Heading north

Detroit teens get hands-on work experience in Upper Peninsula

A small group of teenagers from Healthy Kidz Inc. of Detroit participates in a Michigan Department of Natural Resources program that took them to Marquette County for a hands-on introduction to what it's like to work for the DNR. Here a teen volunteer and DNR staffer carry board through forest for a boardwalk bridge. (Photo courtesy of the Michigan DNR)

From the Michigan Department of Natural Resources

MARQUETTE — Building a bridge or planting trees is not something Detroit teenager Anthony Richard typically gets to experience. But a Michigan Department of Natural Resources program that enables youths to experience the great outdoors did just that for the 18-year-old Cass Tech graduate.

“I’d never built a bridge before,” Richard said in a news release. “It showed us that it’s something we can do.”

Richard was part of a small group of teenagers from Healthy Kidz Inc. of Detroit who were transported to Marquette County, on the cusp of Lake Superior, and introduced to what working for the DNR is like.

The participants gained valuable hands-on experience. Tasks included demolishing and removing an aging boardwalk bridge over a creek in Little Presque Isle Recreation Area, and planting about 50 trees in Van Riper State Park.

They also performed brush-clearing and other tasks in area parks.

Douglas Barry, a park supervisor with the DNR in Marquette County, said he was amazed with the amount of work that was accomplished over a couple of days in the parks and on the trails, including Michigan’s Iron Belle Trail, the longest state-designated trail in the nation.

“It’s a very remote setting,” Barry said in the release. “I was not prepared for how hard they worked. I had to come up with more things for them to do. I wanted them to have useful and fulfilling projects.”

Removing the two sections of boardwalk was a big task in itself.

“It took a lot of energy and planning,” Barry said. “I thought the removal would take a while. They went right at it and were finished in a matter of minutes.

“I work with a lot of volunteer groups. This group was impressive. They worked really hard. It could not have gone any better.”

Bruce Ross, who formerly worked with the DNR and now owns Ross & Contemporaries in Ypsilanti, is involved in a statewide program called Career Pathways that aims to bring more urban youth into the DNR to help them learn about its operations, stewardship and potential future opportunities.

For this particular project, Ross worked with Healthy Kidz Inc. and its executive director, Maria Adams Lawton, to bring the five inner-city teens to the U.P.

“These young men had never been out of the Lower Peninsula,” Ross said in the news release. “They were in awe. When we crossed the Mackinac Bridge, it was quite a moment. All of them were wide-eyed.”

After arriving in Marquette County, the youth stayed two nights each in Little Presque Isle and Van Riper parks.

“They loved it,” Ross said. “When it was over, they weren’t ready to leave. They loved staying in the cabins and building their own campfire. It was such a great experience.

“One of them told me that no matter what happens, years from now they could visit the U.P. and know they planted trees or they worked on that boardwalk. No one can take that away from them.”

Ross said that employees from the DNR’s Wildlife, Parks and Recreation, Law Enforcement and Fisheries divisions all took time to talk to the teens about DNR careers and what it takes to be a good steward of the outdoors.

“The kids did a great job,” Ross said. “This is really helping to expose these young men to the DNR. All the way around it was incredible.”

Michigan has 103 state parks, 82 public harbors administered by state, county and local units of government, and 138 state forest campgrounds. Known as The Trails State, Michigan boasts more than 12,500 miles of motorized and non-motorized trails. The Iron Belle Trail is more than 2,000 miles long, with a biking route and hiking route stretching from Detroit’s Belle Isle to Ironwood in the western Upper Peninsula.

Richard, who will attend Michigan State University and study computer science this fall, said it was a great experience.

“The first night, after we settled in, we built a fire,” he said. “It was hot — very hot. By morning, we were all cold.”

A career in the DNR could be in his future, he said.

“It was fun,” he said. “We spoke to a conservation officer who told us all of the things he does and that the DNR gives him all of the equipment he needs to do his job. That was really interesting. I look forward to pursuing something in the DNR someday.”