2017-05-11 / Life in Leelanau

Trail Ambassadors seek reinforcements for busy season

By Patti Brandt Burgess
Of The Enterprise staff


LAST YEAR’S group of Trail Ambassadors — volunteers who help visitors, give directions and report safety issues on the Sleeping Bear Heritage Trail — gathered for this photo. LAST YEAR’S group of Trail Ambassadors — volunteers who help visitors, give directions and report safety issues on the Sleeping Bear Heritage Trail — gathered for this photo. Anybody who has ever hiked, biked, jogged or roller-bladed on the Sleeping Bear Heritage Trail may have been pleasantly surprised at how clean and well-maintained it is.

Trail-users may have also been the recipient of a coupon for an ice cream treat or directions to a hamburger joint given to them by a friendly person dressed in orange.

The trail’s pristine condition and its congenial vibe is the result of a cadre of volunteers known as the Trail Ambassador program.

Run by the nonprofit Friends of Sleeping Bear, the group that maintains the Heritage Trail, ambassadors are on the trail year-round, skiing or snowshoeing in winter and clearing leaves in the fall.

The group is now calling for more volunteers as it gears up for summer and the million or so people who will likely use the trail between now and fall.

Trail Ambassadors help visitors by answering questions, giving directions, and handing out coupons for Cherry Republic ice cream when they see trail users doing the right things.

They are also the eyes and ears of the trail, reporting any maintenance or safety issues they come across.

And they get to wear a stylish, bright orange vest so visitors will know they are official park volunteers.

“What we’ve found is that people just love being out there on the trail,” said Kerry Kelly, president of the Friends group.

The “catch you doing something right” program is especially popular, Kelly said. Ice cream coupons are given out when kids are wearing bike helmets, when riders stop at the stop signs and when they are seen being courteous to others on the trail.

“That’s been a big hit both for our visitors and our ambassadors,” Kelly said. “Usually when someone in authority stops you it’s not a good thing, and this is a good thing.”

The Heritage Trail was built under an agreement with the National Park Service that the Friends would maintain it. The Trail Ambassador program started just after the first section of trail was built in 2012.

The Friends brought in an intern that first summer to work on developing a trail maintenance program, Kelly said. She contacted people in charge of trails all over the country to find out what they did and what worked well.

From that two levels of trail volunteering came about, Kelly said. One level is for those who monitor the trail for problems and talk to users.

Another level, the trail crew, is for those who go out and groom the trail for skiing in the winter and blow leaves, twigs and debris off the rest of the year. They also mow the edges of the trail, clear fallen trees and install signs.

That routine maintenance costs about $25,000 per year — all of which is raised by donations — so volunteers are very important, Kelly said,

“I can never have too many ambassadors,” he said.

Many do their trail volunteering on bikes, but a bike is not required, Kelly said.

Mary Peterson, ambassador coordinator, said she became an ambassador in 2012 as a way to give back.

“I was so happy to see an avenue for people — not just people on bikes and people who are hiking, but people in wheelchairs and with walkers, who can actually see part of the park,” said Peterson, a part-time Glen Lake resident.

“It’s a wonderful experience to talk to people who have never been on the trail before because we can tell them about the park,” Peterson said. “There are so many good people out there who just want to show off the park. We’re proud of it.”

There are 40 to 50 ambassadors, Peterson said, most of whom spend one or two days a month volunteering on the Heritage Trail.

There is no set schedule for ambassadors, who can go on the trail whenever they feel like it, setting their own schedule. There are anywhere from two to five ambassadors on the trail at any moment of every day, Kelly said.

When they’re done they just need to record their hours and any observations they’ve made. Peterson gets an email and if something needs to be taken care of she forwards it to the trail crew.

“Sometimes we get interesting stories,” Kelly said. “For example, once there was a wedding party riding down the trail.”

The Friends also maintain 13 other trails within the park and many ambassadors also volunteer in other ways, Peterson said, such as with the adopt-atrail, adopt-a beach or adopt-a-river program. There is also the Bark Ranger program they do with their dog and the Bot Squad where they will monitor a section of a beach for birds that have died from avian botulism.

If they’re handy they could help build a look-out platform or a set of stairs and if they’re good with numbers they could do a little bookkeeping.

“People can find almost anything if they volunteer with the Friends,” Peterson said.

Want to do your part to help the Lakeshore run smoothly?

Several volunteer programs beckon.

Training and orientation for volunteers in the Trail Ambassador program will take place at 1 p.m. Saturday at the DH Day Log Cabin, located along the Sleeping Bear Heritage Trail. Parking is limited, so participants should ride their bikes or park at Glen Haven and walk or ride the trail to the Log Cabin.

Ambassadors will hear an update on the trail and maintenance projects planned for this year, as well as a review of last year and information about safety and law enforcement issues.

There will also be an update on fundraising for the last segment of the trail, which will start at Bohemian Road and follow Traverse Lake Road to end at Good Harbor Trail.

For more information or to sign up for the Trail Ambassador program, contact Mary Peterson, ambassador coordinator, at 248-762-8977 or mlpeterso46@gmail.com; or Kerry Kelly at 231-631-4244 or kerryjkelly7@gmail.com.

A training session for volunteers in the Adopt-a-Beach and Adopt-a-Trail program is set for 1 p.m. Saturday, May 20, at the DH Day Log Cabin.

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