Fife Lake fortifies foot traffic on North Country Trail
Fife Lake — Reroute the trail. Make it a loop. Run it close to ice cream, hot soup and a place to get a frosty beverage or a good night’s sleep. Then, listen for the tread of hiking boots.
“We had some hikers in the other day … it was a cold one,” Ed Bishop said, shaking his head. “They wanted coffee. That’s the first thing I’d want on a day like that, too.”
Bishop and his wife, Cathy, own the Loon’s Nest Cafe, a cozy diner in downtown Fife Lake. Ed swoops and circles with the coffeepot, as Cathy adds her 2 cents to conversations from her cash register perch. Photos of Fife Lake’s lumber era heyday line the walls. Once 3,000 people lived in the hamlet on the lake. Now fewer than 500 remain year-round.
Noreen Broering calls Fife Lake “an undiscovered diamond in the rough.” Undiscovered because people don’t usually find Fife Lake unless they’re looking for it. A widely held misperception is that the “town” is the collection of commercial offerings scattered on the corners of the nearest highway intersection.
“Most people think Fife Lake is the gas station on the corner,” said Broering, the former village president of 15 years.
She and Patty Warner, with the help of many others, put Fife Lake on the map — the North Country Trail map.
The trail’s 4,600-mile cross-country trek, thanks to a new 13-mile reroute, now comes within a mile of the downtown.
They’ve filed the paperwork and will post signs announcing their new status as a National Trail Town in a June 6 ceremony, also National Trails Day.
The reroute sprouted from a desire to wind the trail through prettier country, mixing forest hike with lakes, wetlands, campgrounds and creek bed.
“We wanted to make it more scenic,” Warner said. Creating a loop trail was also a draw, she said.
“For some reason, people like those a lot better than the out-and-backs.”
The new section now follows the Manistee River along Fife Lake Creek, weaving past Headquarters, Twin and Spring lakes, and connects to the old eight-mile forest wander, creating the 21-mile Fife Lake loop.
Volunteers from local chapters of the North Country Trail Association installed the new trail in the last two years, adding five benches, a bridge, three kiosks and a boardwalk.
“It really didn’t take that long at all. We’d send in the chain saw crew, then follow with saws and loppers,” Warner said.
It connects to downtown by a 1-mile spur trail, flagged in white. Bringing it closer to town fell in step with the area’s master plan to improve recreation in the region and was an easy sell overall, Broering said.
“We tried but couldn’t really find any downsides. The trail was on state land. The hikers clean up after themselves. Everyone was really supportive,” Broering said.
Businesses embraced it, too. Mosquito repellent now perches on prime shelves above canisters of camp stove gas lined up like soldiers at Fife Lake’s True Value Hardware Store. The new section is for the campers they expect any day now, said store associates Elizabeth VanDussen and Jay Kintner.
The Bishops would love more traffic, foot, car, any way it comes, they said, and the expected uptick in passers-through is welcome. A couple stopped in recently who were section-hiking the long North Country Trail.
“We’re already seeing them. You can just tell by their clothes and shoes,” Broering said.
“We have a really cute town and a strong historical heritage. A lot of people don’t know it’s here.”
Fife Lake Trail Town celebration will be June 6 from 12:30 p.m. to 4 p.m. in Lakeview Park.