National Public Lands Day : September 28, 2019

Selfie with participants gathering the background.

#48hike of my 52 Hike Challenge

Trail/Park: Coldwater Spring, Minneapolis, MN and Pike Island, Fort Snelling State Park

National Public Lands Day (NPLD) is the largest single-day volunteer effort for America’s public lands. Each year, hundreds of thousands of volunteers come together on the fourth Saturday in September to assist with various projects designed to restore and enhance public parks, forests, waterways and more. My participation in this effort started in 2016. I was looking for a volunteer effort to provide trail maintenance support or a similar effort and wanted to share the experience with my son.

I happened on the service event on the REI website and signed us up. That first Saturday we helped nearly 100 other volunteers organized by REI and the Mississippi Park Connection plant native species as part of an effort to restore an oak savanna/prairie complex at Coldwater Spring. This sliver of land sits south of Minnehaha Falls and north of Fort Snelling State Park and has a rich history that includes the Mde-wa-kan-ton-wan Dakota, European settlers and, most recently the Bureau of Mines. The area is managed by the National Park Service as a National River and Recreation Area.

Coldwater Spring National River and Recreation Area view from the restored prairie and oak savannah with the spring in the background.

It’s a beautiful space that flows from city to national to state park. Many people don’t even realize they are moving from one space to the next. Volunteering on NPLD has expanded my understanding and appreciation of the history of the site and how it’s now managed.

While understanding a bit about the site is important, I’ve meandered from my main topic. If nothing else I hope it shows how passionate I am about the day.

This year I had signed up as a single volunteer. We gathered, there were announcements of the day’s sponsors (see the list below), a group photo and then we were divided up into work crews of about a dozen participants lead by a ranger or lead volunteer to get to work. Our goal was to plant nearly 1,000 native species in an area that has been cleared of the invasive buckthorn. The really hard work is the seemingly endless fight against the buckthorn. Our job was easy by comparison.

As we got to our site, we paired up after a brief safety discussion and demonstration of planting technique. I had the pleasure of working with a woman named Tricia who I quickly learned also enjoys hiking and gardening. We chatted as we worked, quickly planting our assigned flat. We then moved to another area where we were told there were additional plantings and made quick work of that as well. By the time we learned that all the planting was complete, we’d moved on to discussions of old versus new gear (we’re both fans of using what we have before purchasing new to replace a piece that still has life in it) and the importance of being out in the woods.

I told her that after we finished up, my plan was to retrieve my bike and take a hike with it into Fort Snelling State Park. I was so excited to be able to go there after the park being closed since March due to ongoing flooding and the long effort to get the park open to the public. I finished out my service by helping to remove the zone marking tape from around the planting area. Then it was back to the start of the trail to collect my bike.

52 hike challenge patch

Like I noted earlier, the flow of park to park to park is nearly seamless and I think many people don’t understand the amount of parkland managed by the National Park Service along the Mississippi River. As I made my way down the trail leading to the state park, I reflected on the fact that this is one of those places, much like my trip to Grand Portage State Park, where a border really only exists on paper. In fact, there isn’t a fence marking each park property line. I am reminded that long before the men who’s names are attached to these parks arrived, there was what I’d like think was an easy flow of people across the land. They didn’t own it. They moved over it. Much as I was doing.

Panoramic photo of the Pike Island trail at Fort Snelling State Park

As I neared the familiar final hill into the state park, I felt as if I was coming home. But I also knew that there would be things that had changed. What remained to be seen. I’d imagined over the past six months all kinds of things. My plan was to head to Pike Island, hike the trails, do a bit of trash pick up along the way and take in whatever changes I found.

The reality of the changes in the park is less obvious to most. But I knew there was water in places where I’ve not seen it before. The edge of the river just a bit closer to the trail. The large patch of standing water/mud on the trail where it’s always been dry before.

The one thing that hasn’t changed – sadly – is the garbage that washes up from the Mississippi River. It wasn’t long before I’d filled up my dirtbag and was digging in my pack for my small stash of plastic bags. Unfortunately the north side of the island has more trash than I had bags to collect it all. Fortunately I ran into a park maintenance staff member who was willing to take the bags I’d filled back to the shop so I was able to collect even more.

Bags of garbage in the back of the park staff truck.

Once I knew I’d collected all that I could, I decided to keep going to the tip of the island. On the way, one of the paddle boats came by, filled with passengers enjoying the beautiful weather. At the tip of the island, I discovered the next big change … the beach is all but gone. I could tell there is still a sandbar extending out into the confluence though the fundamental change is obvious to me.

As I made my way back to the trail that would take me toward Coldwater Spring and the falls to home, I continued to reflect on the changes happening in the place so close to home. The land has seen many changes, but the impact humans have on our planet is clear to me in the various ways the land at Coldwater Creek has been used, the varying ideas of who “owns” the land and how it should be managed in the future. Answers to the question of what is the “right” way to keep these places for our children aren’t easy.

I realized that my personal connection to this tiny bit of land is intertwined with it’s past, present and future. All of it playing into the reason I’d participated in the NPLD event hours earlier. The land doesn’t belong to any of us, it belongs to ALL of us. We are guests here and I believe it’s up to all of us to do better at leaving it well cared for into the future. That means learning about its history, participating in its present and thoughtfully shaping its future. It’s why a few hours of my time, once a year is an easy gift to give. I get so much more out of my time I spend enjoying the parks now that I have that connection.

My challenge to you is to join in the work. Today, tomorrow or even next year. We’ll all be better for it.

Coldwater Spring Event Sponsors

National Environmental Education Foundation – NEEF
National Park Service
Minnesota Master Naturalist
University of Minnesota Day of Service Participants
Coldwater Spring Crew Leaders and Crew
Twin Cities Illini Club
University of St. Thomas
One Tree Planted
Event photos by Bethany Birnie

Copyright Ruth Wikoff-Jones, | No Use Permitted Without Prior Permission

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