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Pondering Life & Death on the Trail

Posted on September 21st, 2011

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On the day of Greg Hokans’ funeral I was hiking in Emmet County, recording trails for MichiganTrailMaps.com and enjoying a beautiful September day in northern Michigan.

At the Elk Rapids Library that evening, my Internet connection when I’m in this corner of the state, somebody emailed me condolences to the loss of my friend and upon further searching of the web I learned that he had died a few days earlier in Cheboygan and was buried that day.

Jim DuFresne

Jim DuFresne

I missed it all because I was out in the woods. I wasn’t shocked because I knew he was gravely ill, he told me when I visited him a couple weeks earlier he had less than a month, but the grief that swept over me was profound and the guilt I felt for missing the end was even worse.

 The only thing that got me through the evening was the knowledge that Greg would much rather have me out on the trail celebrating his life than in a church praying at his funeral.

 So the next day I did that. I threw my mountain bike in the back of my car and drove to the Wildwood Hills State Forest Pathway near Burt Lake. Once there I spent the morning pedaling among the pines, trying to make sense why somebody like Greg would be told at the age of 46 that he had stage 4 colon cancer.

I met Greg in the late 1980s. He was the new executive director of the Marquette Country Convention and Visitors Bureau and had put together his first familiarization tour for the media. I was a freelance writer, generating travel and outdoor stories for newspapers and guidebooks.

 He invited me up for the tour and we hit it off the minute we met. He was a lifelong Yooper. I loved the U.P. He needed to get the word out how wonderful Marquette was. I needed material to sell. We both had a passion for the outdoors and adventure.

After that I didn’t need to wait for a media junket to visit Marquette. For the next eight or nine years I would just drive north and walk into his office, often unannounced. Didn’t matter. Greg would drop everything, tell the receptionist he was gone for the day and we’d take off to “research stories.”

Greg Hokans at Fort Mackinac

 We’d swing by Jean Kay’s Pasties & Subs Shop in town to pick up lunch and then Greg would hand me a media kit, a large envelope stuffed with the latest visitor’s guide, brochures, press releases. With a media kit in the hands of a media person, it was now official. We could go and play without worrying about board of directors, editors or wives.

We’d climb Hogsback Mountain, paddle Craig Lake, spend an afternoon following old two-tracks looking for moose, hike into the Rocking Chair Lakes Wilderness, try to catch a brook trout in front of a waterfall because it would make for a great photo.

He’d promote, I’d publish. Marquette and the surrounding region never received so much good press.

It was a Friday when I arrived at the trailhead of Wildwood Hills and, despite a car in the parking lot, didn’t see another soul on the trail which I was thankful for.

Wildwood Hills was developed in the 1970s primarily for Nordic skiers but the mountain biking boom of the 1980s turned the trail into a popular weekend destination for off-road cyclists. The pathway is actually a 12-mile system of three loops with the perimeter of it forming a natural route of almost 9 miles.

 It’s not overly scenic but not technical either and that’s why I chose it. The trails are old forest roads and even railroad beds left over from turn-of-the-century logging, making them wide paths with gentle curves and climbs. It’s also well posted. I could pedal through the woods while my mind wandered and it did.

I thought about life and the end of it. I thought about my purpose here and why a God would take away somebody as young, honest, hardworking and good hearted as Greg. Mostly I just thought about our times together.

We would work on stories and sometimes even create them. I once showed up Dec. 1 because that’s when the snowmobile season begins in Michigan. Only nobody snowmobiles then because there’s not enough snow to ride. Or so they think.

In Marquette, Greg borrowed a trailer and an old station wagon to pull it, we loaded two snowmobiles on it and off we went north of the city to spend the day driving around the rugged Huron Mountains looking for enough snow to snowmobile.

It took a while but we certainly were in no hurry. Nether one of us could think of a better way to spend an afternoon. Finally late in the day we found an area with a base of 10 or 12 inches on the backside of a ridge so we jumped on the sleds and rode through the woods, breaking our own trails. The entire ride, including stops to stage photos, probably lasted less than 40 minutes before we were back at the car, breaking out the still-warm Jean Kay’s pasties and a couple of beers.

Here’s to the start of the snowmobile season!

I was thinking about that when I realized I had taken a wrong turn somewhere on the pathway. I backtracked a quarter mile to the last trail sign, saw the missed junction and continued on, letting my thoughts wander again.

The time spent alone in the forest worked. I emerged at the trailhead feeling less burden by grief and sadness. I realized that more important than a funeral or being at his deathbed was the fact I was able to see him just weeks before at Mackinac Island where Greg’s final job was as the marketing manager of Mackinac State Historic Parks.

From his office at Fort Mackinac we walked over to the Tearoom Restaurant and sat outside to that incredible view of the island and the Straits of Mackinac. We talked about jobs and kids and our adventures together. When I asked about the cancer and his feelings, it became emotional so we pulled back to reminiscing.

The last thing Greg did was hand me a media kit for Mackinac State Historic Parks and pick up the tab for lunch. “Have to keep it official,” he said but we both knew it never was.

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2 thoughts on “Pondering Life & Death on the Trail”

  1. Jess says:

    I worked for Greg at Fort Mackinac one summer when I was in college. My favorite memory of Greg was him trading in a tie for a wool, soldier’s uniform from the Civil in 85 degree weather. Then he would go out in front of the fort to enthusiastically greet the masses of tourists that came to the island each day. He was truly a good person who had a passion for northern Michigan.

  2. Steve says:

    You wrote a wonderful article about your friend Greg! I am glad you have many great memories with him. I am sorry for your loss, but happy that Greg is at peace. Thanks for sharing the memories.

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