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New trail lets people step back into time

RIVERTON - Take a step back 300 years or so. Deep within the thick woods near Riverton, Native Americans and trappers follow a water trail and portage route to more quickly travel from the Mississippi River to Mille Lacs Lake. That rich history i...

Archeologists Jim Cummings and Joe McFarlane paddle a birch bark canoe on Gillespie Lake this week before making the 1,700 foot portage to Portage lake just like travelers have done it for hundreds of years. The canoeists were part of the official opening of the Portage Lake Trail near Riverton. Brainerd Dispatch/Steve Kohls
Archeologists Jim Cummings and Joe McFarlane paddle a birch bark canoe on Gillespie Lake this week before making the 1,700 foot portage to Portage lake just like travelers have done it for hundreds of years. The canoeists were part of the official opening of the Portage Lake Trail near Riverton. Brainerd Dispatch/Steve Kohls

RIVERTON - Take a step back 300 years or so.

Deep within the thick woods near Riverton, Native Americans and trappers follow a water trail and portage route to more quickly travel from the Mississippi River to Mille Lacs Lake.

That rich history is coming to life again today with the grand opening of Portage Lake Trail, just outside the small Riverton community.

County leaders and area residents celebrated the years of hard work to unearth the trail on Thursday.

To mark the occasion, archaeologists Jim Cummings and Joe McFarlane, who studied the land prior to the project, paddled Gillespie Lake with a birch bark canoe, made the 1,700 foot portage to Portage Lake and paddled again, just like travelers would have done hundreds of years ago.

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"(The trail) provides the community with a historical connection so they won't lose sight of what was here," said Bryan Pike, Crow Wing County natural resource manager. "In another 50 or 60 years, people could lose sight and this area would have been lost forever."

It all started a few years ago with a man and a vision.

Jack McAllister, 87, ran across references to the trail from survey documents when he bought nearby property in 1999. He was intrigued by a faint narrow line indicating a well-worn trail between Gillespie and Portage lakes.

The trail along his own property was still visible from many feet passing along the ground.

McAllister created a booklet with the information he gathered. The trail, he said, was undoubtedly an important one for the local Indian villages, including one on June Lake as they traveled to Long Prairie in the fall to hunt buffalo and elk and return to the woods in the spring.

So he brought the trail proposal to the county's trail plan committee.

It fit in well with Crow Wing County's effort to create public recreation areas.

And so started the process, which was long and slow at times, Pike said.

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Nearing 90, McAllister even got his hands dirty clearing the trail of brush and using hand tools to create a smooth dirt path for the Overlook Trail that extends to the top of a hill looking out over the sapphire waters of Gillespie Lake.

Along the trail to Portage Lake are three rest stops with an area to prop up your canoe, sit down and then read about the history of the area.

Mark Liedl, Crow Wing County Land Services director, said people are drawn to trails like this one.

"It lets the locals discover the area," he said. "The interactive signs help people feel like they're part of something."

The long-range goal is to connect up to five miles of water travel and portages from the Mississippi River to Mahnoman and Turner lakes.

The trail from the Mississippi River to Little Rabbit Lake to Portage Lake is on public land managed by Crow Wing County. Pike said they are working with the Cuyuna Country State Recreational Area for future trail connections.

There are a few challenges, like native vegetation and some privately-owned land, but Pike is optimistic the trail will continue on.

There's already been some possible routes identified. Most likely the extensions will be done in smaller sections every year or so, he said.

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McAllister is glad the trail is finally open, but he's leaving little room to sit back and relax.

There's more trails to be made and he intends to see it through.

At least until a younger person steps up to take over the work.

How to get to the trail:

Both trails are accessible from a parking area just off Iverson Road, which is reached by taking Highway 210 to the Highway 59 at Riverton and then County Road 128 to get to Iverson Road. The Overlook Trail is to the west and 1,700-foot Portage Lake Trail is to the east.

Archeologists Jim Cummings and Joe McFarlane paddle a birch bark canoe on Gillespie Lake this week before making the 1,700 foot portage to Portage lake just like travelers have done it for hundreds of years. The canoeists were part of the official opening of the Portage Lake Trail near Riverton. Brainerd Dispatch/Steve Kohls
Archeologists Jim Cummings and Joe McFarlane paddle a birch bark canoe on Gillespie Lake this week before making the 1,700 foot portage to Portage lake just like travelers have done it for hundreds of years. The canoeists were part of the official opening of the Portage Lake Trail near Riverton. Brainerd Dispatch/Steve Kohls

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