Our Stories

Why I Volunteer: Marty Swank

Categories: Volunteer Stories

The North Country Trail Association has an incredible roster of volunteers who build and maintain the North Country National Scenic Trail. Each volunteer has a story of why they’re involved: Here’s Marty Swank’s. Marty, of the Chequamegon Chapter in Wisconsin, earned a Tom Gilbert Lifetime Achievement Award at the 2018 Annual Celebration. This award recognizes 15 years or more of true dedication, exceptional service, and outstanding contributions toward the dream of the North Country Trail or the success and growth of the NCTA, not just local service.

Marty Swank accepts his 2018 Lifetime Achievement Award from NCTA Board of Directors President Ruth Dorrough.

Written by Marty Swank

I believe we all question our sanity at times when we do major volunteer efforts that seem, at least temporarily, overpowering. Although I would initially start doing trail maintenance because of a love of nature and being out in the woods, it was the people that I met in the process that would spur me on. These people would include fellow volunteers and trail partners that we work with and the thankful trail users that we met along the way.

If we are to continue to maintain sections of the NCT as volunteers, especially with the more recent devastating natural events related to a changing climate, we need to find a higher purpose. For me, this higher purpose would be the many friends that I have met along the way. Of course, an occasional word of thanks also helps!

One of my very early influences was a long-time member of the Chapter, Bob Norlin. Bob was a perfect example of a volunteer that put the REASON TO CONTINUE in all caps! Bob had a very persuasive and witty personality that could convince you that the world was flat even though you knew it was round, and leave you laughing at the same time. His dedication was highly contagious and I would soon catch the “trail bug” from Bob. Even on planned fun hikes, he would be there handing out tools, just in case the NCT needed some maintenance (which it usually did).

In the fall of 2005, I was elected Chapter President. Before my first Chapter meeting as president, Bob became the first Chapter trail adopter when he adopted multiple sections of NCT on our western end. During the meeting, I nominated Bob for the new position of Trail Adoption Coordinator. To this day, I am not sure where this last-minute, middle-of-the-meeting idea came from – a blessing from above?

Bob Norlin displays his racheting loppers. Photo by Marty Swank.

In our Chapter’s second meeting that same year, conversations were going on and I seemed to be having trouble keeping order. It was not until the next day that I found out Bob Norlin was busy signing up trail adopters during the meeting: We ended up with an additional six sections of our NCT adopted. The power of Bob’s persuasion!

Bob went on to receive the NCTA’s Distinguished Service Award and became one of the co-founders of the Iron River Hikers: a group based out of a café in Iron River [WI] that did almost weekly hikes. Although independent of the Chequamegon Chapter, we received many valuable volunteers and trail adopters from the Iron River Hikers, and I am sure it was, in part, because of Bob’s gentle persuasive personality. Bob was always promoting the NCT.

The ravages of Parkinson’s disease eventually overtook Bob, but his dedication to the North Country Trail remained unwavering. An email message from Karen Larsen, a former USFS Washburn District person who worked tirelessly for our Chapter in the past, illustrates this dedication better than I could ever say:

Greetings NCT friends,

Teresa Maday passed along the sad news of Bob’s passing and I wanted to share my condolences with you all. I know what an integral part Bob was of the trail community and how much he will be missed. As I’m sure many of you would agree, Bob’s unflagging spirit and determination, even when his body was faltering, were an incredible inspiration. I can only hope and pray that I can continue to be as active and dedicated to the trails as Bob was. Please know that my thoughts and prayers are with Bob’s family and with you all, and that I do still think of you and appreciate the awesome work that you continue to do!

Karen Larsen,
Natural Resources Manger – Recreation
U.S. Forest Service – Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forest

An inspiration to all of us and a life very well spent. Bob Norlin will always be guiding us on the Trail.

What’s your story? Why do you volunteer with the NCTA? Share your story here. Not involved yet? Get started here!