From Paddling to Protecting: How One Portage Trail Service Project Changed My Life

After spending time at Northern Tier exploring the biodiversity of the Northern Boreal Forest while canoeing, paddling and learning about the waterways of the Great Northwoods, Sean’s experience inspired him to consider a career in environmental sciences. The sights and sounds he encountered on this journey helped him discover a love of nature that he never expected. Here is his story…

“Portaging a motor boat is no easy task, especially when the trail disappears into a swamp and is engulfed by mud, so the Northern Tier Forest Corps stepped in to help!”

I was pretty nervous entering Forest Corps as I came in knowing no one. When our crew set out for the portage trail in the Boundary Waters, we were just a group of strangers. Six days later, after hard physical labor in the wilderness, we found ourselves bonded together like family! We shared countless laughs and sang every song we knew. Our whole crew shared this love for the woods, and I think we all gained so much from this experience.

Connecting with nature and each other

Working hand-in-hand with the United States Forest Service, a plan was devised to raise the portage trail out of the swamp and provide a sturdy ground for the wheels of boats to track over.

By the end of the summer, two Forest Corps treks had crushed big rocks into gravel, set 12-foot timbers provided by the Forest Service, and tamped it all into the muck—raising over 60 feet of the trail out of the swamp! 

The experience of hard physical labor, together in the wilderness, built a special bond in our group.

Now, you probably have questions like:

  1. “How is that fun?!”
  2. “You crushed all that gravel by hand?!”
  3. “How were the mosquitos in that swamp?”

The short answers are:

  1. The people make it fun.
  2. Yes, we broke three sledge hammers along the way.
  3. Honestly, you forget about the mosquitoes after a couple days.

The better answer is…

Although the work is physically difficult, as Scouts we have a responsibility to make the world a better place.

The work the Forest Corps did this summer will ensure that visitors portaging their motorboats will have a better experience on the trail. They will not get stuck in the mud and struggle to free their wheels or trip over ankle-breaker rocks submerged in dark puddles.

Rather, they will be able to roll across the portage without giving it a second thought and get back to enjoying their time in the North Woods, which is precisely the goal of all trail-builders. 

At the heart of the Forest Corps program is the belief that if people enjoy their experiences in the outdoors, they will value its existence and advocate for its protection. The work done by the Forest Corps this year was done to ensure a positive experience for future visitors and a bright future for our wilderness. 

What is truly remarkable about trail work though, is the realization that in our quest to make a safer trail and a healthier wilderness, we have made better Scouts and instructors as well. 

Here are “Before, During, and After” pictures of the Back Bay to Pipestone Bay portage trail. This portage trail is unique because it is one of the few “motor boat portages” in the Boundary Waters; a place where motor boats are put on wheels and pulled across land.

Confidence in my ability to make a difference

Participating in the Forest Corps program was an experience that changed my life. Through this experience, I gained confidence in my ability to make a difference.

One of my favorite parts of the trip was the Leave No Trace (LNT) lessons and all of the Minnesota natural history we learned. I was able to learn about plants and wildlife, experience the beauty of the forest, and develop a greater appreciation for the environment. I was also provided with excellent guidance from experienced professionals, who helped hone my skills and open my eyes to a purpose bigger than myself. 

I am an avid naturalist, and the vast amount of information our two leaders presented was a dream come true. I loved learning about the flora and fauna of the Boundary Waters and it helped me to develop a connection with the place. I am a better leader and conservationist because of my training to be an LNT trainer.

I am so grateful for this life-changing experience in nature, as it led me to my own path of exploration and discovery. Not only did my experience at Northern Tier help deepen my connection to the natural world, it also helped steer me towards a career path! 

Thank you for your interest in my story and for making these experiences possible for Scouts like me.

Hawk Ridge Bird Observatory, Eagle Scout (2017), NESA member


5 years later, I am still involved in the outdoor world! I still feel strongly connected to the north woods, which drew me to live in Duluth, Minnesota.

Here I am involved in bird migration research, counting migrant birds at Hawk Ridge Bird Observatory. I love this position as a field researcher because I get to be outside every day in the spring and fall, watching thousands of birds fly along the shore of Lake Superior.

I feel drawn to this work because of formative time spent outdoors as a Scout. I also feel fulfilled by this work because of the value this research has in protecting and conserving birds.

The ethics and values I developed 5+ years ago still guide me today in my life and career goals.

BSA High Adventure | The Epitome of Scouting

High adventure base experiences, like those at Norther Tier, epitomize the promise of Scouting. They provide an unparalleled environment for your Scouts to explore their potential, develop character, and create lasting memories. They also play a key role in developing a lifelong appreciation for the outdoors and the importance of service. 

High adventure base experiences are a core component of Scouting and offer an unparalleled opportunity for growth and learning. Scouts get the chance to explore new places, meet new people, and push themselves to the limit while having a great time. High adventure base experiences provide an opportunity to develop teamwork and leadership skills, as well as self-confidence, physical fitness, and an appreciation for nature. They challenge Scouts in a way that can’t be replicated in the classroom or at home.

In short, high adventure base experiences embody the spirit of Scouting and help to deliver our promise of creating strong, capable, and responsible citizens.