Volunteers help make trail projects a reality
Ice Age Trail improved in Waupaca, Portage counties
By Greg Seubert
A major trail-building project in Waupaca and Portage counties wouldn’t be possible without help from volunteers.
More than 100 of them showed up June 22-26 at the Iola Winter Sports Club grounds northwest of Iola to help build a new section of the Ice Age National Scenic Trail, which passes through IWSC property in Waupaca County.
Another project included reopening a section of trail in the nearby New Hope segment in Portage County.
“We had 118 people sign up, but they’re not coming every day,” said Patrick Gleissner, trail operations coordinator for Ice Age Trail Alliance. “Our biggest day was yesterday (June 23), with 84. Today, we have 72.”
The project is one of several trail-building and habitat management stops this year for the Alliance’s Mobile Skills Crew, which includes volunteers from throughout Wisconsin.
Derek Murphy of Appleton joined other volunteers to work on the new 1 1/2-mile-long stretch of trail on IWSC property.
“I love the Ice Age Trail and hiking it with my wife and family,” he said. “We started with the eastern terminus up by Sturgeon Bay and hiked it down to Manitowoc.”
Murphy, a first-time Ice Age Trail volunteer, showed up June 23-24 and said he plans to do more volunteer work for the Alliance.
“I feel like I’m contributing,” he said shortly after starting his second day of work. “Yesterday, we used large equipment to rough out the trail and I was using hand tools. I’ve done similar stuff with mountain bike trails. I like doing the work, being outside and learning the skills that I can apply to different trail systems for mountain biking.”
While Murphy was learning the ropes as a new volunteer, Pat Witkowski of Oconomowoc has worked on several projects over the years.
“It’s just the right thing to do,” she said. “We do it because we can. Why wouldn’t you want to make something like this? It’s an amazing trail and I’m working with an amazing group of people. Who wouldn’t want to spend some time doing that?”
Witkowski has walked the entire Ice Age Trail, which winds for 1,000 miles through Wisconsin.
“I was introduced to the trail at Lapham Peak after we had moved to that area,” she said. “I used to run trails with a group of ladies and we’d run the Black Loop every week. I had never heard of the Ice Age Trail before. One day, I said to my friend, ‘What is this Ice Age Trail?’ She said, ‘Pat, don’t take it. It’s not a loop. You’ll get lost and you’ll never come back.’ Two years later, I walked the whole trail and I’ve been working on maintenance ever since.
“Like a lot of people, we came to the trail for solitude and being in the woods,” she said. “I think what’s kept us on the trail is the people. Volunteers are the backbone of the trail and the Ice Age Trail Alliance treats people well and treats the land well. If these trails are built right, they’re more sustainable and they’ll last so much longer.”
The Alliance recently recognized Witkowski for her volunteer service.
“I recently got an award for 10,000 hours, so I’m out quite a bit,” she said. “I’m responsible for the maintenance of the trail in Waukesha County, so I spend a lot of time there with their 44 miles of trail. I do these statewide projects as often as I can. I do not get to every project and that’s the beauty of volunteering: nobody’s forcing me to be here.”
Gleissner said volunteers help make the Alliance’s trail projects possible.
“All of our volunteers are covered through the Volunteers-In-Parks program through the National Park Service,” he said. “They keep track of volunteer hours and among national parks, we typically come in in the top five or six for number of volunteer hours given in a year. That’s against all other national parks like Yellowstone and Yosemite. That is thousands of hours of volunteer work and millions of dollars that we would pay them. If we didn’t have these volunteers, this trail wouldn’t exist.
“We have a lot of first-time volunteers and a lot of younger volunteers,” he said. “Most of our volunteer corps is older, retired and they’ve been doing this for many years. To see that influx of that next generation coming in – myself included – just shows that the word’s getting out about the trail and the volunteer opportunities.”
Witkowski didn’t hesitate when asked about the most rewarding part of volunteering her time for the Alliance.
“Seeing (a project) when it’s finished,” she said. “I can look back and say, ‘I built this and it’s going to be here for a long time.’ I think about the people that are going to enjoy it.
“People always ask me what my favorite place is on the whole trail,” he added. “It’s not a place as much as a moment. This might be somebody’s favorite place on the whole trail. We might be making somebody’s favorite place ever right here.”