By Howard Meyerson
FIFE LAKE, MI — The cool of early morning clung to the forest landscape and highway sounds carried through the trees, but Marilyn Hoodstraten and Deena Barshney were busy at their tasks, paint brushes in hand. Each was clad in warm clothes and they went about the job of painting a new kiosk for the 4,600 mile North Country National Scenic Trail. Arlen Matson stood by, ready with a map to be installed.
All three are members of the Grand Traverse Hiking Club (GTHC), a chapter of the North Country Trail Association. And this wasn’t just any trailhead sign.
Prominently displayed at the U.S. 131 Roadside Park, immediately north of the Manistee River, it directs hikers onto a newly opened 13-mile reroute located on the east side of the river. More importantly, it offers hikers and backpackers an alternative to the complexities of organizing a point-to-point hike.
The new trail connects in two places with the abandoned segment on the west side of the river, creating a 21-mile loop that allows backpackers to return to their cars – eliminating the need to spot a vehicle at the other end of a hike.
“This is exciting. The loop is perfect for a weekend of backpacking,” said
Dick Naperala,a retired school teacher and GTHC member. He is the North Country Trail Association volunteer who conceived of the reroute and loop trail. Naperala bushwhacked 13 miles to establish its route. Then he worked with the Village of Fife Lake to get it to adopt the abandoned route. That segment is now called The Fife Lake Trail. It took two to three years and numerous meetings with village leaders, the Michigan DNR and Department of Transportation.
Camping is allowed on state lands all along the route as well as in two rustic campgrounds: the Old U.S. 131 State Forest Campground to the south; and the Spring Lake State Forest Campground to the north, near Fife Lake. The new trail starts out along Manistee River then heads north through the woods along the very scenic Fife Lake Creek, eventually entering lake country where the route passes by Headquarters Lake and Spring Lake.
“This new portion of the North Country Trail is so much more scenic with its overlooks, lakes and fast-moving creeks. The new trail also comes close to the Village of Fife Lake and this has become a win-win for everyone,” Naperala said, adding that Fife Lake Trail will have orange-colored blazes while the new NCT segment will have its traditional blue blazes on trees.
Naperala is one of the many volunteers who are working to create the North Country Scenic Trail all across seven states – a true labor of love that is a benefit to all of us. Many NCTA members spend more time on it working than hiking. The new NCT route was cut and blazed by 15 to 20 GTHC volunteers.
“I was an empty nester and liked the outdoors. I thought it would be a good way to learn new trails and meet people with similar interests,” Hoodstraten said between paint strokes on the roadside park kiosk. “I had wanted to hike the Appalachian Trail, but after joining NCTA, I thought why go there when I have this beautiful trail closer to home.”
Hoodstraten, by the way, has hiked the entire Lower Peninsula portion of the North Country Trail in sections along with parts of the Upper Peninsula trail.
“I love working on the trail,” she continued. “It’s one of my favorite parts of being in the club. I love being outside and working with others to make the trail happen and seeing it come to life.”
Naperala’s satisfaction comes from seeing people use the trail. To that end, the Traverse
City Hiking Club now sponsors The 100 Mile Challenge. The club adopted and maintains 100 miles of the NCT. The public is invited to hike those miles – in sections over time – or as whole. Those who do will be presented with a certificate.
“People think that national trails like this are for long distance hikers, but what you find here, or on the Appalachian Trail, is that most of the use is by locals and day hikers,” Naperala said. “Hopefully they will become a member of NCTA and our club, or take it a step further and adopt a portion of the trial and become a volunteer working on it.”
If you enjoy hiking, this trail is not to be missed. It’s time to lace up the hiking boots. You can get a free map of the trail online at the NCTA free map download site. See northcountrytrail.org/gtr/ or information about the Grand Traverse Hiking Club.
This story appears on MLive Outdoors