Our Stories

Chief Noonday Chapter’s New Bridge at Fort Custer Recreation Area

Categories: Trail Maintenance


by Larry Pio, Chief Noonday Chapter President

When we first built our Trail on the Fort Custer National Cemetery / Fort Custer Recreation Area section (located between Battle Creek and Kalamazoo, Michigan) I think those of us who had hiked on the AT or PCT felt that wading across the stream in the Fort Custer Recreation Area would not be a problem. 

Or you could cross on downed trees, or using stepping stones.

Bridge Construction Fort Custer Recreation Area
Volunteers working on sills, with the old bridge still in place

As the stream rose or became cold seasonally, it became obvious that many of our Trail users did not consider this to be acceptable, and ten years ago we installed a “puncheon” bridge about 11 inches wide to allow crossing the stream with dry feet.  Many enjoyed the challenge of crossing, and as far as I know, only two of us have reported falling in.

This section is definitely one of our treasures, and we wanted to make it easy for new Trail users to enjoy.  Additionally, it was tough to get a mower across, and we hoped to make it easier for our adventurous folks needing accessibility.

Explore this new bridge: The closest trailhead is across the river east out of Augusta, MI about a quarter mile on M-96, on the corner of Fort Custer Drive. Then follow the trail east about 1/3 mile. Find the location on our retail map MI02–Marshall to 76th St. here.

In 2012 our Chapter hosted the NCT Conference and Jeff McCusker, the National Park Service Trail Manager at the time, hiked with us on this section of trail, and slipped off one of the puncheons within Fort Custer National Cemetary, and got wet up to his knee.  He had comments on the bridge, too.  We then sought approvals for upgrading these two items.

With our land manager’s approval allowing us to construct a new bridge, Ron Sootsman sought funding, and began working on preparing a DEQ Permit, which is required in Michigan for structures over streams, etc.  This required having a construction layout, materials list, and an engineered plan for a bridge.  The DEQ permit approved plans that were different than we had submitted on the approaches to the bridge, and also required obtaining a building permit from the State. We were funded by NPS/NCTA and via the Michigan Iron Belle Trail project funding.

bridge construction
One sill getting mounted

Jeff Fleming and Larry Pio helped get over these hurdles, and the three of us have led this project.  We are all pretty much rookies at this, and sought advice from others, including Regional Trail Coordinator Bill Menke, our land manager, Tony Trojanowski, and also Paul Hahn of the West Michigan Chapter, who has worked on many bridges.  Ron arranged for all the material purchases and deliveries, including the delivery of our stringers, which weighed between 550 and 900 pounds.

With our land manager’s approval, we cleared a temporary route to the bridge site separate from our Trail, and one of our local Trail hosts, Ron Hutchinson, provided a tractor, trailer and driver that allowed us to get the stringers 1/3 mile in to the site, along with a second load of lumber.

For our most difficult task, mounting the stringers, we were gratified to have the help of the Michigan Youth Challenge Academy, who brought 28 young men to volunteer with us.  We affixed caster wheels upside down on our old bridge, used forearm straps to safely lift the stringers with lots of helpers, and rolled the stringers across the stream, laying them on the sills we had set in place the day before.

Michigan Youth Academy helps with bridge construction
Thankful for the help of the Michigan Youth Challenge Academy! Moving the first sill across.

We then turned our old bridge upside down, and rolled it off and out of the way.  Pulling our stringers up on edge, and mounting them, was our last heavy weight task, and with all the help, that turned out to be easy as well.  The MYCA youth also helped wheelbarrow gravel down to the site, to be used for the approaches.

MYC helps haul away old dirt
Hauling in the gravel, about 1/4 mile by trail!

There was still a lot to do, but much of the work was completed within 4 days after setting the stringers.  We began our on-site prep work on October 18, installed the stringers on October 24, and completed the project on November 20.  Over 700 hours of volunteer effort was contributed to the on-site work, and that did not include the preparation and planning.

The crew on the final day of bridge building.
The crew on the final day.

Our volunteers really came through for us when we needed them, and I think we all share the satisfaction of a project that will provide benefit for years to come.

Congratulations, Chief Noonday on a job well done!

Interested in volunteering with projects such as these? Get involved with a chapter near you. Click here to find a chapter near you.

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