhan knows this process intimately.
In 1991, Malzhan was the third person to thru–hike the Ice Age Trail. That means he hiked the trail from beginning to end in one season. And since 2000, he has overseen the transformation of the trail, bringing industry standards and sustainability to the trail’s construction.
“What makes this trail sustainable is its shape, because the trail will shed water and resist the natural, ongoing forces of erosion; its quality of construction, which utilizes native materials; and its support from the community, because people care for what they believe brings them value,” Malzhan says.
Malzhan is glad the time has finally come to add Gibraltar Rock to the story of the Ice Age Trail and he’s happy that volunteers are playing a role in telling it.
“The Ice Age Trail happens to be a truly great story,” Malzhan says. “It’s a story of culture and change, of time and pressure, of perseverance and of people — the kind of people who teach without words and become like family.”
Earlier in the day, before morning stretches and even before the sun rose, coffee percolated as folks filtered into the dining tent. The crew of kitchen volunteers was hard at work in the darkness of dawn, flipping pancakes and scrambling eggs. Among the egg scramblers was Tom Teeples of Black River Falls.
Teeples began attending MSC events in 2012, a year after he thru–hiked the Ice Age Trail. Teeples reported that some sections were not as well–maintained as he expected, and that motivated him to volunteer.
“I didn’t think I had the right to complain, as I had not in any capacity helped to build the trail or maintain it,” Teeples says. “I told myself that I would volunteer at one of the projects.”
After gaining an understanding of trail building, Teeples completed the Alliance’s Crew Leadership and Skills Training where he learned how to manage a crew of volunteers and instruct them in safely crafting sustainable trails. At events, Teeples pitches in wherever needed, from helping in the kitchen to leading a crew.
It’s the volunteers who keep him coming back.
“Yes, there is great food, free camping, beautiful locations and all of that. But to me it is the people, all coming together with much the same motives,” he says.
Later in the day, Teeples directs a crew of 20 elementary school kids clearing brush and constructing trail. Leading kids can be quite different than leading adults, he says, but he’ll lead any crew, “so long as the adults still maintain the heart of a kid.”
Chris McNeill, who teaches at the Ouisconsing School of Collaboration (OSC), observes 165 kids as they take part in the project’s land stewardship effort to remove invasive and aggressive plants. Laughter and cheers keep the air abuzz as the students, who represent grade levels 3 through 5 from OSC and Lodi Elementary, and high school students from the Gibraltar School, clear honeysuckle and prickly ash by the armload.
In 18 years of teaching, McNeill says he has seen the amazing tasks kids can accomplish. This shows during their time on the trail, he says, and it’s another reason why he’s here with the kids today.
“The students love learning how to use the different tools and feel very proud that they are helping build the trail.”
As a co–founder of Saunters, an Alliance program that brings students onto the Ice Age Trail during their summer break, McNeill recognizes the multitude of learning opportunities the trail offers. Building community is another one that tops the list.
“I also want my students to realize that they can learn from people other than their teachers and parents,” McNeill says.
Gibraltar Rock rises behind volunteer Sharon Dziengel of Racine as she carefully scrapes away duff, the top layer of leaves and loose dirt on the ground. Dziengel is at home here — she first found inspiration at Gibraltar Rock during her thru–hike of the Ice Age Trail a decade ago.
“I took a break on one of the overlook ledges,” she says. “It was a perfect, warm spring day. Sitting there looking out over the landscape below, I had one of those hiking moments where you feel a special connection with the place you are at that stirs the soul. Every time you are there, those feelings are awakened.”
Dziengel has visited some of the most beautiful places in the United States, having hiked five of the 11 National Scenic Trails. She’s also played a big role in the MSC program since its inception.
“I keep coming back to MSC events to build new trail in these amazing hidden landscapes that were unknown or inaccessible until now,” she says.
Dziengel says Gibraltar Rock will be a highlight of the Ice Age Trail, an “exclamation point” on its National Scenic Trail status. “Gibraltar gives that huge view, unseen at other places along the trail.”
The MSC volunteers will finish the trail by the end of the weekend, leaving it ready for the steps of hikers.
The path of the Ice Age Trail has stories built into it; they’re the stories of the volunteers who created it. Funk, Holl, Teeples, McNeill, Roberts, Malzhan and Dziengel are just a few of the faces that make a Mobile Skills Crew project a fun and enthusiastic place to be. The Ice Age Trail Alliance’s 2014 trail building season will be starting soon — add your story to the trail.
Dave Caliebe is Trail Program Specialist with the Ice Age Trail Alliance. Before joining the Alliance staff, Caliebe had volunteered at many MSC projects and thru–hiked the Ice Age Trail in 2010.