Scouting groups help inaugurate the Iron Belle Trail

Daisies, from left, Braelee Bentley, Elizabeth Robison, McKinley Pietila and Maddie Turner.

June 12, 2015

What began as a mandate from Gov. Rick Snyder in 2012 - create a trail that traverses the entire state - is becoming a reality. Michigan's Iron Belle Trail currently is under development, crossing the state twice, with a hiking route and a bicycling route. The trail stretches from Belle Isle Park on the Detroit River in southeast Michigan to Ironwood on the Wisconsin border in the Upper Peninsula. More than 60 percent of each route is now completed.

On June 6, National Trails Day, members of the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts in Michigan took part in hikes across much of the hiking route to recognize both the national celebration and the inaugural year of this showcase trail. The inaugural hike kicks off an entire summer of events along the Iron Belle, celebrating the collaboration and progress being made on the trail.

"When we talked about dedication of the trail this summer, we came up with the idea that maybe it'd be cool to try to hike the whole trail - 1,257 miles - in one day," said Ray Rustem, a youth outreach and education coordinator with the Department of Natural Resources, who works closely with Scouts.

Stefanie Furge leads a group of Boy Scouts and Girls Scouts on a hike from Pinckney to Stockbridge."It turned out that there are too many remote stretches of land in northern Michigan where there aren't a lot of Scouts, so we decided to just have groups go out and hike wherever they could. "One of the requirements for a Scout hiking merit badge is a 5-mile hike, and some of the Scouts completed that requirement during the inaugural hike," Rustem said. "There are also 10- and 20-mile hikes Scouts must achieve for rank advancement and merit badges. Some Iron Belle inaugural hike participants completed those requirements, too."

The idea drew significant support. Some 2,100 hikers from 130 Scouting units covered a total of 14,000 miles of trail. Some kindergarten and first-grade girls, known as "Daisies," hiked a couple of miles. Other troops marched more than 10 miles and some individual Scouts covered more than 20 miles.

"This was an opportunity for Scouts to see new areas of the state or hike on portions of the trail they haven't seen in the past," said Rustem, who in addition to his work with the DNR also serves as a Scoutmaster of Troop 763, Mason. "A number of them said this was the first time they've gone on a hike."

The Iron Belle Trail consists of two routes, one for hikers and one for bicyclists. Much of the biking trail follows roads, but the longer hiking trail was configured by joining many segments of existing trails, including many miles of the national North Country National Scenic Trail, as well as trails developed by other recreation authorities including cities, townships and counties.

Cub Scout Cooper Podhola of Pack 315 shows off his hiker bingo scorecard."The first reaction when we started putting the trail together was, 'Holy smokes, we can't do this,'" said Paul Yauk, DNR state trails coordinator. "But we worked with the trails systems and met with the Michigan Department of Transportation, local communities and regional governments, and after three or four months, we came up with a plan where we can link existing trails together. No other state has tried this, but we're leading the nation in number of trails anyway, so why shouldn't we be first in doing something like this?"

The idea quickly gained traction.

"Everyone understood what we wanted to do," Yauk said. "It really captured the imagination. We held a contest to name the trail and we had more than 8,000 entries. More than 240 had some type of variation of 'Iron' for Ironwood and 'Belle' for Belle Isle, so we decided to go that way."

Local units of government were quick to join in.

"The thing about the trail system is that it connects communities and builds upon trails that are already embedded and loved by the people," added Yauk. "Communities realize that when you build a trail, it revitalizes that entire surrounding area - we can't build them fast enough."

Not that the DNR hasn't been trying.

"The Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund has granted more than $31 million to existing local trails that are part of the Iron Belle Trail already," Yauk said. "The Trust Fund has been a huge part of this already, and will continue to be for years to come," Yauk said.

The DNR also is working to develop connecting routes off the main trail to link more communities to the main trail so they can also experience the economic, social and health benefits. The Michigan DNR is continuing to work with local, state and federal partners to develop the trail, acquiring land and improving the routes on an ongoing basis.

"In some areas, the North Country Trail runs along the road," Yauk said. "We're working on easements or fee-simple leases to get the trail completed off the roadway."

Local Scouting organizations were given free rein in structuring their own hiking events. Bill Mitchell, a den leader with Cub Scout Pack 315 in Pinckney, helped lead a group of Cub Scouts and Boy Scouts from Troop 395 in Hamburg on a hike from Stockbridge to Gregory on a portion of the Lakelands Trail. The Cubs played trail bingo, carrying a card with various flora, fauna and natural features that they checked off as they saw them on the trail.

Chuck Thibodeau, Scoutmaster of Troop 312, led a party of 30 (including Scouts, parents and siblings) on a 12.5-mile hike from Pinckney to Stockbridge. Stefanie Furge, Girl Scout leader of Troop 41133 and assistant Scoutmaster of Boy Scout Troop 385 in Hartland, led a group of mixed Scouts on a 10.2-mile hike along part of the same route.

Boy Scout Troop 426 of Manchester took a 6-mile hike from Gregory to Stockbridge.

"It was fun," said Boy Scout Chance Lowery. "We saw a lot of wildlife - rabbits, a deer, lots of birds and we saw a turtle laying eggs."

The youngster said they weren't tired at all afterward, and were ready to hike again.

"This is one of the nicest trails we've been on," said Sean Lowery, who accompanied the youths. "We're talking about doing it again next year."

Additional Iron Belle inaugural events will be posted online at www.michigantrails.org/events/calendar-events throughout the summer until Michigan Trails Week in September. Learn more about Michigan's Iron Belle Trail and other trail opportunities in Michigan at www.michigan.gov/dnrtrails.