Ever sought personal fulfillment by being an integral part of someone else’s grand vision? That’s exactly how it felt leading an eager group of young, enthusiastic students on Wilderness Volunteers’ Buffalo National River service project in late March.

Long time National Park Service employee and former Buffalo National River trails supervisor Ken Smith has a dream. Our nation’s first National River, dedicated in 1972 (exactly 100 years to the day after Yellowstone was established as the nation’s first National Park), had no single trail that hikers could walk along the river bluffs along it’s entire 60-mile length. While trails were created long ago and have been in use in the greater area for many years, the lack of a through-route was obvious to adventurers seeking solitude by foot and pack — especially those lacking the skills or equipment to enjoy the river by paddle and canoe.

With great forethought and experience, and with the support of park management, Ken carefully mapped out the remaining 25-mile stretch to link existing fragmented trails into what will ultimately become the Buffalo National River Trail through the heart of this great Oak-Hickory, Ozark forest. Of course, great visions are such because of missing ingredients — as is usually the case with public lands, lack of money and personnel top the list. As a retiree and volunteer himself, Ken literally took matters into his own hands and began raising money through a new foundation he established for this purpose, and he began recruiting volunteers in earnest, at first locally, and later involving national conservation groups like Wilderness Volunteers. He’s even written an entire book Buffalo River Handbook filled with insights and information about the river and trail system in the area.

Persevering through a gauntlet of spring rains and mud, and mild, leaf-crunching fall colors, volunteer groups camping on the beautiful river beaches under massive limestone bluffs for a week at a time have completed 10 of the 25 miles, usually at a pace about .25 miles per week. It’s slow going, but Ken seeks quality not quantity, and his watchful eyes and constant supervision ensure that it’s done right the first time.

Our group certainly endured heavy rains and cold conditions, but as we found out, it’s tough to dampen the spirit and enthusiasm exuded by youthful vigor. This intrepid group from DePaul University never flinched, despite some wet sleeping bags and cold feet. Each and every student demonstrated resilience and hopefully took home something special from their week of trail construction. If one word can sum it up, John called the entire experience “fantastic”.

Volunteerism rewards the soul. Best of all, it introduces us to special people like Ken Smith and special places like the Buffalo National River.