EcoTrek Fitness uses nature as your gym

Working the BandsAbsolute Michigan got a taste of a new wave in outdoor fitness with EcoTrek Fitness last week. EcoTrek Fitness is a West Michigan company that just launched a program in Traverse City. Sarah Carden & I were lucky enough to get a sneak preview last week from EcoTrek founder Cari Draft and Traverse City series leader Georg Schluender.

With the EcoTrek Fitness motto in mind, “integrating your workouts with nature”, we combed our closet for workout outfits and met Cari and Georg on the trails behind at the Grand Traverse Commons. Cari & Georg handed us our resistance bands and we were off into the trees for a session on a beautiful spring day.

Trail RunningAs we trotted down a tree-lined path, Cari explained, “When most people think of outdoor exercise, they think of jogging. And that can turn a lot of people off. EcoTrek uses nature and man-made ‘props’ to get in a great workout.”

Right after explaining this, she stopped us on a wooden bridge above a picturesque creek. We wrapped our resistance bands around the handrails and used them for exercises that worked the arms and legs. The exercises were low- intensity but worked a surprising amount of muscles in our arms, legs and core.

Each session lasts for 75 minutes and take place at a variety of days and times to help fit into all kinds of schedules. They even have single-session drop-in rates so you can try it out with no committment.

Cari, who is an ACE certified fitness trainer with an additional outdoor certification in a Nike training program, is excited to be expanding her program to Northern Michigan but has been careful not too expand too fast despite its popularity. Her website boasts that if you’re in West Michigan, you’re never more than 15 minutes from an EcoTrek Fitness workout.

With EcoTrek Fitness series available throughout western Michigan in places like Grand Rapids, Holland, Kalamazoo and Muskegon (and many more), Cari has been careful to keep the same elements in every session no matter where you are. The sessions run year-round in the sun, rain, sleet and snow.

Taking a Seat“There’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing.” Cari says before we stop to stretch on a picnic table. “Being out in bad weather can make for a surprisingly fun experience. On rainy days, I usually find myself jumping in puddles. There’s really nothing better than using the outdoors as your gym.”

Once our session ended, we were hooked on the EcoTrek workout. As people who would much rather cycle, hike or hit the basketball court then step into a hot, stinky gym, Absolute Michigan had a blast using our backyard as a gym and Cari and Georg were great. In fact, they did what this writer thought was nearly impossible, made an organized workout with a professional fitness instructor fun.

Spring Can’t Come Soon Enough: Great Hikes Just Around Corner

By Bob Lovik, photos by Mark Lindsay

I really enjoy the first two months of winter. The dropping temperatures are refreshing. There’s the anticipation of the holidays and the over-indulgences that come with them. And I love the snow. The first, fat flakes of pretty white snow. What’s not to love?

High Rollaways winter hike  by Happyhiker4
High Rollaways winter hike by Happyhiker4

But our recent spat of spring-like weather, though painfully short, has reminded me that I’m over winter. It has outstayed its welcome and we are smack dab in the middle of the long, claustrophobic and  cold doldrums when winter is just greedily clinging to its existence like some awful drunk who won’t leave your party.  When the temperature recently hit 50 º and the sun came, and stayed, out, winter officially ended for me. My daydreams are now filled with trilliums, birdsong and shouldering a pack and hitting the trail. This is the time of year when guidebooks are bought and the kitchen table becomes an ops center, strewn with maps detailing the promise of upcoming adventures.

With these thoughts in mind, I headed over to Horizon Books in downtown Traverse City to talk hiking with two of Michigan’s experts. John Heiam, president of the Grand Traverse Hiking Club (GTHC), and Dick Naperala, field trails coordinator with the GTHC. They both generously took time to talk to me about some great spring hikes, the North Country Trail and ways to get involved with the outdoors in the Grand Traverse Region. The  GTHC helps to oversee a 100-mile stretch of the North Country Trail, a 4,600-mile trail that stretches from New York to North Dakota and runs through some of America’s most beautiful country.

Valley of the Giants  by North Country Trail
Valley of the Giants by North Country Trail

John Heiam: Let’s start with sections of the North Country Trail and close to Traverse City. One of my favorites is the north branch of the Boardman River. Starting at the N. Broomhead Road Trailhead, the southern trail takes you down right next to a trout stream and next to cedar trees that deer have browsed to about seven feet high. The trail then climbs and you get views down into the river valley. It’s absolutely gorgeous and right in our backyard. Take the trail north to Sand Lakes Quiet Area to see the brilliant blue pit lakes. You can easily spend two hours, if not more, hiking here.

Another great place to hike in the Traverse City area is a place called the Valley of the Giants. This is a very steep-sided valley that has never been logged and is a patch of old growth forest. It was so steep nobody bothered to log it and it is very wet so it never burned in the wild fires that swept through Michigan in the late 1800′s and 1900′s. You’ll find white and red pines and huge oak trees right next to a creek. The trailhead for this hike is either the Mayfield Road Trail Access or near Scheck’s Place Campground.

High Rollaways  by Happyhiker4
High Rollaways by Happyhiker4

Dick Neperala: The Highbanks Rollway is one of the best places to hike in the state of Michigan. It is on the North Country Trail and can be accessed at Harvey Bridge over the Manistee River. Once you gain elevation, you can see for miles.

The Hodenpyl Dam and Pond area are some of the most popular places in Michigan to hike especially for backpackers. There is a 20 mile loop around Hodenpyl Pond that is perfect for a weekend trip. From the Hodenpyl Dam Parking area you can walk along the lake to the Northern Exposure Campground. And the trail that is right along the river is easy. It is flat and great for kids.

John and Dick shared some more of their knowledge for great outdoor spots in our area this spring.

Wildflowers: If you are looking for wildflowers, and those aforementioned trilliums, mid-April and May are generally the best times to hit the trail. And head to North and South Manitou Island for the most diverse and unique wildflowers in our region. Ferries depart to the island from the town of Leland on the Leelanau Peninsula. South Manitou is more scenic with a lighthouse, shipwrecks and dunes while North Manitou provides better opportunities for backpacking and multi-day trips.

Sleeping Bear Sandunes  by Happyhiker4
Sleeping Bear Sandunes by Happyhiker4

Most overlooked hike: The Dune Climb and walk to Lake Michigan at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. John says that the hike is deceptively difficult and once you climb the main dune, you’ll have a few more smaller ones to get up and down before you finish. He also says the wildflowers; lilies in particular, are spectacular here in the spring.

Why early spring is a great time to hike: No bugs! Both John and Dick say that this time of year is among their favorites for hitting the trail. And, the forests of the Sleeping Bear Dunes are carpeted with trilliums this time of year.

About the GTHC and the North Country Trail: The GTHC is a chapter of the North Country Trail. The club maintains a 100-mile stretch of trail, 35 to 40 of which run along the Manistee River, from south of Mesick to north of Kalkaska. People come from all over Michigan to hike one of the most beautiful sections of the NCT. John calls the 60- mile section from Red Bridge to Kalkaska the prettiest trail in Lower Michigan.  In addition to planned day hikes, the club also has ongoing work sessions on the trail including maintenance, bridge building and rerouting.

Visit for information on volunteering, local outfitters, membership, trail maps and contact details. The club is currently fundraising by selling “clean seats” through the club or at Backcountry North in Traverse City for $6 /$5 for club members. The seats are a paper-like material that you can put on the ground, wet grass, mud, anything to keep you dry when you need a rest in the outdoors. The seats are made from tough material that won’t rip or deteriorate, definitely a great addition for your pack on day and multi-day hikes!

A Passion for Pints at HopCat in Grand Rapids

HopCat by pentax hammer (gary syrba)
HopCat by pentax hammer (gary syrba)

In recent years, Grand Rapids has become a beer mecca. One of those leading that charge is HopCat, recently named as one of the best places on Planet Earth to belly up and grab a pint! BeerAdvocate named them the third best beer bar in the world for the third year in a row! The staff at HopCat take this honor with great pride and know that it also comes with great responsibility for their craft beer-loving customers.

For anyone who has cozied up to HopCat’s elegant, wooden bar and enjoyed a handmade craft beer, this distinction will come as no surprise. With 48 drafts on tap and countless bottles to choose from, the possibilities at HopCat will boggle any beer lovers’ mind. Which is why, if the mere thought of a hoppy IPA is enough to make you drool, HopCat demands repeat visits.

Since it opened three years ago, HopCat has been the envy of beer lovers not lucky enough to live nearby. And those who do are not taking the crown jewel of Michigan pubs for granted.

Steve Smith, who works at HopCat under the title Chief Beer Geek, appreciates his customers just as much as they appreciate the beer he brings in. “Being on BeerAdvocate’s list for the third year in a row is a big honor. And it is a big honor because it is determined by customer reviews. I take great pride in the fact that our customers speak up for us.” Steve told Absolute Michigan.

For anyone passionate about craft beers, the list of Chief Beer Geek job responsibilities reads like pure poetry. On any given day, Steve is selecting which beers will go on tap at HopCat, working with local chefs to come up with menus for beer-pairing dinners, planning beer festivals and, generally, talking beer all day long.

And being passionate about the industry makes HopCat’s prestigious placement on the BeerAdvocate list all the more sweet.

Hopcat by farlane
Hopcat by farlane

“We are in such great company with so many great bars on that list. When I look at it, I see people further down than we are that I look to for inspiration, bars that are doing amazing things with craft beers.” And Steve has a particular passion for the Michigan beer industry, an industry he sees as being one big family. “I have been selling beer in Michigan for 15 years now. With my experience, I am able to get a lot of stuff other people are not able to. I’m a huge supporter of craft brewers and I love seeing them succeed. The more breweries the better. And it’s better for the industry and local economies. There is such a great sense of family in the craft beer world.”

Part of makes HopCat a great beer bar, as opposed to simply a bar that serves great beers, is the fact that they brew some of Michigan’s best craft beers on site. Steve calls the HopCat brewery the “quintessential microbrewery” because they have the capacity to brew 7 half barrels at a time and only brew twice a week.

The lofty responsibility of brewing beer in a place that serves the world’s best falls in the lap of HopCat brewer Jeff Williams. According to Jeff, HopCat tries to maintain three to four mainstays on draft at any given time. But, he has the creative freedom to make whatever he thinks will taste good. “The great thing about this brewery is that we can make whatever comes to mind. A lot of our brews are experimental. Last summer, we made a Jamaican Jerk Pale Ale with lime zest, all spice, habaneras and fresh thyme. It had a nice kick to it.” Jeff said. “We are working on a Scotch Ale and we have a couple of sours in the basement we’re waiting on. And I’m toying with the idea of brewing a Pilsner.” Jeff added.

The new beers will no doubt go nicely with HopCat legends like Hoppotamus, a well-balanced IPA, Sage Against the Machine, a herbed honey pale ale and the Viener Lager, a Vienna-style lager.

Steve and Jeff are lucky. They work in an industry they love and one – thanks to all their hard work – that loves them back. As beer lovers themselves, they have a few favorites from around Michigan and beyond. And while they both said their favorite pint is the one in front of them, here are a some breweries currently whetting whistles at HopCat.

Michigan craft beers

American craft beers

Traverse City Comedy Arts Festival ~ February 10-13, 2011

TCCF by Dan Sultana,
TCCF by Dan Sultana

The 2nd annual Traverse City Comedy Arts Festival is bringing some of America’s top comedic talent to Northern Michigan February 10-13, and tickets are now on sale to what are sure to be sold out performances.

Bob Saget, this year’s opening night performer, will kick things off on Thursday, February 10 at the City Opera House in front of an already almost sold-out crowd. Best known for his role on the sitcom “Full House” and as the long- running host of “America’s Funniest Home Videos”, Saget has developed a reputation in recent years as one of comedy’s edgiest performers which will fit right in with the festival theme – Comedy is Dangerous.

Friday and Saturday night will feature performances by some of comedy’s most respected and well-known faces in classic Traverse City venues like the State Theater and the Old Town Playhouse. This year’s comedians include stars of stage and screen, Patton Oswalt, Jeffrey Ross, Caroline Rhea and Aubrey Plaza.

And this year, both of the festival hosts, Jeff Garlin and Michael Moore, will be performing. Jeff Garlin is best known for his role as Larry David’s agent on the award-winning HBO series Curb Your Enthusiasm. Jeff will be hosting a Hootenanny with Parks and Recreation’s Aubrey Plaza and Brett Gelman while Michael will be playing the role of stand-up comic this year as he debuts brand new comedy material. Ted Alexandro and Joe DeRosa will share an hour time slot on Friday and Saturday night.

In addition to stand-up, there will also be family-friendly performances by Comedy 4 Kidz and ComedySportz, free late-night events, surprise guest performers and some of the funniest movies ever made showing in the historic State Theatre.

For more information and to buy tickets for all of this year’s performances visit!