Meet the Woman Who Built Traverse City’s Recreational Trails

The vision, drive and sheer passion of Julie Clark has built TART (Traverse Area Recreational Trails), a nonprofit that has us recreating on non-motorized trails from Traverse City to Sleeping Bear Dunes and Leelanau County. She is a force, and we are the beneficiaries.

Featured in the February 2021 issue of Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine.

“I’m the worst person to walk with.”

Nearly four miles into our mid-morning trek on the 17-mile-long Leelanau Trail, Julie Clark makes this confession.

“My family hates it. I think my co-workers just want to kill me some days,” she adds, letting out a low, rippling laugh. “If we’re driving anywhere, if we see a gas line or utility coordinator, immediately I’m like, ‘Where does that go?’ Yeah, it’s super annoying, to walk or drive or bike with me.”

Of course, none of this can possibly be true—she is a perfectly pleasant walking partner, someone who is both attentive to the conversation at hand (“How about you? How old are your kids?”) and friendly to passersby (“Have a great ride!” she cheerfully tells a couple of cyclists; “Go Blue!” she shouts to an older man standing near a bench, donning a U-M winter hat). And yet, as the person who arguably knows our region’s 100-plus-mile trail network better than most anyone else, there may just be a teeny-tiny kernel of truth in her words. Meant in the very best way possible, of course.

“Our goal, our vision, is that every house is a trailhead,” she says of Traverse Area Recreation and Transportation Trails (TART), the organization for which she’s served as executive director for the past decade. “So, this doesn’t mean there’s a swath of land up to every front door, but how could you safely access the network? You should be able to do that, whether it’s a nicer shoulder on a road or … there’s a lot of rail around here that is not utilized—so in the meantime, while there’s not a lot of rail on it, how do we activate it?”

An occupational hazard of the job, so it appears, is thinking nonstop about how places, spaces and people could connect by trails. As is sharing this information with whoever happens to be there with her. Every home is a trailhead. Yes, yes, let’s do that! (One of Clark’s superpowers: instilling in others the belief that anything is possible when it comes to trail-building and, ultimately, community-building—even if it does maybe, from time to time, come with its eye-rolling from certain family members and coworkers.)

If you’re going to transform and strengthen a community through its outdoor recreational opportunities, Julie Clark is the person you want on the team, probably at the helm.

“There is a certain unpolished grace (is that an oxymoron?) to how she negotiates, persuades and cajoles people into backing her vision,” says Tom Ulrich, deputy superintendent of Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. “And her vision is unfailingly for the public good. She cares truly and deeply about helping people connect to the out-of-doors, and each other, through trails. This entire region owes Julie Clark our thanks for all she has done to help all of us enjoy these opportunities to connect on our trails.”

Ulrich got to know Clark through the construction of the Sleeping Bear Heritage Trail, the only bicycle trail in the Lakeshore and a mostly paved pathway currently spanning about 20 scenic miles between the village of Empire and Bohemian Road in Leelanau County. (When it’s finished, the trail will be 27 miles long.)

Some trail projects start and stall, then pick back up again before they pause again. Then there are projects like the Sleeping Bear Heritage Trail that happily, unexpectedly come together quickly.

Ulrich recognizes Clark’s role in the success of this project. “She has boundless positive energy and a knack for putting people at ease. Julie has great emotional intelligence—she can read a room or read a person like few others,” Ulrich says.

It was 2010, not long after Clark moved with her young family to Traverse City to take on the TART executive director position, when Clark was introduced to the Heritage Trail vision. Trail plans were in motion and $1 million was needed to match a construction grant.

“We were off to the races,” she remembers. “And within five years, there’s 20 miles of trail on the ground. It happened so fast. For a trail to happen at all, let alone at that speed, it has to be community-based. They put their passion right to work.

“Those Glen Arbor folks—I love them,” Clark continues. “They grew with us. We learned through mistakes, but mostly we learned by working together with the community. The park service and Michigan Department of Transportation were just incredibly supportive. Friends of Sleeping Bear, who had their ‘A’ game on, were ready and so organized. The best things we do are when we are working with others. It’s longer sometimes, it will take more effort, but boy, in the end, it’s so much better.”

Growing up in Lafayette, Indiana, Clark, 45, knew of Traverse City. Her family ventured to Michigan for ski outings, “and my dad swears we came to Traverse City once.” But living in the Midwest as an adult? That wasn’t in her plans.

After graduating from Miami University in Ohio, she enrolled in grad school at the University of Florida, where she met her husband Bill and pursued a passion for environmental science—“I was going to save the world,” she says.

Her on-the-ground experience, through the university’s extension office, took her into the Everglades, where she spent a couple of “amazing” years battling mosquitoes and wrangling alligators and crocodiles.

“We did vegetative surveys, measuring water, critters and plant life. You’re in alligator holes. It was so exciting and hot as hell. We also caught crocodiles,” she says.

Ultimately, Clark’s graduate studies honed in on trails and how people relate to natural spaces. Her focus at that time revolved around trails and natural areas in Florida, including the Florida National Scenic Trail. She also spent a lot of time finding grants for the forest service. She knew she loved the research and the data, and specifically the “why”—“Why do we feel certain things, why do we react to the fun side of science, why do we behave the way we do, why do we make decisions and what influences could inform or change our positions?” She didn’t want a life in academia but rather a career that would allow her to answer these questions and see results in action.

Today, Clark can’t quite wrap her mind around her 10 years with TART.

“The only way I know it’s true is I look at my kids. They were 1 and 2 when I started,” says Clark, who came to Traverse City with her family from Mecklenburg County Park and Recreation’s Greenway Planning & Development Division in Charlotte, North Carolina, where she was responsible for the design and development of more than 35 miles of urban trail.

Susan Vigland, a current member and past president of the TART board, was a part of the executive director search committee and remembers how quickly Clark won everyone over during her interview. “We brought Julie to Traverse City for a visit and planned a walk on the Boardman Lake Trail with the full board,” Vigland recalls. “Julie’s contagious enthusiasm for trails won over the board that day and continues to fuel TART’s success.”

n the past 10 years, TART’s staff has doubled. More than 400 volunteers are actively involved with the organization, helping ensure consistent trail maintenance and updates. “As a leader, Julie has built an incredible staff who have helped make TART one of the most successful trail organizations in the state and country,” Vigland says. “Julie’s reputation among her peers extends beyond our region and Michigan, as evidenced by the invitations to present at national trail conferences. Our region is incredibly fortunate to have Julie at the helm of TART. I smile just thinking about the trail possibilities for our region in the next 10 years. Just ask Julie—she’d love to share her vision with you.”

That vision comes with some tough work ahead, to be sure, Clark recognizes.

“We’ve always been about trying to hear every voice out there,” she says. “Even if we don’t agree with them, you’ve got to listen, because truly there is something in there that you can hold to make things better. I don’t mind the scuffles that come, I don’t mind the passion on either side. But I definitely don’t want the passion to overwhelm projects and shout each other down.”

So what is the vision? Over the next 20 years, the goal is to build 100 miles of trail within Antrim, Grand Traverse and Leelanau counties. This includes the Nakwema Trailway, a path that will close the 45+ miles between the Little Traverse Wheelway in Charlevoix and the TART Trails network in Acme.

And to finish the Boardman Lake Trail.

Ah, yes, the Boardman Lake Trail—a four-mile heavily wooded path that wraps along the eastern and northern boundaries of Boardman Lake in Traverse City. The vision for this trail is a route that circles Boardman Lake, granting easy access to the library, parks, residential developments and commercial areas including local businesses like Oryana, The Filling Station and Right Brain Brewery. Eventually, the loop around the lake will provide a connection to NMC’s University Center, Medalie Park next to Logan’s Landing and businesses along Cass Road. Ultimately, the trail will head south of South Airport Road connecting to the Boardman River Trail.

Clark will tell you this project is the epitome of one of her go-to sayings: Trail work is a practice in patience and perseverance. “That was one of the first meetings I took in 2010. All of us in a room asking, ‘How do we get this done?’ I’ve been working on the loop since then.”

The good news: In summer 2020, construction began on one of the final legs of the loop, between 14th Street and the University Center. TART is hopeful the final leg—Medalie Park to NMC’s University Center—will be completed in 2021.

The diligence and hard efforts required of this project aren’t lost on Clark, but neither are the benefits to future generations. “These are things that none of us will remember when we cut that ribbon,” she says. “You’re banking on that potential. Every trail starts with its own temperament and story and tales that go with it.

“You work for the vision that the community created. [Boardman Lake Trail] is a piece of infrastructure, a community park, that will be around for 50, 100 years. My mindset about trails is, it’s not about what happens today, it’s what we’re setting up for the future.”

Unsurprisingly, Clark and her family walk the talk. Living in Traverse City’s Central neighborhood, they have just one (electric) car and use the trails often, cycling and walking and bus-riding to where they need to go whenever possible. She’s particularly impressed with her daughters—Katie, 13, and Leah, 11—and their appreciation for life in Northern Michigan and making the most of its beautiful amenities. “They really enjoy the things that I would have maybe taken for granted at that age,” she says.

And further proof that Clark is indeed a rather fantastic person with whom to enjoy a walk or ride on the trails: She confides that where the trails take you are just important, and maybe more important, than the miles themselves.

“I ride trails for ice cream and food—that’s why I ride trails,” Clark says. “I want to end with breakfast or ice cream. And my family, we have a blast together. We have this thing we do, ‘Tour de Ice Cream,’ and it’s all about how much fudge and ice cream can we gather. There are usually three or four other families who go with us.”

She lets out another of her infectious laughs. “It’s not necessarily the journey. It’s the destination.” Then, a wide grin. “It’s kind of critical.”

Heather Johnson Durocher writes from Traverse City, where she lives with her husband Joe and their three kids. // Andy Wakeman is a Northern Michigan-based photographer inspired by the characters and scenic views of his hometown.

Find Your Trail

These TART trails provide an array of options for biking, hiking, skiing or a casual stroll in and around town. For directions to trailheads, visit MyNorth.com/Trailblazer.

Boardman River Trail: 24 miles

Boardman Lake Trail: 4 miles completed

Mall Trail: 2 miles

Sleeping Bear Heritage Trail: 20 miles completed

Leelanau Trail: 17 miles

TART: 10.5 miles

Tart in Town: Varies

Vasa Pathway: 3k, 5k, 10k and 25k loops

Vasa Skillz Loop: Two 1-mile loops

Winter Sports Singletrack: 15k (9.3 miles)

Find this and more articles celebrating Northern Michigan’s outdoors in the February 2021 issue of Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine; or subscribe and get Traverse delivered to your door each month.

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