Writer implores you to ‘Take a Hike’
Story and photos by Charles Chandler
Tired of being homebound? Are you homeschooling and both teacher and students are about to have a meltdown? Looking for something to do that is safe, cheap, healthy, interesting, and fun? Then put on your shoes, get your coat and gather your tired self and the family and go take a hike.
Newaygo County has an abundance of magnificent public lands waiting for you and the family. We are at the southern entrance to nearly a million acres of the Huron-Manistee National Forest. We have easy access to it through a variety of trails, and County, and Forest Service roads. According to Forest Service staff, people visit the National Forests for a couple of reasons. For a resource like firewood or to harvest a deer, fish, or collect wild edibles. Or to enjoy a recreational experience like camping, hiking, boating, or birdwatching. Hunting season is months away so now is time for the recreational folks to hit the woods and waters. Our County is known for its microclimates and within our National Forest, there are many interesting natural communities. These include woodlands, wetlands, prairies, swamps, bogs, fens and marshes, lakes, ponds, rivers, and small streams. Here, you will find different trees, shrubs, grasses, flowers, insects, birds, animals, and fishes that inhabit these natural communities.
In my opinion, walking is the very best way to experience and explore our National Forest and public woodlands. This is so easy because we live near the North Country National Trail. This national foot trail runs the length of Newaygo County and is well marked and maintained. Access to the trail is available at a variety of local trailheads and road crossings. Just follow the blue blazes and enjoy the scenery. If you are new to the trail or want more detailed information to follow these two-official links. You will find excellent maps for both the North Country Trail (NCT) and the Huron-Manistee National Forest. https://www.nps.gov/noco/index.htm, https://northcountrytrail.org/, https://www.fs.usda.gov/activity/hmnf/recreation/natureviewing.
Some of my favorite NCT hiking sections begin at the TrailHead at Croton Dam on Croton Drive. Others are from the 40th street TrailHead to E. Echo Drive. From E Echo Drive to W. Center Line road. From W. CenterLine road to the Highway 20 Trail Head. These are easy family-friendly sections and offer a variety of interesting woodlands, streams, and wetlands. You can do an out and back or spot vehicles and walk from point to point.
Regarding family outings, as a hiker and former outfitter for REI, I humbly offer a few suggestions that may enhance your hiking and walking experience. Don’t overdo it. Match the distance and difficulty of your rambles to the littles and elders. You want the small one to enjoy the experience, their legs are shorter and they have to walk faster and take more steps than adults. The seniors may not have the stamina and need to rest more frequently. Try to separate the kids from their ever-present backpacks. You want them unencumbered so they can skip, hop, run, and generally tumble along the trail. They have been living in a box so when they are outside it is time for them to decompress. Take one pack for water bottles, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, bird books, bug spray, and so on. Leave room for the jackets and other stuff that will be going on and off as you move along the trail.
This is one for the adults, don’t try to over-control the outing, let the kids be noisy and ask as many questions as they wish. Don’t try to be a world-famous naturalist, it is OK to say I don’t know, haven’t a clue or that is a really good question. Ask them to keep their questions in mind and when they get home have them Google up their answers and share what they learned from their query. Let them be curious and teach them to become situational and self-aware. Ask them to occasionally, stop, look, and listen as they move along the trail. The Forest can be a nosy place when the wind blows and the birds are about. Address their concerns if they mention bears, lions, and tigers, recall that they spend a bunch of time engaged in TV or on small media devices and with their imagination. In Michigan, our terrors are ticks, mosquitos, and black flies.
As the weather warms, find a section to explore that has a small spring-fed stream preferable with a gravel or sandy bottom. When you find one of the gems, turn the kids loose. There is nothing more beautiful than watching small children play in these small streams. Again, adults don't over-manage the situation, so what if they get wet or muddy. The children’s job is to play. This is their work and they are serious about it, this is how they develop their imagination, learn to invent things, collaborate, and become adults. The forest is a wonderful magical place for this to happen. If you do want to become that world-famous naturalist get a copy of A Field Guide to the Natural Communities of Michigan published by the Michigan State University Press.
If you meet other folks on the trail, just step off and maintain your social distance and be courteous.
If you find that you and the family enjoy being out on the NCT walking through our incredible National Forest then do this. Find a section of the trail and Forest that interest you and your family and become patrons of that plot or section. Experience your favorite plot through the seasons and note how it changes and who and what lives or passes through. You will be amazed at how a few acres of forest change throughout the season. Be advised that the Huron-Manistee National Forest is not contiguous, it is a patchwork, that includes different shaped and sized holdings. These acres of public land can be marked by spots of blue boundary paint on trees or those brown carsonite markers or not at all. When I want to ensure that the place I am going to explore is on public lands I check the Land Atlas & Plat Book for Newaygo County. If you don’t have access to one you can always go to the Library and copy the plat of the section that you want to explore. You can also download apps to your smartphone that will give you all kinds of geographical information.
When out exploring the National Forest, I always look for a place that has interesting or unusual features. One favorite is the section around Toft Lake located on Spruce street just north of 40th street. Look for the small parking lot on Spruce. In this section, there are some unusually tall pines and large oaks. Some of these old veterans have long lightning scars that have healed over. There is an old homestead foundation with patches of little blue legacy flowers. There is a small steam, a distinct trail, and miles of sandy two tracks to ramble down. Lots of birds and a resident bullfrog that occasionally sings at the outlet of small Tofft Lake.
Another family-friendly spot is the Loda Lake Wild Flower Sanctuary.
If you haven’t hit your nearby North Country Tail or started exploring our beautiful diverse Huron-Manistee National Forest, hurry, just put your shoes, load in the car, and do it.
Now is the time because the big spring show is about to begin, the trees are leafing out, the birds are here and flowers are starting to appear. The philosophers say that our wild places will save our souls. I suggest that getting everyone out for a walk can save your sanity and social distancing in the fresh air could save your life.
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