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Changing of guard coming for Trail Guards

An opportunity to lead youth on outdoor adventures is waiting for the person who answers the call to lead the Crow River Trail Guards in Paynesville as its first paid director. For 30 years, the Trail Guards have maintained the trails along the North Fork of the Crow River while joining for adventures ranging from whitewater rafting and wilderness camping to overseas bicycle trips.

Happy on the Suwannee.jpg
Tom Koshiol smiles in a submitted photo from a trip on the Suwannee River. Submitted photo

PAYNESVILLE -- Spend a few Saturday mornings pushing a wheelbarrow and pulling a rake on the trails along the North Fork of the Crow River in Paynesville, and the next thing you know, you might find yourself:

* Riding wild whitewater rapids in northern Minnesota;

* Pitching a tent on a campsite overlooking Devil’s Cascade in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness; or maybe,

* Pedaling a bicycle through the mountains of South America.

There’s a lot more, really. It’s all been made possible for young people in the Paynesville area for 30 years now by an organization known as the Crow River Trail Guards .

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The organization is launching its own changing of the guard to assure that the unique program that introduces young people to the outdoors continues for a very long time.

The Trail Guards is advertising for its first, paid director. Tom Koshiol, who has led the organization as its volunteer director since its start, will turn 69 in April. He has decided it’s time for him to pull back some. The board of directors are looking for a part-time, year-around director willing to commit an average of six to 10 hours a week.

“I never had any intention of starting a youth program,” said Koshiol of how the Trail Guards got started.

A Paynesville native, he was interested in getting people to better appreciate the North Fork of the Crow River that runs along what is now Trail Guards Nature Park in the community. The mayor at the time, and an eventual co-founder of the Trail Guards, the late Dick Morelan, urged Koshiol to take on a river clean-up project. Koshiol said he wasn’t interested in taking on an annual river clean up, but told the mayor he’d give it a shot for one year.

He recruited some youth in the community to help. He’s been at it ever since, with help from hundreds of young people through those years. Starting each year in May, youths ages 8 to 18 are welcome to join on Saturday mornings at the park to either hang around with their friends, or if so inclined, to help out and maintain the trails and park.

No one who shows up on those Saturday mornings is required to work. “It’s the first rule of Trail Guards and it is the most important rule,” said Koshiol.

Some young people drop by just to be around their friends, but typically, it isn’t long before they are pitching in and helping out. The workers enjoy a mid-morning fruit break and a sit-down lunch. Those who help out also earn points towards participation in a variety of outdoor adventures sponsored by the Trail Guards.

Koshiol is the first to admit many of these adventures are all extensions of his own passion for the outdoors. He believes we should enjoy the outdoors without harming or taking from them. He’s an avid wilderness camper, winter and summer, and enjoys non-motorized excursions including paddling and bicycling.

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Each summer, the Trail Guards sponsor an adventure in the BWCA as well as a separate, whitewater rafting trip. They join for an overnight bicycle excursion to Willmar and back each spring. The group also helps sponsor an international bicycle trip each year for a couple of Trail Guards, although this year, as many as eight may join for a bicycle trip in Argentina.

There are plenty of other fun, outdoor activities held close to home. Fishing and paddling adventures on Lake Koronis. A February moonlight hike in Nature Park. A day of fun at the Prairie Woods Environmental Learning Center near Spicer.

And each year, the Trail Guard leaders and members join for the My Room project. They put their skills to work to remodel a chosen youth member’s bedroom to that person’s liking.

Underlying all of these activities is a simple belief on the part of Koshiol and those supporting this organization. Give young people an opportunity to explore and enjoy the outdoors, and when they get older, they are going to care about protecting our natural heritage.

It’s a successful formula, and the group has come to enjoy strong support from the community. A strong donor base provides the financial support to make possible a paid director position, said Koshiol.

It wasn’t always this way. Koshiol remembers how in the early years, he had days where he moped around the house, head dropped, wondering how he’d keep this thing going on a shoestring budget. One day, when things looked to be at their worst, an anonymous donor provided $2,000 and things got better from there.

The Trail Guards average about 50 youth members each year, with 30 active through the year. The number of participants has held steady, although are not as high as when the organization first started. Koshiol said Trail Guards are no different than organizations such as Boys Scouts and Girls Scouts, which have seen declining numbers as other activities compete for the time of young people.

What remains the same is the passion shown by those who participate. Koshiol said they never lack for youth willing to help out on Saturday mornings. Parents tell him they’re amazed to find their sons and daughters getting up early on Saturday mornings -- with smiles -- to go and work.

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Today, a number of the youth coming to help out and joining the outdoor adventures are the children of former Trail Guards members. Koshiol said he’s optimistic about the prospects for the organization’s future. The board of directors has put a lot of thought into developing a succession plan, he noted. “We have to be careful not to lose the magic,” he explained.

A group of volunteers will review applications for the director position and interview candidates. Koshiol and other long-time supporters will be available to assist the selected person. Koshiol said he is optimistic that someone will step forward and take the organization to greater heights.

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