Ride of 275 miles from Great Lake to Great Lake draws the biking faithful

Who would want to ride 275 miles on a bicycle, from Lake Michigan to Lake Huron, in six days? Over a lot of trails -- paved-to-dirt -- plus a few urban streets, state highway shoulders and backcountry roads? From South Haven to Kalamazoo, Battle Creek, Jackson, Pontiac, Port Huron and the many small towns in-between? What kind of person does that?

On the morning of Sept.13, 70 people stuck their rear wheels in Lake Michigan before heading east. Their goal, to put their front wheels in the water of Lake Huron.

Those riders paid $750 to participate in The Great Lake-to-Lake Trails Route #1 Inaugural Ride. Price included emergency service in case of bike breakdown or accident, a few meals, guide staff and the knowledge that they participated in a historic Michigan ride.

The group ride is to celebrate the official designation of the first GLTL trail.

The GLTL plan includes five routes through both peninsulas, linking the big Lakes. The goal is for all five to be off-road non-motorized trails for biking and hiking. So far, trail #1 is about 70 percent trail. 

Trail advocates say that if you build it, they will ride, and bike tourists will bring their dollars to all the small and large towns on the route.

Having had the weird desire myself to hop on my bicycle and ride hundreds of miles, I hopped on my Surly Troll that Friday the 13th and rode from Kalamazoo to meet the GLTL riders.

I’ve been asked, “Why are you doing this?” As if I had turned into Forest Gump, biking instead of running. I’ve asked myself the same question, especially when it’s raining and I’m nowhere near my goal for the day.

Waiting for bikers in Mentha 

It was raining hard that morning. I waited for it to pass, then hit the Kal-Haven Trail, headed east. Reached the ghost town of Mentha, Van Buren County, and came across a rest stop ready for the GLTL riders.

Volunteers of the Friends of the Kal-Haven Trail were setting up a table of chips, candy, and water; a little welcoming station in the farm fields now stirred by gusting winds, under dark clouds. 

"There's a band of storms coming in and we're sitting out here without shelter," the women are noting. Just before they arrived, "it dumped buckets." 

They uncertainly looked west down the stretch of the Kal-Haven that runs through the cornfields that used to grow A.M. Todd's mint. The storm had soaked the trail that morning, making the gritty crushed limestone surface a bit sticky. 

About three hours earlier in South Haven, 28 miles to the west, the GLTL riders had begun pedaling.

They had to pedal over 40 miles to Kalamazoo, the first day of the Lake-to-Lake, and one of the shorter ones of their journey. 

Were they going to be rain-soaked? Impeded by the high winds? Relaxed and taking their time after a long lunch in Bloomingdale?

When they reach Mentha it'll be less than 15 miles to a nice room and shower at the Radisson. But those who do this bike touring craziness know that there can be misery between points A and B.

At approximately 2:30 pm the leaders of the pack arrived, stopped for a quick break, and sped off. Others, taking their time, sat at the picnic table to chat, eat, and rest their filthy legs.

GLTL riders arriving at the Mentha stop on the Kal-Haven Trail.The next wave of storms moved south, but the day turned warm and humid. The now-sweaty bikers had missed all the rain, but the rears and backs of those without fenders on their bikes had that unfortunate grey-brown splattered stripe of trail mud. 

Joelle Abramowitz sat at the table, her lower half covered with limestone grit.

"So far, it's been a beautiful ride," she says with a bit of the daze that comes from long-distance biking. "Very pretty, we went on a very nice covered bridge, lots of farms, had some views of the towns."

Abramowitz is 33, a native of New Jersey but now living in Ann Arbor. She's done two days of the Michigander Tour in northern Michigan, and has pedaled from Ann Arbor to Detroit. 

"I just think it's exciting to be able to power yourself to get to places that normally you'd just drive a car." The perspective of the world from the saddle, versus from the enclosure of a motor vehicle, "feels so different, there's a different sense of place," she says.

Bob Michaels, from South Lyon, stops at the break station. He started this bike tour habit ten years ago when he heard of the DALMAC, an annual ride from Lansing to Mackinaw City. What excited him was the ride across the Mackinac Bridge at the end. 

"So I got a bicycle, started riding. Did five or six DALMACs, then they stopped letting me go across the bridge (bridge crossing on the tour was discontinued), so I'm looking for other things." 

He also pedaled from New York City to Niagara Falls for a cancer research fundraiser, 500 miles in seven days. "I like to keep my rides between 60 and 70 (miles a day) at the most. Forty is better." This is his first ride in Southwest Michigan. "Having a great time so far!"  

Don Myers rolls up, hops off his bike, does a comical leg wobble on the ground. "Got to get my land legs, after all the riding." He now lives in North Carolina, but with that being a hilly state, every year he's returning to his native state of Michigan for rides.

He's 76 years old. Why does he keep riding? "I guess because I still can. Stay as healthy as I can, as long as I can."
Don Myers, 76, of North Carolina, does many Michigan rides. He wants to ”Stay as healthy as I can as long as I can."

Philanthropist and Michigan trail advocate Mike Levine, who pledged $5 million for GLTL #1, is also on the ride. But, at 80 years old, he was "a little wore out" on the first day, ride officials say and was driven to Kalamazoo after riding from South Haven to Bloomingdale.

Many of the riders for the Great Lake-To-Lake don't fit the young, svelte, athletic, rugged image that non-riders might assume.

Later in the day, after many of the riders have passed through, Alysa Babcock of the Friends of the Kal-Haven says, "The ages -- that shocked the hell out of me! I think the average age must be 65, it might even be more! You have a lot of older folks, and you think, jeeze, I'm 50 and I'm not in shape. But somebody who's 75 is out here? Riding 40 miles a day? That's amazing!" 

Some are quite fast, but "it's not a race," Babcock says. "You gotta stop and see the wildflowers. See the wildlife. Blue heron, sandhill cranes... It's not a race, you can stop and enjoy the beauty. And learn about the history." She points to one of the Michigan Trail Heritage signs  the Friends helped erect along the trail this summer, next to a planter full of A.M. Todd's favorite mint. "Mentha was the world leader in mint, how many people know about that?" 

Matt Metzger, Michigan DNR ranger, arrives on his bike. He helped to plan the ride, and he's on his bike to "encourage them on to Kalamazoo." He's often on his bike for his work on the trail, so Metzger knows why people might want to ride a bike across the state. 

"Beyond being a personal passion, it's a great way to get out and explore Michigan. We have a lot of great trails, and I'm very fortunate to have a trail as part of my career... by bicycle, you get to see and experience so many things that you wouldn't otherwise." There's diverse wildlife, fellow bike travelers, small town life, "those are the types of things that you see from a bike's perspective."

Historic trail

Jeff Green, vice president of the Friends of the Kal-Haven, says the GLTL is "historic for Michigan."

The Friends continue to advocate for the trail -- they're currently pushing for more campgrounds on it, more and better restrooms, and for a resurfacing project of its western length. Under the Friends' master gardener, Sue Hodapp, who was also at the Mentha stop, they have a continuous effort to pull invasive plants and encourage wildflower restoration.

Green says, "I think in Michigan this could be the most heavily used trail. Certainly the most famous," and that the Kal-Haven is "the number one tourist destination for southwest Michigan." 

The Kal-Haven was designated as a state park and opened for non-motorized traffic in 1989. Green says that was before his time, but records show there was resistance from the local communities to turn the old rail bed into a trail for bikers and others. Trail advocates “always get the same opposition from some of the neighbors, always afraid that thieves are going to come in the middle of the night and kick their dogs, stuff like that," he says.

DNR ranger Matt Metzger is often on his bike while working on the Kal-Haven. ”I always see something cool!"
Green points to the creation of the North County Trailway in Westchester County in New York. "Neighbors forced the county to spend millions of dollars on chainlink fence on either side of the trail," he says. "In a couple years, you found holes cut in those fences so those property owners who complained most about the trail had easy access to the trail." 

Communities eventually recognize the value of trails, whether it's for their own recreation or for the money visitors spend. 

While waiting for the GLTL riders, I pedaled a few more miles east to get lunch at The Kendall Store. "Oh, they spend money," Kathy Garrett says at the cash register of her general store, of the trail users.

Kendall used to be a major town on the railroad tracks -- back in the 1800s. Now the store is one of the few establishments -- including a church and the Pine Grove township seat -- in the tiny unincorporated community. "Speed racers" in lycra and more leisurely riders often hop the short distance from the trail to her store, to refuel with food and water, she says. 

Caboose and beyond

GLTL riders leave Mentha and push on, through the woods and up the forested slope to the Kal-Haven trailhead. A new trail heritage sign points out that the hill was formed by ice age glaciers, a fascinating fact that bikers can ponder as they mash pedals uphill.

Where the Kalamazoo River Valley Trail and the Kal-Haven meet, sits the old red caboose, representing the railroad long gone. In the nearby pavilion, the Friends of the KRVT have their welcoming station hopping with riders taking advantage of the free snacks, bananas, coffee and water.

"It's part of a big whole, you can't see it, it's so big," Paul Banner, volunteer Friend of the KRVT, says of the route now linking the Great Lakes.

The riders will continue on to Kalamazoo on the paved KRVT, then head east the next morning on the trail link that leads to Galesburg. Early next year, Banner says, construction will lengthen the trail through Galesburg, with the goal of connecting to Battle Creek's trail system.

"As we've built trail through so much of Kalamazoo, usage has increased dramatically year to year," he says. That usage then increases demands for more connections. 

Kalamazoo County Parks is responsible for this section of the 275 mile route. Support from local government, Lancing, MDOT, Michigan DNR, and grants from nonprofits like the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, helps to connect all the links, and "brings it to a reality for everyone," Banner says.

With talk of dinner at Bell's Eccentric Cafe, the GLTL riders ride on. Headed back home to end my 40 mile day, I meet a group stopped on the KRVT at Kalamazoo's North Side neighborhood, consulting their smart phones. 

What's the best way to the Radisson? "My phone says to take this road, Westnedge?"

No! I advise them that the four-lane, one-way Westnedge is not very bike-friendly at around quitting time on a Friday. I lead them onto the downtown KRVT connection, a yellow-dashed line that meanders on sidewalks to the rough vicinity of their hotel. 

With relief they see a wash station to hose down their bikes, near the hotel where they'll clean up and rest for the next day's journey. Just 230-something miles to go.
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Read more articles by Mark Wedel.

Mark Wedel has been a freelance journalist in southwest Michigan since 1992, covering a bewildering variety of subjects. He also writes on his epic bike rides across the country. He's written a book on one ride, "Mule Skinner Blues." For more information, see www.markswedel.com.