Trail building is people building

Introducing our very first Illinois Trail Corps chapter, the Weldon Springs Foundation.

This past Friday and Saturday, an all-volunteer crew opened the Lakeside Nature Trail at Weldon Springs State Park, and in the process pointed to a developing model of trail stewardship for Trails for Illinois. 

Failing structures and erosion had officially closed the trail for the past year. Age, poor initial design, and a slashed IDNR budget conspired over the last eight years to allow real environmental and safety hazards to undermine what has been Clinton, Illinois' favored trail system for decades. The park's superintendent, Charlie Montgomery, had asked Illinois Trail Corps to add the park as a project in 2016, which in cooperation with the Weldon Springs Foundation we were thrilled to do.

Bridge and stair case at Weldon Springs; the park has too many failing structures like this.

Bridge and stair case at Weldon Springs; the park has too many failing structures like this.

But Mother Nature thwarted our plans at literally the last minute, diverting our Americorps NCCC team to Baton Rouge for three weeks to work flood relief the very moment they had arrived at Weldon Springs. And then flooding in Cedar Rapids. And then Hurricane Matthew. Our Americorps team, serving the larger needs of our country, never returned.

So what to do? Our tool trailer, the Hauler of Fame, was out there. The work to be done was out there. Charlie, the Foundation, and we still wanted to build trail.

I think serendipity happens most when you are actively open to it. In the aftermath of losing the service team, three things fell into place:

  • Mary Sullivan, an experienced trail crew leader accustomed to working 80-hour, eight day trail hitches in the Arizona desert, had contacted us about helping lead crew at Weldon Springs. When I called to tell her that the Americorps team had been called up by FEMA, she mentioned she was going to be in Illinois with her family for a month anyway, and wouldn't mind spending a week in Clinton building trail.
  • And THEN the Weldon Springs Foundation told us that they had talked to Charlie and decided that they would still want to figure out a way to have a community volunteer trail building day at the park.
  • And THEN Exelon employees from the Clinton Lake facility asked Charlie if 40 of them could spend their plant volunteer day, Friday, October 28, helping with projects at the park.

Like Jake Bugg sings, when you see the signs, you jump on that lightning bolt.

Veteran trail crew leader & Illinois native Mary Sullivan earned her chops along the Pacific Coast Trail and Arizona National Scenic Trail.

Veteran trail crew leader & Illinois native Mary Sullivan earned her chops along the Pacific Coast Trail and Arizona National Scenic Trail.

We asked Mary to spend last week out at Weldon Springs, prepping trail work for a community volunteer day on October 29, and to help Charlie with the Exelon volunteers on October 28. Last Friday, Charlie was able to split the Exelon volunteers into three crews, with Charlie leading the demolition and reconstruction of a failed bridge on the west side of the lake, and Mary leading the gravel resurfacing of trail and replacing a failed staircase.

Mary Sullivan (right) setting steps with volunteers Kylie (left) and Asa (middle).

Mary Sullivan (right) setting steps with volunteers Kylie (left) and Asa (middle).

On Saturday, eleven volunteers from Clinton, ranging in age from grade school to middle-aged and all brand new to trail work, met Mary and me at 8am by the Chautauqua pavilion to get basic training in trail stewardship. After some calisthenics, we CUSSed the tools we'd be using—teaching our crew the four basics of working with each tool: Carrying, Using, Safety, and Storage. Then, each person carrying a tool or two, we hiked to our work site.

Our newest Illinois Trail Corps chapter, getting things done!

Our newest Illinois Trail Corps chapter, getting things done!

Our Saturday crew tackled an important reroute of the Lakeside trail on the south side of the lake that would avoid the old, eroding trail alignment down a fall line. The new alignment crosses the slope instead of directing people (and rain) straight down it, and follows the contour to provide some naturally draining dips to keep water moving across the trail, minimizing erosion. Mary and I taught the crew a 4-step method for cutting a new bench on a slope for a trail that will be stable and resist damage from rain and use. We taught how to prune and saw branches to clear the trail while protecting the trees and preventing sucker branches from sprouting, and watched delightedly as the grade school girls earned their pruning and sawing chops.

Most of the crew worked until noon, and headed back to the picnic pavilion for sandwiches courtesy the Weldon Springs Foundation. A few of us headed back out after lunch to finish off the steps that remained to be set from Friday's effort. I'm pretty sure I'm not the only person who was feeling the work in his or her back and shoulders on Sunday.

Both days, the regular visitors to Weldon Springs walked through, on and past our projects. Every visitor thanked our crews for the work being done on their beloved park and trails. While Weldon Springs is a small state park, its value to quality of life in the Clinton area is immense.

Jerry Erb and Mary Sullivan at the top of the new stairs; remember the before picture near the top of this post?

Jerry Erb and Mary Sullivan at the top of the new stairs; remember the before picture near the top of this post?

And our volunteers LOVED the work. The only disappointment expressed was that we were done for the year; Bradine, mom to the school-aged girls on our Saturday crew, expressed her deep gratitude for providing such a great, outdoor experience for her kids and for herself, and wished it was available every weekend. It was hard to tell her that for volunteer trail work at Weldon Springs, these two days were it.

But did it have to be?

Before our group had quit for lunch on Saturday, and we were gathering tools and debating which direction would be the shortest route back, one of the volunteers, Terry, remarked "The shortest way back is to start walking," and he set off. He had made his point, and we followed.

Trails for Illinois has been thinking about a chapter model for trail stewardship for a while, maybe making it more complex than it had to be. Thanks to Terry's wisdom in the moment, at lunch I asked Mary Mitchell, the president of the Weldon Springs Foundation, if we should just call the Foundation the Weldon Springs chapter of Illinois Trail Corps.

"Absolutely!" said Mary. "Why not?"

So like Terry, we've decided to start. The Foundation is a chapter in name only; we don't have anything in place yet to actually BE a chapter-based organization. But we're going to see if we can build on our Weldon Springs experience. We feel we have to: partnering with Americorps NCCC the last three years has made us believers in national service and champions of NCCC, but also has taught us that their service, as valuable as it is, should be considered supplemental. NCCC can't be essential to Illinois Trail Corps, because receiving and keeping a team is not assured.

Thanks to necessity and serendipity, the model we created for Weldon Springs involved

  • Developing a partnership and a scope of work to be done with a land manager (Charlie and the IDNR);
  • Partnering with a local organization to provide resources (funding and lunch courtesy Weldon Springs Foundation);
  • Coordinating with local groups (Exelon employees) and individuals (our Saturday crew) around volunteer work days;
  • Providing the necessary equipment (our Hauler of Fame);
  • Providing expert and experienced training and leadership (Mary Sullivan and me, but mostly Mary) that focuses on developing expertise and leadership among the volunteers.

These are steps that we think we can repeat at Weldon Springs and Clinton Lake in 2017, and elsewhere. It will take some restructuring, and for our board and our staff, some refocusing, hard work, and growth. But to establish around the state a network of trail steward chapters, building their capacity and expertise, supplementing them with Americorps NCCC when we can—that looks like measurable progress towards our mission of connecting every Illinoisan to trails and trail experiences. It also looks like a lot of fun.

Trail building is people building. I feel good starting down this path.

Thanks for reading,

Steve Buchtel, Executive Director