BELTRAMI ISLAND STATE FOREST, Minn.-Rumbling down a road less traveled called the Bernard's Orchard Trail in a Polaris Ranger with just enough air conditioning to make the August heat bearable, Myles Hogenson talked about the work that went into making this 2-mile stretch of designated ATV route passable.

Starting in the summer of 2017 and continuing after freeze-up, area contractors installed half a dozen culverts and put down some 200 yards of rock and gravel fill atop textile underlayment to stabilize the road grade.

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The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources also worked on the trail, Hogenson says, and recently blew a massive beaver dam. Years of flooding made even worse by the beavers had washed out long stretches of the boggy trail, he said.

"This was bad; it was basically impassable," Hogenson said. "Everywhere, basically, it was up and down, and the beavers had runs going through it.

"It wasn't pretty."

The refurbished trail is rough and rocky, to be sure, but this part of the Bernard's Orchard Trail now provides connectivity with more established routes open to ATVs and other motorized use within Beltrami Island State Forest, Hogenson says.

The rocks will settle over time.

"It's already getting used," he said. "The only bad thing about the rocks is it takes awhile for them to disappear, but they sure 'solid up' the ground."

Trail cooperative

Restoring the 2-mile eastern stretch the Bernard's Orchard Trail is just the latest project to be driven by the Northstar Trail Alliance, a cooperative venture between the Fourtown-Grygla Sportsman Club and the Roseau-Lake of the Woods Sportsman Club.

The two northwest Minnesota clubs formed the trail alliance in 2017 to maintain existing motorized routes within Beltrami forest and to improve connectivity by refurbishing routes such as the stretch of Bernard's Orchard Trail that had become impassable.

Work on the trail was done in partnership with the DNR's sections of Parks and Trails and Forestry, along with area contractors Holthusen Construction and Andrew Stoskopf Construction, said Hogenson, trail administrator of the Roseau-Lake of the Woods Sportsman Club. The DNR and the contractors provided the equipment, he said.

During a recent ride along some of the forest trails, Jack Nelson of Thief River Falls said the alliance helps fill a void left by the folding of the area North Star ATV Club.

Nelson is a member of the Fourtown-Grygla Sportsman Club.

"We just kind of came to the conclusion we've got to keep this thing rolling one way or the other," Nelson said. "We had a couple of different work days last summer. Everybody really pitches in and gets it done."

Grant-in-aid funding provided to the clubs by the DNR through registration fees from ATVs and off-highway vehicles helps pay for the work.

It's all about having a safe place to ride, said Tony Moe of the Fourtown-Grygla Sportsman Club. Give them a place to go, and off-road vehicles are less apt to cause problems and go where they shouldn't.

He might be biased, of course, but Moe says Beltrami forest provides the best riding opportunities in the state.

"You need a destination, and that's all people are asking about," he said. "People are just out to get away. It's no different than snowmobiling was. You've got to manage it, and it will take care of itself."

All about connections

As part of the DNR's management plan, roads and trails in Beltrami Island State Forest are open to ATVs, off-highway vehicles and off-highway motorcycles unless marked as closed. A total of 238 miles of trails within the forest are open to ATVs, OHVs and OHMs, according to the DNR website.

"Our biggest thing is connections," said Hogenson, of Roosevelt, Minn., who also is trail administrator for the Roseau County Trailblazers snowmobile club. "Every grant-in-aid meeting I've attended, everything I've ever read, they want you going from Point A to Point B and not in little circles.

"We don't want to take gravel. We want it safe, so we're trying to connect the dots."

Connecting the dots was the first order of business for the trail alliance when it formed last year. The two clubs partnered to put up color-coded signs along a network of six routes within the forest.

Following the color-coded signs, which are placed every quarter-mile or so, riders can tour the forest from the Bemis Hill Campground to destinations such as Winner Silo, the historic Penturen Church and Clear River without having to wonder about where they're going.

At more than 703,000 acres, Beltrami forest offers plenty of opportunities for riders to wonder about where they're going; the signs reduce the guesswork.

"We wanted something that was simple that wasn't going to cost a lot of money," Hogenson said.

Eventually, Hogenson says, the alliance hopes to work with DNR staff to create maps highlighting the color-coded trails, but for now, riders just need to watch for the signs marked with colored dots.

"We're trying to make the trails self-guided," Hogenson said. "If you go to Bemis Hill, you can take off from there, and it will at least get you going."

Overall, the signage is working out well, Moe said. A group of 60 riders, most of whom weren't familiar with the forest trails, followed the dots during a recent ride through the forest and returned to their starting point at Bemis Hill without any problems, he said.

"The signs and the dots reassured them," he said, adding with a laugh: "We never lost a soul."

Other projects

Besides the Bernard's Orchard Trail, the trail alliance worked with the DNR to rebuild the Stotts Forest Road south of the Winner Silo, providing connections to other, more established routes.

That project included installing 15 culverts, Hogenson said.

"That one had to happen," he said. "It's nice to have that connection."

The trail alliance is gearing up for an additional connection along a .7-mile corridor that falls within a patch of federal Land Utilization Project holdings the DNR leases from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The DNR manages the LUP lands, but its lease with the Fish and Wildlife Service prohibits any new motorized trails on the federal holdings.

After months of negotiating, a land transfer between the DNR and FWS that will turn the .7-mile parcel over to the state is nearing completion as part of a deal that involves nearly 400 acres throughout the forest. That will allow work to begin on repairing the trail, opening it to motorized use and providing a continuous north-south route for ATV and OHV riders who no longer will have to take an 8-mile detour on a more heavily traveled forest road.

In the meantime, U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn., on Aug. 8 sent a letter to Tom Melius, Midwest regional director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Bloomington, Minn., asking the agency to grant a special work permit to allow construction to begin on repairing the trail before the land swap is complete.

Materials already are onsite, but work can't begin until the land is transferred to the DNR or the FWS grants the permit Peterson is requesting.

"Finalizing this trail connection will be a boon to the area sportsmen's clubs and would allow for the area's natural resources to be properly utilized by those who are most invested in them and their care," Peterson writes in the letter.

No doubt the demand is there, trail advocates say.

"We've got the little segment we're waiting for a permit on, but there are other segments just like it that just stop," Moe said. "If you could just connect them, people would have a wonderful experience."