Nikki Van Bloem has been the Southern Michigan Trails Specialist for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources since April 2016. Her primary focus is non-motorized trails in 30 of the southernmost counties in Michigan – if you draw an imaginary line from Muskegon east across the state you roughly have her territory. In West Michigan that includes the Musketawa and Kal-Haven trails, the Mid West Michigan Fred Meijer Trails to the north and east of Lowell, and smaller trails connecting to state parks. She’s also involved with about 750 miles of snowmobile trails in southwest Michigan.
Van Bloem grew up in Jackson, Michigan where her family enjoyed camping at area state parks. She remembers being about 10 years old camping at Waterloo Recreation Area by the Waterloo-Pinckney Trail. She and her brother started hiking with their mom and came out on a road with a really old cemetery. Her mom had paper and crayons to do rubbings of the stones. Those memories come back every time she visits the park, of being out there with her mother and brother. The thrill of finding something unexpected is one thing she finds really cool about trails.
After high school she entered the business program at Eastern Michigan University with intentions of being an accountant. Math suited her but when she came upon the Recreation and Park Management program at Eastern and thought back to her days of camping and hiking, she decided to switch majors. After earning her Bachelor’s degree in Recreation and Park Management, she started working in state parks as a Ranger and worked her way up to being a Park Supervisor. During that time, she enjoyed working on a number of trail projects and when the trail specialist job was posted in 2015 she decided to apply and was fortunate enough to get the job. She is now stationed in Howell at the Brighton Recreation Area, but spends very little time there.
Van Bloem said she likes trails for their diversity. On the Border to Border Trail near where she lives, she sees all levels of trail users, from grandparents pushing strollers, to avid fitness runners and cyclists, to families and students enjoying time outside.
“It really does affect what people do,” she said, “when we’re talking about these big trails.” She also points out that visitors to State Parks always want to get out on the trails and ask where they are. She also enjoys the variety of her work and meeting different trail users, hearing about their experiences, what trails mean to them, why they’re important to the community, and how the community has changed since a trail came through. Asked what people should know about the DNR she said,
“We’re here to help. My job is to help the communities and trail advocates to put trail on the ground or make it better or figure out what obstacles are in the way.” She said that sometimes the DNR is seen as Big Brother.
“There’s a misconception that we’re here to dictate rather than being here to help. We really are here to help. But with that being said, we obviously show up with a whole lot of rules too.” And she admits that sometimes helping means just getting out of the way. Another misconception: the DNR has a lot of money. Van Bloem likes the small towns along trails.
“They might be little blips on a map, but to trail users they’re very important.” It’s easy to drive past towns when you’re in a car and trying to get someplace. To trail users these towns are places to take a break, find food and water, make repairs, or spend the night. Covering trails in such a large area it’s easy to imagine Van Bloem spends a lot of time on the road. It works out to about 40 hours a month, and she uses that time to listen to podcasts. A favorite is 99% Invisible by Roman Mars, about the invisible elements of design and architecture – for example, airport design and how design makes finding the check-in counter and other areas intuitive. “It’s very eclectic,” she said, “and he talks about lots of things like McMansions and rival architects in New York City in the ‘30s and ‘40s.”
In her free time she likes to build things. Currently she’s building a workshop in her basement so she doesn’t have to work in her garage, and this summer plans to build new furniture for her front porch. On the trails Van Bloem is more of a hiker, wanting to get out in the woods and lose herself for a while. Most of us can relate to that.
Planning is underway to determine how to span the 42-mile gap between the northern end of the Kalamazoo River Valley Trail at D Avenue in Cooper Township and the southern end of the Kent Trail system in Byron Township. The trail will effectively connect two of West Michigan’s largest trail networks and two major cities. The future trail is often called the Interurban Trail for the old Interurban rail line it’s presumed much of the trail will follow.
The ad hoc River to River Trail Planning Committee composed of public officials, trail and greenway coalitions, bicycle advocacy groups, planning and engineering consultants, and various community partners is working to find the best route to traverse the 42-mile gap. The plan covers several municipal jurisdictions including Cooper Township, Gun Plain Township, the City of Plainwell, the Township and Village of Martin, the Township and City of Wayland, Leighton Township, the unincorporated community of Moline, and Byron Township. It’s exciting to see momentum build on the River to River Trail Plan. Our trail network in Michigan and particularly West Michigan is impressive.
This trail will connect all these great communities along the way, offers residents new recreational opportunities, offers a safe place to ride and walk for families and children, and it connects two significant trail networks. It will be an important piece of a destination trail system attracting tourist cyclists from around the country and even around the world.
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