2018-01-04 / Outdoors

Trail Blazers

Volunteers pave smooth path for Heritage Trail users
By Jay Bushen
Sports Editor


KERRY KELLY, chairman of the Friends of Sleeping Bear Dunes board, heads north from the Dune Climb toward Glen Haven on the Sleeping Bear Heritage Trail last Thursday. KERRY KELLY, chairman of the Friends of Sleeping Bear Dunes board, heads north from the Dune Climb toward Glen Haven on the Sleeping Bear Heritage Trail last Thursday. It’s a busy Thursday on a snow-covered Sleeping Bear Heritage Trail and, to winter sports enthusiasts, single digit temperatures seem an afterthought.

Cross-country skiers, skate skiers and fat-tire bikers seem far more focused on sunlight and scenery. The vibe is one of appreciation — especially when the Friends of Sleeping Bear Dunes groomer passes through. Most trail users stop in their tracks, step aside, smile and wave.

And Kerry Kelly waves back.

“We always stop and visit with people a little bit. They’re always very appreciative,” said Kelly, one of about a dozen volunteers tasked with maintaining the trail. “They love it.”

And after lake-effect snow pounded the peninsula over the weekend, trail users have a whole lot to love.


BRIAN PRICE (left) and Fred Luthardt are among the Friends of Sleeping Bear Dunes volunteers tasked with keeping the Sleeping Bear Heritage Trail groomed this winter. BRIAN PRICE (left) and Fred Luthardt are among the Friends of Sleeping Bear Dunes volunteers tasked with keeping the Sleeping Bear Heritage Trail groomed this winter. The fresh powder is welcome.

“We’ve had cold temperatures. It’s awesome,” Kelly said. “The snow is nice and soft. Last year, we didn’t even take this groomer out — not once. We didn’t have enough base.”

From the climate-controlled cockpit, crews can use a roller to build a base on the trail or the Ginzu, a drag attachment with an automated track setter, if it’s icy. Classic ski tracks are set on the outside portions of the 14-foot-wide trail; the rest is corduroyed snow.

Skate skiers love their corduroy.

“There’s more skate skiers now than there used to be,” Kelly said.


KERRY KELLY lowers the drag to a level appropriate for 3 inches of snow. KERRY KELLY lowers the drag to a level appropriate for 3 inches of snow. Seven automated trail counters quantify usage of the trail.

The most heavily trafficked and highly prioritized portion is from Glen Arbor to Glen Haven, which is normally groomed first on days in which the crew heads south to Empire. Crews start at D.H. Day Campground, head north to Glen Arbor and then back down to the rendezvous point, where the second crew is waiting. The second crew heads south past the Dune Climb, down to Empire and back up again. The groomer also hits the trail from Glen Arbor to Port Oneida Road and Port Oneida Road to County Road 669.

Ski tracks at the pet-friendly Palmer Woods Forest Reserve are maintained as well, albeit less frequently.

“Only highly, highly qualified individuals are allowed to operate this machinery,” volunteer Brian Price said with a laugh. Price, the former director of the Leelanau Conservancy, was instrumental in the Conservancy’s acquisition of Palmer Woods.


ROD BEARUP glides his way along a stretch of the Sleeping Bear Heritage Trail just north of Glen Haven last Thursday. ROD BEARUP glides his way along a stretch of the Sleeping Bear Heritage Trail just north of Glen Haven last Thursday. One might assume members of the good-hearted group of volunteers are eager to hit the trail once it’s groomed, but that’s not necessarily the case.

Kelly said they have more fun grooming than skiing.

“I wanted a chance to meet new people,” said Fred Luthardt, who moved here from Seattle. “This is my fourth time out. It’s a nice bunch of guys, and I see people I wouldn’t see otherwise. It’s been a neat experience.”

Encounters with wildlife aren’t too frequent on the Heritage Trail. Most animals hear the buzz of the engine as the groomer meanders through the trees, although deer are an exception.


FAT-TIRE BIKERS were among those enjoying the Sleeping Bear Heritage Trail last Thursday. FAT-TIRE BIKERS were among those enjoying the Sleeping Bear Heritage Trail last Thursday. Kelly said he sees them frequently.

“We see some turkeys,” he said, “and I spotted a pileated woodpecker the other day.”

Occasionally the crew encounters downed trees, which present a challenge because the groomer doesn’t have room to turn around. The groomer is equipped with a handsaw and a chainsaw, although chainsaw operators within Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore must be certified by the National Park Service. Only three volunteers are certified, including Kelly.

And Kelly is no stranger to sawing trees on the Heritage Trail. He and other community members spent more than 1,000 man hours clearing downed trees following the Storm of 2015.

Trail users like Rod Bearup certainly appreciate all voluntarism.

“I get out in the park year-round,” said Bearup, who lives “10 feet” south of the county line. “Lately I’ve been getting out skiing probably three times a week. I snowshoe and hike and climb bluffs. I live on 80 acres of woods, but it’s not groomed. That’s why I’m here.”

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