Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Battle Creek series.
Jane Norton could walk out her back door in Delton and get onto a trail that would take her west to North Dakota or east to Vermont.
That trail – The North Country Trail – includes about 119 miles through Barry, Calhoun, and Kalamazoo counties which are managed by the Chief Noonday Chapter
of the national trail system. These local miles are part of a total of 1,150 miles of trail that spans parts of Michigan’s upper and lower peninsulas, according to the North Country Trail Association
Despite the presence of this national trail, Norton, President of the Chief Noonday Chapter, says she still has neighbors and others who live along the trail who have no idea what’s in their own backyard.
“We have people who live close to the trail and they don’t know it exists and what a resource we have to have this going through this area,” she says.
Michigan hosts the most North Country Trail miles of all eight states the trail travels through with volunteers taking responsibility for its management and maintenance.
Jane Norton of Delton is president of the Chief Noonday Chapter of the North Country Trail Association.
“We are a community of like-minded people, but also very diverse,” Norton says. “It’s been very interesting to meet people from all over the country who come through our section of the trail.”
The Chief Noonday Chapter has about 300 members, known as 'adopters,' some of whom volunteer to maintain the parts of the trail that are close to where they live. Norton says, “We have at least two people who commit to taking care of the trail every two to three miles.”
“Our next work day is going to be on some property that used to be part of the trail. It was on private property and the owner sold the property and we lost that trail. But, the National Park Trust purchased the property for us and we have re-established it as part of the trail,” Norton says. “It will be connected to the Kellogg Forest.”1
Among these adopters is Mary Rebert whose home in Delton is near the trail. She became a member of Chief Noonday in 2009.
“As I age it’s becoming more and more difficult for me to do physical things, but I can still go out there and see what work is needed. The trail can change from week to week,” Rebert says. “You feel like you own part of the trails that you helped to build and to maintain. For me, it’s a legacy. I am doing something for a national park that’s right in my backyard.”
After the recent ice storm, Rebert was among members who were walking their part of the trail to identify areas in need of cleanup or removing branches and debris from the trail using their hands or tree loppers.
Part of the North Country Trail in Kellogg Forest.
“If (the adopters) can’t do it on their own, we dispatch people who use chainsaws to do the cleanup work,” Norton says.
Those chainsaws are operated by people who own them. Norton says they are required to take a two-day course focused on the safe operation of the chainsaw, in addition to CPR classes. They are then designated as a certified sawers.
“That’s quite a commitment on a person’s time and money,” she says.
The work of these sawers and adopters is complemented by monthly workdays typically held on the third Saturday of each month with the start time depending on the scope of the project being focused on. Norton says between 10 to 20 member volunteers show up to get the work done.
The North Country Trail crosses this creek in Kellogg Forest.
“Our next work day going to be on some property that used to be part of the trail. It was on private property and the owner sold the property and we lost that trail. But, the National Park Trust purchased the property for us and we have re-established it as part of the trail,” Norton says. “It will be connected to the Kellogg Forest.”
During a workday last Fall, volunteers built a long boardwalk off of the trail in Augusta.
“These workdays are a huge commitment on the part of our members,” Norton says.
Blazing a trail to wellness
In addition to sweat equity, members also pay an annual fee of $40 each to the National Trail Association. The majority of those funds come back to the Chief Noonday Chapter which uses those dollars for trail maintenance. Norton says she also can apply for grants from the National Scenic Trail Association which is part of the National Trail organization to cover the cost of equipment purchases and supplies to build amenities including boardwalks.
Part of the North Country Trail in Kellogg Forest.
“The North Country Trail has a budget because it’s part of the National Scenic Trails which is considered a national park,” Norton says.
Largest historic trail donation: Larry and Shannon Bell
In addition to these funding sources, Larry Bell, founder and former owner of Bell’s Beer and Brewery in Kalamazoo, and his wife Shannon, are major financial donors. In March 2022, the North Country Trail Association received the largest donation in its history from the Larry and Shannon Bell Charitable Fund
“It’s been amazing to watch Larry’s excitement for the Trail, and we’re thrilled that he has the belief in our work to justify such a large donation," said Andrea Ketchmark, Executive Director of the NCTA, in a story posted on the organization’s website. “The Bells’ donation marks a new day for the Association – one that will elevate the efforts to complete the route and protect the valuable resources of the North Country National Scenic Trail (NCNST) for the next generation.”
Bell’s support of the North Country Trail was driven by a life-changing experience. Bell challenged himself to hike the entire Michigan section of the NCNST: 1,150 miles. Mile after mile, he experienced firsthand how spending time outdoors changes lives, and he wanted to share that opportunity with others. His experience on the Trail and conversations with NCTA staff and volunteers also helped him realize just how much work goes into building, maintaining, and protecting a National Scenic Trail for all to enjoy, the story says.
Some of the patches that Jane Norton has collected are on her backpack.
“The North Country Trail has been a welcome tool for my physical and mental health in my post-cancer life,” Bell said. “I am happy to help facilitate this contribution to the [North Country] Trail Association so that others may find the joy, beauty, and well-being that I know from hiking this path, and so that the Trail may be built out to its full potential.”
Norton says the trail uses mostly parks or public lands like national forests, state parks and national parks, and cities that have trails.
“We try to connect those instead of recreating other trails. It’s not a straight line. It goes from whatever existing trails are already there,” she says. “We know we have to look to private landowners to take the trail offroad and as you can imagine, that’s not always easy.”
Users of the North Country Trail represent all ages, although there aren’t as many children and teenagers as Norton would like to see out there using it. She says the Chief Noonday Chapter hosts walks and challenges specifically designed to increase awareness of the trail and what it has to offer.
On March 11 at 10 a.m. the Chapter will be offering a hike for anyone interested in coming out. The four-mile roundtrip hike will begin at Ned’s Deli on Gull Lake located at 15450 M-43.
Eric Longman, Vice President of the Chief Noonday Chapter, plays a major role in creating these hikes and getting the word out about them through a quarterly newsletter that he puts together. He became a member 20 years ago while living in Caledonia. After moving to Gull Lake 10 years ago, his involvement in the organization increased.
Jane Norton walks on the North Country Trail through part of Kellogg Forest.
“I’m not hiking as much because I’m doing other things for the chapter. Once a week I get out and I’m either cleaning the trail or hiking,” Longman says. “I like the idea of being able to get out and away from the stresses of daily life. I am trying to get more people dealing with mental health crises and depression out on the trail and get them away from computers screens and phones to enjoy the trail.”
Rebert, who classifies herself as more of a stroller on the trail, says she likes to watch the birds and plants.
“I like nature in general and I like that it takes me away from anything else that may be causing me stress,” Rebert says. “Being out there is a stress reliever and an adventure. Many times when I’ve been out on the trail, it has inspired me to think, act and consider things other than myself.”