RIVERTON — Standing atop the Overlook Trail near Riverton, Jack McAllister looked out across the changing leaves and deep blue of Gillespie Mine Pit Lake.
McAllister said it’s a view that rivals and exceeds the overlook high above the Pennington access near Ironton.
And it’s a view area residents and travelers have stopped to appreciate for hundreds of years.
The water trail and portage route is a locally historic one traveled by Native Americans and trappers more than 300 years ago. With thick woods to negotiate, travelers used the water along the route to more quickly travel from the Mississippi River to Mille Lacs Lake.
And now that view is more accessible to everyone. It’s because of McAllister’s passion for a Native American portage and physically hard work — and Crow Wing County’s effort to create public recreation areas.
McAllister brought the trail proposal to the county’s trail plan committee. This spring, the 86-year-old McAllister was on the trail clearing brush. More recently he was using hand tools to create a smooth dirt path for the Overlook Trail that extends to the top of a hill looking out over the sapphire waters of Gillespie Lake.
Eventually, a bench may be installed there so people who make the little climb, with a switchback to make it easier to reach the top, can relax and take in the view. The county is also developing interpretive displays for the trail.
McAllister ran across references to the trail from survey documents when he bought his Riverton property in 1999. He was intrigued by a faint narrow line indicating a well-worn trail between Gillespie and Portage lakes. The trail along his own property was still visible as a landmark from many feet passing along the earth.
McAllister created a booklet with the information he gathered. The trail, he said, was undoubtedly an important one for the local Indian villages, including one on June Lake as they traveled to Long Prairie in the fall to hunt buffalo and elk and return to the woods in the spring.
It’s the only portage that links the Mississippi River to the Cuyuna Country State Recreation Area. Mary Hoffman, a member of the White Earth Band, wrote to the county during the public comment period supporting the trail, saying she was proud to preserve and educate others about historic trails.
McAllister said the portage route, once so vital to area residents, was nearly forgotten to history. Until now.
“Jack was instrumental in making sure the public had access to (Gillespie Lake) and Portage Lake,” Bryan Pike, Crow Wing County natural resource manager. McAllister pointed to Pike as a key factor in making sure the portage route would be remembered.
Gillespie Lake is manmade. It was initially dug as a mine pit toward the end of the mining era but ore was never shipped from the site.
Pike was out on the trail earlier this week, putting up a sign for the Overlook and Portage Lake trails, checking a canoe rest and installing a bench at one of the rest stops.
Along with preserving a little history, Pike said a goal in the project is to give residents and visitors outdoor recreation options.
“The Portage Lake Trail will give them that unique experience,” Pike said.
The trail creates greater public access through mature hardwoods to breathtaking views of both lakes, which previously may have been known mainly to those living nearby.
Those who are expected to benefit include canoeists, kayakers, anglers, hikers, along with those interested in birdwatching and snowshoeing. Biking and recreational motorized use is not allowed on these trails. Future phases include creating a route from Portage Lake to June Lake.
In May, the Crow Wing County Board approved the development of the Portage Lake Trail. This spring and summer work has gone into making the trail accessible.
The trail is designed to give present-day canoeists and kayakers an understanding of the area’s history, provide outdoor recreation and protect the natural environment. The long-range goal is to connect up to five miles of water travel and portages from the Mississippi River to Mahnoman and Turner lakes.
The trail from the Mississippi River to Little Rabbit Lake to Portage Lake is on public land managed by Crow Wing County. Pike said they are working with the Cuyuna Country State Recreational Area for future trail connections.
As in some of the mine pit lakes, dead trees rise from the water at the edge of Portage Lake. As he stood along the shore of Portage Lake, Pike noted the lake’s level was drawn down for decades to allow the tree growth. When the water level went back up the trees on the edge were drowned out. Pike pointed to rocks and a line higher than the water’s edge as the indicator of where Portage Lake’s natural shoreline once was. He estimates the water level is still 2 feet below those historic levels.
Both trails are accessible from a parking area just off Iverson Road, which is reached by taking Highway 210 to the Highway 59 at Riverton and then County Road 128 to get to Iverson Road. The Overlook Trail is to the west and 1,700-foot Portage Lake Trail is to the east.
McAllister would like to see the trail continue all the way to Highway 6 and then loop back again using the Mississippi River.
McAllister said he is going to continue to push for that route and hopes to get others involved in case he isn’t around long enough. “I’m going to be persistent.”