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Published: Sunday, 10/18/2009

North Country Trail: dream of yesteryear

PITTSFORD, Mich. - When you plant your hiking boots on the stretch of the North Country Trail that winds through Lost Nation State Game Area here in Hillsdale County, daydream a little.

Did the mocassins of the famed Chief Baw Beese of the Potawatomi and his braves also once tread this path, or a path nearby? Did the frontier renegade Silas Doty hide out here, in the hilly, rugged, not-much-good-for-anything chunk of territory, this "lost nation"?

And think, you are hiking a stretch of a national trail that winds more than 4,600 miles from upstate New York to north-central North Dakota. Still a work in progress, the NCT dwarfs the high-profile 2,178-mile Appalachian Trail and the 2,650-mile Pacific Crest Trail. It is right under our noses here in Ohio and Michigan, and is little known. Pity.

When you hike the NCT, you and your boots are "connected" to all that wild real estate, from the wild and woolly Adirondack Park in New York through the Buckeye Trail of Ohio to the rugged Porcupine Mountains of Michigan's western upper peninsula and on and on to the upper Great Plains along the Missouri River in North Dakota, where the buffalo once roamed.

All of that romantic wool-gathering surfaces when you think back on a glorious autumn hike through Lost Nation, which encompasses seven of 70 miles of North Country Trail through Hillsdale County.

You are engulfed in silent big woods, stride along scenic bluffs above the St. Joseph River - one of two St. Joes in the county, this one heading south to form the Maumee River with the St. Marys at Fort Wayne, the other running cross-state to Lake Michigan. It's a great ride by shank's mare.

"There aren't a whole lot of places in southern Michigan you can hike two miles without a road," summed Ryan Bowles, president of the Chief Baw Beese Chapter, North Country Trail Association, during a day spent sampling three segments of the Trail through the county. The local chapter is in charge of maintaining the 70 miles of NCT in the county, including developing, laying out, and building new segments that will relocate current "road-walks" onto wilder terra firma instead of pavement.

"Much of this trail exists," said Bowles, "and where it doesn't there is an obvious way to go."

Steve Vear, Baw Beese chapter treasurer and long-time guilding light, second the motion. "We want to take it away from civilization more."

That ultimately means "off road, nonmotorized" routes, according to Bowles. He wants to formalize a 300-mile side-loop to the NCT in southeast Michigan, linking under one name trails from Jackson to Ann Arbor to Flat Rock, Monroe, and down into Ohio at Toledo, where the loop would follow the Ottawa River toward Secor and Oak Openings Preserve metroparks, then west on the Wabash-Cannonball Trail into Fulton or Williams counties.

Currently, a 17-mile road-walk ties the Wabash-Cannonball at West Unity with the NCT in Hillsdale County. Eventually, the link will be rerouted, following either the St. Joseph River to Montpelier or the Tiffin River to Archbold.

Another stretch of the NCT follows the former Baw Beese Railroad right-of-way into Hillsdale city along Baw Beese Lake. It is a straight path, which figures for an old railway, but the relaxing lakeside route draws no complaints here.

The trail builders always are seeking out landowners who would grant permission or even permanent easements for a trail route. Vear, a former state representative from Hillsdale, noted there is no liability for so doing. "Basically federal statutes protect the landowner from any liability if they grant an easement for the trail."

An assistant Scoutmaster, Vear adds that "we have great Eagle projects - bridges, kiosks, and more." So bring on the Boy Scouts of America.

North of Hillsdale near Litchfield, the Baw Beese hikers are about to open another off-road stretch of the North Country, following a beautiful stretch of the "other" St. Joe River on land owned by the Litchfield community. It tracks through a former sewage treatment plant grounds, but don't let that fool you; it has returned to nature with woods, fields, and a pond.

The Litchfield stretch will provide an eventual campsite and that makes Bowles happy. "That's another challenge for the NCT, places to camp." In all, putting together the North Country Trail has been like assembling words from alphabet soup. It is a jigsaw puzzle of local-state-federal lands, highway rights-of-way, and various private property arrangements.

Kevin Bell, one of the leaders in the local trail chapter, said one immediate goal is simply to get the word out. "Completed trail segments in Hillsdale County provide some quiet respite from the clutter and noise associated with many trails in urban areas. We'd like to make the public aware of the trail and hope to get individuals interested in helping us build and maintain it."

Bowles' day job is as a statistics professor at Michigan State University, but trails are his passion.

"I ... love ... trails," he says, letting out one word at a time to explain and emphasize. "I have 4,000 miles under my belt." That includes the entire Appalachian Trail. But, born in Lima, Ohio, reared in southeastern rural Pennsylvania, and now situated here, this trail is his focus.

"The North Country Trail - you can't beat it for variety," he said.

For more information on the Baw Beese Chapter, contact Bowles online at bowlesr@msu.edu or call 734-308-6696. For more information on the Trail, visit online at northcountrytrail.org.

Contact Steve Pollick at:

spollick@theblade.com

or 419-724-6068.



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