In 2015, Garrett Dempsey and Lisa Perez went on a mission in Detroit's Rouge Park, in the far west of the city. They were looking for Scout Hollow, a long-forgotten campsite that dates back to at least the 1930s. They flew over the tree line and discovered a weed-covered path that descended into the forest. Upon closer inspection, they found weathered steps and realized they had to be in the right place. When they got to the bottom of the hill, they found a field full of chest-high weeds.
Was that Scout Hollow?
In the ten years since Scout Hollow was in use, nature had reclaimed this once active campsite. Aside from a rusted flagpole and some broken glass at the bottom of the stairs, there was no sign that humans had ever been there. The only evidence of life was a few circles of flattened weeds where deer had settled.
Where others might have seen obstacles, Dempsey and Perez saw an opportunity to bring camping back to Detroit. Dempsey, 46, is a representative of the Sierra Club's campaign for Detroit Outdoors, an organization designed to inspire city youth to spend more time outdoors in local natural spaces by offering urban camping opportunities. The program is a collaboration between the Sierra Club, Detroit Parks and Recreation, and the YMCA of Metropolitan Detroit. Dempsey, who is passionate about equitable access to nature, has years of experience leading youth outings, first in San Francisco and later as chairman of the ICO (Inspiring Connections Outdoors) program of the Sierra Club in Detroit. Perez, 51, is the Detroit City Liaison Coordinator with the US Forest Service and a member of the Detroit Outdoors Advisory Council. After their first visit to Scout Hollow, Dempsey, Perez, and several community stakeholders planned to reopen the site as a campground for the city Youth.
When people think of camping, they usually think of western mountains and remote rivers. You dream of Denali, not Detroit. But many youth in urban areas don't see the greater outdoors as a place for them. There are organizations that aim to increase participation and inclusion by teaching urban children how to camp and backpack in national parks and wilderness areas far from home. While these adventures are beneficial, urban outdoor experiences open up more accessible opportunities and give youth groups a chance to be stewards of their own backyards.
"A camping program that includes natural spaces in the city is a conscious part of realizing and embracing the wealth and strength, as well as the assets and beauty, that are in Detroit," says Dempsey. "We don't want the conversation about nature to start with a three-hour trip to one place. We hope that one day they will want to do that road trip and look for nature everywhere. However, we think it is important to start from one place who recognizes the inherent value of their home. "
(Photo: Courtesy T. J. Samuels)
Increasing inclusion in the outdoors is very important to Detroit Outdoors' mission. The city is 80 percent black. In 2016, only five percent of all US campers were black and ten percent were Hispanic, according to the Outdoor Foundation's 2017 American Camper Report. "When a young person types in 'Detroit Camping', we want the results to include lots of pictures and stories from other colored people who look like them," says Dempsey.
Volunteers from multiple community organizations helped clean up Scout Hollow, Dempsey, and local lawyers Representatives of the city's park and recreation department asked for permission to use the site and asked the city to maintain the site. With grants from the Kresge Foundation, REI, and the Sierra Club, Scout Hollow reopened in 2018 under the direction of Detroit Outdoors. It is now 17.5 acres, with nearly 5 acres of grassland for camping and a 3/4 mile nature trail to the Rouge River. The dense forests surrounding the campsite – home to bald eagles, wild turkeys, pheasants, woodchucks, gray herons, red tailed hawks, deer, and coyotes – dampen the roaring rhythm of Detroit and make the campsites look hundreds of miles away.
With three campsites for up to 30 people each, Scout Hollow is available to youth groups who have a leader certified as a Camping Leadership Immersion Course (CLIC) through Detroit Outdoors. The organization offers a two-day, one-night CLIC training course year-round to prepare youth leaders for the skills required to conduct overnight camping trips. Once certified, executives You can reserve a campsite and equipment from Detroit Outdoors' extensive equipment library for a nominal fee. (Detroit Outdoors took its equipment library and CLIC training concepts from a model on the Outdoors Empowered Network, a group of seven outdoor programs for teenagers in the United States.)
Detroit Outdoors staff teach CLIC trainees skills such as pitching tents and using storage stoves. "It's really about building relationships and giving them resources," said Jac Kyle, naturalist and Detroit Parks and Recreation representative at the organization. "We're trying to have it so they can get an idea of what it would be like to teach these skills and coordinate the logistics of the equipment and the construction of the warehouse."
In the first two summers of operations, Detroit Outdoors trained 84 group leaders and 480 youths who camped in Scout Hollow. (The program was closed during the pandemic.) Julia Cuneo, strategic coordinator for the youth-led activist organization Detroit Area Youth Uniting Michigan (DAYUM), completed CLIC training and camped with a group of teenagers in Scout Hollow in 2019. During the training, she said, “It was really interesting to compare programs (with other youth group leaders) and talk about the different ways of using the space and the different kinds of relationships with the young people we work with. ”
Bryson Nickelberry, a 13-year-old Detroit resident and eighth grade student at Foreign Language Immersion and Cultural Studies School, had his first overnight camping experience with his Boy Scout troop in Scout Hollow in 2019. Nickelberry says he loved cooking, sleeping in a tent, hiking, and telling campfire stories. He was also able to reconnect with the same campsite where his grandmother and great-aunt went to day camps in the late 1950s. He adds that other children may be interested in camping in Scout Hollow to learn about the outdoors and each other. "You have other people who are like you and you connect with them more in ways," says Nickelberry. "You will find the real meaning of teamwork and collaboration."
(Photo: Courtesy T. J. Samuels)
Natalie Ramos, the YMCA program manager for Detroit Outdoors, believes it's important to work with teenagers who normally don't see people looking like them outdoors as they say something about outdoor recreation and local careers be able to learn. "You don't have to leave the city to get in touch with nature," she says.
Similar efforts are being made to get children camping in other metropolitan areas such as Cook County in Chicago, the second largest county in the country. In 2015, Cook County's Forest Preserves, a member of the Outdoors Empowered Network that worked with Detroit Outdoors on its program, opened five new campsites in the area, including RV and tent camping pitches, cabins with bathrooms, and group locations. and began providing CLIC training and access to equipment libraries to certified executives.
The Forest Preserves have since trained nearly 170 leaders and camped more than 1,300 attendees at their sites with equipment from their library. The organization, which markets its camping programs to children in underrepresented communities and offers free bus transportation, has trained executives who work with diverse populations including developmentally disabled adults, wounded warriors, women's groups, and alternative high schools on the west side of Chicago serving students in their late teens and early twenties who have returned to school after arrest, struggling with drug addiction, or have children.
The Chicago Park District also operates one The week-long Urban Campers program for children ages 9 to 12 ends with a 24-hour experience in a city park. The week-long Under Illinois Skies program for children ages 10-13 includes a trip to a Forest Preserves campsite and a family camping experience.
(Photo: Courtesy Detroit Outdoors)
Minneapolis-based Wilderness Inquiry is offering similar opportunities to youth from underrepresented communities, including people of color, new immigrants, and the disabled, at Fort Snelling State Park in Saint Paul. The non-profit organization supplies all necessary equipment for the campers, including tents, cooking utensils, sleeping mats, sleeping bags and rainwear. In San Francisco, Camping at the Presidio offers outdoor leadership training for youth group leaders and equipment for camping at the Presidio, a National Park Service location within city limits. In New York, the Appalachian Mountain Club's Youth Opportunities Program offers free equipment loans and camping in the Ecology Village of the Gateway National Recreation Area in Brooklyn.
Liz Holley, program specialist in the Chicago Park District, manages citywide camping programs. She says that children who camp and participate in outdoor activities develop a respect for nature and conservation. "Much of the world is urbanizing very quickly," says Holley. "So if we lose this connection with nature and don't respect it, we can't see it in our own backyards." It is an empowerment and basis for it. "
Dempsey adds that by deepening a young person's relationship with nature, he hopes "to create the fertile soil for planting a seed in young people who will be tomorrow's environmental leaders and advocates."
His plan seems to be working. Ajee Witherspoon leads the Detroit Zoological Society's Environmental Stewardship Internship (ESI) program, which teaches 16-19 year olds their work readiness skills and how to be environmental stewards and advocates for their communities. She has taken ESI interns on two camping trips to Scout Hollow. During an excursion, the ESI interns found leopard frogs. When Witherspoon looked over, all the interns had gathered around a girl who was explaining how to treat animals humanely.
"Mind you, a lot of children don't trust nature," says Witherspoon. "They don't want to touch a frog or anything, but at the end of that experience they look for frogs and actually try to make a biological index for that area. It can be that powerful."
(Photo: Courtesy Ajee Witherspoon)
Michael Johnson, a 2020 graduate of Detroit Cass Technical High School, camped with DAYUM in Scout Hollow in 2019. It was his first time camping, and he found it comforting to be surrounded by nature and see the sunrise with no buildings in the way.
"A lot of people don't know that these places aren't that far from them," says Johnson. “They are always in a place where everything is moving at the same time. There are a lot of stimuli that overtake them and that they get used to, but they never find a place to just relax. And this is one those places where we can learn about nature and the little things around you and recognize that you should work to preserve such things. "
Since Dempsey and Perez first visited Scout Hollow five years ago, it's been much more than a campsite to the youth and community leaders who stay there.
"When you stand on the top of the stairs, you know you are in Rouge Park. You see the swimming pool behind us, you see the residential area behind us. Everything feels like Detroit," says Witherspoon. "But Scout Hollow , I tell you, it's like Narnia. As soon as you go down the stairs you are in a whole new world. "
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Main Photo: Courtesy T.J. Samuels
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