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Michigan's Kal-Haven Trail: the old track to new adventures

By R.C. Longworth, Chicago Tribune

Map of Michigan

South Haven, MI -- The path runs straight and flat, 33 miles across the farms and small towns of southern Michigan, with a covered bridge at one end, a red caboose at the other and lots of solitude in between.

Walking 33 miles in one day -- 33.5 miles to be achingly exact -- may be overdoing the exercise: It was three days before I could stand up painlessly. But for a stroll through the subtle beauties of the Midwest, it is hard to beat.

The path is called the Kal-Haven Trail, short for Kalamazoo-to-South Haven, and it is a beneficiary of the Rails-to-Trails movement that has endowed this region with some badly needed space for walking.

Blame it on the ice age, but the Midwest lacks Alpine trails suitable for mountain hiking. The farmers who settled the area could have built in charming footpaths like those of rural England, but they didn't.

Until recently, these geological and agricultural oversights left Mid-westerners with few good venues for long-distance walking, free from cars. Now the railroads have come to the rescue.

On the recommendation of a citizens advisory group, the Michigan Department of Natural Resources (DNR) bought the land in 1988 for $375,000, covered the abandoned line with a hard graveled path and turned it into a linear state park.

The day I picked to walk the path presented southern Michigan at its most luscious. It was early October, cool, with a soft sun, the leaves just at the peak of brilliance and beginning to fall, laying a gold and yellow runner along much of the trail.

The trail is developed, up to a point. The walking is smooth and easy. The DNR has provided privies about every 5 miles. I saw few trash baskets, but no trash at all. The people who use this trail obviously treat it right. Regular signs -- "Caution, driveway ahead" or "Caution, possible agricultural spraying" -- promote that sense of induced dread that terrorizes American life.

The trail passed a ghost town, its substantial old houses vacant and staring. Along the way, a church sign demanded, "Have You Prayed About It?" A bridle path, thoughtfully placed separate but parallel to the walking trail, follows it for 14 miles, but I saw no horses or riders that day.

In fact, I saw virtually no one. There was a woman with a dog and a cyclist with a baby strapped to her back at south Haven, an elderly couple strolling at Grand Junction, two men on bicycles at Bloomingdale, an old man on a bicycle at Gobles -- and that was about it for humans for 33 miles.

Instead, there was wildlife. Birds sang and squirrels chattered overhead in the trees. Snapping twigs signaled something unseen in the woods that line the trail.

The DNR says business picks up on weekends. The trail is open year-round, but most of the 76,000 who use it each year come on Saturdays or Sundays. Eighty percent of them are cyclists, not walkers.

Signs at either end warn that permits are required but, except on weekends, nobody seems to care. A permit costs $2 per person or $5 per family, with annual passes available for $10 or $25. But there's no one to take your money or punch your ticket. Unless you stop off, as I did, at one of the stores, like the 4-Way Grocery, that sell permits, you could probably stroll the length for free.

This seems a shame, because the permit money is used by an organization called The Friends of the Kal-Haven Trail, a descendant of that citizens advisory committee, to maintain the trail without any tax money.

For more information about the Kal-Haven Trail, contact Van Buren State Park, 23960 Ruggles Rd., South Haven, MI 49090; 616-637-2788 or 616-637-4984.

April 2003

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