Crews finally clear popular northern Michigan trails

John L. Russell
Special to The Detroit News

Glen Arbor — Most of the popular winter trails in the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore park have finally been cleared for hikers and winter outdoors enthusiasts.

Thousands of downed trees blocked access on Alligator Hill after an Aug. 2 storm packing winds estimated at 100 mph left a path of destruction through Leelanau County northwest of Traverse City.

“We were on track for a record year of attendance,” said Paul Purifoy, collection manager for the Sleeping Bear park. “The first week of August is typically our busiest of the year. The storm couldn’t have come at a worse time.”

Just one trail, an intermediate hiking and skiing trail, remains off limits and won’t be cleared until spring. It’s taken months to cut fallen trees and trim others to clear two other trails used for summer hiking and winter sports such as snowshoeing.

Thousands of trees were leveled in the woodland. The skyline in many areas of Alligator Hill is broken only by occasional bare trees that survived the winds. Other areas appear to be untouched.

The popular viewing areas called Island Overlook, where the Manitou Islands are visible across Lake Michigan’s blue water, and the Big Glen Lookout, where the inland Big Glen Lake is viewed, are now accessible, but not without many hours of careful removal of downed trees by the crews.

“One beech tree we removed had 140 rings in its trunk; this was a mature and old forest,” said Terry Ryan, a 15-year seasonal employee and one of the men who wielded a chain saw.

He is proud of his crew and the work they have accomplished.

“You cut until they come down,” Ryan said. “One of us would climb through the tangle, and work from the other side. This is hard work. It’s a huge puzzle, but it’s kind of fun.”

Purifoy estimates the loss in park revenue at upwards of $100,000, compared to last year. Officials did not have an estimate of how much it cost to clear the trails.

The 88-site D.H. Day Campground was closed for 20 days and the Pierce Stocking Drive, Dune Climb and the hiking and biking trails were all closed for at least two weeks.

“We had to call off the annual Port Oneida Fair” the second week of August, said Merrith Baughman, chief of interpretation and visitor services with the National Park Service. “The loss of up to 4,000 visitors was significant.”

The Michigan State Police declared Grand Traverse and Leelanau counties a disaster area.

Crews first cleared the Pierce Stocking Drive and reopened the campground, then turned their attention to Alligator Hill, with its nine miles of trails. The popular heavily wooded beech and hardwood forest has trails from easy to advanced.

“We were told Alligator Hill may never reopen,” said Mindy Carter, a 16-year seasonal employee and tree crew chief. A decision was made to reopen the area, and crews began cutting trees Oct. 26.

“We had three crews working 10-hour days for three weeks to clear trees,” Carter said.

It was hard work.

“Some days with two crews we could remove up to 200 trees, depending on how they were fallen,” said Carter. “Other days we may only clear 50 feet, the tangle was so bad.”

The August storm made finding the existing paths under the thousands of trees extremely difficult. Having Glen Arbor nearby was an incentive to reopen the trails.

“In three weeks, they managed to remove over 2,800 trees from six miles of trails,” Baughman said. “It is steep and was totally blocked, but our crews were great and are done with the trails for this year. The easy and advanced trails are open, and we will have the last 1.9 miles of the intermediate trail open in the spring.”

It’s National Park Service policy to leave the woods as they are. None of the trees will be sold for lumber. The policy allows Mother Nature to continue untouched as much as possible.

“It’s a crying shame,” Carter said. “These were some of the oldest trees in the park. That’s Mother Nature, though. The forest will grow and mature, but it will take generations.”

John Russell is a photojournalist and writer in Traverse City.