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‘Blue Blaze Fever’

Members of the Chief Noonday Chapter take a break from their work maintaining the trail for a photo. Back row, from left: Steve Merring, Stephen Kesler, Cal Lamoreaux, Eric Longman, Denny Moore. Front row, from left: Sandy Johnson, Jane Norton, Cynthia Clemens.
North Country Trail inspires hikers of all types

Enthusiasm for the North Country Trail has a name.

“People decide to walk on the North Country Trail near their home. Then they want to walk their entire county, their state, and another state. That’s Blue Blaze Fever,” says Jane Norton, president of the Chief Noonday Chapter of the North Country Trail Association.

The blue blazes painted on trees and landmarks guide hikers and walkers through forests and farmland, hills and valleys, remote rural and urban residential areas and ADA-friendly communities all the way from Lake Sakakawea State Park in North Dakota to Maine Junction in Green Mountain National Forest in Vermont, crossing six other states along the way — Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and New York.

Norton has walked 1,500 unique miles of the NCT, some in each of its eight states, including the entire Lower Peninsula and Wisconsin. In each of the last 10 years she has also walked the entire 120 miles of the Chief Noonday Chapter’s section, which runs from the Kent/Barry county line northeast of Middleville to the Calhoun/Hillsdale county line, passing through Barry, Kalamazoo and Calhoun counties. “As president, I want to know the state of the trail,” she says.

The North Country Trail is the nation’s longest National Scenic Trail, and nearly 1,200 miles of the 4,851-mile trail — 25 percent — winds its way through Michigan.

In Southwest Michigan it meanders through the Yankee Springs Recreation Area, between Bradley and Hastings; the Kellogg Experimental Forest, the Cheff Therapeutic Riding Center and the bird sanctuary at the Kellogg Biological Station, in Augusta; and through the communities of Battle Creek and Marshall before heading southeasterly, crossing the Michigan-Ohio state line south of Waldron, in Hillsdale County.

Cynthia Clemens, meeting program manager for the Chief Noonday Chapter, caught Blue Blaze Fever in spring 2021.

“When hiking, you’re constantly looking for that paint swatch with its bright blue color,” Clemens says.

“The blazes become emblazoned on your mind, and you just want to follow them and see what’s around the next bend to the next vista, the next wildflower, the next prairie, the next anything. You start planning your next hike in your dreams. That’s how you catch the fever.”

The long and short of it

Clemens started logging her distances in 2023, when she walked more than 1,000 miles of the NCT, completing all of Michigan (1,178 miles) and Pennsylvania (276 miles), for which she received the NCTA’s Long Distance Hiker patch.

Then there’s Joan Young, a resident of Scottville who was the first woman to hike the entire North Country Trail. She started in 1990, two years after seeing a brown NCT sign on the side of a Michigan highway.

Young writes in her book, North Country Cache, “It wasn’t until 1995, after sampling 281 miles of the trail in four states, that I realized I wanted to hike the whole thing. But I wasn’t in any particular hurry.”

Young completed the entire trail in 2010. In 2021, she set out alone to walk the entire 4,851 miles again. She completed the second journey in 18 months and 18 days, at the age of 75.

She is one of at least 28 people who have walked the entire North Country Trail, at least seven of whom are women. “Not everyone has applied for recognition,” she says, “so although I try to keep track, it’s possible the number is off by one or two.”

Blue Blaze Fever also wends its way into the lives of people who walk much shorter distances.

“I’ve been a member for over 15 years, and I probably hike only 50 miles a year,” says local chapter Vice President and Trail Manager Eric Longman, “but I’ve dedicated a lot of my time to building and maintaining the trail, writing the chapter newsletter, and increasing our membership. And I’ve made a lot of very good friends.”

Birder Cal Lamoreaux finds joy in the calls of sandhill cranes, turkeys, and other winged creatures that he hears on the trail.

Sandra Johnson says the trail reminds her of her youth. “My dad took us all over Yankee Springs,” she says. “I knew it like the back of my hand. It’s nice to be walking back in this area again. It’s like home in here.”

Managing the trail

The North Country Trail was established in 1980 and is managed by the North Country Trail Association, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit headquartered in Lowell, Michigan, that partners with the National Park Service to unite individuals, affiliated trail groups, local chapters, corporate sponsors and others to build and maintain the trail as well as tell its story.

The NCTA is composed of 30 chapters — 12 of which are in Michigan — and eight affiliate organizations that monitor and maintain the trail.

In our neck of the woods, the Chief Noonday Chapter has nearly 900 members: 565 individuals and 373 families (an increase from 200 in 2019). About 20 percent of these members volunteer for work parties or participate in chapter-sponsored group hikes, such as the annual New Year’s Day hike, which draws 50 to 80 participants.

“Most members just hike, and they pay dues because they like the maintained trails,” says chapter officer Longman. (In addition to Longman, Norton and Clemens, chapter officers are treasurer Janey Hayter and secretary Joyce Irvine.)

Chapter members who do more than hike sometimes work on the trail. Workdays involve many things: trimming back branches and brush that have grown to obscure the trail, removing downed tree trunks and limbs that have fallen across the trail, determining where water washes out the trail and building natural diversion structures, and filling in deep dips or holes in the trail for safer footing.

It’s not uncommon to hear the sounds of saws and hammers on a workday as volunteers build boardwalks through marshy areas or makeshift “stairs” along a downhill stretch of trail. There are also the less glamorous tasks of picking up litter and trash, especially along more populated parts of the route.

The concept of National Scenic Trails officially came into being with congressional passage of the National Trail Systems Act of 1968, signed by President Lyndon B. Johnson. The first two trails to be officially designated National Scenic Trails and funded under this act were the Appalachian Trail and the Pacific Crest Trail.

The idea of the North Country Trail began with a feasibility study in 1971, conducted by a combined federal and multi-state task force. In March 1980, Congress passed legislation that authorized establishment of the trail. Citizen input helped to define the current route.

In late 2023, the North Country Trail attained “unit status,” a designation that the National Park Service has now applied to 428 government-owned public properties, such as national parks, battlefields, seashores, historical sites, scenic trails, and other properties.

The North Country Trail Association’s executive director, Andrea Ketchmark, says the unit status designation “ensures access to additional resources and funding opportunities” and thus “is a crucial step in promoting and improving this treasure.”

A key factor in the federal and public acceptance of the North Country Trail has been the “Hike 100 Challenge.” The NCTA’s December 2023 newsletter, the Blue Blaze Bulletin, says people who “walk, hike, backpack, dance, snowshoe, cross-country ski, wander, saunter, amble, or shuffle” 100 or more miles on the NCT during calendar year 2024 will receive a beautiful patch. The miles on the trail may be solo on the honor system or part of chapter-led hikes. The distance can be 100 unique miles or the same one-mile stretch 100 times over. The bulletin encourages trail users by saying, “You do you.”

Blazing the trail

One of the chapter’s biggest challenges is working to reduce the number of miles of the trail running along roads and move those parts of the trail into the woods and meadows. The easy part, says chapter President Norton, is to run the trail through public land: national forests, state forests and parks and game areas, and county parks. The hard part is working with private property owners whose land lies between those public lands.

“It’s a very big struggle,” says Longman, who praises Chief Noonday volunteer Jim Bronson for undertaking the task of contacting landowners and negotiating agreements, especially easements that allow the North Country Trail Association to have permanent access even if the property is sold.

“At first, people have concerns about their property being adjacent to the trail,” says Longman. “But that actually increases the value of the property. They can go out their back door and be on the trail.”

When building the trail, the local chapter must attain federal and state permits regarding environmental preservation, protected species habitat, and significant cultural and heritage areas, such as indigenous burial grounds.

Local trail highlights

The local chapter is named after Noahquageshik, better known in non-Native circles as Chief Noonday of the Grand River Band of the Ottawa Nation, who lived most of his life (1770–1840) in the Yankee Springs area. His grave, on the south side of Cressey Road, west of Lockshore Road, near Hickory Corners, is marked by a modest gravestone and a small sign on a stick. In March 2023, the Chief Noonday Chapter led a tribute hike to the gravesite, which is one-tenth of a mile off the North Country Trail.

The Chief Noonday section of the trail includes three particularly beautiful parts: a winding path through a mature hardwood forest from Middleville to Kent County; the Augusta Prairie, a Midwest prairie rich with native wildflowers, songbirds and butterflies and a terrific view of the Kalamazoo River Valley; and Bridge Park, between Battle Creek and Marshall, which features five meticulously restored bridges that have been brought here from various Michigan locations.

The Chief Noonday section also includes a one-of-a-kind feature: the Fort Custer National Cemetery, the only national cemetery on the entire North Country Trail.

Noonday chapter member Steve Merring’s favorite feature of the trail is Devil’s Soup Bowl, in Yankee Springs Recreation Area. “(It) is a deep kettle formation, about a half mile of the trail. And there’s another kettle, a little bit smaller, right beside it. You can walk right on the rim of two kettles.”

Merring says that in the winter, after leaves had fallen from the trees, he would bring students from his North Kent High School Outdoor Survival class to these kettles and have them lie down and look up.

“It’s a unique experience, like being in a crater.”

Longman estimates that 80 percent of the miles in the Chief Noonday section are off-road and in natural areas, while 15 percent run along rural roads and 5 percent are in villages with restaurants and stores. He says hikers, especially long-distance hikers, appreciate those rural roads for their vistas of pastures, fields, barns and livestock as well as friendly homeowners who wave or chat.

Finding connections on the trail

Approximately 600 to 800 people enjoy some part of the Chief Noonday section annually.

For those who catch Blue Blaze Fever, the greatest attraction is the sense of connection.

Merring, who volunteers for trail maintenance activities, says local chapter events “bring familiar faces, new faces and friends together to contribute to something greater than ourselves.”

Clemens, whose enthusiastic commentary exudes passion for hiking, adds, “You find connection on the trail. Personal connections, connection to nature, to your health, your mental health, your spirituality. In a day when we’re getting more and more disconnected from people, the North Country Trail is a way to get back in touch with your roots. Besides, the trail is in my backyard, and it connects me to eight states. I’m a ‘short’ walk to anywhere on the trail.”

Robert M. Weir

Robert is a writer, author, speaker, book editor and authors’ coach. You can see more of his work at

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