Northern Tier Forest Corps: Where conservation meets adventure

Northern Tier Forest Corps participants
Forest Corps participants work hard and play hard. Photo courtesy of Northern Tier

There’s a trail in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area between Back Bay and Pipestone Bay that had become unusable. Enter the Northern Tier Forest Corps, one of several conservation-focused programs offered by the Northern Tier High Adventure Program.

Working with the United States Forest Service, Forest Corps participants converted what had basically become a swamp into a trail that’s now suitable for towing boats from one bay to the next.

Gone are the “ankle breaker” rocks hidden under dark puddles. Gone are the deep, thick sections of mud that made it nearly impossible to pull a boat down the path.

In its place is now 60 feet of pristine trail, perfect for one of the few areas in the Boundary Waters where motorized boats are allowed.

And it’s all thanks to the Forest Corps.

“The whole idea of the Forest Corps program is to teach participants that we all have a responsibility to make the world a better place,” says Leslie Thibodeaux, Northern Tier’s general manager. “The work the Forest Corps does every summer helps ensure that all visitors to the Boundary Waters have a fun, positive experience in the outdoors.”

That’s the spirit of Forest Corps — the idea that the more people enjoy their experiences in the outdoors, the more they will value its existence and advocate for its protection in the future.

Northern Tier Forest Corps is an individual program

Forest Corps is one of Northern Tier’s individual summer programs. It’s open to BSA members who don’t have the opportunity to visit with a whole crew. Participants join up with other BSA members from across the country to experience one week of service and one week of adventure.

“Getting to meet my crew mates was a highlight of my adventure,” says recent Forest Corps participant Cory Beebe. “I got to share so many unforgettable moments with my crew. And the thing is, the only people who will fully understand the magnitude of these moments are the six other people that were by my side out there in the Boundary Waters.”

The first week of Forest Corps is dedicated to portage trail restoration. (“Portaging” is the process of carrying a boat between two bodies of water.) There are lots of portages in the BWCA, and over time, many of them are certain to degrade.

It’s the job of the Forest Corps crews to spend this week repairing trails so that other visitors can enjoy this area of the country for years to come.

“That experience of hard work, together in the wilderness, built a special bond in our group,” says Sean McLaughlin, another recent participant. “In the Boundary Waters, our crew developed a connection with each other that no other experience can do.”

Over the course of one summer, this trail went from a muddy, impassable mess, to a relatively easy portage, thanks to the Northern Tier Forest Corp.

A week of hard work …

The specifics of each Northern Tier Forest Corps job will vary depending on the condition of the trail.

In the case of Back Bay to Pipestone Bay trail, participants crushed larger rocks into smaller bits of gravel (breaking three sledgehammers along the way), installed a series of 12-foot timbers provided by the Forest Service, and finished by tamping it all into the muck.

Is it difficult work? Of course it is. That’s why they call in the Forest Corps for jobs like this in the first place.

The key to getting through it all is to maintain a positive attitude and enjoy the time with your new friends.

“We shared countless laughs and sang every song we knew,” says Sean.

Each Forest Corps crew is accompanied by two instructors who have been there and done that.

“They have an infectious passion for all things Forest Corps,” says Corey. “From singing songs to building trail, they live and breathe Forest Corps. They genuinely care about what they do, because it has impacted their lives and they know just how powerful this type of program can be if shared with the world.”

Northern Tier canoeing
BSA file photo

… followed by a week of trekking

The second week of Northern Tier Forest Corps is an individualized canoe trek designed around exploring the natural beauty of the Boundary Waters. But that doesn’t mean the conservation education doesn’t continue.

As a group, the participants and instructors prepare an itinerary based on the goals and experiences of each crew member, leaving time each day to better understand the areas traveled. Participants can take part in lessons including fire ecology, astronomy, wolf studies, wildland ethics and many more.

They also complete the requirements for a Leave No Trace Trainer course.

There’s no better way to celebrate a week of hard work than spending a week exploring the beauty of one of the pristine natural areas in North America.

“How I see it is that the Northwoods is a ‘sculptor’ and us visitors are the ‘clay,’ ” says Corey, “and we are shaped by the will of nature, so it’s impossible to go into the Boundary Waters and come out not changed in some way.”

You can book Northern Tier adventures on the Northern Tier High Adventure Program homepage.

Northern Tier at sunset
BSA file photo

About Aaron Derr 455 Articles
Aaron Derr is the senior editor of Scout Life and Scouting magazines, and also a former Cubmaster and Scouts BSA volunteer.