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Meet Minnesota's Lumberjack King

Apr 19, 2019 05:23PM ● By Editor
By Kelly Bastone of Outside Magazine - April 19, 2019

John Elliott could tell that the newbie was afraid of the chainsaw. He held it way out in front of his body, so that only the tip of the blade bit into the cedar tree that had toppled across the trail. To make the chain cut into the trunk, the guy was tiring himself out by pushing hard on the saw.

“We get people who come from the Twin Cities and tell me, ‘I’m in great shape. I work out in the gym,’” Elliott tells me later. “But it just blows them up, working on the trail. They’re generally using muscles that they haven’t used before. And they work inefficiently,” explains the 72-year-old, who has headed up trail-clearing efforts along Minnesota’s Border Route Trail for 40 years. Noobs watch Elliott melt away an 18-inch pine in just ten minutes—on his best day, he dispatched 102 trees in just two hours—and scratch their heads at the older man’s speed.

“I just kill these young kids, and they can’t figure out how,” Elliott chuckles. “But I’ve been cutting in the woods since 1975.”

Elliott doesn’t exactly look like Paul Bunyan: he’s tall and scarecrow gangly and sports a graying moustache. “He’s jovial and open and loves to teach what he knows,” says Jeremy Nordling, the mechanized trail director for the Border Route Trail Association, a volunteer group that maintains the path.

Without Elliot and the volunteers he’s led on biannual trail-clearing missions, the Border Route Trail would cease to exist. The 65-mile path follows the U.S.-Canada border between Minnesota and Ontario. Thirty-five miles of the trail cross the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW).

The only enduring open spaces in these thick northern woods are the region’s lakes. Everything else quickly becomes a thicket of brush and saplings. Even the elegant, slender poplar trees that proliferate in these forests start their lives as hiker-thwarting shrubs. Every year, blowdowns bury sections of the trail beneath a tangle of pick-up-sticks.

So, like Sisyphus, trail crews arrive every spring and fall to push their proverbial boulder up the hill. Only by having volunteers hack away downed trees and scrub does this trail remain passable to hikers.

To read more of the original article and see related stories, follow this link to the Outside magazine website.

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