One Mile at a Time

By Beacon Staff

Snow and 30 mph winds in June high atop a mountain in Montana may not be ideal conditions, but it’s just another day in the office for volunteers of the Continental Divide Trail Alliance.

Created by Congress, the Continental Divide Trail joined the better known Appalachian and Pacific Crest trails as part of the National System of Scenic, Historic and Recreation trails in 1978. Stretching over 3,100 miles, the trail follows the Continental Divide from the Mexican border in New Mexico to the Canadian border in Montana. As of 2011, 70 percent of the entire trail is usable by the public and almost one-third of the route lies in Montana and Idaho. Of the 980 miles between Yellowstone and Glacier national parks, only half of the trail is usable or completed, according to Shannon Freix, regional representative for the trail alliance.

When the trail will be completed is the “million-dollar question,” Freix said.

“If we can have it done in the next five to 10 years, that’d be a great accomplishment, but there are a lot of road blocks,” she said, adding that agreements with landowners must be made before a section of trail can be finished.

Once the land is secured, volunteers spend weekends and vacations in the wilderness of Montana clearing brush and building trails.

“You walk these trails and you don’t think how they are maintained,” said Susan Hawthorne of Helena, who has volunteered for the alliance for the last few years. “It gives you a reason to get out of the office and do something good so people can enjoy it.”

Glacier National Park Trail Crew Leader Mary Schneider works with volunteers to install check dams near water crossings on the Continental Divide National Scenic Trail. These structures help control erosion and reduce sediment from entering the watershed, which can negatively affect fisheries and healthy ecosystems.

Hawthorne works as an administrator for the National Guard in Helena and said that it was a friend’s passion for the trail that wore off on her. In the last few years she has worked on trails near Butte, Helena, Yellowstone and Glacier. Hawthorne said she loves being able to get out and give something back to the community and that some of her favorite moments are coming back to camp after a hard day of clearing, mapping or building trail.

“It’s just very rewarding,” she said.

For the past six years Meg Killen, regional field coordinator for the alliance, has recruited and guided volunteers on trail work trips throughout Montana and Idaho. Between June and September the group coordinates a dozen or so trips across the two states that can last anywhere from a day to a week. Killen said the trips can attract up to a few dozen people who work on the continuously expanding trail. The gatherings are one of the benefits for Killen.

“I really enjoy working on these organizations because you get to meet so many interesting folks on these projects,” she said. “We work hard and get dirty.”

And battle snow and 30 mph winds in June.

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