Snowshoeing the U.P.'s McCormick Outback

A trail is a curious thing in the way it can live on. We've all heard of Native American trails that eventually turned into cart paths, then dirt roads, then paved highways. Those trails probably followed such a development arc because they were the most efficient way to move food, goods and people across a certain piece of geography. They had logic and purpose. The Bentley Trail lives on too, but not because it's rooted in ancient wisdom of land or serves a purpose critical to life and commerce. The Bentley Trail lives on because its story captures the imagination of a particular person, and years later, another person, and so on. Never a horde, just a few. Fred Rydholm is one; Tom Foye another.

By 1936, the heyday of White Deer Lake had passed. Cyrus Bentley died in 1930, but he had sold out to McCormick in 1927. In 1936, Cyrus McCormick II passed away. The land and compound stayed in the family and was kept tidy, but off the McCormick property, trail use and maintenance dwindled. And the forests of the Huron Mountains sprouted saplings in the trail, dropped trees across the path. Rydholm's tale of discovering the McCormick trail shares some commonality with Foye's. Rydholm had grown up in the area, and though he'd heard a great deal about the Huron Mountain Club, he'd never heard of the McCormick place at White Deer Lake.

"Nobody had ever written about it – not word one," he says.

One day in 1942 when he was just out of high school and working in the forest for the Huron Mountain Club, a man he was working with, Jim Dakota, told him the story of the Bentley Trail, the great effort to build it, the great industrialists who had walked a portion or all of it. In addition to Ford, McCormick and Bentley, there was Thomas Edison, Harvey Firestone, William G. Mather and others who were powerful and rich, but lesser known.

"He told me the trail was abandoned," Rydholm says.

World War II took Rydholm away and life intervened, but in 1946 he was back in the area and pursued his dream of remapping the Bentley Trail and opening it back up. And he succeeded.

"I hiked that trail a hundred times and never got bored with it," he says. "And for 10 years, I hiked it every winter."

The snow was sometimes so deep that he'd have to dig down a foot or two to find trail markings that he knew were seven feet high on tree trunks. He got to know the crew at the White Deer Lake compound. They'd put him up and feed him when he reached the end of the trail. But time goes on. Rydholm hiked it less. And one man couldn't possibly maintain the trail. The forest moved in again to reclaim the land.

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