Hiking is where I find the most peace and contemplation in life. It is my meditation. Of course I have appreciated the opportunity to hike on many great trails, far and near, but I had never thought much about what it took to build one until I read the book Dirt Work by Christine Byl. In that book Christine chronicles some of her adventures in a couple decades working on trail crews for the National Park Service.
A couple years later, I am now getting to help a new trail begin life at Island Lake State Recreation Area near Brighton, Michigan. In some ways I am leading the effort, but in reality I am doing my best to help coordinate an amazing crew of talented volunteers. A few have stepped up to truly lead the trail building, while others have brought all their energies to the very manual work of creating a trail out of nothing. We are an inexperienced crew, but the work has been tremendous.
Island Lake is s state park about an hour outside of Detroit, and about a half hour north of my home in Ann Arbor. While its neighbor across the highway, Kensington Metropark boasts all the finest amenities a recreational park can have, I really love that Island Lake is more of a wilderness park. It is so close to so many people, yet once you are here (at least on weekdays), you can slip into the woods, or dip your boat into one of the best stretches of the Huron River, and slip into a level of peace and solitude that rivals our nations best parks.
Island Lake’s multi-use trails are fantastic to hike, run (I am told!), and mountain bike. They are some of the most popular mountain bike trails in the state, and that popularity has diminished some of that solitude I appreciate so much. Don’t get me wrong, I love that we have such great trails to ride so I have no gripes whatsoever about that. Yet, as a hiker, they can be a bit overwhelming on the weekends. The trails are also on the west side of the park, while the east side and its popular lake have no real hiking options. They are also narrow, which again I love, but which may make them less than ideal for new hikers and families. This new trail will be about 6-7 miles in length, with plenty of options to cut that distance down. It will be a wide, yet still naturally rustic trail, snaking through quite a few different ecosystems, from open prairie, to dense woods, to a glacially formed ridge, and along a wild and scenic river. It will feature interpretive displays and QR code link opportunities that will present the history of the park, its use throughout known human habitation, as well as presentations of its diverse flora and fauna, and a discussion of the river, its ecology, and the dam.
The idea for a new trail was born in a visioning session the Friends of Island Lake held, and it has been strongly supported by the park leadership and staff. Once the idea took root, REI stepped in and provided a grant that is funding all of the tools, materials, and signage that will be needed. Not only that, but REI staff have been beside us through the project as we clip, chop, and saw a new trail into existence. Amazing support!
While the idea was created in a Friends meeting, and the primary financial support has come from REI, much of the on the ground expertise, leadership, and volunteer contingent has come the Crossroads Group of the Sierra Club. I have never before led such a project, and without their help, it would be much more challenging. Really, I think I am more coordinating or facilitating the project, while they are leading it.
We have cast a wide net as we seek to draw in volunteers to build something they can come back to year in and year out for decades to come. In addition to all of the support from REI, the Sierra Club, and park staff, we have gained volunteers through signage at local REI stores, by engaging with various MeetUp groups, the use of VolunteerMatch.org, generous sharing of the project on Facebook, and through word of mouth. A couple unexpected sources of help have been local boy scouts working on their Chief Pontiac Trail badge, as well as several students from Novi and Northville schools who are helping us as part of a service commitment. We have really benefited from a diverse pool of volunteers!
The work itself has been a lot of fun. I think we have had five workdays now, and we have moved so much faster than I had dreamed. My favorite two work days so far have been our first, and the one we held today. The first work day saw us entering into probably the most untouched and overgrown part of the trail route. This is what it looked like when we began.
All day, we moved deeper and deeper into the woods, making subtle adjustments to our planned route so that we could do as little harm to the environment and its key features as possible, while visiting some of the more interesting features along the way. All day, we were diving deeper into the above picture. When we left, we left on a hiking trail!
I can’t tell you how satisfying it was to leave walking down a trail that had not existed three hours earlier. The next several sessions were not quite as dense, yet presented their own challenges, as well as many opportunities to tweak the route to enhance the trail and trail experience.
This last session was one I would have most likely cancelled had I not had an issue with my phone. Yet, it was probably the most fun day yet. As soon as I left home this morning, the rain began to fall. It ceased as I arrived at the park, and began again just as volunteers began to arrive. I presented the option to cancel, and our volunteers would have none of that. For three hours it rained and for three hours we worked. In a week that had seen 90+ degree temps all week, 75 and rain felt amazing! Once again, we made much quicker progress than we had hoped!
We are almost done with the rough cutting in of the trail, maybe just 1-2 more workdays. Then we will be on to the fine tuning and trimming, taking test hikes to identify dangers as well as interpretive opportunities, the work of creating that interpretive signage, and the planning of and placement of trail markers. Still lots of work yet to go, and we need lots of help with all phases of the project.
I am sure we are not quite a professional trail crew implementing all of the best trail building practices (yet), and I know I am not a real trail project lead, but we are doing great work and I am very proud and amazed of what we are creating. If you have been part of this project, I can’t thank you enough – you are amazing! If you have not yet had the chance to help, come join us soon! Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org for work session details, watch the MeetUp site for the Crossroads Group of the Sierra Club, or check the REI out of store activity calendar. You might even go home with one of these cool t-shirts!