The Noquemanon Trail Network: An ambitious placemaking initiative in the heart of the U.P.

In the 15 years since the first Noquemanon Ski Marathon, the Noquemanon Trail Network has become one of the area's defining assets, encapsulating the rugged spirit of the Upper Peninsula and positioning Marquette County as a world-class outdoor sports destination.
Back in the late 1980s, when Noquemanon Ski Marathon race director Jon Mommaerts was a Nordic racer at NMU, point-to-point trails were virtually unheard of in Marquette County. He remembers roller-skiing along the margins of U.S. 41, dodging traffic and fielding strange looks from passers-by. If he saw another person on his way, he'd invariably know them as a member of the area's tight-knit cross-country skiing community.

How times have changed. 

"Everyone is out there now," says Mommaerts, extolling a cultural shift that has turned the central U.P. into one of the top U.S. destinations for "silent sports"--non-motorized trail activities like skiing, snowshoeing, hiking, trail running, mountain biking, and even horseback riding. This mirrors a nationwide trend in scenic, often geographically isolated locales. Mommaerts cites Breckenridge, Colorado and Bend, Oregon as similarly endowed locations with four-season trail networks, but notes they've invested in local recreation amenities for much longer than Marquette County.

Marquette County's transformation into this silent sports destination began 15 years ago, with the first Noquemanon Ski Marathon. The "Noque" replaced the Red Earth Loppet, a lap race around Blueberry Ridge Pathway that had suffered from dwindling attendance during the late 1990s. 

The first Noquemanon Ski Marathon drew 700, mostly local, skiers, about triple the figure for the last Red Earth race. Attendance has grown to about 1,600 this year, good enough to make it the nation's third-largest cross-country event, with entrants from more than 20 states. The race is modeled after northern Wisconsin's American Birkebeiner, a 13,000-entrant extravaganza that's billed as the country's largest Nordic ski race. Going forward, Mommaerts would like to see at least 2,000 entrants at the Noque.

Successful as it has been, the Noque wouldn't be possible without the Noquemanon Trail Network. As a 501(c)3 nonprofit, NTN "develops and maintains an interconnected, year round, non-motorized land and water trail network in the central Upper Peninsula of Michigan," according to its website. 

Its original purpose was twofold: to arrange easements from the private and corporate landowners affected by the ski marathon's course, and to improve the logging roads and dirt tracks that wound through the forests between Ishpeming and Marquette. The resultant network, which has been expanded repeatedly since the early 2000s, has attracted a growing contingent of members who pay for seasonal single-track and Nordic use privileges.

The marathon's immediate success created new opportunities for the network. According to longtime NTN board member Laurie Neldberg-Weesen, revenue from annual events will be critical to its long-term financial stability--and may dictate the pace of expansion and quality of maintenance going forward. "Every event is a revenue generator," she says.

Neldberg-Weesen envisions an event-for-hire system through which event organizers who shun overhead costs can rent equipment, obtain insurance, and find logistical support through NTN--a perk that could draw big events which otherwise might have been held in more convenient, but perhaps less beautiful, areas to the south. Thanks in part to a $20,000 USDA grant, the network is in the process of purchasing equipment for this purpose. 

The trail network certainly isn't short on events these days. Warm-season races like the Ore to Shore Mountain Bike Epic and the Big Bay Relay draw visitors from across the Midwest, and newer winter events like the Honey Bear Classic (held at the Big Bay Pathway) use different, often newer sections of the network. This year, a brand new event is in the works: Marquette Trails Festival, slated for June 6-8, will be a "family-friendly event that combines "hiking, running, mountain biking, even stunt biking--something for everyone," says Neldberg-Weesen.

Momentum is growing for winter and summer sports alike, whether organized or solo. Although nothing is set in stone, NTN's board would like to purchase snowmaking equipment to extend the early skiing season. And the network is set to reach its goal of 100 miles of single-track trails by 2020. 

Off the trail, Mommaerts, Neldberg-Weesen, and the rest of NTN's board and staff are excited about several new initiatives that could solidify the already-strong sense of place that connects Marquette County and its trails. 

Last year, NTN tapped Houghton-based Trail Genius to create two "next-generation" maps--a mashup of high-resolution camera footage and GPS mapping--of the system. They did the first pass, meant to simulate the view of a warm-weather user, early last fall. The winter view came, appropriately enough for the U.P., around this year's spring solstice. Even if they've never been to the area, out-of-town visitors to NTN's website can use Trail Genius's work to plan their routes along NTN trails, find points of interest, or just check out representative slices of terrain.

The network has also paired with SkinnySki, a website that curates user-generated trail photos and snow condition information from across the Upper Midwest. Especially early or late in the season, when conditions can be iffy, this content is useful for skiers who want to check an unbiased source for trail information before leaving the house.

Neldberg-Weesen hopes to use Trail Genius's video maps and SkinnySki's crowdsourced trail reviews, in conjunction with a soon-to-be-redesigned website, to spread the word about the Noquemanon system to outdoorsy types in bigger Midwestern markets.

"We need to do a better job of advertising in cities," she says. While it's cost-prohibitive to advertise in local papers or on TV, at least with NTN's current budget, she's optimistic that the organization can target silent sport conventions, industry tradeshows, and other relevant events. The Marquette County CVB, a key NTN partner, just got back from one such event in Milwaukee, and more are in the works.

Sport shops across the U.P., including Down Wind Sports and the Sports Rack, are huge NTN boosters as well, especially for out-of-towners who come in to buy equipment and leave with trail maps and day passes. Other local businesses have taken the placemaking power of the network to heart too--Blackrocks Brewery is a huge supporter of Ore to Shore, and Marquette General Hospital remains the biggest single sponsor of the Noquemanon Ski Marathon.

As with any endeavor, challenges abound. Despite its success, NTN is hamstrung by a small budget. "We have to juggle a need to be frugal with a need to invest in and promote our trails," says Neldberg-Weesen. The organization recently invested $50,000 in access road improvements, but more are probably needed, and a recent attempt to run a water line to the trailhead ran into unexpected problems. The organization has a paid--and highly capable--director in Nikki Dewald, but most other positions are filled by volunteers. That's a problem for an organization that plans to aggressively compete for grants from the USDA and other benefactors in the future; Neldberg-Weesen would like to see a full-time grantwriter come onboard. Meanwhile, the search for a new title sponsor to replace MGH--"which has been a great partner and will continue to support us at a very high level," says Mommaerts--continues.

More broadly, says Mommaerts, the network's existence is constantly under threat. "We're borrowing the use of all this land, and that could end tomorrow," he says. Despite generally strong, stable relationships with local landowners, a quick land sale to an unfamiliar buyer might result in the revocation of an easement before alternative plans could be hatched, creating a gap in the network. 

Long-term, a more robust funding stream could mitigate some of these control issues, and a "well-defined" capital campaign is planned for 2016. For now, NTN is plowing ahead with the acquisition of new easements. It's currently in talks with Plum Creek to gain access to a six-mile section of trail from County Road 510, near Big Bay, down towards Marquette Township. Plans are also in the works to dramatically improve the facilities at the Forestville Trailhead, one of the network's most heavily visited sections. 

Challenges or no, NTN has emerged as a national silent sports leader and, almost singlehandedly, put Marquette County's outdoor assets on the map. Now it's time to spread the word, and the network is ready to take on that challenge, too.
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