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It might be the kind of work you find featured on the reality show Dirty Jobs. The days are long and filled with physical labor -- hauling heavy timbers, large rocks and loads of gravel, clearing brush and digging dirt. At the end of the day, your clothes are sweat-soaked, and your skin is blistered, scratched and mosquito-bit.
There’s a lot of work that goes into developing and maintaining Iowa’s state park trails, from planning and preparing materials in the off-season to the hard labor of the summer season. In most cases, use of heavy equipment is not practical or even possible, so consequently a good share of the work is done by hand.
“But, you know what,” asks Pete Englund, Trail Crew Foreman for the DNR’s trail program. “It’s all worth it when we go back to our trails and can see they’ve been used. It’s the highest form of thanks we can get.”
That’s what Englund and his crew hope to find when they return to their current work site at Bellevue State Park on the Mississippi in Jackson County -- a compacted trail bed, which means a well-traveled trail.
For the last three weeks the DNR trail crew, along with the National Civilian Community Corps (NCCC) out of Vinton, has worked to complete a 1.5-mile single track hiking trail at Bellevue, a first-of-its-kind for Iowa’s state parks.
According to Englund, the trail will provide a more intimate experience with nature than your typical four-foot wide, mowed path. It meanders and flows more, which makes it more playful and interesting for the hiker.
“We are not clearing that much to create the trail,” says Englund. “And hikers will be able to better see the micro-ecosystems within the woods, as well as some of the interesting trees we use as landmarks during our building.”
Although they are not officially named, Englund is sure hikers will be able to pick out the trees his crew refers to as Twisted Sisters, Kissing Oaks and Three Sisters.
Weather has cooperated in the Bellevue area and the crew plans to complete the majority of the work there this week, enough so holiday campers and visitors can enjoy the new trail. Signs won’t be placed on the trail until later this year, but according to Englund, although it’s not entirely complete, the trail is pretty easy to find for those who are a little adventurous.
“Go to the playground by the Dyas Unit campground,” he says, “and follow the fence line into the woods. The trail comes out just east of the west shelter on the deer trail. About half way down the trail you can split off and take the newly constructed trail over to the east shelter.”
After a break for the Fourth of July holiday, the DNR crew will move to its next site at Union Grove State Park in Tama County. Here, they will work on an ADA-accessible trail connecting to the ADA fishing pier, and eventually to a future bridge made from Iowa black locust.
If time allows and weather cooperates, the crew will finish out the summer season at Pine Lake State Park, in Hardin County, repairing and replacing retaining walls on a heavily used lakeside trail. Materials for the project, including black locust timbers to replace the railroad ties of the current walls, will be transported by boat to the site.
The 15-person AmeriCorps crew started the season by improving a 300-foot section of trail at Walnut Woods State Park, outside of the Des Moines metro area. The trail, popular with equestrians, is prone to flooding, so the crew raised the tread, promoting proper drainage.
“The work is intense, literally in tents,” laughs Englund.
The crew camps together throughout the summer, sharing not just work but meals as well.
“Essentially we go where the work takes us,” says Englund. “We are a nomadic bunch, hoping for favorable weather to complete the job and then moving on.”
But true to his word, Englund will be back to his work sites this fall . . . to check for use.
Iowa’s state parks have more than 500 miles of trails. Take time to explore them soon. To learn more about trails and state parks, visit www.iowadnr.gov.