Showcasing the Michigan DNR: Over the river and through the woods: ORV club gets senior citizens on the trail

Paul Bush and Barbara Voltz took in the western Upper
Peninsula’s spectacular fall color from their vantage point in a
side-by-side driven by a volunteer from MI-TRALE. (DNR photos)
A change in America’s taste in off-road vehicles – namely, the increasing popularity of side-by-side ORVs – has opened up the world of off-roading to whole new set of participants: senior citizens.

That much was abundantly clear during a recent event held in the western Upper Peninsula that offered a chance for seniors to try ORVing for the first time.

The seventh annual Senior Fall Color Tour traveled a 19-mile route from Greenland to Twin Lakes State Park in Ontonagon County. Nearly 100 senior citizens occupied the passenger seats of two-, four- and six-person ORVs, traversing a forest trail that crossed state, federal and private land.

The ride, which is always held the third Thursday of September, coincided with this year’s Michigan Trails Week, a celebration of the 12,000-plus miles of hiking, biking, equine and motorized trails in Michigan – a system that allows citizens countless opportunities to get off the pavement and into the woods anywhere in the state.

Volunteers from MI-TRALE help coordinate the Senior Fall
Color Tour each September to introduce seniors to the many
miles of quality ORV trails found in Michigan.
ORV ride 4“We take about 100 seniors on the ORV tour each year – 50 participants go one way in the morning, the other 50 take the return trip in the afternoon,” said Don Helsel, president of Michigan Trails and Recreation Alliance of Land and the Environment (MI-TRALE). “We’ll get calls, starting already tomorrow, about next year’s ride.”

The ride takes about 90 minutes, transporting folks over a variety of terrain through hardwood forests, and across three trestles that span river gorges and offer spectacular views of the woods in full Technicolor glory. This year’s ride – held on a warm, dry, partly sunny day – closely coincided with peak fall color, Helsel said.

“The riders lucked out this year. There’s a lot more reds in the trees and they’re more brilliant than usual,” he said.

MI-TRALE is a western Upper Peninsula club that plays a role in maintaining and caring for an estimated 500 miles of trails in five counties. The club relies entirely on volunteers to organize and host the senior ride, with assistance in staging the event from the Department of Natural Resources, the U.S. Forest Service and local business and sporting clubs.

Krupp’s Mini Market at Twin Lakes donated 200 pasties to provide lunch for the participants and Rich Pirhonen, a park ranger at Twin Lakes State Park, enlisted his wife to bake enough cookies so everyone had dessert.

The state park is one of only four in Michigan where visitors may use ORVs to get from parking areas or campsites to trailheads, making it a perfect location for an ORV-centric event.

“This is the park’s biggest event in the fall,” Pirhonen said. “We have wonderful weather this time of year and the colors are perfect. This is great thing for the seniors.”
The tour participants stop to take in the view from the
Firesteel River trestle bridge on the Bill Nicholls ORV route.
The participants, both riders and drivers, would agree.

“I loved the ride,” said Sylvia Heikkinen, a retired farmer from Baraga, who was attending her first event. “I heard about it on the radio, called a friend, and we signed up.”

Rechel Keranin, from Baraga, was on her second ride, having participated last year.

“I had to come back,” she said. “The colors were so gorgeous. You don’t go by yourself to look at fall colors. You want to enjoy it with others. This is wonderful; it’s really appreciated.”

To help attract new riders to the ORV community and meet the requests of customers, the DNR is investing heavily in Michigan’s ORV trail system to make improvements and create more routes that connect to communities and other trails.

Steve Kubisiak, the DNR’s ORV program manager, said the state has recently approved a new 28-mile ORV route in the Upper Peninsula and a 38-mile expansion of trails in the northern Lower Peninsula that will connect six communities.

Lowell and Miriam Rickland enjoyed the recent Senior Fall
Color Tour hosted by Michigan Trails and Recreation Alliance
of Land and the Environment in Ontonagon County.
Additionally, in recognition and support of the hands-on work local ORV clubs take on to help maintain the trails, the DNR provided approximately $2.7 million for trail improvement and damage restoration grants to ORV clubs and organizations in 2014.

“The grants and additional miles of trails have been made possible thanks to a recent increase in ORV license fees, including the addition of a new $10 ORV trail permit,” Kubisiak said. “These changes are expected to raise $6.1 million in new revenue for the trail system on an annual basis, which will allow us to keep making the improvements our customers are asking for.”

MI-TRALE is one of the clubs that participates in the DNR’s grant program.

“We maintain 250 miles of DNR-designated trails,” Helsel said. “We use the grant money mostly for signage; much of the other work is done and paid for by volunteers.”

Volunteers and donations are also key to the success of the annual senior ride.

MI-TRALE’s 19-mile fall color tour attracted 100 senior citizens,
many of whom were riding an off-road vehicle for the very first time.
Local power sports retailers donated vehicles for the ride to make sure there were enough to handle the crowd. And two emergency medical technicians accompanied the riders on the transfer bus (provided by Ewen-Trout Creek schools) and on the trail “just in case,” Helsel said.

MI-TRALE’s sergeant-at-arms Kim Sims organized the event for the second time, after helping out for the previous five years.

Putting the entire event together and keeping all the balls in the air is quite the production, Sims said as she rode a quad alongside the side-by-sides and maintained order at road crossings. “It takes a lot of coordinating between the communities and agencies to get it done, but the appreciation we hear from the participants makes it all worth it.”

No one was checking IDs, of course, but John Turpeinin, who drove his ATV during the event for the second year in a row, claimed to be the oldest participant at 85 years young.

“I love it,” he said. “I had a quad for years but I moved up to a side-by-side. It’s easier getting into that machine than throwing my leg over the side.”

Turpeinin – who said he still goes dancing every week – said he’s likely to be back driving again next year.

The ORV tour took 50 participants from Greenland to
Twin Lakes State Park in Ontonagon County, a 19-mile journey,
and then took another 50 riders back to Greenland.
And although many of the participants had been eagerly awaiting the annual event, some were accidental tourists.

Paul Bush, a 71-year-old full-time motor-homer who winters in southern Texas, happened to be in the Upper Peninsula visiting friends and was invited along for the ride.

“I’ll probably try to make it back next year and do it again,” Bush said. “It was a fantastic trip.”

For information about next year’s senior ORV ride, visit www.mi-trale.org.

To learn more about riding ORVs in Michigan, visit www.michigan.gov/orvtrails.