Enjoy the Great Indoors at the DNR’s Outdoor Adventure Center

A visit to the space is like taking an up north field trip right in downtown Detroit

Outdoor Adventure CenterThe first thing you’ll notice when entering the Outdoor Adventure Center is a tree — a giant, man-made bur oak stretching to the ceiling of the three-story building.

You’ll crane your neck to see how far up the tree goes (it’s 40 feet), and then you’ll notice the airplane — yes, the airplane — a shiny red Cessna jutting out from the second floor. You’ll notice the 36-foot waterfall and the black bear and the deer perched on the surrounding rock. You’ll stroll by an elk display, around a crackling bonfire, past a freshwater aquarium, into a yurt, through a Michigan mining tunnel, up the stairs to a snowmobile simulator, and eventually … you’ll slow down.

You might even stop.

You’ll edge closer to the waterfall and notice there’s much more on display there than some deer and a bear. There’s a beehive in a birch tree. There are paw prints and fossils embedded in the rock at your feet.

This is what the Outdoor Adventure Center was designed to do — bring metro Detroiters closer to Michigan’s outdoors and educate visitors about the state’s natural resources.

And while the place imparts valuable lessons on environmental topics like invasive species and sustainability, it also conveys an invaluable truism about the outdoors: the more you look, the more you see.

Up North Meets Downtown

If you visited the Detroit RiverWalk within the past three years, you likely saw the Outdoor Adventure Center under construction across from Milliken State Park in the former Globe Building — the over-100-year-old marine manufacturing complex where Henry Ford once served as an apprentice. (There’s more on that in the OAC’s Detroit River exhibit.)

Renovations to the Globe began in 2013, and the OAC — originally conceived as an activity center that would serve as a gateway to Michigan’s state parks — began to take shape.

The $18 million project was designed and built over three years, and the place opened somewhat quietly in July 2015, despite a ribbon-cutting ceremony attended by Gov. Rick Snyder, Mayor Mike Duggan, and Rehab Addict TV host and Detroit native Nicole Curtis.

It’s hard to explain exactly just what the OAC is. It’s part hands-on science museum, part natural history museum, and part nature center, designed to make Michigan’s outdoors fun, engaging, and accessible for all ages. As far as the DNR knows, it’s the first of its kind.

“There are science museums, there are natural history museums, and there are nature centers,” says Linda Walter, the OAC’s director. “But there are no science or natural history museums that concentrate just on one state, run by a DNR in an urban area. And there are nature centers, but none of this caliber. This is like a nature center on steroids.”

You’d be hard-pressed to find another indoor urban nature center spread out over 41,000 square feet. You’d be even harder-pressed to find one that contains all of the following:

  • a beaver lodge
  • a bear den
  • a sand dune exhibit
  • a tent campsite
  • a tower blind
  • an interactive birding station
  • a fishing simulator
  • a kayaking simulator
  • a mountain biking simulator
  • an off-road vehicle simulator
  • an archery range
  • a sustainable living house
  • an eagle exhibit complete with life-size eagle’s nest and human-size eagle wings

If there is a way to summarize all that the OAC offers, it’s with its handy tagline: “Up north, downtown.” It’s clever, but more importantly, it’s true. Between the crackling fire, the snowmobile engine, and the bird song piping in from the displays, the OAC really does feel like up north in Detroit, and it’s introducing that feeling to a whole new crowd.

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Connecting With City Kids

There’s no denying that younger generations are spending less time outdoors, particularly those in urban areas. In 2004, a University of Michigan study found that children spend half as much time outside as they did 20 years ago. A 2010 study found that American children consume an average of 10 and a half hours of media (TV, computer, etc.) a day.

That’s one reason why the majority of OAC exhibits are geared toward youth. Almost every display is interactive — toggle switches in the airplane, touch pelts at the fur station, and swipe through iPads at information displays. And when you hook a fish at the fishing simulator, the fish fights back.

“The off-road vehicle and the snowmobile and the fishing simulator were at the very forefront of our vision,” says Vicki Anthes, planning section chief at the DNR. “Having every exhibit have some element of hands-on was part of our criteria.”

Engaging young visitors with hands-on experiences ties into another one of the OAC’s goals.

“We’re looking to inspire careers in natural resources among city kids who might not get there otherwise,” Walter says. “We’re here to encourage a love of the outdoors for kids who’ve been disconnected from it, and we’re also trying to tell people, ‘Hey, you should be proud you’re from Michigan. We have an awesome state. It might not be in your backyard (but) look where you can go.’ ”

The hope is that by being introduced to Michigan’s state parks and outdoor activities, visitors will be equipped with the confidence to try new forms of recreation, regardless of age or experience level.

“There’s something we look at called legacy interruption,” Walter says. “If nobody took you camping or hiking or biking, and your kids go ‘I want to go camping,’ you go, ‘I don’t know how to do that.’ We want to be the legacy interruption, and we want to be a gateway. A gateway to all of Michigan’s natural resources, all of Michigan’s parks.”

The OAC is also a destination in itself, particularly for school field trips. School groups can participate in educational activities that meet Michigan Grade Level Content Expectations, and OAC staff members are on hand to lead environmental lessons in the building’s discovery labs.

But for all its emphasis on school-age education, the OAC has also gained favor with adults and seniors. According to Anthes and Walter, the DNR designed the OAC with a diverse audience in mind, but the level of enthusiasm from parents and grandparents has been a pleasant surprise.

“Every adult wants to sit in the airplane,” Walter says. “Every adult wants to ride the snowmobile. And every adult that comes through wants their picture behind the waterfall. We actually have someone’s 50th birthday party booked here.”

In its first few months, the OAC expected around 250 visitors a day, but the place averaged about 600 in July and 500 in October (the OAC closed for almost two weeks in September for maintenance). The numbers can undoubtedly be attributed to the OAC’s expansive audience, but as the place gears up for its first winter, it’s seeking ways to attract even more curious customers.

Outdoor Adventure Center

Into The Wild

Since the OAC opened its doors in July, the building has already played host to press events, banquets, baby showers, social networking events, and birthday parties for all ages.

The building’s multi-use conference rooms, combined with its unique location, have made it a desirable event space for a multitude of group gatherings.

The OAC also hopes to entice visitors with new content. “The plan is to continue to keep the exhibits fresh,” Anthes says. For example, videos that you see at the bicycle simulator, the ORV, the snowmobile, and the kayak will be updated occasionally.

This winter, the OAC also plans to add events like movie nights, live animal demonstrations, and workshops on bird watching, backpacking, fishing, and other outdoor activities in Michigan. Soon, the place also hopes to organize real outdoor adventures to nearby state parks like Belle Isle and beyond.

And while Walter hopes that fresh exhibits and programs will be reasons enough for people to check the place out, there’s another factor she’s counting on to bring people in.

“When it’s freezing cold and you can run around in here under trees and listen to birds sing, it will be a whole different reason to come back.”

Open 10 a.m.-3 p.m. Wed.-Fri., 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Sat. and 12-5 p.m. Sun. 1801 Atwater St., Detroit; 844-622-6367. michigan.gov/outdooradventure