Nature is everywhere, even downtown Detroit

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“I want to fly like an eagle to the sea; fly like an eagle let my spirit carry me; I want to fly like an eagle, ’till I’m free, fly through the revolution.” — Steve Miller

Sitting in the passenger seat, the car sped along the interstate on a cold, gray day. I sat watching out the windows at the highway signs, the cities and towns and the same old food joints situated along the way.

So many people — so many hopes and dreams swirling into the skies, everybody searching, everybody needing, everybody wondering, lots of people hurting. I sensed the buzz, the unseen activity, like a tremendous colony of ants pulsating in the dirt just underground.

As the afternoon wore on, I could see the narrow streets and subdivision homes of small communities turn into skyscrapers, bright neon lights, hotels and glitzy restaurants while the sharp winds cut down the streets between the buildings.

Though there were trees here and there, concrete was clearly king, with lights shining from windows on the top floors of some of those tall buildings. Other buildings were dark, adorned with pillars or corporate logos.

Folks bundled up against the cold walked along the streets. Some smiled, many didn’t. I watched as people stood and talked at the crosswalks.

As the car turned left into a parking lot, I noticed abandoned buildings ahead, some in sad disrepair, in need of tearing down. These structures were remnants of the pre-redevelopment of this great city.

Behind me, a waterway — relatively narrow — separated this place from some dwellings on the other side.

We got out of the car.

The place we were going to represented rebirth, revitalization.

A complex of buildings here had once housed a manufacturer of marine steam engines for freight and passenger vessels, a stove manufacturer, appliance repair and, eventually, a machinery wholesale firm.

From there, the structures decayed, their insides eaten out by rust and corrosion. Vandals broke in and painted the walls with graffiti. The floor had been littered with dirt, fallen debris and a dusting of snow.

About a decade ago, however, multi-million-dollar redevelopment projects created a park and harbor along the waterway, erected new places to live and work, and this building here, once home to industrial manufacturers, was transformed into a place now of discovery, learning and exploration.

Once inside, I came to understand surprisingly that this strange setting held more of the heart and soul of Michigan’s grand outdoors than I ever imagined.

I guess I felt like Dorothy Gale opening the front door of her tornado-tossed house to the waiting magic and wonder of Munchkinland.

There were sounds of birds singing, water rushing and children laughing and talking.

A tremendous bur oak tree towered more than three stories over the main flooring space. A male yellow-bellied sapsucker was perched along the trunk, while a red squirrel was set to disappear into a dark, round hole in one of the branches.

From the canopy of this wondrous oak, those of a certain height could walk a wooden suspension bridge to a platform. From there, the view was good of a giant elk standing at the top of a waterfall that tumbled over a rock ledge.

In the waters below, there were brook trout and painted turtles.

Two boys sat fishing for pike and panfish, while other Michigan fish species swirled around in the waters of an aquarium built into one of the walls. Animal tracks and scat were here among the sands and shores.

There were also furs to touch and feel. Kids climbed into the cockpit of a fire-spotter plane. Not far away, there were laser shooting galleries, bike, kayak, off-road vehicle and snowmobile simulators.

I watched as a young girl rose and fell riding her Polaris sled while watching snow-packed trail footage from the western Upper Peninsula. At the end of the simulation, the simulator told the little miss she had done a good job.

This place is packed with interactive activities aimed at opening hearts and minds to the boundless recreational and natural resource opportunities Michigan has to offer.

Among my favorite features was a wetland pond with a duck-filled sky and a beaver lodge that you can crawl up into from below. Kids can climb through the hollow trunk and roots of the oak tree to reach the walking bridge or slide down to a place on the floor where a campfire setting is waiting, complete with cooking utensils and food.

I watched a couple of young girls cooking corn, chicken and a hot dog on the stove, while their dad sat in a chair nearby. A school group, with the kids all wearing matching red T-shirts, seemed elated with their surroundings.

The risers on the staircases were adorned with facts like the names of the state’s symbols — from the Petoskey stone to the apple blossom and the Isle Royale greenstone — an accounting of the number of amphibians (23 kinds), birds (300) and fish (146) found in the state, or that Michigan is first in the nation in tart cherry production.

There are hunting blinds here, as well as a subterranean cave where the chirping sounds of bats are heard and facts about geology and mining are revealed.

Perhaps my favorite attraction is a place found by climbing into the treetops of the bur oak. Here you can stand in a full-sized bald eagle’s nest. A video simulator lets you experience an eagle flight along and up the beautiful Tahquamenon River.

I watched one man, who was young at heart, while standing between a pair of eagle wings, follow the instructions on the screen to flap his wings. As he did, the images of the river bent and turned while the eagle glided smooth through blue skies, over cascading waters tinged reddish-brown.

Standing at a window, I could see folks outside walking a trail along the river, a lighthouse standing a short distance away, the sun briefly peeking through clouds.

This place in the heart of the city is the Michigan DNR’s Outdoor Adventure Center (michigan.gov/oac), which was designed to bring “up north” to downtown Detroit.

William G. Milliken State Park and Harbor are here too — the state’s first urban park — situated along the Detroit River.

This was my first trip here, but it hopefully won’t be my last.

Seeing those city kids thrill at the touch of fox fur, enjoy the chance to feel what it’s like to reel in a big fish or sit cooking and talking around the campfire was a moving experience for me.

I thought about all those collective hopes and dreams twirling skyward over all those communities I saw from the car on my ride down from the capital city.

I wish I could take every single one of those kids fishing or hiking, tree planting, camping or just sitting in the woods, but I know I can’t.

However, it does give me a good deal of pride and satisfaction to know they can come to this place.

Such a visit might spark a flame inside a young heart, inspiring a boy or girl to reach for more outdoor experiences. Who knows what untold volumes of good works might come from that?

I can point to several significant introductions to nature in my young years that I can’t imagine being without today. Seeing this place was inspiring.

Back in the car, headed north to Lansing, I again watched as the towns passed by now lit up in the darkness.

On the curve of an overpass, a great horned owl glided over the busy highway. I watched him disappear off to my right, over the rooftops.

The next morning, I would be on a plane flying home.

EDITOR’S NOTE: John Pepin is the deputy public information officer for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. Outdoors North is a weekly column produced by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources on a wide range of topics important to those who enjoy and appreciate Michigan’s world-class natural resources of the Upper Peninsula. Send correspondence to pepinj@michigan.gov or 1990 U.S. 41 South, Marquette, MI 49855.