Kerry Kelly, friend of Sleeping Bear

From staff reports

Friends of Sleeping Bear Dunes may be best known for working together with the National Park to maintain the popular Sleeping Bear Heritage Trail. Later this summer the trail will open its fourth leg — a 3.8-mile stretch from the Port Oneida Rural Historic District to Bohemian Road on Good Harbor Bay. The Sun caught up with Friends chairman Kerry Kelly to learn more about the nonprofit’s important work, how each leg of the Heritage Trail is distinct, and how the Friends managed to clear the popular Glen Arbor-Glen Haven section of trees within just nine days of the mighty storm last August.

Glen Arbor Sun: What does your day-to-day, or week-to-week work entail as chairman of Friends of Sleeping Bear?

Kerry Kelly: It’s hard for me to separate what I do as a Park volunteer and what I do as Chairman of the Board for the Friends of Sleeping Bear Dunes. As a volunteer, I work in the Blacksmith Shop in Glen Haven one or two days per week. Right now, a couple of us volunteer blacksmiths are building bike racks for the Sleeping Bear Heritage Trail. These are being made by hand out of steel and black locust (the invasive trees being removed from the park). I also manage the Adopt-A-Beach volunteer program, where volunteers clean litter from our Lake Michigan beaches, and the Trail Ambassador program where volunteers ride their bikes, walk or ski the Heritage Trail to help out visitors.

As Chairman of the Board, I spend most of my time coordinating our projects with Park staff. It is our goal to support the Park management and staff by providing volunteers and funding projects that are really important, but which they don’t have resources to complete. Our board members each take responsibility for managing various projects too. The Friends is an all-volunteer organization, so with the wide variety of projects that we are supporting, it requires everyone to be involved. I work very closely with Matt Mohrman, the Park’s volunteer coordinator. When they need volunteers, he will ask me to put the word out to our members, and usually we get a very good response.

We have a very good relationship with Park management and staff. I think that’s because of the mutual respect and the quality of the volunteers we bring in. We have such a great pool of enthusiastic volunteers, who have such a variety of life experiences that can be tapped into. It’s amazing how active our community is and how willing they are to support projects at the Park.

Sun: Our sense is that Friends of Sleeping Bear is most known for its important work to maintain and promote the Sleeping Bear Heritage Trail. Do you have a favorite portion of the trail, yourself? (Or is that like asking a parent to name their favorite child?)

Kelly: It is true that the most visible project we have is operations and maintenance of the Sleeping Bear Heritage Trail. We have been involved in this project from the very early planning stages and we’re proud to be able to keep the trail in good condition for the long term. Our trail crew keeps forest debris off the trail in the spring, summer and fall by using a blower at least once a week. They remove down trees if we have one fall across the trail, and in the winter, they groom the trail for cross-country skiing. One of the most enjoyable things I do is working with other volunteers on trail maintenance — whether it’s grooming the trail or digging post holes for new signs.

Now, to answer your question … each section of the Sleeping Bear Heritage Trail has it’s own unique character:

• The first segment to be built from Glen Arbor to the Dune Climb is the most popular because it is relatively flat and connects Glen Arbor to several of the visitor interest spots — like Glen Haven and the Dune Climb.
• The second segment built was from the Dune Climb to Empire. It has some challenging hills. Mostly challenging on the way up. On the way down, they are really fun.
• The third segment was built last year from Crystal River put-in to Port Oneida Road. This section has some nice hills and winds through forest and along the edge of historic and picturesque farm fields in the Port Oneida Rural Historic District.
• The segment being built now and planned to be open in June, will go from Port Oneida Road to Bohemian Road and along the way will pass by the North Unity School (log cabin) and over a boardwalk spanning the edge of Narada Lake. This will make viewing the lake and the birds that live there much more accessible.

I think my favorite segment of the trail is the Empire to Dune Climb. Fewer people ride (or ski in the winter) this section and the hills and winding through the glacial washout to Empire is really awesome!

Sun: Where were you when the Aug. 2, 2015, storm arrived? And how did you spend the following hours and days?

Kelly: Sunday morning, August 2, I was in Glen Haven with some other volunteers doing surveys of trail users. The first rain came through around noon and we decided to call it a day because the rain meant nobody was using the trail. As a result, I was at home south of Cedar when the storm came through. On Monday, I got a call from Park management asking us to get the word out that we needed volunteers to work on clearing the Heritage Trail.

So I put out a request to our trail crew and we had a small group of about half dozen volunteers on Tuesday. We worked on the trail from Glen Haven toward the Dune Climb. That night, I put out the word to our trail crew and ambassadors and the next day we had about a dozen volunteers. By Wednesday night, the trail was open from Empire to Glen Haven and from Crystal River put-in to Port Oneida. The only section still closed was Glen Haven to Glen Arbor — the hardest hit section.

Then as we got more organized, we expanded the request to the general public and got even more response. We started each day at Glen Haven with safety orientation and assigning everyone a work crew and job. By Friday, we were all getting pretty tired, so I made the call that we would not work on the weekend. People are more likely to get hurt when they are tired. Our volunteers worked from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and the Park Service tree crew came through after we were done each day and took care of the really big or dangerous trees.

So Monday and Tuesday we were back at it and by Tuesday night — nine days after the storm — the trail was clear and the Park opened the trail. Over 6 days, we had 138 volunteers who worked 1,052 hours. Even though the trail was safe to open, it wasn’t cleared back as far as we wanted to be able to groom for skiing. So we worked with the Park Service tree crew once a week in October to widen the trail.

To me, the most gratifying thing that happened as a result of the storm was to have so many people from the community get involved to work with us to clear the trail. AND NOBODY WAS INJURED! Given all of the chainsaws, tangled and down trees, it is a tribute to our safety attitude and training that nobody was hurt.

I’m glad that I personally, and the Friends of Sleeping Bear Dunes, was able to facilitate this cooperative venture to get our trail back in operation quickly and safely.

Sun: Tell us about the newest leg of the trail, between Port Oneida and Good Harbor Bay. What are its highlights and unique attributes?

Kelly: The new segment of trail being built now (to be fully open later this summer) will be a great addition to the overall trail experience. It will be relatively flat, so no hills to climb! My favorite part is where the trail goes right by the old log cabin that has been hidden in the woods next to Narada Lake. Most people drive right past this historic gem and don’t even know it is there. This is a one-room log schoolhouse called the North Unity School. Now everyone riding this section of trail will be able to see it up close. We have been working with the Park Interpretive division to develop an interpretive sign describing the school and people who built it. Once past the school, the trail goes on boardwalk over the edge of Narada Lake. This little lake is home to a lot of wildlife — beaver and lots of birds. The trail and boardwalk will make viewing wildlife here possible.

Sun: What are the biggest joys of your work with Friends? How about the biggest challenges?

Kelly: I love to see people enjoying the Park. Watching a multi-generational family (grandparents, parents, kids and the dog) all riding the SBHT together, smiling and getting great exercise in the outdoors is the best reward I can get. I spent quite a bit of time over the last couple of years taking pictures of people using the trail, and talking with them about their experiences. The parents and grandparents are teaching the kids by example how to enjoy and take care of the natural resource we have here.

We do a lot of work with youth. We fund a couple of college interns every year to work at the Park and we fund programs that help pay for school groups to come to the park on field trips. Watching the kids on snowshoes or running down the Dune Climb or cleaning up litter off the beach. That is what makes all this work worthwhile. We are teaching our kids how to become stewards of this place.

Sun: How did you spend the winter?

Kelly: I love the snow, so we stay here all year long — except for some ski trips out west! I do a lot of cross-country skiing and snowshoeing, and yes — grooming the trail. What could be more fun than skiing from Glen Haven into DH Day campground where we store our groomer and grooming the trail? Best of all is when you meet someone skiing while grooming. They are so happy to see us.

Sun: Finally, congratulations on receiving the award from the Northwest Michigan Environmental Action Council (NMEAC) for Volunteer of the Year. What does the award mean to you?

Kelly: Thank you. I was really surprised when I found out I had been nominated for Environmental Volunteer of the Year by NMEAC. This organization is really well respected and has been working for many years to protect our natural world here in northern Michigan. It was a huge honor to be recognized by NMEAC. But when I received the award, I said — and I really meant this — that it is not about me — I was receiving the award on behalf of the Friends of Sleeping Bear Dunes AND all of the volunteers and Park staff who really make this Park a great place to visit.