Story and photos by Charles Chandler
Have you ever worked for a great cause year in and year out and thought you would never reach your goal? You believe it is worthwhile so you persevere a little longer, another season, another year maybe. Kinda like rearing children?
Relocating the White Cloud Echo Drive road walk was such a cause for the staff of North Country Trail Association (NCTA) and volunteers of the Western Michigan Chapter (WMI), The National Park Service and the US Forest Service, and assorted trail hikers,
Newaygo County has an abundance of recreational assets that include great trails for hiking, kayaking, motorsports, horse, and snowshoeing. Some well-established and other being developed. The construction of the scenic Dragon Trail around Hardy Pond is underway and will soon be available for hikers and bicycles. We are also fortunate to have the mother and father of all hiking trails running through our County. “The North Country National Scenic Trail, or simply the NCT is a footpath stretching approximately 4,600 miles from the Long Trail in Vermont to Lake Sakakawea State Park in central North Dakota. Passing through the eight states it is the longest of the eleven National Scenic Trails authorized by Congress. As of 2019, 3,132 miles of the trail is in place. The NCT is administered by the National Park Service, managed by federal, state, and local agencies, and built and maintained primarily by the volunteers of the NCTA and its partners. The 28 chapters of the NCTA, its 3,200+ members and each affiliate organization have assumed responsibility for trail construction and maintenance of a specific section of the NCT.”
The 350 or so members of WMI of the NCTA manage and maintain about 90 miles of the NCT in Kent and Newaygo Counties. One of the overarching objectives of the NCTA and the army of volunteers is to ensure the trail path is safe, well maintained and has the smallest number of road miles as possible. The dangers of the Echo Drive road walk are well known and the effort to move the trail has been ongoing for a decade or longer. The quarter-mile that the NCT runs along Echo Driver is simply not safe. There are no provisions for pedestrians along this section and the hills and curves do limit drivers' vision. For some reason, drivers appear to think the stretch of road between the White River curve and the Jugville curve is the rural equivalent of the Indianapolis 500. In the summer it is somewhat safer for trail hikers because they can move to the shoulders of the roadway. Not so in the winter as the occasional hiker has to stay on the roadway because of the snowbanks. Shame on those drivers that speed along this section, especially when they are passing trail hikers. This summer there was a fatal motorcycle accident on Echo Drive just past the White Cloud cemeteries. Speed appeared to be the cause of the accident.
This trail reroute project is a very big deal for NCT trail hikers and to White Cloud. The City is located at the halfway point of the NCT and is a designated NCTA Trail Town. White Cloud is connected to the NCT by a well maintained and marked loop trail that begins and ends in the White Cloud Park and Campground. This important trail is used through all seasons by locals and as the off-ramp for those hiking the NCT that need access to the amenities in the Campground or the City. This loop trail also travels along Echo Drive and because of speeding drivers, many local hikers won’t use the entire loop.
In the distant past various local hikers, members of the Michigan Trail Finders, WMI, NCTA, and US Forest Service have tried a variety of strategies to get the NCT off Center Line and Echo Drive. The goal was to keep the trail within the Huron-Manistee National Forest. One of the challenges in doing this was that the trail had to cross swamps around Alley Lake
and a beautiful but troublesome little leatherleaf marsh. The US Forest Service has some very strict rules about disturbing wetlands. Members of the WMI, NCTA and the National Park Service worked for several seasons to secure trail easements across private land thereby avoiding these swamps and marsh. At one point they had funds to purchase the private land. Good faith market rate offers were made to landowners, but no sale was made.
In 2012, Jeff McCusker, former Trail Manager for the National Park Service, Beth Keloneva and this correspondent using GPS laid out the preliminary Optimal Location Review (OLR) for the NCT reroute. The route-finding career of these three surveyors almost ended that day. As they were busy with route-finding gunfire erupted and they swear they heard bullets zipping through the foliage. A local sportsman had driven in on one of the two tracks and had begun a little target practice. After some shouting and friendly discussion with the shooter, safety was restored.
In 2014 the National Park Service signed and completed an Optimal Location Review (OLR) for this project. This proposed three-mile trail would follow the preliminary OLR. After this milestone was finally passed the next steps were to do a little fundraising, buy some construction materials, gather up the minions, break out the tools and at long last start work.
In 2019 the project was funded by a generous grant from the Fremont Area Community Foundation.The NCTA staff was able to purchase all the material and pay for the Forest Service's staff time. The new trail footpath was flagged in the fall of 2019, and US Forest Service finalized the trail on September the 10th. The US Forest Service Staff and WMI members opened the road to the worksite on September 12 making way for lumber delivery. The next day on the 13th of September construction of the 350-foot-long raised boardwalk over that charming little marsh began. The boardwalk was engineered by Forest Service staff to minimize the impact on the Alley Lake wetlands. You can also see this type of boardwalk on the trail at the nearby Loda Lake Wildflower Sanctuary.
The three miles of the long-awaited reroute are expected to be completed in 2020. Those future hikers traveling along this new reroute will enjoy a much safer and scenic section of the NCT. Most likely they will not be aware of the many years of effort and cost it took to get the NCT off Echo Drive. That is as it should be. They are there to enjoy the solitude and the serenity of their walk along the NCT as it passes through the woodlands of our County and the Huron-Manistee National Forest.
Well done folks.
Thanks to the following who love the NCT, and persevered in this arduous but worthwhile project.
WMI Chapter Staff
Paul Haan, Larry Meyer, Chuck Vannette, Beth Keloneva, Charles Chandler, Steve Hatting, Dale Painter, Bill Treat
NCTA Headquarters Staff
Andrea Ketchmark, Exec. Director NCTA
Bruce Matthews, Retired Exec. Director NCTA
Kenny Wawsczyk, MI Trails Coordinator NCTA,
US Forest Service:
Dave Jaunese Assistant Ranger for the Baldwin District and Trails Manager
Kathy Bietau – Retired USFS
Kristin Thrall USFS, Huron-Manistee National Forests, Recreation Program Manager
Jon Meeks Forest Service Engineer from the Supervisors office in Cadillac
Carlon Parmelee Recreation Technician from Baldwin
Steve Sawyer former Forest Service employee
US National Parks:
Jeff McCusker, NPS Superintendent - Retired former NPS Trail Manager
Chris Loudenslager, NPS Superintendent
Don King, National Park Service, Realty Officer, National Trails Lands Resource Center
Joe Sobinovsky, NPS, Realty Officer, National Trail Lands Resource Center
Paul Salvatore, US Forest Service Huron Manistee National Forests Lands Program Manager
Iron Belle Trail Funds
Fremont Area Community Foundation
With gratitude to all the unnamed volunteers that will take tools in hand and spend their weekends working to bring this project to a successful conclusion.