Carol Kraak always was a walker. When a degenerative illness hindered her ability to take a daily trek into nature, she found she could still bike. And the freedom she felt was the impetus behind a new cycling program on the 22-mile Betsie Valley Trail, which starts on the shoreline of Lake Michigan and heads over rivers, past bays and into some of the state’s prettiest woodlands.
The county’s new Joy 2 Ride nonprofit (joy2ridebenzie.org), which Kraak founded, purchased one of only five specially designed, electric-assist wheelchair bikes in the country, a cycle operated by a volunteer pilot with the disabled rider in the front. The program has trained more than a dozen volunteers about the bike’s operation and already has been inundated with requests for a ride by people who in some cases had never had the chance to cycle.
“We have a large group of elderly or disabled people who could use it, but I also want it to be for someone like myself not in a nursing home but 50 and struggling with something that keeps her off her bike.”
— Carol Kraak
“It started when I read an article about a woman my age in Bloomington, Illinois, who went through breast cancer, and it broke her heart to not be able to ride after she was cured,” Kraak said. “Someone introduced her to a modified wheelchair bike, and she started healing rides. I read that in November, and it stirred in me until January. I thought, ‘We need this here. We could do this here. We 100 percent could.’”
There is arguably no one better to have put this in motion. When the health issue slowed her down and she took to her bike, the communications director of the county’s visitor bureau said she logged 4,000 miles on the trail. She learned its twists and turns so intimately that she can tell you almost to the exact day when the columbine fades or the lady’s slippers bloom.
“If you want fields or woods or swamps or rivers or lakes, it’s all here and fantastic and fairly flat,” she said. “We have a large group of elderly or disabled people who could use it, but I also want it to be for someone like myself not in a nursing home but 50 and struggling with something that keeps her off her bike.”
One of the first ride requests was from a man who’d always loved riding but lost partial sight and hearing and was unable to ride, unaided, after a car accident 40 years ago, she said. For Kim de Bruin, who spends summers on a Herring Lake cottage and gets around through an electric wheelchair, the Joy 2 Ride outing was her first chance to go on a bike ride with her husband — a priceless moment. A neighbor told her about the program, and she went out on a warm summer Thursday.
“The birds were singing and there were trees lining the trail,” de Bruin said. “It was gorgeous. What stands out most is when we got to that bridge where you see the Betsie River before it flows into Betsie Lake, looking out at the dunes of Elberta and the dunes of Frankfort. We stayed for a little to enjoy that view.”