Tehkummah assumes cost on Bowerman Trails in South Baymouth

Eunice and Dick Bowerman stand atop one of the structures Dick built by hand on the Bowerman Trails. He is seeking support with the upkeep of the system. photo by Warren Schlote

SOUTH BAYMOUTH – The Township of Tehkummah has agreed to take out a liability insurance policy for Dick Bowerman’s trail system on the unopened road allowances of South Baymouth, though a long-term maintenance effort on the wooden structures is required to keep them viable into the future.

“We’re going to get our township maintenance person to do a walk with Dick this fall to identify the work that needs to be done,” said Tehkummah clerk-administrator Silvio Berti at the September 1 meeting of township council.

At that meeting, council voted to pay for liability insurance on the trails—$139 until the end of the term on January 30, 2021—to protect Tehkummah taxpayers from any potential legal costs that could arise from a mishap.

Mr. Bowerman built his popular trails on municipal road allowances, meaning the township could be liable if an incident should occur on the trails.

A passion project

Over the past 15 years, Mr. Bowerman has built the two-kilometre trail network by hand in his spare time.

“There’s probably a thousand feet of walkways built out of trees I’ve cut down into two-foot lengths and made into walkways through the wet areas,” he told The Expositor. “They’re very unique trails.”

He has worked in the bush and as a farmer throughout his life in the Tehkummah area. His grandfather helped to survey the town plot in 1901 and when Mr. Bowerman was a child, his grandfather took him for walks to see the original corner stakes of the town plot.

He and his wife Eunice moved into their South Baymouth home 20 years ago.

“Once I got the house fixed up there was nothing more to do, so I went out trying to find those stakes. I found about a quarter of them; cedar will last well over 100 years if it’s dry,” Mr. Bowerman said.

He started his work quietly, only using an axe to cut down some trees to improve a walkway between two of the first stakes he found. As he continued, passers-by would occasionally stumble upon his worksite and commend his craftsmanship.

“I realized people weren’t getting too mad at me for doing this, so I started doing my work with a chainsaw. I’ve not had one negative comment ever,” he said.

Ms. Bowerman was about as supportive of the passion project as a wife could be, but she kept him on a tight leash.

“I was allowed one case of nails a year, which is about 40 pounds, and I had to quit once that was used up. That’d last about a quarter of a mile (on a boardwalk),” Mr. Bowerman said.

Future work required

Despite his hard work and encouragement from onlookers, Tehkummah has never officially sanctioned the trails. Mr. Bowerman never approached council for consent and has performed all construction and maintenance himself.

However, as he ages, the upkeep has become more daunting and he has contacted the township to determine what should happen next.

“I can keep ahead of it for a little while yet, anyway. I built this without any government money, nobody sponsored it, so I didn’t have to account to anybody for everything I had done. I just couldn’t stand imagining some young whippersnapper from Toronto coming up and telling me what to do. That bothers me; I worked in the bush all my life,” the 82-year-old said.

He estimated that the structures would last for a decade with no maintenance but acknowledged that they are not built to any standards and they should probably be rebuilt to code if they should continue to exist.

Structures on the trail include lengthy boardwalks, handrails, spiral staircases and benches, all carved from cedar trees in the area. A 300-foot boardwalk across Lake Huron to ‘Make Believe Island’ has washed away with the high water levels in the past two years and it would be prohibitive to recreate, in the trailblazer’s opinion. 

He has also hand-carved walking sticks with his trail’s name; they reside in pails at the five entrances and about 10 go missing each year.

“I have my name on the sticks and it’s a kind of advertisement. It doesn’t bother me that people take them because they must like them; I have a lot of fun building them,” he said.

Future of the trails

Ideally, Mr. Bowerman said a small group of volunteers would form to maintain the trails. However, recent discussions at council meetings have revealed a dearth of interest in community members taking on the project, despite the township’s proud history of volunteerism.

Tehkummah council resolved in July to take down all of the signs at the trail entrances until it could identify a future plan. At the September meeting when Tehkummah agreed to take out a liability insurance policy and re-install the signage with ‘use at your own risk’ messaging, not all were satisfied with the solution.

“I think until we get the maintenance done, we should not change anything. The trails should remain closed until we can get it repaired,” said Councillor Michael McKenzie.

Although the township has never formally closed the trails (or opened them for that matter), the councillor felt that the trails should be fixed before the town raises the signs. However, he admitted that he had not witnessed the condition of the trails.

In some of the wooden structures, soft spots exist where the supportive boards have come loose from their frames. The construction is solid in most parts but will deteriorate as time passes.

The trails are home to unique wildlife—an extensive patch of the rare dwarf lake iris flower grows there. 

He added that there is unique geology along the route, including an ice-age-deposited boulder along Lake Huron and whaleback rock formations that go into the water.

Mr. Bowerman said he does not know how many people use the trails but said he plans to still walk the trails in the early mornings and share them with his grandchildren when they are allowed to visit from the United States.

“It doesn’t bother me what happens,” he said. “I’ll keep walking them and I’ll keep trimming them up for as long as I can. Some group might come forward to work on them, but I don’t know.”