September 19, 2019

Uncovering an Old Indian Trail

By Craig Manning | Dec. 16, 2017

If you walk all the way to the end of the TART Trail, near West End Beach, you’ll see a few things. You’ll see Grand Traverse Bay, of course, and a nice view of Leelanau Peninsula. You’ll also see a white stone marker, painted with the number 33 and marked with a plaque that reads “Old Indian Trail Cadillac to Traverse City.”

That stone marker, it turns out, denotes one of the oldest pieces of Native American heritage in Northern Michigan. 

The Old Indian Trail consists of 33 markers dotted throughout Northern Michigan. The first can be found on the shores of Lake Mitchell in Cadillac. Marker No. 33, at West End Beach, marks the end of the trail.

The trail these markers represent dates back to sometime in the 1200s. Multiple native peoples —particularly the Odawa and Ojibwe tribes — used the trail to navigate from the fertile land near Lake Mitchell to the waters of the Great Lakes. Back then, the trail was marked by burial mounds and dotted by villages. Today, those landmarks are gone, but the memory of the trail remains. 

According to Woody Unruh, the founder of the Friends of the Old Indian Trail organization, it isn’t possible to hike from marker No. 1 to marker No. 33. While parts of the trail are walkable, thanks to sidewalks and sections of other trails like the TART, much of it crosses private property, highways, or undeveloped countryside. 

History buffs aren’t entirely out of luck, however. Unruh says that the Old Indian Trail markers are meant to be followed as a driving tour of the path that native tribes used to use. Most of the markers are visible from the road and easy to spot from a car.

Even just a few years ago, though, driving the Old Indian Trail would have been a challenge.

That’s where Unruh comes into the story. As a member of the Little Traverse Bay Band of Odawa Indians, Unruh already had cultural ties to the Old Indian Trail, thanks to his heritage. He wasn’t fully aware of the trail’s significance, though, until his Eagle Scout leader brought it up to him as a possible scout project back in 2012. 

Unruh dove in, following an old, outdated map of the trail that his scout leader had given him. It wasn’t easy. The earliest markers had been placed all the way back in the 1940s, while the most recent ones dated back to 1987.

Almost everywhere, Unruh found that the markers were neglected, difficult to find, and in rough shape. Marker 14, for instance, had disappeared into the waters of the Manistee River. Other markers were broken, obscured by grass and weeds, or exhibiting obvious signs of weather damage. In extreme cases, people had stolen plaques from the markers, or used the markers themselves for target practice. One target looked to have been hit by a car. 

Where possible, he restored the stones, repainting them or replacing missing plaques. Two of the markers—No. 14 and No. 27—had to be replaced entirely.

Restoring the stones fulfilled the goal of Unruh’s Eagle Scout project, but it didn’t mark the end of his involvement with the Old Indian Trail. For his senior project at Glen Lake High School, Unruh was tasked with doing something that would benefit the community. His mind flitted back to the Old Indian Trail. He’d restored it, but he wanted to make sure the trail could enjoyed for years to come. He didn’t want it to fall back into disrepair. 

“That’s when I created the Friends of the Old Indian Trail organization, to help preserve the markers,” Unruh said. “The idea is to get other people in the community involved with taking care of the trail. I’m only one person, and I’m in college, so I just don’t have the time to do it all myself.”

Friends of the Old Indian Trail encourages volunteers to adopt a stone marker and look after it. Those who do choose to adopt a stone agree to visit the stone “every year to every other year” to check on its condition. These volunteers are also expected to repaint the markers every few years as the existing paint starts to peel or fade. Other duties, such as keeping an eye out for missing plaques or fixing stones that have fallen down, are implicit.

According to the Friends of the Old Indian Trail website, 22 of the 33 markers have been adopted so far, including the ones in the Grand Traverse area. The other 11 are still up for grabs. Those who are interested in adopting a stone marker can learn more online, at oldindiantrail.weebly.com/adopt-a-stone.

Unruh is currently studying meteorology at Central Michigan University in Mount Pleasant—a fact that has taken him away from the trail he helped to revitalize. Still, he says that he’s witnessed the fruits of his efforts as others have taken ownership of the trail and its legacy.

“I’ve definitely been able to see the product of the organization,” he said. “For instance, a few months ago, I noticed that marker 25, just outside of Traverse, had been knocked down. It looked like it got hit by a snowplow. The next time I drove by, someone had reset it. People are definitely starting to take care of the trail as if it was their own.”

Unruh is staying involved when he can, too. He’s still running the Friends of the Old Indian Trail website, and in September, he did a program with the Senior Center where he led locals on a walking tour from marker 32 to marker 33. For him, keeping in the loop with the Old Indian Trail is a way to stay connected with his heritage. 

“It helps preserve part of my history,” he said. “As a tribal member, it seems like there are not a lot of physical things in the area that help commemorate the culture. The trail is a part of that. It's where my ancestors walked a thousand years ago. It's cool to have that commemorated and preserved so that future generations can enjoy it.”

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