by Dennis Dalman
Some had begun to claim it will never happen; others refused to consider defeat and forged onward for 10 years through endless negotiations, fundraising and a veritable blizzard of paperwork.
Those who persisted doggedly through hope and hard work won the day. At 6 p.m. July 12, about 100 people gathered at River’s Edge Park in Waite Park to celebrate their dream-come-true – the three-mile extension of the Lake Wobegon Trail from St. Joseph to Waite Park.
A group of riders rode from St. Joseph to River’s Edge Park on the new trail to watch the ribbon-cutting ceremony at the newly built bridge across the Sauk River to the park.
Stearns County Parks Director Ben Anderson introduced speaker after speaker, including local and area legislative leaders and Cliff Borgerding, presidents of the Lake Wobegon Trails Association, who gave a detailed of the history of the trail and its extension. People applauded with gusto after each speaker. Big bouquets of praise and thank-yous were given to the many people, cities and organizations who made the trail and its extension possible. One speaker read a congratulatory letter from U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, a longtime supporter of the Lake Wobegon Trail.
Now 65 miles, the trail opened on Sept. 30, 1998. It was built on a rail bed owned by the BNSF Railway. What made the trail extension – and the original trail possible – were seemingly endless rounds of negotiations among governmental entities, the BNSF, the Department of Natural Resources, the State of Minnesota, the Minnesota Legislature, the Stearns County Parks Department, the Lake Wobegon Trails Association, Stearns County, St. Joseph, St. Joseph Township, other cities along the trail, including during the past decade Waite Park and St. Cloud. The St. Cloud Area Planning Organization was helpful in coordinating trail-system plans throughout the greater St. Cloud area.
A variety of grants and donations paid for the trail.
Former Sartell Mayor Joe Perske, one of the speakers, said that even cities not directly on the trail, such as Sartell, helped push for the extension, too, as part of a regional collaborative effort.
St. Joseph Mayo Rick Schultz, an avid bicyclist, said he had begun to think the extension might not happen because of all the complicated negotiations and paperwork. However, at the dedication ceremony he expressed his pleasure about the extension’s completion.
“It’s outstanding,” Schultz said. “I can hardly believe the extension finally happened because I thought for a long time it would just never get done. All the paperwork to get it done! I’m glad it’s here now. I ride the trail a lot.”
Waite Park Police Chief Dave Bentrud, who attended the ceremony, also praised the extension.
“It’s a great addition to our area,” he said. “People always think of Waite Park as lacking in recreational facilities. But, in fact, we have Quarry Park, River’s Edge Park with the ball fields, splash pads and pickle ball. And now we are connected to the (Lake) Wobegon Trail.”
Ann Heitkamp of St. Cloud said the extension, in the warmer months, will be a convenient link to her job at Riff City Guitar in St. Joseph.
“I’m excited that we now have the trail,” she said. “ . . It will be nice to bike to work.”
Borgerding, in his talk to the audience, noted that the idea for a Lake Wobegon Trail was hatched in a shoot-the-breeze session more than 20 years ago by the Albany Jaycees. Every year, about 300,000 people use one or more portions of the trail, Borgerding said, adding that beneficial economic impact can be noted in all of the cities and townships at or near the trail.
Many speakers at the event noted that even though the extension ends at River’s Edge Park inWaite Park, it offers bicyclists, walkers, runners, rollerbladers and winter skiers access to the growing trail system in St. Cloud via the pedestrian overpass across Hwy. 15. Eventually, trail users will be able to have access to other trail systems in the entire region, including the trail along the Mississippi River in St. Cloud south to the Beaver Islands. Eventually, the trail connections will go all the way south to Clearwater.
Cities connected to the Lake Wobegon Trail now include – besides St. Joseph and Waite Park – Collegeville, Avon, Albany, Freeport, Melrose, Sauk Centre, West Union and Osakis. There is a northern extension starting at Albany that goes to Holdingford, with a further connection to Royalton. The trail winds through quintessential Minnesota landscapes, a pastoral spread of lakes, woods and farmland.
The Lake Wobegon Trail was named in honor of famed author and radio personality Garrison Keillor, whose novel “Lake Wobegon Days” celebrated with gentle satire life in central Minnesota where Keillor lived at one time – in the Freeport area. Keillor was a guest of honor and speaker at the trail’s dedication 20 years ago.