Upcoming change of guard for the Trail Guards

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* Ride wild whitewater rapids in northern Minnesota;

* Set up a tent on a campground overlooking the Devil’s Waterfall in the wilderness of the Boundary Waters canoe region; or maybe,

* Pedal a bicycle through the mountains of South America.

There is a lot more, really. All of this has been made possible for the youth of the Paynesville area for 30 years now thanks to an organization known as Crow River Trail Guards.

The organization is launching its own Changing of the Guard to ensure that the unique program that introduces young people to the outdoors continues for a very long time.

The Trail Guards is advertising their first paid director. Tom Koshiol, who has led the organization as a volunteer director since its inception, will turn 69 in April. He decided it was time for him to take it out. The Board of Directors is looking for a part-time, year-round director willing to devote an average of six to ten hours per week.

“I never intended to start a youth program,” Koshiol said of how the Trail Guards started.

A native of Paynesville, he wanted to get people to better appreciate the North Fork of the Crow River which runs along what is now Trail Guards Nature Park in the community. The then mayor, and eventual Trail Guards co-founder, the late Dick Morelan, urged Koshiol to undertake a river clean-up project. Koshiol said he was not interested in undertaking an annual cleanup of the river, but told the mayor he would try his luck for a year.

He recruited young people from the community to help him. He has been working there ever since, with the help of hundreds of young people over the years. Starting each year in May, young people aged 8 to 18 are invited to join the park on Saturday mornings to spend time with their friends or, if they wish, to help and maintain the trails and the park.

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

Some young people come just to be with their friends, but usually it doesn’t take long to participate and help. Workers enjoy a mid-morning fruit break and a sit-down lunch. Those who help also earn points for participating in a variety of outdoor adventures sponsored by the Trail Guards.

Koshiol is the first to admit that many of these adventures are all extensions of his own passion for the outdoors. He believes that we should enjoy the outdoors without harming or taking away from them. He is passionate about wild camping, winter and summer, and he enjoys non-motorized excursions, especially boating and biking.

Each summer, the Trail Guards sponsor a BWCA adventure as well as a whitewater rafting excursion. They join an overnight bike tour to Willmar and return each spring. The group also helps sponsor an international bike trip each year for a few trail rangers, although this year up to eight can join a bike trip to Argentina.

There are many other fun outdoor activities organized near you. Fishing and boating adventures on Lake Koronis. A moonlit hike in February in the nature park. A fun day at the Prairie Woods Environmental Learning Center near Spicer.

And every year, the leaders and members of Trail Guard join the My Room project. They put their skills to work to rearrange the bedroom of a young member chosen to suit that person.

At the base of all these activities is a simple belief on the part of Koshiol and those who support this organization. Give young people the opportunity to explore and enjoy the outdoors, and when they grow up, they will care about protecting our natural heritage.

It is a successful formula, and the group enjoys strong support from the community. A strong donor base provides the financial support needed to make a paid director position possible, Koshiol said.

It hasn’t always been that way. Koshiol remembers how in the early years he would have days walking around the house with his head down, wondering how he could maintain this thing on a shoestring budget. One day, when things seemed to be going for the worst, an anonymous donor provided $ 2,000 and things got better from there.

Trail Guards have an average of around 50 young members each year, of which 30 are active throughout the year. The number of participants has remained stable, although it is not as high as at the beginning of the organization. Koshiol said the Trail Guards are no different from organizations such as Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, which have seen their numbers dwindle as other activities compete for the time of young people.

What remains the same is the passion shown by those who participate. Koshiol said there was never a shortage of young people ready to help out on Saturday mornings. Parents tell her they are amazed to see their sons and daughters get up early on Saturday mornings – with a smile – to go to work.

Today a number of young people who come to help and join in the outdoor adventures are the children of former Trail Guards members. Koshiol said he was optimistic about the future prospects of the organization. The board has given a lot of thought to developing a succession plan, he noted. “We have to be careful not to lose the magic,” he explained.

A group of volunteers will review the director nominations and interview the candidates. Koshiol and other longtime supporters will be available to help the selected person. Koshiol said he was optimistic someone would step forward and take the organization to greater heights.

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