Duluth man rebuilds city’s trails

by Maeggie Licht

It’s a grey, blustery afternoon in Chester Bowl. A tall, slim man stands near the creek with a large shovel and two big, golden dogs.

With his two dogs with him, Proctor stands on the Chester Park trail that was named after him. Photo by Maeggie Licht

At first glance, it’s obvious that Dan Proctor isn’t your typical 60-year-old man. His kind face is peppered with piercings. Two small, silver studs adorn the left side of his nose, and one sits on the right side.

Though his ears are half covered by a light-brown knit hat, the holes in his earlobes remain exposed, black plugs holding their shape. Two grey pigtails peak out from the bottom of his hat on either side of his beard. It’s his brown eyes that light up from behind his glasses when he speaks about his beloved Chester Park trails.

“I just really enjoy seeing people happy, running, and smiling and stopping to say, hi,’” Proctor said. “I like to get to know my neighbors.”

Proctor stands in the greenery, leaning against his shovel as if it has become a fixture of his body. His eyes scan the trail for pockets of damage still lingering from months before.

Last summer, tragedy rushed through the winding trails of Chester Bowl. With an accumulation of 8 to 10 inches of rain over the course of three days, according to the Washington Post, much of Proctor’s past work was swept away.

“Water was running over the trail,” Proctor said. “Rocks from the mudslides vibrated the ground. It took out a whole portion of the trail.”

The destruction left many in the Northland distraught, but Proctor’s easygoing nature kept him calm after the storm.

“My first step was to be aware of what needed to be done,” he said. “I developed a plan and had to make sure it wasn’t too rigid. The trail was wounded. I needed to stop the bleeding.

“Step two was to start reconstructive surgery, and step three was to rehabilitate,” Proctor said.

To “stop the bleeding,” Proctor had to get all of the fallen trees off the trail in order to stabilize the area. Next, he worked on filling holes from washouts with rocks. Lastly, he waited to see how the trail did with the band-aids off, he said.

Proctor said the flood rehabilitation is the biggest project he’s tackled so far, and he did it all by himself.

“The city had crews out working on Eighth Street, so I was on my own,” Proctor said. “It was hot. It must have been around 90 degrees each day. I had no help.”

Though the project may seem insurmountable for just one man, Proctor mended the damage, starting at the top of the Skyline Avenue entrance and winding down into the trail with only hand tools.

“I believe in living faith, not in a religious way, but discovering that you can do things,” Proctor said. “I’ve got to go out and get tired to know I’ve lived a good life.”

Though he’s out working on his own, Proctor’s hard work doesn’t go unnoticed. Kelly Fleissner, Duluth Tree Commission maintenance operations manager, said that the cleanup wouldn’t have been possible without him.

“The Chester hiking trails were severely damaged in the flood,” Fleissner said. “Dan immediately found ways to work around the damage. He brought that trail back from obliteration. He’s a relentless volunteer, and without him the trails would have been long lost.

The Duluth City Council recognized Proctor’s “exceptional volunteer efforts” and work on the Chester Bowl and Lester Park trails in a resolution in 2010, by naming the main Chester Bowl trail after him.

Proctor doesn’t revel in this at all. In fact, Proctor has been trying to uncover the original name of the trail for years.

He believes the name of the trail was originally Native American and said some claims point to “Kin-e-chig-a-wag” as the Ojibwe word for the creek. Pat Maus, curator at the Northeast Minnesota Historical Center, said it remains uncertain for now.

Ken Gilbertson, associate professor of health, physical education and recreation at the University of Minnesota Duluth, has known Proctor for nearly 30 years. He said Proctor has a unique and giving personality.

“Dan is the last true hippie in Duluth,” Gilbertson said. “He truly lives as close to the earth as possible and as simply as he can. My favorite thing about him is just his attitude in life.

“He’s a genuine person with positive energy. He’s wonderful to be around. He walks his talk and has a gentle soul,” he said.

Proctor came to Duluth from Hopkins in 1975 in search of a simpler lifestyle. He saw that the trails needed some attention and began caring for them because “it wasn’t being done,” he said.

Fleissner, who was the city forester when Proctor came to Duluth, took notice and hired Proctor to work the trails for the city as a temporary employee. After seven years of work, Proctor was no longer an employee of the city, but it didn’t stop him from finishing what he started.

Now working as a co-owner of Positively 3rd Street Bakery, Proctor still works on the trails, donating countless hours to time-consuming maintenance. He said the feeling he gets when he works his shovel into the earth keeps him on the trail.

“I do it for the feeling that I’m doing something positive with my day,” Proctor said. “When I’m on the trail, I feel happy to be alive and to see the results of my work.”

Walking through the trail just three months after the flood, the stretch Proctor worked on this summer shows little sign of prior distress. Walking through the trail with Proctor, it’s clear that many genuinely appreciate what he does and who he is. Proctor greets everyone who passes him with a smile, and most people stop to chat with him. He usually even knows their dogs’ names.

As a large, black dog bounds down the trail to meet him, Proctor shouts, “Hi, Mabel.”

“Everyone knows me,” Proctor said. “I don’t need Facebook. I’ve got Trailbook.”

Leaning against his shovel, Dan Proctor stands on a trail in Chester Park that he has rebuilt since this summer’s flood. Photo by Maeggie Licht.

Perhaps Proctor understands the trail so well because it’s become his home. Sam Cook, another Duluth resident, has known Proctor for 30 years.

“He’s devoted so much free time in life to that Skyline to Fourth Street trail section,” said Cook, the outdoor writer for the Duluth News Tribune. “It’s his baby. You can see evidence of his work, and he could tell you where every spring is. He knows it like nobody else. His impact is tremendous and noticed by everyone.”

Lifelong friend Gary Larson of Duluth said Proctor is a model for others.

“It’s an inspiration,” Larson said. “We think we’re too busy to help, but Dan’s always out there. He just has this passion for giving. It’s helped other people to get involved. It’s not coerced. It’s just a good inspiration.”

Though Proctor lives a relatively worry-free life, one question brings stress.

“Who will carry on? Lots of people say they will, but they aren’t getting the experience,” Proctor said. “I’m 61. We need someone in their 20s to 30s. If it’s not there, it’s going to be handed off to power tools and money with no connection to the trail. We have to develop our future.”

Those interested in helping Proctor should get out on the trail and look for him. He lives his life simply, without a cell phone or email, so bumping into him on the trail is the best way to contact him.

Proctor said if that fails, his phone number is listed in the phone book.

  • kent

    Speaks well for Duluth!