Volunteers support the North Country National Scenic Trail

America’s longest scenic trail traverses through the western part of Michigan and thanks to hundreds of dedicated volunteers, it’s well maintained.

The North Country National Scenic Trail spans across seven states -- from New York to Pennsylvania, and through Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota and North Dakota. When completed, it will encompass 4,600 miles and pass through 10 national forests and more than 150 public lands.

Based in Lowell, Mich., the North Country Trail Association (NCTA) partners with the National Park Service to develop, maintain and promote the scenic trail. They rely on volunteer chapters throughout the seven states to maintain specific sections.

The NCTA’s Western Michigan Chapter is one of the association’s largest chapters, with more than 250 volunteers. The area of the trail they “adopted” runs from Grand Rapids north to the southern part of the Huron-Manistee National Forest, covering both Kent and Newaygo counties.

Paul Haan, trail manager for the local chapter, says the trail is set in areas designed to be interesting to hikers and often located near bluffs, waterfalls, rivers and lakes. With natural surface trails 18-24” wide and NCTA signs and blue blaze guide markers along the way, there is a sense of consistency throughout the entire trail.

“The experience of the North Country trails is the same, but the terrain changes,” says Haan.

Haan began volunteering with NCTA in the late 1990s when, as a frequent hiker, he saw a need to get involved. People don’t always realize that the maintenance of the trails “are not your government tax dollars at work, but volunteers at work,” he says.

The Western Michigan Chapter is always looking for more volunteers, but Haan stresses they must be “willing to learn and follow instructions.” There are specific ways things need to be done, standards to follow and safety precautions.

People of any age or physical condition can volunteer, with a parent or guardian present for anyone younger than 16. Most of the volunteer work on the trail is done in the spring and fall because Haan says the group has found that “once the AC goes on inside, volunteers drop off outside.”

When people call or email to volunteer, they’ll be told where the chapter will be on the trail and when. All new volunteers go through “tailgate training” when they first arrive. Volunteers can stay for as long or as little as they would like, but if they say they will be there, the organization counts on people to honor that commitment, as they need to know how many tools to bring and how to plan the day’s work.

Sometimes people camp out overnight and work for two days, but Haan adds, “There’s plenty of goofing off in there, too.”

Upcoming volunteer opportunities are the Mowing and More days when the trail areas are mowed and repairs are done on certain structures. Haan says the chapter uses “lawnmowers on steroids” to cut back the trails so people don’t get covered in wet grass or ticks while hiking.

Volunteers are always needed for non-trail activities, too, such as website updates, newsletter creation, membership administration and event staffing.

In addition to maintaining the trail, members of the Western Michigan Chapter participate in planned hikes and various social events throughout the year.  

Haan encourages people to be mindful and respectful while using the trail and, while out there hiking, give some thought to the volunteers putting in efforts to make it better.
If you want to find out more about the North Country Trail Association and its Western Michigan Chapter to volunteer or hike the scenic trail, here are some resources to get you started:   

- Visit the North Country Trail Association online.
- Become a member and get product discounts, plus a subscription to the quarterly magazine, the North Star.
- Volunteer with the Western Michigan Chapter.
- Buy a map or guide and hike the North Country Trail. (Note: members get 30% off.)
- Like North Country Trail Association on Facebook.
- Like the West Michigan Chapter on Facebook.

Source: Paul Haan, Trail Manager for the NCTA’s Western Michigan Chapter

Writer: Heidi Stukkie, Do Good Editor

Photos taken by Paul Haan and Doug Boulee were provided by the Western Michigan Chapter of the North Country Trail Association.