The Best Kind of Medicine

October 19, 2020 (Originally published in the 2020 Fall Ridgeline newsletter)

By Lisa Luokkala, SHTA Executive Director, and Becky Loraas Zrimsek, SHTA Board Chair

“Unprecedented times,” a phrase uttered all too commonly these days. This statement holds more weight than you know to a new executive director and a newly appointed Board chair. The last six months has been a whirlwind for the SHTA as we’ve adjusted to a new norm and kept up with the popular demand of the Trail. You can’t strategically plan or annually budget a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic. It just sort of lands in your lap like a rogue ember from your evening campfire. What do you do? 

One of the unintended consequences of the pandemic is a return to the simple pleasures and complex offerings of time spent outdoors. That’s good news for a trail association.

A Much-Needed Dose of Trail Therapy

“What would we do if we couldn’t be outside?” This is a rhetorical question we’ve heard repeatedly during the time of COVID-19. The importance of the Superior Hiking Trail has grown during these unprecedented times. COVID could have been the Grinch that stole summer – all things that bring Midwesterners joy – fireworks, town festivals, overnight camp, 5ks and trail races – all cancelled.  Summer could have just stood still for many of us.

But much like the people of Whoville, ingenious, opportunistic trail users looked out the window and decided to use this time to better know places closer to home. Seasoned hikers and newcomers alike found themselves exploring the Superior Hiking Trail together. We heard tales of lots of cars at trailheads, tents at campsites, people at overlooks, and you-know-what at latrines, and we’ve understood the urge to escape to the northwoods. 

Whether you seek immersive “forest bathing” or the simple pleasures of a walk in the woods, the Trail affords a space to heal and reflect.

Through it all, the Trail has been a safe place for people to unplug from the compounding stressors of society. Watching our footing on a rooty section of trail or catching our breath on top of a panoramic peak has helped rejuvenate us. While there are moments that jar us back to reality, the Trail has afforded us a chance to connect to something greater than ourselves.

After a long day, weekend or week on the Trail, with tired muscles and a peaceful mind, we return to our daily lives reinvigorated and ready to take on the next set of challenges ahead.

Leading Through It All

New pandemic safety protocols, like wearing masks and sanitizing tools, were developed to help prevent the spread of the virus during our volunteer activities. Photo: Willie Bittner

The SHTA never anticipated the critical role our organization would play for the recreation community during a pandemic. SHTA quickly adjusted volunteer training, events, and maintenance projects to assure public safety and a basic level of maintenance. The Board nimbly assessed the financial wellness of the organization to weather the unknown future. (At the time of writing, we’re still waiting on the legislature to appropriate funds for a $450,000 grant from the state’s Environment and Natural Resources Trust Fund that was set to arrive this past July.)

We closed our Trail Information Center and beefed up our offerings in our online store. Staff and volunteers worked together to determine which projects could safely move forward and what needed to be postponed or contracted out. Uniquely, SHTA has done this all while also experiencing a huge influx of users and wear and tear of the Trail. 

We also began to reckon with the racism that still exists in our country and in our state. The killing of George Floyd and the protests that followed made clear that we must play an active role in making positive change. We’ve recognized that racial inequity and injustice have served as barriers, preventing communities of color from enjoying the Trail and the outdoors generally.

But we also know the core of the SHT experience is connection — with people, history, nature, and one’s self. The Trail has provided a spiritual recharge that keeps people coming back year after year; it has enriched the lives of tens of thousands of visitors over several decades. We have committed ourselves to take meaningful action — to listen, learn, and strive for inclusion — to ensure everybody feels welcome to enjoy the SHT and find the connection that is so healing.

Like the signs, blazes, and maps we’ve provided to navigate the SHT, we’re committed to leading the way for a more inclusive and welcoming experience on the Trail.

Embracing Change Is What We Must Do

As the SHTA moves through uncharted territory of sustaining a healthy nonprofit and well-maintained Trail through a pandemic, we will rely on the leadership of our Board, staff and seasoned volunteers to work together to identify creative solutions.  But more than ever we will rely on you, dear SHT user, to simply be kind – the best kind of medicine to help us all recover from the challenges of this year.

This moment calls for empathy — for others on the Trail, for our agency partners, and for our devoted staff and volunteers. Our office doors are closed to the public, but know that our staff are working harder than ever to connect with you and other trail users through other platforms. Our volunteers may not be able to gather in large groups, but they continue to care for the Trail independently or in small teams to lop and whip and beat back the boreal brush. We will continue to do our best with all of the tools and energy we have to give the Trail the love it needs and deserves.

People refer to “the before times.” This sentiment rings true, as we’ve all been catapulted into a new reality. We can try to get back to where we were, or look ahead to where we want to go from here. The SHTA has already learned and grown significantly during the last six months. There are things we miss, like our volunteer events, that we can’t wait to bring back when it’s safe to do so. But this year has offered us a moment to reflect and be more mindful of every step we take on the path ahead. We’re grateful to have you with us on this long journey. 

This article was originally published in the 2020 Fall Ridgeline newsletter. Join SHTA to support the Trail and receive your copy of the Ridgeline when it is published.