Moose Lake City Administrator Pat Oman recently met with Byron Kuster for a tour of the hiking trails that Kuster has been in the process of creating. The trails are located primarily between the Moose Horn River and Soo Line Trail, southwest of the Soo Depot.
The trail project started two years ago as a result of Kuster's frustration of having to travel more than 20 miles to get to decent mountain bike trails. In 2011, Kuster attended an Active Living Coalition meeting and expressed the need for mountain bike trails in the Moose Lake area. While brainstorming some potential sites, Moose Lake Mayor Ted Shaw suggested the large tract of city-owned land west of the river. The area has a lot of ledge-rock near the ground's surface making it unsuitable as building sites. Kuster, only minimally familiar with the land, noted that the tract of land was fairly large and considered the ledge-rock a bonus for mountain biking.
In order to serve hikers as well as mountain bikers, Kuster planned to add a hiking trail around the perimeter of the land with mountain bike trails in the infield area. As he became more familiar with the land, he discovered the area contained, in addition to ledge-rock, many wetland areas. Kuster checked with Carlton County zoning about the possibility of building boardwalks to cross the worst of the wetlands. He learned that because a portion of the trail is near the river, the entire project would be governed by the most restrictive zoning rules. Altering the wetlands by adding fill, promoting drainage, or building boardwalks would not be permitted unless wetland credits were purchased. The combination of wetlands and restrictive zoning rules make the area questionable for mountain biking. However, the area still had good potential for hiking.
Early on, Kuster received an offer of help from Kyle Landwehr. Together they decided to route the first hiking trail along an overgrown snowmobile trail that parallels the Moose Horn River from the power line, near the city's compost site, to the southwest end of the city's property. The trail would then turn and run up-hill to the Soo Line Trail, near the city's sewer ponds. They spent many hours in the woods laying out the trail with surveyor's ribbon. The men from the Challenge Incarceration Program's Restorative Justice Work Crew, under the supervision of Sgt. Dan Lilya and more recently Sgt. Steve Whited, cleared most of the brush. Although Kuster only gets the work crew's help four or five days per year, it has been invaluable. "The CIP work crews are amazing," stated Kuster. "Trail clearing is very labor intensive, but those guys can get a lot done in just a few days."
After two years of trail design, Kuster and Landwehr have learned some things. Initially, they plotted the trails based on which route required the least brushing. Now, they focus much more on the terrain under the brush. According to Landwehr, "We now try to go around rocky areas that are ankle twisters. It's a lot easier to remove some brush than it is to move rocks or fill a hole. Besides, zoning won't allow us to do that. Oftentimes, we follow the deer trails. They seem to know the best paths." They also learned that autumn is the best time of year to do trail work. "In the spring, the land is often wet from snowmelt or rain. In the summer, the heat and bugs can be unbearable. The ticks are also out in force! In the fall, the weather is cooler and the ticks and mosquitoes are mostly gone," stated Kuster.
Brushing the last section of the 1.3 mile trail from the power line to the Soo Line Trail was recently completed. From this trail, hikers will be able to access the Moose Horn River at different points, view wild rice paddies in the river, cross a brook, view stumps left by beavers, and view a variety of rock formations. Trail runners or mountain bikers may want to give the trail a try, but should do so cautiously. After reaching the Soo Line Trail, hikers can return to their starting point by either walking back along the Soo Line Trail or turning around and returning the way they came.
Next year's plans include constructing a trail that will bring a hiker back to the starting point without walking the Soo Line Trail or doing a down-and-back. Next year's goals also include finishing the partially completed trails in the city land located northeast of the power lines. In time, each of the trails will also need to be named. One or more trail-heads and signage will need to be created. At some point, a "grand opening" type of ceremony may be planned. "So far, our focus has been on creating usable trails," stated Kuster.
All of the trails, whether complete or not, are very hikable; and the public is encouraged to use them. "The more they are used, the more established they will become. If they do not get much use, nature will claim them back," stated Landwehr. Because hunting is not allowed within the city limits, hikers can use the trails during the hunting season. About 30 "No Hunting" signs have been placed in prominent areas to minimize any ambiguity about hunting in this wooded area. Of course, trail users are advised to wear bright-colored clothing as an added safety precaution. The trails can also be used throughout the winter.
Once the key perimeter trails are completed, new possibilities open up. Kuster, who also helps organize the Moose Run, would like to offer a fall trail run. "Many younger people seem bored with road runs and are drawn to trail runs that involve overcoming obstacles and getting muddy. Maybe we could create a challenging trail run or join forces with the zombie group in Kettle River and create a Halloween zombie run through the woods." He also envisions adding bird feeding stations along the trail. He hopes that individuals or businesses would create bird feeding stations and keep them stocked with seed and suet. Oman discussed the possibility of a kayak, run, mountain bike triathalon on the river and the trails. Each of these ideas would first need to be approved by the city council. According to Kuster, "This project is a work in process. In a sense, it will never be truly completed. Trail maintenance will need to be done every year to clear away the trees that get blown over or dropped by beaver. Other people may come up with new uses for the land that we have not considered yet. Hopefully, it's compatible with what we are doing now. For many years, this land was simply ignored. Now, it is being used, and in ways that impact it minimally."
What started as a desire for mountain bike trails is evolving into a system of woodland trails that are suitable for hiking, bird watching, snow-shoeing, and possibly biking. Oman likes that these trails offer something different. "For years, Moose Lake has provided access to some great paved trails and miles of ATV trails. Now we have some woodland trails that allow a person to get closer to the river and closer to nature. We are offering something new that isn't competing with something else that is similar. Not many other cities in the area provide the variety of trails that Moose Lake offers."
Although trail work is winding down for this year, Kuster encourages anyone interested in helping out, including students needing volunteer hours, to call or text him at (218) 485-8511. "We can always use more help!"