Heartland Trail Spring Update 2021

Heartland Trail
Itascatur Outdoor Activity Club

Heartland Trail Updates
The Heartland Trail is the most important amenity of biking in our great outdoors of lakes and pines, but it isn’t a static structure. The 48-mile paved trail is in constant flux and needs attention of cyclists to protect and advocate its maintenance and development. Following is an update on Heartland (and Paul Bunyan) Trail issues and projects from Vic Olson who is involved with a variety of trail advocates and biking volunteer groups.

Heartland Trail connection to Itasca State Park
One day Heartland Trail riders will be able to bike directly to Itasca State Park on a dedicated paved trail, but it will take money and time. After more than a decade of work by local trail advocates, the most important step was taken last year when legislators appropriated $2 million for the first of three phases that will eventually create a route from the Visitors’ Center in Itasca to Emmaville on county land and then south on county right-of-way of Cty Rd 4 to the current Heartland Trail.

Most of the $2 million will go to the most expensive and critical part of the 22-mile route: a tunnel under Hwy 71 that will provide a safe crossing for bike riders and snowmobilers. The DNR recently awarded a contract for the final design and administration of construction of the tunnel that is expected to be done in the fall of 2022. (Its location is about a half-mile south of 200 and is marked with pink flagging.)

The trail connection advocates this summer will be preparing another bonding request for the 2022 legislative session of another $2 million or so to pave a trail from the Visitors’ Center to and through the tunnel, and for additional engineering work going east. Senator Utke, who was pivotal shepherding the bill through the legislature last year, will plan to do so again in 2022.

Cty Rd Trailhead parkingHubbard County commissioners can be thanked for stepping up to buy a crucial component of the Itasca connection trail: purchasing vacant land for a parking area at its eventual intersection with Cty Rd 4. This spring the northwest corner will be leveled and gravel added, plus a path to the trail will be made.

This means a crucial parcel for the connection trail, as well as current cyclists who like to begin their Heartland ride at that point, will have a safer access for parking.

Trail monitoring still on pause
Unfortunately, the trail monitoring program involving over 20 volunteers riding the Heartland and Paul Bunyan trails will still be on pause this year. The DNR’s COVID protocols for volunteers has eased a bit, but require screening for each time volunteers go out to ride, and also require paperwork by the trail manager, who already has challenges keeping up with a workload.

However, any bike rider who comes across an issue that needs the attention of the DNR should call trail manager Dave Schotzko at (218)766-7529, a number you should add to your cellphone contact list, if not already there. Dave will assess the situation and have a DNR staffer respond if he deems appropriate.

New paved route for “Tower Hill”
For many years the DNR has sought an alternate route to the current on-highway segment of the Heartland Trail north of Walker, where cyclists have to use the Steamboat Bay Loop Rd to go northeast near Anderson’s Cove Resort, where the paved trail resumes to Cass Lake. If all goes as planned, by this fall a new paved trail segment will be constructed on the current snowmobile trail so cyclists will no longer ride on the road that’s not the safest for bike riders. One short section near Anderson Cove will still require 1 block of road riding after crossing Cty Rd 142; an environmental review in connecting back into the former railroad grade became problematic.

Although the DNR had hoped the new segment at Steamboat Loop would go straight north over what is known as “Tower Hill”, that option had several obstacles so the snowmobile route was chosen and can be built with funds already in hand. The cost of going over the hill or using the former rail grade is similar due to existing utilities.

Hackensack to Backus repaving?
The Paul Bunyan Trail from Hackensack south to Backus is one of the most scenic segments of the trail’s 100 miles, but also probably the most deteriorated. Funds are being sought to repave that segment so hopefully a smoother ride will be possible on of these summers.

Crack sealing through the Chippewa
Crack sealing will occur this summer from Hackensack through the Chippewa National Forest to the connection to the Heartland Trail at Hwy 34 northeast of Akeley.

Blowing and mowing
When the weather and staffing allows, a blower will be used to push dirt, twigs and debris off the trails sometime soon. Around the end of June and perhaps in August the trail shoulder will be mowed.

There has been some criticism that natural habitat that is home to, for example, butterflies and ground nesting birds, is destroyed when the mowing goes more than a couple feet beyond the paving. Narrower mowing, however, would then allow tree growth which could create “root boils” under the bituminous and, eventually, maturing trees could shed branches over the trail.

For cyclists, the major concern is that the shoulder be mowed close enough to the bituminous to prevent tall plant growth bending into the bike path that impedes biking width and causes leg scratches.

The DNR staff did a great job last year when there were several storms, including those high velocity straight line winds that pushed trees over the trail just west of Nevis. This year the trail manager has a full crew after a vacancy was not filled for the entire season last year due to COVID.

The operation budget for the DNR has not kept pace with needs, which can be a challenge in our area that has over 100 miles of bike trails and one of the most popular state parks (Itasca) to maintain.

Bluebird die-off
The bluebird houses along segments of the Heartland Trail were installed way back in the late 70s and helped elevate the popular birds’ population, but the Star Tribune recently reported that snow, ice and cold weather killed bluebirds and other early spring migrants as they froze from lack of food and water in a large swath from Oklahoma to the east coast.

But this has happened before and the population has always recovered. Tree swallows have been seen around the Heartland birdhouses, but now fighting for territory with each other instead of bluebirds.

If you’d like to open and close some houses as the seasons change, please email me at vicolson@arvig.net.