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Water Trails: “So, what do you do?”

By: Erin Bjork, 10/9/18

“So, what do you do?”
“I’m an AmeriCorps member, and most days I run chainsaws on boats.”
“You what?!”







Since last spring, this is usually how my conversations go when meeting new people and describing my work on the Minnesota Water Trails.

To zoom out to the big picture, the Water Trails consist of stretches of river (or lakeshore in the case of the Lake Superior WT) designated for recreation by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and maintained by the DNR and three Conservation Corps young adult crews. If you have a canoe, kayak, or paddleboard, you can register it with the DNR and use any of the trails (many are appropriate for motorboats as well). My favorite Water Trails to recommend are the Snake and Kettle, two absolutely beautiful rivers that give the feel of the North Shore but are only a little over an hour from the Twin Cities. If you explore the Water Trails on the DNR website and take a look at WT maps, you’ll see that each trail has marked boat launches for canoes or motorboats, campsites, rest areas, and notes on the river/lake.

Some of our responsibilities as Water Trails crews are to perform maintenance on the campsites and launches: from mowing to installing new signage, even occasionally creating new campsites or taking down old ones. On rivers with portages, we do the same–the aforementioned Snake and Kettle Rivers have a couple of long portages that we visit once a year for mowing, signage checks, and cleaning up their campsites (with breaks to snack on wild blueberries, if we hit the right time in the season).

These maintenance activities are important to the Water Trails experience—making sure signage is up to date and correct, and providing clean, well-kept campsites and portages help river users have a great trip. However, the real gem of Water Trails service is our snag removal work: what I always call “chainsaws on boats.” In a nutshell, if a tree falls across a river, or a logjam accumulates, it can be dangerous and difficult for paddlers, so we cut safe paths through or around these snags.

When I first heard about snag removal, my 2017 term Crew Leader called it “underwater chainsawing” and I thought he was kidding. Turns out that’s really what we do, spraying water with our saws as we cut away hazardous branches under the surface of the water. In a jonboat, we operate our saws directly from the boat, working as a team to keep the boat in position and make safe cuts. When we canoe, we have to get out and stand in the river to operate our saws–their motors are powerful enough that they could easily drive (and tip) the canoes!

One of my greatest challenges is analyzing and manipulating the physics of the trees we work on. On land, gravity and tension determine how a tree will fall or roll. In the water, buoyancy and current come into the picture as well, multiplying the chances of getting a saw pinned in a branch if a cut isn’t made just right. Exploring and confronting these forces, and working on such a variety of projects, gets me excited about my service term every day.

While much of our work is for the benefit of recreation, we also keep in mind the ecology of the rivers we visit. We try to keep our cutting minimal and all woody debris we cut or dislodge is left in the river to serve as important habitat for fish, invertebrates, birds, and all the wildlife surrounding these river habitats. I often fish trash and recycling out of logjams for proper disposal, almost invariably finding at least a couple mismatched flip flops or Crocs, cans and bottles, and inflatable balls.

I am honored to have had the opportunity to ensure great recreational experiences for others, learn about water resources, and spend my days in some of the most beautiful settings our state has to offer. As a kid who never went camping, having the opportunity to live in a tent all summer long has truly been a dream, and I am so thankful that the Corps took me on as a member last year and allowed me the chance to lead a crew this 2018 term!