After Thrivent Financial made an $18,000 commitment to Merrill’s River Bend Trail, the local Thrivent reps decided to put their muscle where their money was and volunteer to help on the trail. They ended up going the extra mile, quite literally, by blazing a riverfront loop where no trail had gone before.
“It’s about a mile loop that was just wilderness,” Thrivent representative Dan Schneider said.
Thrivent organized a work day May 17 and 49 volunteers from the community showed up to work the entire day. 
“We crawled through on our bellies and marked the trail,” added Thrivent representative Bill Smith. “It was just jungle down there.”
When Merrill Area Development Corporation took over the former Hurd property at the south end of Prospect Street, the River District Development Foundation of Merrill was granted an easement for a trail along the Wisconsin River. The Foundation has purchased the old railroad right of way and is planning to convert it into a hiking and biking trail that will eventually link downtown Merrill to Council Grounds State Park. 
The riverfront loop meets the main trail at both ends. It was intended to be a scenic detour along the main, paved trail, but construction wasn’t in the immediate plans until Thrivent stepped up.
“They jumped in with both feet,” said Gene Bebel, president of the River District Development Foundation of Merrill.
“We told Gene we wanted to get volunteers, not just write a check,” Schneider said. 
The volunteers were given a map of the property and were allowed to cut their own path through the wilderness.
“They said they wanted a trail along the river and it was up to us how to make it,” Schneider said.
Over the course of the last month, the Thrivent volunteers have cleared a nearly one-mile path, 8-10 feet wide, through gnarly brush and swamp. The work has required chippers, bulldozers, tractors and lots of man hours. Volunteers Jay Schlueter, Henry Hass and Jon Woller have contributed their machinery and expertise to the project.
“They’re doing a marvelous job of cutting through some thick brush and other difficult terrain,” Bebel said. “They’ve been working their butts off down there.”
With the involvement of Thrivent and the volunteers, the development of that riverfront loop adds nothing to the cost of the River Bend Trail, Bebel noted.
Brush and trees cleared for the trail have been chipped, and the chips used for the base of the trail. The scenic loop won’t be paved like the main trail, but will be surfaced with wood chips. The city of Merrill is providing chips from its own chipping operation to help surface the trail.
In some of the wetter spots, volunteers had to fill in the trail with logs to create a “corded” road. 
Blazing the trail, the volunteers encountered lots of wildlife and wildflowers, and an interesting piece of Merrill history. About 30 yards off the trail is a stone monument that marks the water level from the 1912 flood. 
There are still a couple of full days of work to go before the trail is completed. Thrivent may organize another work day in the future to get the job done.
“It’s kind of a rebirth of the property,” said Thrivent representative Kevin Maloney. “Hopefully it gets people jazzed about it and they want to go for a walk along the river.”
Bebel said work on the main trail will begin with paving from Park Street west to a railroad bridge that is currently being refurbished. The Foundation will continue fund raising to come up with more money to finish the trail.