The art of the pulaski: Doug Welker and the NCT/Dan Schneider

On a summer day back in 2009, I was building trail with Doug Welker down in Baraga County, vicinity of Herman.

We were using pulaskis to dig a section of bench cut trail into the side of a hill and it was tough going, hot as it was and the ground thick with roots. After something like an hour of swinging the pulaski, I was covered with sweat, soil, flecks of pulverized tree root and mosquito bites. I surveyed the 20 or so yards of fresh hiking trail my efforts had yielded, then went to see how Doug’s work was coming along.

He was swinging his pulaski deftly and steadily through root-filled soil at the end of a stretch of fresh trail that was smoother, more free of tree roots, and three or four times longer than the trail I had cut in the same amount of time.

A pulaski, I should explain, is a variation on a pickaxe with a wood-chopping axe on one side and a digging hoe on the other side of its steel head. It is designed for chopping through roots and grubbing up dirt.

A pulaski is a cumbersome and inelegant tool, so Welker’s demonstrated ability to wield a one with finesse testifies to his decades-long dedication to trail building. It is the North Country National Scenic Trail, specifically the stretch of it maintained by the Peter Wolfe Chapter of the North Country Trail Association in Baraga and Ontonagon counties, that has benefitted most from Welker’s craft.

Welker has been building the North Country National Scenic Trail since the late 1980s, when the trail in the western Upper Peninsula was mostly limited to the Ottawa National Forest. Welker helped build the first stretch of NCT outside the Ottawa, along the north side of the Tibbetts Falls section of the Sturgeon River in Baraga County. Since that time, he has constructed and scouted miles of trail in the western U.P., some of it while working as a seasonal wilderness ranger in the Ottawa National Forest, but mostly as a volunteer.

Welker’s favorite part of the trail is in the national forest: the long, winding and rugged trail traversing the Trap Hills of Ontonagon County.

“It is just so great to get up on those high overlooks and look out for miles and miles and see, well, I wouldn’t say undisturbed forest, but it’s basically a nearly contiguous forest,” he said.

A section of Trap Hills trail, heading eastward from Norwich Road in Ontonagon County, is featured in a new guidebook, The North Country Trail: the Best Walks, Hikes and Backpacking Trips on America’s Longest National Scenic Trail, which is due out in May.

In the 1990s, Welker served on the national board of the North Country Trail Association. When the Peter Wolfe Chapter formed in 1999, Welker was elected its first president. Earlier this month, Welker stepped down from the Peter Wolfe Chapter presidency, a position he held for 14 years.

Fortunately for the North Country Trail and its hikers, Welker is not hanging up his pulaski along with his president’s hat. Indeed, he is transitioning into a new role, as chair of the chapter’s trail management committee, that will focus his energy more exclusively on route scouting, trail building and trail maintenance.

A well-made hiking trail, meandering through the woods, will look like it has always been there, so people don’t always think about the hard work and stewardship that goes into building and maintaining our favorite trails. But if you are on the North Country Trail in Baraga or Ontonagon County, there is a good chance you are walking on ground where Doug Welker has swung a pulaski . . . or a mcleod . . . or a fire rake.