Off the Beaten Path

Making Community and Personal Connections Through Hiking and Biking Trails

By: Christopher Nagy

It’s a social phenomenon that Bob Wilson refers to as “America’s new front porch.”

While proponents of the digital age may preen with braggadocious bravado about keeping us better connected through technology, it begs the question: If all these advancements are designed to bring us closer, why do so many feel an enveloping sense of detachment and isolation?

As the executive director of the Michigan Trails and Greenways Alliance, a Lansing-based statewide advocacy group for the development of nonmotorized land and water paths, Wilson believes he knows both the answer as well as the cure.

“We’re all so sequestered with our individual lives that people feel a disconnect,” he said. “That’s why trails are so great. That’s why trails are so popular. They fulfill people’s desperate need to connect with others in the community. You make friends on trails. It’s a greeting place for people. You have that feeling of safety because you’re in your own community. But, at the same time, you’re also in an open environment.”

The ever-growing network of nonmotorized trails are the 21st century version of intermingling with your fellow travelers and getting out from behind the screen to make face-to-face community connections. Recreational trails, Wilson explained, are simply downright neighborly, gosh darn it!

In the Great Lakes Bay area, neighbors are out meeting neighbors and communities are becoming better connected – both figuratively and literally – thanks to the efforts being made on the Great Lakes Bay Regional Trail. Since 2008, the goal of the project has been to create an expansive, roughly 100-mile trail network by linking existing trail systems throughout Bay, Midland and Saginaw counties.

“We found that we are better together in our quest to make our region the best it can be. Our vision is simple: Connect our respective local trail systems to provide easy access points to bike, hike, run and enjoy the great outdoors on miles upon miles of trails,” said Catherine Washabaugh, vice president of the Great Lakes Bay Regional Alliance, the all-volunteer nonprofit that oversees the Great Lakes Regional Trail project. “Initially, the three groups – Bay, Midland, Saginaw – had their own Friends’ groups or trail enthusiast committees, but we were restrained by this imaginary line for each county. After the Great Lakes Bay Regional Alliance was created, crossing boundaries and working together became much more feasible.”

Washabaugh’s initial interest in the vision that would become the Great Lakes Bay Regional Trail predates the project by more than two decades, stretching back to a cycling tour she took in Colorado the late 1980s.

“It was so inspiring to bike amidst the beauty of the area and not worry about trucks or cars speeding by because the trails were isolated from the roads. I thought it would be great if Michigan had trails like that,” she said. “I became involved with Bay County’s Riverwalk/Railtrail Committee at the Bay Area Community Foundation in 1997. I attended the first statewide trail conference in 1998 and met others that were just as enthusiastic as myself and I have been hooked ever since. It was a big learning curve initially, but once you understand the type of grants available and the work that needs to be completed to accomplish whatever the goal is, it’s really fun and rewarding. It’s great to work with others that are equally enthusiastic and have areas of expertise that help bring the vision to a reality.”

The Great Lakes Bay Regional Alliance went through a number of feasibility studies, interdisciplinary work groups and name changes since it initially set out to bring a trail network to life. Washabaugh noted, however, that the inspiration to continue driving the effort forward boiled down to the singular goal of improving the quality of life for residents by making the most of surrounding features such as abandoned railroad rights of way.

Reclaiming and repurposing decommissioned property is a staple of the trails efforts across the state, plus it’s a natural progression because so much infrastructure such as tunnels and bridges along such routes are already in place, said Michael Schingeck, manager of Jack’s Bicycle Shop in Bay City.

“They have become a relatively safe environment to enjoy a healthy outdoor activity in your own neighborhood for leisure and exercise or, with the trails being connected over larger distances, a long-distance adventure across the state along a path dedicated to the outdoor enthusiast,” he said.

In addition to retail sales and repairs, Jack’s Bicycle Shop also offers bike rentals suitable for everyone from novice cyclers to family outings to hardcore adventure bikers. The rental business tends to be brisk during the warm months, drawing interest from area residents as well as out-of-town visitors looking to take in the region’s scenery, Schingeck said.

“On any halfway decent day in any city that has these dedicated pathways, you will find a varied group of people enjoying a range of activities,” he said.

Whether it’s for basic recreation and simple transportation or if it’s to explore an area’s natural resources as well as the history and culture of a community, if safe trails are made available, people are going to use them, Wilson said. There will always be hurdles and challenges to overcome, but – at least for the Great Lakes Bay Regional Trail – the finish line is getting closer.

Washabaugh said a significant portion of the goal is expected to be fulfilled within the next two years. Once that is met, the alliance will set its sights on ongoing maintenance as well as bolstering the endowment fund to pay for that maintenance.

“It’s funny. The majority of people had no idea of the beautiful Bay-Zilwaukee area and are taken aback by the nature that’s in our own backyard,” Washabaugh said. “The most frequent question I get is, ‘When is XXX connection going to be completed?’ It’s hard for many to understand why it takes so long to get things developed; but, as they say, Rome wasn’t built in a day. The grant process can be very challenging and, by time the project is awarded, it could be a couple of years later before it’s in place.”

Still, the outcome is vastly outweighed by the obstacles, she added.

“Having a walkable/bikeable community has been the goal. I can attest firsthand that the number of people walking/biking has increased significantly in our region,” Washabaugh said. “It’s so much easier to get outside and exercise when you can walk outside your door and find a trail without having to drive. That’s our goal. Connecting trail systems makes it that much easier.”


Side bar


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