WARROAD, Minn. — The COVID-19 pandemic has put life on hold and forced conservation groups across the country to cancel or postpone spring fundraising banquets, but a Warroad, Minn.-based chapter of the Ruffed Grouse Society is making the best out of a disastrous situation.
Three members of the Lake of the Woods RGS chapter spent part of last weekend and early this past week working on trails in Beltrami Island State Forest that are part of the Star of the North trail system and cleaning up a manmade island near the mouth of the Warroad River that had fallen into a state of neglect.
With brushing complete and garbage removed, the hope is to turn Government Island into a recreational amenity for boaters, kayakers and other outdoors enthusiasts, said Jared Olafson of Warroad, a member of the RGS chapter.
The chapter partnered with the city of Warroad on the project after getting permission from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, Olafson said. The 2½-acre island was created from the spoils of a long-ago dredging project.
“Back in the early 1900s and up into the ‘30s and ‘40s, there was a boat repair shop on there one time, there was a fishery there, boat storage, and then it kind of went into neglect after the ‘40s,” Olafson said.
“By the ‘50 and ‘60s, the brush started taking over, and it’s been brush and trees ever since.”
The idea of restoring the island came up during a deer camp conversation, Olafson said. Much work remains to be done, but Olafson, along with chapter members Chuck Lindner and Owen Storey, were able to haul away garbage and clear brush that had overtaken the island.
“My ultimate vision would be to have docks out there and bring some equipment out and get new dirt down with grass seeded and then have a picnic area, because we left some of the bigger trees for shade,” Olafson said. “A nice picnic area with a fire pit and then beach volleyball, maybe some green space for a cornhole game and then a bike path all the way around it with a bridge that connects to the mainland for biking.
“You could bike or walk down there, let your dog swim, things like that.”
The trio was able to work while maintaining the 6-foot social distancing guidelines recommended by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as a way to prevent the potential spread of the coronavirus, Olafson said.
“Very easy to do,” he said, both in the forest and on Government Island. “We had the brush machine on the island and then another Bobcat with a grapple to pile brush to burn. So there’s two. And then I was running the Ranger with a trailer hauling garbage off the island and then Chuck was out burning all the piles.
“It worked really good, it was good social distancing.”
Working in Beltrami forest, the trio made headway on the Star of the North Trail System, which features a mix of new trails and upgrades to already established trails, some of which also are open to ATVs.
Last weekend’s work included construction of a 2-mile loop that will be open to walk-in hunter access only, Olafson said.
“It’s the nicest country I’ve seen up there for a while,” he said. “It’s all ridge country back in there.”
The chapter began working on the Star of the North Trail during the winter of 2015-16 in partnership with the DNR. Individual sponsorships, along with grants from the Ruffed Grouse Society’s Drummer Fund and the Warroad Community Fund, are helping to pay for the trail segments.
When finished, the Star of the North Trail will cover about 70 miles, and the end is in sight, Olafson said.
“We probably have 20 miles left, so we’re going great guns,” he said.
The snow that hammered the Grand Forks area and parts of northwest Minnesota largely missed Warroad and Beltrami forest, Olafson said Friday. The trio planned to be back at the trail work this weekend and will continue working until the ground gets too soft.
If weather and ground conditions allow, the plan is to do additional trail work later in the summer, he said.
While the Lake of the Woods chapter’s spring banquet was canceled along with every other conservation group banquet in the country, Olafson said they’re hoping to do some Facebook Live events to keep core membership and sponsors involved.
“We’re trying to auction off a hunt on Facebook, and we’ll probably still host our sponsor night like we do every year with some trapshooting and a steak fry, just so they don’t forget about us,” he said.
When that happens, of course, depends on the COVID-19 pandemic finally subsiding. For now, though, the work they’re doing offers at least a glimmer of hope for better days.