DNR education programs connect people to outdoors

Visitors to Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park in the western Upper Peninsula go on a guided hike to explore the rich wilderness heritage of the 60,000-acre park. (Photo courtesy of the Michigan Department of Natural Resources)

MARQUETTE — In Michigan, you’re never more than an hour’s drive from a state park or recreation area.

As the millions of annual visitors to our state parks and recreation areas know, these places offer an abundance of ways to enjoy the outdoors, from hiking and biking to swimming and stargazing.

Perhaps lesser known is that, in most areas of the state, you’re not too far away from opportunities to discover more about the outdoors with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources’ nature and outdoor education programs.

The DNR’s 10 visitor centers around the state feature fun and educational nature exhibits, access to nearby trails and engaging outdoor experiences with professional interpreters that lead nature-oriented programs.

In 2016, nearly 400,000 visitors stopped in to one of the statewide visitor centers to take in exhibits, attend a program or experience a trail hike, said DNR education services manager Kevin Frailey.

“More than 100,000 participated in a scheduled program, about half of which were school children,” said Frailey. “Thousands were introduced to archery through our Arrows Away programs and learned to fish in one of many Hook, Line and Sinker angling experiences. Other programs ranged from dune ecology to old-growth forests.”

Many of the educational experiences available at the visitor centers focus on the unique natural and cultural features of the location.

At Ludington State Park, along Lake Michigan in the northern Lower Peninsula, interpretive programming dates back to 1969 and over the years has taught millions of visitors about the park’s rich history, as well as its variety of outdoor recreation opportunities.

In 2016, the DNR completed design and installation of new exhibits, focusing on Great Lakes ecology, at the recently renovated historic beach house at Ludington State Park.

The Hartwick Pines State Park Visitor Center in Grayling draws thousands of visitors, campers and school children each year to see one of Michigan’s last stands of majestic old-growth pine forest.

While most visitors to Tahquamenon Falls State Park in the eastern Upper Peninsula come to see two of Michigan’s most beautiful waterfalls, park education programs help participants explore the park’s other natural features as well.

The Werner family, who visited the park last summer and took part in programs including a guided hike, offered the following feedback about their experience:

“Just wanted to thank you for making Tahquamenon Falls come alive for us. Instead of walking down to the falls to see dirty water, we saw runoff from the hemlock trees. We saw beaver chews, beech and birch trees, and woodpecker holes. Our walks through the woods will never be the same. We will be looking for signs of animals, beaver slides, dams and chews. We will look for tracks and enjoy the different flowers. We will listen for the sound of the birds singing and look for dead trees in hopes of seeing the pileated woodpecker.”

Other visitor centers include the Carl T. Johnson Hunt and Fish Center at Mitchell State Park in Cadillac, the Eddy Discovery Center at Waterloo Recreation Area near Chelsea, the Gillette Visitor Center at Hoffmaster State Park in Muskegon, Oden State Fish Hatchery Visitor Center near Petoskey, Porcupine Mountains Visitor Center at Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park near Ontonagon, the Saginaw Bay Visitor Center at Bay City State Recreation Area in Bay City and the Wolf Lake State Fish Hatchery Visitor Center in Mattawan.

Check out cool videos on the Carl T. Johnson Hunt and Fish Center and the Hartwick Pines Visitor Center.

In more than 40 Michigan state parks that do not have visitor centers, the DNR’s State Park Explorer Program offers educational and entertaining nature programs for park visitors.

More than 77,000 state park campers and visitors took part in the Explorer Program in the summer of 2016.

“Fishing is one of the most popular events, and specialized theme weeks like Michigan Mammals and Feathered Friends were extremely popular,” said Frailey.

When not conducting a formal program or trail hike, many of the Explorer Program guides roam the campgrounds or choose heavily trafficked areas to intercept park visitors with a skull, pelt or other interesting prop for an impromptu education experience.

Frailey said that last summer, roving naturalists impacted more than 120,000 park visitors.

Even in locations where staff isn’t available to lead an educational experience, the DNR offers visitors a chance to learn something while enjoying the outdoors.

“At many sites that do not have on-site, first-person interpretation, visitors rely on wayside graphics and displays, designed by DNR interpretive staff, to enhance their visit,” said Theresa Neal, park interpreter at Tahquamenon Falls State Park.

Neal cited the example of the recently completed Conely Point Boating Access Site, located on the St. Marys River in the Upper Peninsula, which includes an accessible seating area to view the water, along with four wayside graphics interpreting the wildlife, fishing and history of the area.

The overarching goal of the DNR’s education programs is to connect people to Michigan’s natural and cultural resources.

— Michigan Department of Natural Resources