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What the “Trail Eyes” Pros Taught Us About the SHT

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What the “Trail Eyes” Pros Taught Us About the SHT

June 18, 2019 (Originally published in the 2019 Summer Ridgeline Newsletter)

Tim Malzhan is the trail operations director for our sister trail organization the Ice Age Trail Alliance in Wisconsin. Doing business as “Trail Eyes,” Tim was one of four entities the SHTA hired in the fall of 2018 to evaluate and recommend renewal strategies for what we have dubbed the “Big Bad Five,” those sections of the SHT most damaged from heavy use and old age (or both).

Though all four evaluators – Malzhan, Critical Connections Ecological Services (Jason and Amy Husveth), the North Country Trail Association, and Great Lakes Trail Builders (Willie Bittner) – did what we asked (provide specific prescriptions for the Big Bad Five), their expert observations gave us much more: they shed light on the entire Superior Hiking Trail. In other words, what they saw on the Split Rock River loop, or the sections from Britton Peak to Oberg Mountain and Oberg to the Lutsen ski complex, or the proposed reroute of the SHT north of Gooseberry Falls State Park, were microcosms of bigger, more systemic issues with the SHT.

North Country Trail Association’s Matt Davis and Bill Menke evaluated four of the Big Bad Five sites and provided thorough recommendations for trail renewal. Photo by Val Bader.
  • “Keep people on the Trail and water off of it.” This succinct wisdom comes from Matt Davis of the North Country Trail Association, whose evaluation crew noted a serious lack of simple but effective devices to shunt water off the Trail, and failed or poorly designed structures (i.e. boardwalks) to keep people on the Trail.
  • “The Trail here [Split Rock River loop] appeared to be ‘walked-in,’ rather than intentionally built.” This observation from Tim Malzhan extends to the entire SHT. He noted that while a natural surface path was scratched out on the landscape, it was not built to modern hiking trail standards to withstand the heavy use it is getting.
  • “The Trail in some areas is simply in the wrong place.” Jason Husveth pointed to several places where the SHT is routed through a wetland or the bottom of a slope – both wet places that will eventually end up muddy.
  • “The use of local stone makes so much sense,” found Willie Bittner, an expert in using stone in trail settings. We like this suggestion, as there is no issue finding stone around the SHT with which to build stairways.

Having these critically important evaluations (supported by a grant from Minnesota’s Environmental and Natural Resources Trust Fund) in hand will guide and advise the SHTA staff and board in the coming years about what needs to be done to renew the SHT. Following are the priorities we’ve set for each of the Big Bad Five, rooted in evaluators’ suggestions:

Split Rock River Loop
No bridge is not the only problem at the Split Rock River loop trail. The Trail itself is in bad condition; evaluators recommend relocating it in several places.

This is the most complicated one. Evaluators suggested, and even mapped, significant reroutes to avoid worsening the insidious erosion that is endemic to that loop. Then there is the bridge over the Split Rock River: we cannot repeat the same mistakes there that led to the demise of four bridges SHTA built (lasting an average of 6.4 years). We estimate that loop trail renewal and building a durable bridge could cost upwards of $250,000. Given that the loop trail is largely within the boundaries of the state park and that it is heavily used by wayside visitors, we have reached out to the Minnesota DNR parks and trails unit to more formally collaborate on this project.


Gooseberry Reroute
Critical Connections Ecological Services provided many recommendations, including a few new options for a reroute north of Gooseberry Falls State Park.

The SHT has been disconnected north of Gooseberry Falls State Park since 2015, when a private landowner forbade continued access through his property. A new route was nearly built, but it was apparent that without over a mile of boardwalk, there would be another long, linear mudhole. Two evaluation teams suggested routing the Trail along Skunk Creek, well west of the old route and the proposed 2017 reroute. Going farther west, SHTA staff has identified more public land that, at first glance, appears to be ideal terrain for a hiking trail. While permits and permissions must come before the first swing of the hoe, we have permission from the Voyageur Snowmobile Club to use their solid bridges over Skunk Creek and the Gooseberry River.

Britton Peak to Oberg Mountain
Trail Renewal work is already underway, with this recently constructed, heavy-duty puncheon near Leveaux Mountain.

The evaluators noted the obvious – the trails leading to these peaks that bookend this section are tattered and need rebuilding. In addition, this venerable section (and Oberg-Lutsen) are “proto-SHT” in that they were existing national forest trails the SHT was routed onto in the late 1980s. Rerouting the Trail onto higher ground in places is the suggested solution for pieces of this section.

Oberg Mountain to Lutsen Mountains
Evaluators had lots of ideas for building trail on hillsides, including getting rid of this particular construction style. As most trail users know, these steps don’t last.

This section, like its kin to the west, is plagued by heavy use and old age. There are several reroutes suggested by the evaluators, but complicating decisions here is the Lutsen Mountains’ ski slope expansion. First priority will be to reroute the messy segment between the Lutsen trailhead and Mystery Mountain campsite. As long-time trail user and adviser John Storkamp (who assisted Jason Husveth’s evaluations) put it, “This does more PR damage to the Association than most any other part of the Trail. It is all that some people ever see, and it’s not good.”

Bean and Bear Lakes Loop
North Country Trail Association’s Matt Davis and Bill Menke suggested dozens of new structures and repairs to make one of the most popular sections of the SHT more resilient.

We like to call this one “renewal by a thousand cuts,” because just about all the issues the SHT faces can be found in these six miles. There is no obvious place to start renewal work on this section, but we will build on the renewal process with trainings providing by evaluators Malzhan and Bittner this summer in this section – on trail building and building with stone, respectively.  

By Denny Caneff

This article was originally published in the 2019 Summer Ridgeline newsletter. Join SHTA to support the Trail and receive your copy of the Ridgeline when it is published.