Editor’s Note: It’s odd that a living person gets a “Memorial” named after them – normally (and maybe sadly) that honor is generally reserved for people who have passed on to the other side. That made the August event in the story below stand out. The back-story, though, is that when the event was held, we all knew that Jim Duke’s time on this earth was winding down. Word came on Tuesday afternoon, October 10, that Jim Duke had died. His ever-loving daughter and side-kick Karyn Robare posted the note directly below on social media. It made us want to revisit this story, and remember the man behind so many victories for snowmobilers – and the man whose name will forever be on a bridge in Alger County, Michigan. Godspeed Jim, and our thanks to his family for sharing him with us all of these years.
It’s been said in many different ways that “not all heroes wear capes.” Well, the same can be said for snowmobiling heroes. Maybe, though, it would be more appropriate to say “not every snowmobiling hero wins races or leaps off of cornices!”
Indeed, a lot of the true heroes in snowmobiling are the folks who work tirelessly behind the scenes to ensure access to our trails and riding lands. We’re talking about people who find solutions to problems. People who know how to work various legal, financial and political systems to get things done.
One of those heroes was honored on Sunday, August 20. That’s when, much to his own surprise, a bridge was renamed in his honor.
The Jim Duke Memorial Bridge – previously known as the Doty Bridge – in Alger County, Michigan, will forever remind people of the efforts of Jim Duke of Munising, Michigan.
Snowmobiling Hero Jim Duke
Within the grass roots snowmobiling community, especially in Michigan, Jim Duke is a known commodity. The spry 86-year-old has been a fixture at gatherings of local snowmobilers, of the Michigan Snowmobile Association (and in its new form, the Michigan Snowmobile & Off-Road Vehicle Association) and even at International Snowmobile Congress events.
In fact, he’s been the president of local, state and even national snowmobile associations. In those roles, he led many pro-snowmobiling efforts in his 40-plus years of involvement. For all of this and more, Duke was inducted into the International Snowmobile Hall of Fame in 2013.
But no, you won’t find Jim challenging Elias Ishoel on a bumps course or Chris Burandt in the backcountry. And he’s not a YouTube star. Where you will find him, though, is in meetings. Hundreds if not thousands of truly boring meetings over the years. Well, we should say they are boring to most people, but it’s where guys like Jim do their best work.
One reflection of those efforts is the Doty Bridge Replacement. The original railroad trestle bridge over the North Branch of Stutts Creek was closed in 1999. That severed a major snowmobile trail artery. Duke and friends helped fight for a “temporary” bridge, which was put in place in 2000. But it wasn’t until 2020 that a new bridge was put in place.
At Sunday’s bridge renaming and dedication, first a few local dignitaries sang Duke’s praises. Afterwards, Duke was quick to deflect some of the attention to many others who were involved in the two-decade battle.
“This was not strictly a Jim Duke project,” Duke said while seated at the inner circle of many well-wishers. It was captured on a Facebook Live video. “Bob Bowers was with me right from day one, when we came out here and discovered they had blocked off the trail on both ends with large boulders.
“The Munising ranger at that time said ‘We’re not going to have a bridge there anymore,’” Duke said. “Through all of the fights trying to figure out where we could re-route that trail, the only feasible place was Chamberlain Road. Between the DNR… and the Forest Service and way back at that time the Alger County Snow Riders, I tell you what, I think we had a big battle on our hands for a while.”
He also namechecked many others. They included folks like Christine Jourdain of the American Council of Snowmobile Associations to various forest service administrators and county snowmobile club officials.
In the end, Duke and friends secured approval plus more than $1 million in funding for the new, permanent bridge. In 2021 the effort that led to that bridge earning a national Coalition of Recreational Trails (CRT) Achievement Award, among other honors.
But as much as anything, the persistence of Duke and the others kept snowmobiling in that area at the forefront.
Our congratulations to Jim Duke on his very deserved honor. Not many people get something named after them when they are still here to enjoy it! May he serve as a role model to many others who fight the good fight on behalf of our sport – and win!