Trails carved into Grand Traverse Commons dangerous, costly

Brooke Kansier and Jordan Travis
Traverse City Record-Eagle

Traverse City — “Renegade” trails seeming to spring up overnight and the mountain bikers wiping out on their twists and turns prove a strange – and growing – problem for local firefighters.

Steve Apostal is used to cutting through brush and hiking ridges with only a set of coordinates as his guide, and he’s no longer surprised by the oddly structured trails with questionable origins.

The Grand Traverse Metro Fire Department assistant chief and avid biker himself has responded to a growing count of calls for help on those unsanctioned trails behind the Grand Traverse Commons, according to the Traverse City Record-Eagle.

Signs remind hikers to remain on designated trails.

And they’re no easy rescues.

“There’s areas where there’s stairs, there’s bridges, there’s boardwalks, and we can’t drive our off-road vehicle through that. Those trails have been challenging this year,” Apostal said. “If I could show you what we had to do to get the last guy out, you’d be blown away.”

That wooded stretch boasts several sanctioned trails open to walkers and cross-country skiers. But in recent years, miles upon miles of new, unmapped mountain biking trails have been carved into the forest via rototillers and other power tools. Some sit a stone’s throw from safer, sanctioned trails, while others lie beyond ridges and up steep inclines. They boast treacherous dips, ramps and exposed roots, Apostal said.

But it doesn’t seem to keep people away.

“I was back there walking and there were people all over the non-designated renegade trails walking dogs, riding bikes – there’s a lot of people using them out there,” Apostal said.

It’s pushed them to explore new avenues – one of them, potentially charging bikers who have to be rescued.

The topic came to a head at a recent Garfield Township Board meeting, in which trustees heard from several first responders and trail-related officials.

Recent rescues cost those departments more than time, Township Trustee Molly Agostinelli argued during the meeting – they’re a financial burden, too.

She floated a theory that charging for such rescues, akin to practices at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, might deter use of rogue trails. Other suggestions included posting trail cameras.

But any implementation of such ideas is still far off.

“There’s a lot of T’s to cross and I’s to dot before you can charge people,” Korn said.

Apostal wasn’t aware of any further talk on that idea yet, but noted rescues have ramped up significantly compared to past years.

“Between the Commons and the VASA Trail areas, we’ve been out in the woods probably more than the other three years combined that I’ve been here,” he said.

He’s seen about four in the last couple months – past years have tallied one to two calls for the entire calendar year.

The latest drew firefighters out on a recent June Saturday after a call from some vacationers.

They’d been biking the trails when one wiped out and injured himself going over a ramp, Apostal said.

Finding them – with coordinates from dispatch and help from tracking technology – proved confusing.

The visitors weren’t familiar with the area and couldn’t say where they were, and coordinates issued by 911 dispatchers can have up to a quarter-mile discrepancy in location, according to Apostal.

Rescuers eventually ran into a biker who’d seen the injured man and offered to lead them to the scene. They finally found him after climbing a ridgeline near a sanctioned trail.

Firefighters were able to carry the man out to a trailhead near Long Lake Road, Apostal said, where an ambulance was waiting.

He was treated at Munson Medical Center.

“You would’ve never known he was over there – I didn’t even know the trail was there,” Apostal said. “Learning how many trails are back there now, I’m kinda surprised we aren’t back there more often.”

He has spent hours navigating and mapping those trails to make such rescues easier.

But it doesn’t solve problems with getting rescue equipment down the overgrown paths, or with tracking down people who aren’t sure themselves where they’re at.

It’s – hopefully – a temporary problem, Korn said. He and township officials have been working on changing the land’s deed, which designates trails for use by walkers and skiers only.

A legislative solution was stalled earlier this year by the COVID-19 pandemic, but he’s hoping it’ll still come through.

Once it does, the township and other stakeholders will draft a broader trails plan, including those welcome to mountain bikers.

For now, they’re just trying to keep people off the unmapped routes as much as possible.

“We want to keep it under control the best we can until we can change the deed with the state,” Korn said.