Michigan nature trail dedicated to car accident victim

Bob Wheeler gives a speech recently at the dedication of the outdoor learning center in honor of his son, John, who was killed in a car accident last year. (Houghton Daily Mining Gazette photo by Garrett Neese)

HOUGHTON — Five years ago, Bob Wheeler built an outdoor classroom behind the Houghton Elementary School with his son, John.

On Sept. 30, he helped dedicate an expanded trail and nature center in John’s honor.

John was a volunteer at the school who died last November in a car accident. He was two weeks away from graduating from Michigan Tech University and had a job lined up in Wisconsin as a forester.

Two others survived the accident.

After his son’s death, Bob Wheeler, a member of the Houghton-Portage Township School Board — along with his children, Toby, Leo and Annika; John’s girlfriend; and a family friend — developed the idea of expanding the classroom with trails and signage.

John had volunteered in the after-school Great Explorations program, where he was popular among the students. Bob Wheeler recalled accompanying him to the school once, where he was treated “like a rock star.”

“He came in, and it was like ‘John’s here, John’s here!'” he said. “All of a sudden there was a crowd, and he was peeling his way to get through.”

Bob Wheeler recalled John as a lover of the outdoors. They would often go on walks in the woods, investigating insects, mushrooms, lightning-strike damage in trees and other items.

“I miss him very much, every day,” he said.

Volunteers cleared trails, laid down wood chips and donated materials.

Industrial Graphics created interpretive signage for the trails featuring Rex, a dinosaur hand puppet.

Children were already active after the dedication, touching the signs and explaining photosynthesis to their parents.

More work will be done at the site, including adding more wood chips and a gate at the school playground.

Lee Knuttilla of Toivola, a friend of the family, attended the dedication and walked the trail afterward.

“It’s really nice, beautiful, really set up nicely,” he said. “Everyone can enjoy it.”