Reconnecting Communities to Each Other Through Nature

A little over 24 years ago, Tom Baily and Horace Huffman discussed what it would take to build multiuse trails in Charlevoix, Emmet, and Cheboygan Counties that could be used throughout the year, no matter the weather. They, along with others, recognized an opportunity to maximize existing yet abandoned railroad tracks, turning them into recreational trails that would benefit the community and the increasing number of tourists. With the help of numerous partnering agencies and dedicated community members, they formed what would become the Top of the Michigan Trails Council.

The organization’s mission is to “advocate and facilitate the development of a network of multipurpose recreational trails in northern Lower Michigan.” Later on, it was expanded to include advocacy efforts to “maintain and to delineate our geographical area as Northern Michigan.”

Huffman of the Huffy Corporation had some experience implementing a similar concept from his involvement in the Miami Valley Regional Bicycle Council, which raises around $300,000 per year for various charities and cycling endeavors with its bike-a-thon.

Huffman and Baily discussed this model with potential funders and collaborators, and eventually adopted a model that would accommodate a slightly different demographic.

John Tanton, the director of a local incubator, caught wind of the project and was interested in getting involved. In addition to Bailey and Huffman, some key investors and other individuals to spearhead the venture were John McCoy, Neal McCue, and Fred Fettis.

Jim Conboy has also played an integral role in the organization, now serving on the board. At the spry age of 70, he is the ride director for the lake ride that follows the annual fundraising dinner, and he shows no signs of slowing down.

Conboy was also involved early on speaking at town meetings to generate support for building the trails. He shared with me some of the concerns this project received in the beginning stages.

“People were afraid that if they opened up the trails in their backyard, they would be more prone to burglary, or that the trails would compromise the safety of their families.”

On the contrary, however, it would be just the opposite, as one man pointed out during one of these community meetings.

“One evening, I was speaking to a group of people about the proposed bike trail, and a man stood up. I braced myself for the opposition I thought was imminent, but instead he said, ‘This is great! Now my grandkids can play in the backyard instead of along the byways.’”

Today, the organization comprises 288 miles of trails (more than any other state in the country), 180 of which are from the abandoned railways. Trail visitors are encouraged to bike, hike, run, skate, snowmobile, ski, snowshoe, and even ride horses.

What I appreciate about the history and success of this project and many others I have the opportunity to write about in this magazine, is that there are almost always challenges an organization faces in the beginning and often throughout its duration. Still, again and again, we’re told of community members who rise up, investors who take a risk and fund a new idea, and original thinkers, dreamers, and planners who have the courage (and work ethic) to see the concept through to its completion.

In the case of the Top Michigan Trails Council, it was all an effort to make outdoor activities more accessible and diverse, not only for those in the area but also for the strangers who come to visit.

Top of Michigan Trails Council 1687 M-119, Petoskey 49770 / (231) 348-8280 l TrailsCouncil.org