The Ice Age Trail Alliance recently presented several awards to long-time volunteers and public partners. Normally given at the group’s annual April meeting, the ceremony was unable to be held this year due to COVID-19.
The Spirit Stick award was presented to Richard Smith of New Auburn, Trail Steward of the Year to Gail Piotrowski of Wausau, and two Public Partner awards to Jake Walcisak of Medford and Meleesa Johnson of Ringle.
Richard Smith received his award July 15 during a socially distanced membership gathering of the Chippewa Moraine Chapter of the Ice Age Trail Alliance.
The Spirit Stick award symbolizes long-term dedication and service to the Ice Age Trail and is presented to a single recipient per year. Spirit Stick nominees must exhibit a passion for the Ice Age Trail that has become a way of life, lead by example and inspire those around them, and carry out their service in a spirit of cooperation, optimism, and enthusiasm.
Smith has been a Chapter Coordinator since 2001, working hard to create a community of Ice Age Trail supporters in Chippewa County. In addition, his own volunteering work extends to many hours spent mowing and managing brush along trailways and monitoring the conditions of the Ice Age Trail though the Chippewa Moraine Chapter territory.
He has also contributed to coordinating larger projects through the Alliance’s Mobile Skills Crew (MSC) program. There have been nine MSC events in Chippewa County, and Smith dedicated himself to providing a good experience at these events for both local participants and those coming from farther afield.
Ice Age Trail Membership Coordinator Eric Sherman wrote in Smith’s nomination, “He is a top-flight communicator who very much understands the need to broadcast timely, helpful information to both current and potential volunteers and hikers. Volunteer leaders in our organization who can relate to and advocate for both volunteers and Ice Age Trail users are worth their weight in gold.”
Along with his work promoting the Trail to volunteers and hikers, and his efforts to build and maintain the Trail, Smith has also engaged in the kind of partnership-building central to success at the local, regional, and state level. As both an Alliance chapter leader and a board member with Chippewa County Land Conservancy, he worked with local landowners and has been a helpful advocate for land protection for the Ice Age Trail.
Smith has established a solid partnership with the local county forest administrator—a key connection in an area where so much of the Trail passes through county-managed lands. He has been an engaged and positive leader throughout the multi-year National Park Service Chippewa County corridor-planning process. Smith was also an Alliance board member from 2003–2009.
Gail Piotrowski naturally exudes the qualities recognized by those awarded Trail Steward of the Year. As a volunteer leader within the Ice Age Trail Alliance and proud Thousand-Miler, having hiked the entire length of the Trail, Piotrowski has dedicated an extensive amount of time to both hiking and building the Ice Age National Scenic Trail.
The Trail Steward of the Year award recognizes a volunteer whose work contributes in an extraordinary manner to the development of new Ice Age Trail though such activities as trail planning, landowner and/or partner relations, trail layout and design, trail construction, trail maintenance, and stewardship work.
Piotrowski has been an active participant in Mobile Skills Crew (MSC) events since 2010 where she, along with a host of volunteers from across the Midwest, helped build new segments of the Ice Age Trail, including the scenic Plover River Segment in Marathon County. In 2011, she mastered the necessary coursework to become a Mobile Skills Crew Leader. She now leads by example, teaching volunteers the art of building sustainable trail and installing proper signage. In 2019, she was especially instrumental in facilitating MSC events that focused on a reroute of the Ringle Segment. Demonstrating her capable and hardworking nature, she worked in all kinds of weather, coordinated pre-project work crews, delivered food, welcomed volunteers, arranged entertainment, tracked volunteer hours, and much more.
First as coordinator and then co-coordinator for the Central Moraines Chapter of the Ice Age Trail Alliance, Piotrowski helped reinvigorate the chapter and imbue fun and enthusiasm into its activities. Piotrowski’s dedication to the Ice Age Trail has also extended to assuming a leadership role in fundraising—a land purchase for future Trail; serving on the Ice Age Trail Alliance’s Strategic Plan committee, which helped set the organization’s course; and providing many hikers with Trail Angel services including homestays, meals, and shuttles.
Ice Age Trail Alliance Board President Bob Funk said, “Gail exemplifies the qualities of a Trail Steward with her endless chapter and trail-wide service. She works to create the best experience possible for our members, volunteers, and trail users.”
Taylor County Forest Administrator Jake Walcisak received his Public Partner award for his dedication to preserving historic and ecological attributes of the Trail. The award honors individuals who work for a public, governmental agency that actively partners with the Ice Age Trail Alliance.
Walcisak’s keen eye for detail observed unusual landforms in the county forest while he was laying out a selective timber cut. Further investigation, and research by Rib Lake Historical Society Manager Robert Rusch, determined these earth ridges had been deposited by horse-drawn “slushers” during the construction of a logging railroad. Walcisak’s curiosity resulted in the preservation of this historic site along the Ice Age Trail.
Under Walcisak’s administration of the county forest, a more protective policy toward the Ice Age Trail and the forest cover along the Trail has been implemented. In his nominating paper, Rusch wrote, “Jake has adopted the practice of formally amending the County Forestry Management Plan by creating ‘aesthetic management zones’ where no timber harvests will take place. To date, he has established these zones at a variety of locations along the Ice Age Trail, including five around Wood Lake. They vary from one to seven acres. They protect, for example, the Ice Age Trail and Wood Lake shoreline, the site of the old Wood Lake logging dam, the site of Rib Lake Lumber Company Camp 4 (1906-1913), as well as a bald eagle’s nest.”
Walcisak and Rusch have also worked closely with the Ice Age Trail Alliance, the High Point Chapter of the Ice Age Trail Alliance, and the County Forest Department to create and enhance a 3.6-mile Wood Lake Loop Trail. It will consist primarily of the Ice Age Trail and a connecting trail, now called the Camp 4 Trail. This loop trail will include a series of historical and geological markers, as well as attractive “You Are Here” signage.
Rusch added, “Jake’s ‘can-do’ attitude and ready help has played the crucial role in upgrading and protecting the Ice Age Trail through the Taylor County Forest, and setting a progressive and proactive example for other public foresters.”
Marathon County Solid Waste Department Director Meleesa Johnson received her Public Partner award for providing consistent, unwavering service on behalf of the Ice Age National Scenic Trail. Her leadership has ensured the continued presence of the Ringle Segment of the Ice Age Trail on Marathon County Solid Waste Facility Lands (landfill) while managing to balance the Department’s need to expand and fulfill landfill operations.
Since 2001, Johnson has been an insightful participant in the Marathon County Corridor Plan process, seeking alternatives that helped maintain multiple goals and forward momentum. Under her leadership, in 2011, Marathon County granted the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) a 100-foot-wide Ice Age Trail easement on landfill property and formalized this Trail protection opportunity. Further, her efforts in 2014 and 2015 led the Department to acquire an adjacent 40-acre property, which enabled the relocation of nearly two miles of Ice Age Trail. This acquisition launched an additional five miles of Trail relocation on DNR and Ice Age Trail Alliance-owned lands.
In 2015 and 2016, when the Central Wisconsin Off-Road Cycling Club (CWOC) submitted a proposal to Johnson requesting permission to build 10 miles of off-road mountain bike trails in the area where the Ice Age Trail was then located, Johnson brokered agreement through cooperative and effective in-person stakeholder and staff meetings. Then, in 2016 and 2017, when the Ice Age Trail relocation and mountain bike trail development necessitated amending the Ice Age Trail easement, Johnson capably steered these changes through a host of public agencies and boards.
Since April 2017, nine Mobile Skills Crew (MSC) events and 20,000 volunteer hours have been devoted to relocating and reimagining the Ringle Segment of the Ice Age Trail. Johnson’s contributions to these MSC events (and counting) have been significant, including a base camp location, numerous coordinated arrangements involving Department staff time and equipment, and timely letters of support for more than $40,000 in grant funding received.
Ice Age Trail Alliance Trailway Director Tim Malzhan wrote in his nomination, “The can-do, cooperative, encouraging tone Director Johnson and her staff set, and the educational opportunities she supports through science, stewardship, and recreation, engage and support not only Ice Age Trail Alliance volunteers and Ice Age National Scenic Trail users, but Wisconsinites at large.”