Conveniently located in the center of Big Rapids, Michigan you’ll discover one of the area’s most loved features, Riverwalk. A 2.64 miles stretch of nature at its finest.
The pathway is completely accessible to all as it roles gently along the majestic Muskegon River. Starting at historic downtown Big Rapids, Riverwalk winds its way to Northend Riverside Park. Riverwalk offers several connections to the White Pine Trail, part of Michigan “Rails to Trails” system that runs from Comstock Park to Cadillac.
Riverwalk is an award winning, multifunctional pathway giving access to fishing platforms, benches, bike racks and picnic areas on either side of the 250 foot wooden bridge that spans the Muskegon River.
The Muskegon River offers many recreational opportunities! For those who love canoeing, tubing, fishing or just enjoy the splendor of getting back to nature, this is definitely the place for you.
So, take a morning jog in spring, view the scenery while biking in the summer, enjoy a colorful walk in the fall or cross-country ski in the winter.
No matter what the season, be sure to experience Riverwalk in Mecosta County – the County For Every Season!
Q&A with Jerry Conrad
Lynne Scheible and Jerry Conrad had a conversation about the RiverWalk project.
LS: “Why did you get this started?”
JC: I was sitting with fishing buddies in Manistee having a breakfast watching folks on the Manistee River Walk. “We can do this, I said.” The timing was right for me … I was about to retire and I needed something to do and I wanted to give back to the community.
LS: “So what was next?”
JC: “Well, I let it sit for a while and then while visiting my daughter and talking with her about it she said, “You can do it dad and you don’t have anything else to do.” She helped with writing the grant which initially had a focus we called, “Access trout” and fishing for the handicapped.
In her research we found out that there was no place in America that we could find, where a physically impaired person could river fish… you know, go from place to place & fish. There were many platforms but no real river access.”
So, we sort of bumbled along for a bit ... and then eventually got serious and my daughter and I submitted a request to a foundation for the entire project and we came in second. I felt like it (the project) was dead in the water. But I sent a letter out to many of the people that I had talked with about the project and told them what had happened with the thought that “we’re down, but not out” feeling.
LS: “How did you get people involved in the project? I know I heard you speak at a Chamber event and decided I wanted to be involved.”
JC: Well, actually that is how we knew it was a good project. Initially a couple of us just started talking to folks and groups about the RiverWalk. Everywhere we went people were excited about it and many wanted to help. That is actually how the committee was established. As I worked with Jerry Fouts he felt that the bigger the committee the better. He happened to be right. People actually came out of the woodwork. One day I was at Currie’s taking with some folks and I said, “ It would have been great if I could find someone with technology expertise & anufacturing.” And a man in line behind me said “I can do that”. At church a woman said “My husband is retiring, he’ll be on your committee”.
LS: “Was there anything that happened early on that kept you going?”
JC: “Well actually one thing comes to mind. I went and saw a local business man (I didn’t know him very well), I said this is what I envision, will you help? And he said, “Yes, I’ll give you $20,000 (Anonymous Donor). I told him “I don’t know whether to kiss you or hug you”. This donation gave the affirmation that it was a good project and provided us with leverage for further involvement.
LS: “So now you had a great idea, a plan, some people and an initial large donation for leverage. What was next?”
JC: “Well, the committee was instrumental and just took over. We created a recognition plan for those that donated, we created a pamphlet that we could give folks so they would understand the project and they could donate. And we started talking to more and more people and groups.” “They actually changed the name of the project from Access Trout to Access for All. Initially we had a stronger fishing access emphasis and the committee felt it needed to be a bit broader. It was all just so positive.”
LS: Let’s talk about the fishing component. Why was that important to you?
JC: “Fishing, it is a life time sport and one that the physically impaired can do. In my practice as an orthopedic surgeon I’ve seen my share of these people and I’ve always been inspired by their can-do attitude.” “My life growing up was me living on Wolf Lake in the summer fishing with my dad. This was an important part of my life and I wanted to share that opportunity with others.” It was one of things that influenced me coming to Big Rapids, which was actually a fluke ... I had looked at Traverse City, Petoskey, Cadillac, and then was driving through Big Rapids on my way home and stopped. “This is a nice town,” I thought. I made some calls, talked to a hospital administrator, came here and started my practice.
LS: “Where there other groups or people that you felt needed to be on board with the project?”
JC: “Yes, it was important that the City, County, Ferris, & prominent community members were behind the project. Especially the city. They would own the project so they really needed to be behind it.”
LS: “I heard this wasn’t the first time an idea like this had come along?”
JC: “No, as it turns out in the 70’s Jack Batdorff, Jim Bruskotter and some other community folks put a plan together with the city. It was actually still at City Hall. The dam was suppose to go out then and it didn’t so the plans sat there and got dusty.” So now … the Dam was coming out … the timing was right BUT Michigan was going into a depression/recession at the time (00-01). So people saw it (recession) coming and said do it now.”
LS: “So, what were the other components that contributed to the success of this project. I know the money came from a number of entities.”
JC: “Right, because we the city had gone through the Dam Removal project there were dollars available with the Great Lakes Fisheries Trust (because the Muskegon River goes to the Great Lakes we were eligible). Also, the DNR gives out money two times per year to land projects. We felt our project would be perfect for this. The biggest challenge here was we had to have matching dollars to support any dollars that the DNR would grant.” “If we were going after $500,000 we had to show we had $500,000.” “But we were able to do this twice.”
LS: “I heard the DNR request was an interesting process.”
JC: “Yes, you get 3-5 minutes to present your plan to the DNR committee in Lansing . So we piled in a car, went down, thinking we had to make sure we get our point across quickly. As it turns out they were so interested they spent a ½ hour asking us questions. And fortunate for us, we did have a couple of people on the committee that were from our area.”
LS: “In retrospect what made this work?”
JC: “I would say three things
Good project/plan, it was like, wanted, needed & appealed to everyone.
Leaders were dedicated to project.
Had previous experience with the Mecosta County Community Foundation and the Cornerstone Club.
It was important that we recognized people for their contributions. It feels good to know that you have helped build something for the community and that your name will be in granite forever recognizing that.
LS: “Jerry, I know you have said this was a “great ride,” where there any surprises along the way?”
JC: “Yes, I would say it was the enthusiasm and willingness of the people involved. Lynne, I have been involved with many organizations and I have never worked with and had the cooperation like I did with this group. Things got done. If at a meeting we made assignments, the next meeting they were done. It was incredible.” “As you know it was a committee that didn’t want to stop meeting. We tried to disband a number of times and the group still felt that there was work to do.”
LS: “Yes, I do remember going out to Schuberg’s farm for sort of a thank-you dinner and retreat and we came up with Phase II.”
JC: “That was remarkable. And that is what I’m talking about.”
LS: “As I talk with you I see that the following were imperative in making this happen...
- Dedicated leader that was willing to give an enormous amount of time.
Project inclusive (Access for All)
- Community that will vote with wallets.
- Dynamic committee.
- Appeal to pride/vanity.
- Stick toitiveness (there will be down times).
- Had measurable goals (raise $70 thousand in 3 months).
- Foundation support (DNR).
JC: “As I said, it was truly a great ride”
The Muskegon River is the second longest in the state of Michigan, flowing over 219 miles from its start at Higgins and Houghton Lakes down to its mouth at Muskegon Lake and eventually into Lake Michigan. The Muskegon River Watershed is one of the largest in Michigan, spanning over 2,700 square miles.
The mission of the Muskegon River Watershed Assembly, a non-profit organization, is to preserve, protect and enhance the natural, historic and cultural resources of the Muskegon River Watershed through educational and scientific initiatives, while supporting positive economic development, agricultural and quality of life initiatives of organizations working in the river watershed.
For more information about the MRWA, Click Here.
Having the Riverwalk handicap accessible was the dream of Jerry Conrad, MD, the initial driver of the Riverwalk project. After much research he found that in the United States there was not a river walkway with handicap accessibility for fishing. Being an avid fisherman, himself, Jerry felt everyone should have the opportunity to do this.
The Big Rapids Riverwalk is 1.2 miles of paved and boardwalk, handicap accessible trailway along and over the Muskegon River . The trail includes 4 handicap accessible fishing areas: 3 wooden platforms with barrier free fishing rails and rod holders, and one paved approach to the river’s edge.
The wooden platforms are located in the following areas: Two at Hemlock Park, just north of Swede Hill Park and Northend Riverside Park. The paved approach is located just behind the Big Rapids Middle School and south of the bridge.