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A ride in the woods

Russell man built ATV trails for public to enjoy

Much like a roller coaster ride, the six miles of man-made ATV trails on the west edge of Russell are a thrill.

Gary Thooft points out one of the 12 bluebird houses he put up along the trails. Thooft developed these private trails into a public ATV trail system called Shady Oaks Native Prairie Adventure Trails. Photo by Scott Thoma

What began as private trails for family and friends has developed into a public system called Shady Oaks Native Prairie Adventure Trails for ATVers to enjoy.

“When I started, the land was owned by Edward Burkhardt, who was a friend of mine,” Gary Thooft explained. “And then in 2010 I bought the land and finished the trails.”

Thooft, a retired cabinet maker, built the trail system in honor of Burkhardt and his father, Harry Thooft, both veterans.

The trails are nestled on a 96-acre wooded parcel of land in southwest Minnesota. The trails run along and over Coon Creek and include eight bridges that Thooft built himself, including one covered bridge.

The drive through these trails are anything but a leisurely run on a straight and flat path. Instead, they are filled with hairpin turns, curves and both modest and steep inclines.

Even though the six miles of trails is relatively short in comparison to others within the state, it’s still easy to get lost in the maze that takes a rider among native grasses and flowers, as well as massive oaks and many other trees and shrubs.

Maps are available at the new trailhead information kiosk, and the eight bridges are numbered on the map to orientate the ATV drivers. The ride takes around two hours to take in all the trails.

Because of the thick wooded area, the trails can’t be seen from the nearby road. Nor can they be seen from the air due to the giant and twisting oak trees.

“It’s really pretty through here,” said Thooft as he navigated his ATV through a muddy downhill turn with ease, revealing his familiarity with the area he built. “I put up a dozen or so bluebird and cardinal houses throughout the trails.”

Thooft pointed out several varieties of apple trees, as well as plum trees, strawberries, raspberries and wild asparagus on the land housing the trails. Native flowers dance in a light breeze on a sun-splashed summer day.

The covered bridge that Gary Thooft built over Coon Creek in Russell. Photo by Scott Thoma

When Thooft first began to make the trails, he used hand tools and generally followed the deer trails in the area. Eventually gravitating toward power tools and heavy equipment, Thooft then started building trails along scenic areas, while others he made simply because he thought other ATV enthusiasts would find them thrilling.

As he provided a tour, Thooft stopped the ATV he was driving and pointed to a steep decline in which a curve bent around a tree.

“See that trail,” he said with a wry smile. “My wife wanted me to make that one. It can be tricky when the trail is a little slick.”

Thooft admitted that he still comes across things on the trails that he has not noticed before, despite having been on them hundreds of times.

“That’s what’s nice about these trails,” he said. “You never know what you will find. Sometimes it’s an apple tree that I never noticed before or some type of native flower. It changes from year to year.”

There are eight picnic tables for those wishing to stop for lunch while taking in the scenery. Thooft even pointed out a miniature waterfall along one of the trails.

The trails are also home to several species of wildlife and birds.

“I’ve seen deer, rabbits, raccoons, squirrels, wild turkeys and probably a few more,” he said. “And I can’t tell you how many different birds I’ve seen.”

Within seconds of listing the various wildlife he’s seen, a deer roamed across a trail just ahead of his ATV. He looked over to his passenger and shrugged his shoulders as if to say “I told you so.”

With a strong desire for the trails to become public trails, Thooft met with Mary Straka, a Minnesota Department of Natural Resources offroad trails specialist, to discuss the future and get the ball rolling.

He then spent a great deal of time writing, letters, making phone calls and attending meetings to see his dream become a reality.

“I worked the DNR, the Lyon County Park Board, the city council, the Southwest Ridgerunners; you name it,” Thooft said. “It got so frustrating at times that I wrote a letter of resignation. But my wife talked me out of it.”

Gary Thooft stands by the new trailhead sign that includes a map of the trails. Photo by Scott Thoma

Eventually, Thooft’s persistence paid off. The DNR State Trails System agreed to fund the trails and inspected them before approving them for public use. First, though, the DNR required small direction signs be placed throughout the trails for safety reasons.

“I used to make my own signs,” he said. “The state gave me new ones to put around. It looks just like highway signing.”

The trails officially opened on July 4, 2018. There is no fee for the public to use the trails. Snowmobiles and motorcycles are not allowed.

Even though the DNR State Trails System provides funds for maintenance of the trails, Thooft still owns the property. Each year, he leases it out to the local Southwest Ridgerunners Club, who then takes care of the insurance costs.

Construction of a large metal building is currently underway which will include bathrooms, storage, an office and more.

“Where else in the state can you find something like this for free?” Thooft said rhetorically. “And there is a small campground at the city park if someone wants to come here and spend a fun weekend. All it takes is the proper registration, and anyone with an ATV can enjoy it here.”

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