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Tracing the ‘footsteps’ of Mormon pioneers

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It was an experience of a lifetime for many members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints last Saturday who completed (or went as far as they could) an 18-mile "trek" from Sleeman to Bergland in remembrance of the Mormon pioneers.

Exact numbers of just how many people walked, ran, cycled and drove the route were not available but it appeared that about 100 members took part in the entire day of celebrating the 150th anniversary of the "great trek" to Salt Lake City, Utah.

Participants of all ages from Mormon churches in Bergland, Fort Frances, Dryden, Kenora, Atikokan, Warroad, and even Arizona decided to follow the paved road which led to the Bergland church.

Members from Warroad really got into the spirit of the celebration by bringing a replica of the original hand carts used, as well as dressing up in the clothing worn at the time of the "great trek."

The original Latter-Day Saints pioneers who immigrated to Bergland from western Minnesota in 1907 didn’t have such an easy path to walk themselves.

With hand carts carrying necessities which weighed anywhere from 600-1,000 pounds, the original Mormons walked through bush, sand and gravel to reach their destination.

In fact, it took two to three days for the families in 1907 to cover what members needed about six hours to walk on Saturday.

Just as it was a struggle for the pioneering families in Bergland, the missionaries who arrived in 1924 from Port Arthur (now Thunder Bay) also walked a great distance after getting off a train in Sleeman. They then ventured out to Bergland, searching for the Mormons who had arrived 17 years earlier, to help the growth of the church there.

Many of the church members who travelled the distance earned a deeper appreciation and respect for the early Mormon pioneers.

Sandy van Zyl of Barwick completed the walk, and found it to be a rewarding experience.

"I wanted to pay tribute to those that had done it before me," she said. "I now have a lot of gratitude for what the pioneers had done and appreciate them more."

At one point, van Zyl thought she couldn’t carry on but remembered how the Mormon pioneers endured--and was able to finish.

"I had an actual physical experience of what [the pioneers] went through to a degree," she added.

Erika and Krista Rencher, along with their mother, Evie, of Bergland, also completed the 18-mile "trek" but their motives were more family-oriented.

Their great-grandparents, Peter John Olson and his wife, Kristina, were among the original Mormon pioneers to immigrate from Minnesota and help build the Bergland area in 1907.

Erika Rencher said she wanted to share an experience her great-grandparents encountered to get a better understanding of what life was like for them.

"Once they reached Bergland, they still had a lot of work to do. We only got to [experience] a little piece of it," she remarked.

Her younger sister agreed, noting that after their long journey from Minnesota, the pioneers still had to build a house upon arriving in Bergland.

It was a painful walk, with many ending up with sore feet, blisters, and aching joints, but reaching the Bergland church gave members a feeling of satisfaction.

"I felt pretty good. I wanted to walk to see how far I could get. I went way past what I thought I could," said Evie Larson of Bergland.

"I knew I could get a ride if I got too tired but the pioneers couldn’t," she added.

Ken Olson of Fort Frances walked the entire distance with his 11-year-old daughter, Kimberly, his brother, Doug, and their friend, Dan Gallow.

"We could feel the walk but we were quite determined to get there, probably just like the pioneers," he noted.

After the "trek," members headed to the Bergland Park where some swam, ate and played pioneer baseball using a stick and pieces of cloth tied into a ball.

Members then headed back to the Bergland church for supper.

Later, everyone was entertained by a humorous skit written by the Rencher sisters, with members volunteering to depict the story as it was being read aloud.

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