Giving Back to the Trail

Hikes #22, 23, 24 and 25 of my 52 Hike Challenge

Trail/Park: Crosby Farm Regional Park and Coldwater Spring / Mini Owe Sni

I want to acknowledge these hikes and volunteering took place on the traditional territory of the Wahpekute, Anishinabewaki ᐊᓂᔑᓈᐯᐗᑭ, and Očeti Šakówiŋ (Sioux).


Giving back has been part of my DNA for a long time. When I was younger and raising my son money was tight so I’d regularly offer to volunteer to get access to activities that we wouldn’t otherwise be able to do. The added benefits were that I became more knowledgeable about the organization or place I was supporting, I gained additional skills and, in several cases, job opportunities opened for me. Volunteering is really pretty easy. Most non-profit organizations are short on resources making their staff grateful for assistance in any form. Trust me, I worked in non-profits for nearly 15 years early in my working life.

As we’ve been slowly moving through this year’s challenges to being outside, I was looking for ways to be outside and to give back to the trails that have given so much to me. Earlier this year I organized a trail clean-up to remove trash from a heavily trafficked trail. When Stay At Home orders were issued, I would take walks near my house to pick up trash on the streets.

Finally at the end of May the orders were lifted and Minnesota residents are now able to gather in small groups. In the early part of the year I’d contacted Mississippi Park Connection (MPC) to volunteer. They were finally able to start having volunteers help with projects at several local parks. The MPC is the non-profit organization that supports the National Park Service and the lands they manage along the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area. Through the organization I was connected to projects at both Crosby Farm Regional Park and Coldwater Spring. These are parks I frequent when I don’t want to go far from home to get on trail.

Adapting to a Changing Climate

My first event in May was planting trees for the Adaptive Silviculture for Climate Change project. This is a 20 year research project to determine tree species will best provide resistance, resilience and transition to the floodplain of the Crosby Farm Regional Park area. The park sits just slightly above the river level and in the spring experiences widespread flooding. The project will help researchers understand which tree species can help mitigate the effects and provide stability to the area. Coming to the place where I was ready to be around a group of people for more than basic necessities had come after a lot of personal reflection. I’d finally mustered up the energy to take it on after weeks of staying at home and Microadventuring.

I arrived at the southernmost entrance to the park along with eight other volunteers and our crew leader in the morning. Our crew leader gave us instructions before we headed off to the worksite, tucked just off the paved trail and next to Crosby Lake. The area had been divided into areas marked off with fencing and flags indicating which species would be planted where. Crews were clearing downed trees in another marked area nearby. Our first task was digging holes while we waited for the bare root trees to arrive from their storage facility.

The ground was soft and heavy from recent rains and the area being so close to lake level. Our group got to work in pairs planting about 15 trees in the section. We quickly learned which species would need a wider or deeper hole to accommodate the root system. The planting required us to work in pairs so we needed to wear masks. That made it hot. Thankfully the area we were working was in shade. After a break, we moved on to another plot that was not in the shade. Everyone slowed down. After three hours we planted about 25 trees. It was rewarding to see our progress. More crews in the next few days would complete the planting of nearly 200 trees for the project.

On my way back to the car, I waded through water flowing over the path from the lake toward the river. I watched a trio of turtles sunning themselves on a log. An eagle flew overhead. I reflected on the hard work and the fact that I don’t know if that trail or those trees will still be there in 20 years. But whoever comes after me will hopefully have a place to enjoy with the same delight that I find on this trail.

Natives Versus Non-Natives

One of the most wonderful things I’ve found throughout my volunteering in my local parks and through service projects on trail with the Boy Scouts is that these places don’t stay accessible to us without work. A lot of work. Many assume that the work is accomplished by the staff and rangers at these parks. While that is true to an extent, it’s only part of the story. Countless volunteers help as well. From leading educational programs to clearing debris on the country’s long trails, it’s a massive effort that can always use another pair of hands.

Up until these last few months where I’ve not been working, I was relegated to doing my volunteer work on the weekends. With my unexpected gift of time, I was able to commit to a different project. Every week a small group (following appropriate local guidelines for gathering) has made the commitment to helping the National Park Service restore and maintain the park known as Coldwater Spring. It’s a tiny National Park, wedged between Minnehaha Falls Park (a city park), Minnesota Historical Society managed land and Fort Snelling State Park. The area has seen many different uses. First as a pathway to the sacred confluence of the Minnesota and Mississippi Rivers, then as part of trade routes, the establishment of Fort Snelling, use by the Bureau of Mines, and now its current status as National Park land.

The crew that meets weekly works under the direction of the Park Service team and helps with a variety of projects – mostly the constant battle against invasive species to the area. Efforts are underway to restore the prairie and wooded areas while leaving remnants of the site history settlement intact.

The past few weeks the crew has been focused on the removal of garlic mustard and narrowleaf bittercress. These two invasive plants mature quickly in the spring, by late May and June begin releasing hundreds of seeds before they die off. The goal is to take advantage of the easily identifiable seed-heads to remove them. The first of my days at the park was focused primarily on a large area that was being overtaken by garlic mustard. Armed with black plastic contractor bags we were shown an area that we could disperse into to look for and remove the plants. Three hours later each of us had filled a bag. As we looked over some areas the sheer amount of these non-native plants was overwhelming. But as we worked we were able to slowly see the results of our labors. Patches of wild raspberries, grasses and other native plants emerged. It felt like we were giving them room to breath and grow.

My next visit was much of the same, this time with focus on a different area that was full of narrowleaf bittercress. Again, the large patches felt overwhelming at times. Once I started looking I saw it everywhere. It made me think of my time on trails collecting trash. Once you start seeing it, you are more attuned to the sheer quantity. As I made my way into a particularly dense area, I came across a patch that was browning. Many of the plants had already shed their seeds. Those that hadn’t, released small sprays of seeds as I worked. I checked with our crew leader to see if spending time on this patch was worth the effort or if I should move on. The decision was made to stop.

As I headed to a different spot, I walked through a patch that exploded like popcorn. Tiny seeds making their way into my gloves, onto my arms and face. I felt like I’d undone all that we’d come to to do by my mistake. I stood there picking off every seed I could, trying to not take them to impact another area. As I carried my bag to the site where it would sit to compost those plants in the sun, I reflected on how easy it is to undo hard work. How easy it is to unintentionally spread something around. I vowed to myself to learn more and think carefully before I move into a situation quickly.

My third visit this last week was a bit different. With the opportunity to remove the garlic mustard and narrowleaf bittercress waining, there were other projects to tackle. I volunteered with another woman to take on the park entrance garden. This narrow strip of garden is planted as a native butterfly garden. It had become overgrown with Smooth brome grass. We got to work, again uncovering a variety of other native plants that were being choked out of the garden by the grass. We cleared leaves, raked and swept the entrance to be a bit more tidy.

After three hours work, we’d made progress, but there is still more to be done. The work provided me time to reflect, to stop and take stock of how much we’d accomplished and that no matter how hard we work there will always be more to do. That one person may see something in their environment and see it as native while another sees it as invasive. I’m grateful for the opportunities the work has provided me to learn more about this area, the plants and people that inhabit it and the ever-changing role I will play in its use.

To My Friend Dave

Much like the efforts many are undertaking to slow the tide of COVID-19 and racism, each of us, working on our small patch of ground we’re making progress. Being part of this volunteerism in the parks provided me time to think about the history of the land before the arrival of settlers. It took me to the time when the land changed on its own without human intervention. Spending time in the park reminded me of why this land is considered sacred to the native peoples whose ancestors tread this ground. You asked me what I think about when I’m hiking. In the past few weeks it’s been both focusing on the work when I’m on trail. But I’ve noticed is that it’s not just what I think about on trail that matters. It’s what that time brings to me off-trail.

These past few months have brought much reflection and have caused me to pause often. To take stock of what I’ve gained from hiking and how to apply those learnings to my life. What I think about matters so much less than having the time to connect with my weaknesses, to connect in community (not a hike has gone by without me drawing on what I’ve learned from others), and to always remain curious.

Additional Reading

While the National Park Service acknowledges the history of this land prior to the establishment of Fort Snelling, my research on the history of the land prior that time resulted in these additional resources. I provide them so we can consider additional perspectives and have open dialog which provides deeper understanding.

Friends of Coldwater
Coldwater: Sacred Site or Military Monument? By Susu Jeffrey
History of the Mni Owe Sni
Mendota Mdewakanton Dakota Tribal Community
Minnesotahistory.net

If you know of other resources to post, please let me know. I welcome the opportunity to learn and share that learning.

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Photo of a group of hikers on a sunny day in a field heading towards a wooded area. The photographer has taken the photo from behind the group.

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