Ted Okerstrom Had a Dream–and We All Benefited

It is with sadness that we mark the passing of one of Northern Michigan’s visionaries, Roy Theodore “Ted” Okerstrom, a leader in Traverse City and a founder of the VASA cross-country ski race, now in its 38th year. In October 2001, Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine editor, Jeff Smith sat down with Ted to discuss his vision for a trail around Traverse City’s Boardman Lake. A dream that was 35 years in the making, at that time. For current status of the Boardman Lake Trail, go to the TART Trails website.

“This,” says Ted Okerstrom, “is my bible.” He drops a 4-inch thick black binder on the desk with a melodramatic thud and taps an index finger on the cover. “It’s all here, all my notes, my correspondence.” The book documents just the most recent 10 years of the 35 years that Ted has pursued his dream. He badly wants a trail and park system to encircle Boardman Lake, the body of water that is one of Traverse City’s most remarkable but oddly ignored natural assets.

Ted flips through the binder. Letters from the state department of transportation, a copy of Michigan’s trail law, chemical analyses of contaminated sites near the lakeshore, news articles, maps of the proposed trail, handwritten notes, standard easement agreements—all are organized chronologically and by topic. Ted sighs. “Sometimes you wonder if you’ve put too much into a community project,” he says. “It can be frustrating.”

Ted Okerstrom first laid eyes on Boardman Lake in 1966, and soon he had a vision for its future. Today, unbeknownst to most locals, Ted’s vision has come remarkably far. Just a few hurdles remain for Boardman Lake to take its rightful place as a stunning natural asset. What will make this environmental victory so precious is that unlike most natural areas that lie far from cities, the lake trail would lie a short walk or bike ride from any neighborhood in town.

Back in 1966, Ted Okerstrom had a dream for Boardman Lake Trail.

Thirty-five years ago, the 2-mile-long lake just 10 blocks from Traverse City’s downtown hosted the town’s industrial zone. Land not occupied by factories was overgrown with scrub and second growth forest. Some land was used as industrial dumping grounds. Locals viewed Boardman Lake as anything but a recreational gem. And who could blame them? With the abundance of lakes nearby and a majestic bay in the town’s front yard, there were plenty of other places to go for fun.

But Okerstrom saw through the fences and parking lots and factories. He saw forests that would eventually mature along the shores and bluffs. He saw a lake that would lure people from town to fish and boat. And most important for Okerstrom, he saw a pathway circling the shore, a place for Sunday walks with grandparents and babies in strollers, bicyclists, runners, and in the winter, cross-country skiers.

To be fair, Ted has not made all the progress on the trail alone, nor would he ever claim to have. During the past 35 years, Traverse City, Grand Traverse County, Garfield Township and many individuals have all seen the wisdom of fulfilling Boardman Lake’s natural promise. In 1992, the local governments made the trail part of their master trail plan. And other developments added momentum to the trail progress. Traverse City’s library relocated to Boardman Lake’s northeast shore, and the city is now completing a park next door. Meanwhile, Northwestern Michigan College built a campus on the lake’s southwest shore and purchased a long stretch of public shoreline with it.

Currently, Grand Traverse County is awaiting approval on a grant to pay for an engineering study of the east shore trail. With a little bit of luck, the east shore trail could be completed as soon as 2003. The west shore trail, which would complete the loop around the lake, would follow.

But some hurdles do remain, largely a result of the lake’s industrial legacy. On the east shore, trail planners would like to run the pathway through land owned by Lear Corporation. But the company is still working toward final closure approval from the state on a cleanup of contamination that occurred at the site under past owners. “We’re willing to discuss possibilities with the trail planners,” says Dr. Rebecca Spearot, director of environmental management for Lear, “but it’s way too early to know what we would be willing to commit to.” The trail might have to go around the Lear property for now.

On the northwest shore, Textron’s Cone Drive also has a site contaminated from past disposal [the site has since been remediated]. Here again, trail planners don’t know if they’ll end up going around or through the site.

Meanwhile Ted hangs onto his vision. “There will be a boardwalk here when we cross a wetland,” he says pointing to a map. “And here, where the bluffs are steep, we might have to go up onto the ridge. That will be even better than having the trail all at the water. It will mix it up, give a great view.”

It’s all so clear in his mind’s eye.

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