Work begins to reopen Detroit’s only campground

Neal Rubin
The Detroit News

Garrett Dempsey couldn’t quite tell what kind of bird was chasing the cardinal through the bare branches of a Rouge Park tree, but the cardinal knew, and he was bugging out.

Then: another tree, another flutter of feathers. “On the left,” Dempsey said. “See the woodpecker?”

There were two feet of snow blanketing the turf at the only campground within the 139 square miles of Detroit, and you would have expected Mother Nature to be on holiday. Dempsey can tell you, though, that there is always something to see — and just wait until the kids get a look at it in the spring, for the first time in more than a decade.

With a $200,000 grant from the Kresge Foundation, $20,000 from the Sierra Club and significant buy-in from the Detroit Parks and Recreation Department and YMCA of Metropolitan Detroit, the long-closed, 17.4-acre Scout Hollow campground is scheduled for renovation and reopening.

The agencies were expected to announce Thursday morning that a collaboration called Detroit Outdoors will oversee three campsites welcoming up to 1,000 overnight campers per year, giving groups of kids mostly from Detroit an immersion into nature that might change outlooks or even futures.

Dempsey, 43, will lead the project, and on a cold, bright afternoon last week, he was leading a small tour of Scout Hollow’s five-acre meadow, bordered by forest and the ice-covered Rouge River. Ahead of this week’s rain, several in his party wore snowshoes. He and Jaclyn Kyle, a parks department recreation instructor, wore tall boots and wide smiles.

“It’s crazy,” Kyle said. “You can hear birds and see a hawk overhead, and then all of a sudden you hear a truck.”

At about 1,200 acres, Rouge is Detroit’s largest park. It’s not only bigger than Belle Isle (982 acres), but bigger than Central Park in New York (843 acres). Scout Hollow, the oasis-to-be, sits a few hundred yards from the eastern edge, only a fifth of a mile from a party store that sells a fifth of Mohawk vodka for $6.99.

“If you grew up here in the ’60s or ’70s, you came here with your Boy Scout troop,” Dempsey said. When he spent a night as a test in a more temperate month, a few officers walked over from the nearby police pistol range, “and their eyes lit up. One of them said, ‘Man, I was here in 1971!’ ”

Now the campground is foreign even to the neighbors, overtaken by tall grass and wild turkeys. Sisters Takia and Kayla Washington, 16 and 15, were treating themselves to potato chips and Faygo at Scotty J’s Liquor a few days after Dempsey’s expedition.

No, they said, they didn’t know they lived near a campground. Yes, camping sounded like fun. Yes, they’ve seen a deer before, but only once or twice.

That’s not enough contact to make an impact, said Keith Flournoy, the interim Detroit parks director.

“To really learn about nature, you must immerse yourself in it,” he said. “There is simply no substitute.”

The plan with Detroit Outdoors is for Dempsey and the experienced hands from the YMCA to train adults — think teachers, coaches and church leaders — who will in turn lead campouts for the children they already work with. Among the things Kresge’s grant will support is a library of camping gear for groups to borrow.

As YMCA president Scott Landry put it, the only things campers will need to bring are their clothes and curiosity.

The three campsites at Scout Hollow will accommodate 30 people each. The goal is to host 250 campers in 2018 and quadruple that by 2020. Multiply 1,000 campers by the memories they share and the links they make to the world beyond their blocks, and there’s an impact that’s impossible to calculate.

Dempsey led a hike for the Boys & Girls Club of Highland Park a few months ago and met kids who had never walked on a dirt road. He took three young men to Yosemite National Park a few years before that and watched them marvel at their first forest and beach and bear.

“You talk about opening up the planet,” he said. Yes, there are vistas you couldn’t imagine. Yes, there are jobs within those vistas.

The people behind Detroit Outdoors want kids to see what’s around them, but that’s only the first step. The big picture is what lies ahead.

Twitter: @nealrubin_dn