Making Trail

Fleeting fancies for children may mature in place for life.


hen we were about 10 and 8 years old, my brother and I built a trail through the woods. It was just across the road from our house on Long Lake — a hundred or so acres of second-growth beech, maple and hemlock. A half-mile in, at the bottom of a winding trail beneath hemlocks, was Bullhead Lake, a small woodland pond ringed with lily pads and drowned timber. Rick and I wanted a shortcut through those woods to get to the house of our friends, the Houghton boys. They lived 2 miles away by paved road, half that distance if we cut through the woods. It would be quicker if we could ride our bikes the whole way, but the woods slowed us. So, one summer Rick and I decided to do something about it.

Making Trail illustration
Illustration by Glenn Wolff

We built it from scratch and, like most trails, it meandered. We wanted it to be the shortest route possible, but fallen trees and old stumps kept getting in our way, so we followed geographical logic and used the natural contours and corridors of the land.

It was hard work. We dragged small fallen trees and branches out of the way and raked many years’ worth of decaying leaves aside. Inch by inch, we stomped the newly exposed ground until we packed it hard enough to support our bikes. I don’t remember how long it took us — maybe a couple weeks, maybe most of the summer — but finally we had our shortcut. In no time at all, it was as if it had always been there. It remains there to this day.

During summer vacation for years, we rode it almost daily on our one-speed bikes, hurtling past trees and hanging branches, banking around curves, gaining speed on the downhill until it felt as if we would launch into flight.

We hit the gravel two-track skidding, banked right and stood on our pedals and pumped furiously to climb the small incline where a great horned owl once chased me with a warning swoop so close to the back of my head that I could feel the air displaced by its wings. Then we raced through the red pine plantation, reached the shoulder of Long Lake Road, coasted down one hill and pedaled up another, and arrived at our friends’ house.

More often than not, all of us would return to Rick’s and my house on the lake and go swimming. The shortcut saved us 10 or 15 minutes every trip. More importantly, it taught us we were capable of getting things done. We could be self-reliant. We could stay on a job until it was finished. We could make a mark on the world.

The trail still is in use. Many people walk it into the Bullhead Lake Natural Area, a Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund site that was purchased and saved from development by a group of volunteers led by our former neighbor Annie Gurian. The trail is worn so deep now it looks as if it was made centuries ago, and I’m sure many people assume it’s no different than countless other old trails in Michigan that lead to interesting and out-of-the-way places.

But this one was built by children.

Reflections columnist Jerry Dennis writes from his home near Traverse City. His many books include “The Living Great Lakes” and “A Place on the Water.”

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