You don’t need a backpack and training in survival skills to enjoy a walk in the southwest Michigan woods. All you need is a Trail Dame.
For about three years (with a year-long “pause” while the group looked for a new leader), the Trail Dames in Michigan have been headed out on monthly walks around the Kalamazoo area. They’re not serious outdoor experts, with all the latest equipment. Instead, the Trail Dames are about one thing most of all: companionship. “The most common response we get (from participants) is, ‘I didn’t even know this trail was here,’ or, ‘I’m so glad I made friends,’” said Delia Baker, 33, of Kalamazoo. She’s been head of the Michigan chapter of Trail Dames since it reactivated in 2017.
Founded in Georgia, Trail Dames is a group for women hikers “of a curvy nature,” as the group’s website (traildames.com/about.html) puts it. There are nearly two dozen chapters nationwide. Baker puts the Michigan group’s hikes together about once a month and lists them on the Meetup group page (meetup.com/Trail-Dames-of-Kalamazoo). A year-long membership starts at $23, increasing when you add benefits like a membership to the American Hiking Society (a Maryland-based non-profit organization that supports environmentally sustainable hiking). There’s even an annual summit for the Trail Dames where attendees will hear from guest speakers about hiking techniques and trail stories. This year’s summit is in July in North Carolina.
Baker is trained in first aid and wears a backpack with emergency supplies. Hikers themselves just need to bring water, she said. The Trail Dames website — and hiking experts — recommend wearing wool or synthetic clothing that’s less likely to get cold when it’s wet (from rain or perspiration when hikers are sweating in the summer sun). For most hikes in the Kalamazoo region, tennis shoes are fine, Baker said, though hiking boots can work just as well.
“You can have anything you want in life if you dress for it.” — Edith Head
Why They Walk
The Trail Dames have walked some of the betterknown trails in the Kalamazoo area, including Celery Flats and Fort Custer, as well as lower-profile routes like Chipman Preserve in Comstock. Hikes are usually miles or fewer and Baker notes that she tries to select locations and walking routes for different experience levels, varying from short walks on paved paths for new walkers to longer trails for veteran hikers.
“We have women of all shapes and sizes,” Baker says. “Some have years of experience in hiking, others have never stepped outside for more than a mile.” The hikes are usually done in a just a few hours, typically in a loop along a walking path. A “Wine and Walk” last June brought the group to wine tastings in South Haven.
Most hikes draw about a dozen people. Baker shares that the youngest walker, a member’s daughter, was 17, while the oldest member was 82, though most are in their mid- to late 40s. At that age, many women are busy with children and careers and don’t have the time for their own activities, she says. “They’re looking for camaraderie,” Baker notes. “I’ve heard people say, ‘I need friends.’”
Debbie Power, 63, of Battle Creek says she joined the Trail Dames for that very reason. She moved to Battle Creek a few years ago as part of her recovery from cancer. She has been canoeing throughout her adult life and enjoys being outdoors. For her, the Trail Dames has been a good way to make new friends. “From the start, they have been welcoming,” she shares. “There are so many older ladies who are alone. They need a group to have people to talk to.”
Power, now retired from owning a self-storage facility, loves to paint when she’s not out hiking. She joined the Trail Dames about a year ago and says she wants to go on more trips, no matter what the skill level the trail requires. “We’re not hard core,” Power encourages. “Bring your bottle of water and tennis shoes; go out and have fun.”
THE TRAIL DAMES aren’t the only ones taking to the pathways of Kalamazoo County. Here are a few of the trails in our area where you can spend an afternoon enjoying the great outdoors. All of the trails listed here are free.
The Kal-Haven Trail runs from 10th Street in Kalamazoo all the way to the Lake Michigan shore in South Haven, for a total of 33 miles. It passes through small towns like Alamo and Gobles on the way. Like many trails, it’s popular with bikers and even horseback riders, too.
Asylum Lake Trail, at Drake Road and Parkview Avenue in Kalamazoo, is named for the Michigan Asylum for the Insane, a mental hospital that owned the land back in the 1880s. The hospital is long gone but the trail remains. It now belongs to Western Michigan University and earth science students sometimes take field trips there to study the land. Two paths, one on Drake and one on Parkview, lead into the heart of the property, and offer views of the lake itself before moving up and out through an open field and back to the start of the pathways. A warning, though: on a clear day, it might be hard to find a parking spot in the small lots.
The Kleinstuck Preserve trail makes a loop through neighborhoods near Westnedge Avenue, not too far south of downtown Kalamazoo. Like the Asylum Lake property, the Kleinstuck Preserve is owned by WMU, but is open to the public for walking and hiking. There are six routes into the Preserve from streets around the property.
Bordering Kalamazoo Valley Community College’s Texas Township campus is the Al Sabo Land Preserve, named for a former Kalamazoo government department head. There are some 25 miles of trails leading through woods, open fields and even alongside Portage Creek. Al Sabo’s multiple trails are marked where they cross one another; look for names like “Mandala,” “Lookout,” and “Moab.” The trail starts at a dirt parking lot on Texas Drive.
Fred McLinden Nature Trails
A nearly two-mile loop leads from H Avenue west of Sprinkle Road in Comstock. This natural area is named for a former Comstock resident and nature lover. There’s a side trail that leads to Campbell Lake, if you’re looking for a little longer walk with some nice views along the way.
The Trail Dames have hiked Chipman Preserve in Galesburg, which offers five miles of trails. It’s close to the McLinden trails — you could even hike from one to the other! The Chipman Preserve is on East Main Street, and shares its southern border with the office of the Southwest Michigan Land Conservancy, a non-profit organization that preserves “wild and scenic places” in the southwest Michigan region (swmlc.org).
You can see more of Andrew Domino’s writing at www.dominowriting.com