Nation’s longest canopy walk a tree-mendous addition in Midland

Susan R. Pollack
Special to The Detroit News

Midland — Surrounded by towering pine trees, Macauley “Mike” Whiting Jr. enjoys strolling the long, elevated walkway under construction in his childhood backyard.

The soft, silky needles of Michigan's state tree, the white pine, are within reach of the Canopy Walk, high above the ground, in Midland.

Pausing at his favorite spot, an overlook 30 feet above the forest floor, he gazes across the pond at the majestic white pine he once fell out of as a boy some 50 years ago.

“It’s just good for your soul to be outside and in the forest,” says Whiting, recalling the adventures he and his brother shared while exploring the 54-acre tract — woods, meadows and wetlands — that in the 1990s became the Whiting Forest of Dow Gardens.

Now, through a gift of the Herbert H. and Grace A. Dow Foundation (he’s the president), Whiting literally is providing a path to forest fun for visitors of all ages and abilities. After breaking ground in June 2016, Whiting Forest’s quarter-mile-long Canopy Walk — the longest in the nation — is scheduled to open Oct. 7, just in time for Michigan’s fall color season.

“It’s a very high-quality experience,” says Dave Lorenz, vice president of Travel Michigan, who calls the year-round attraction “a big deal” and a boon to tourism on the less-traveled east side of the state. “And the fact that it’s accessible is really exciting. It provides a more intimate connection with nature, a way to get up in the canopy for people (with mobility issues) who maybe never have done that.”

Stretching 1,400 linear feet, the three-pronged wooden boardwalk looms 40 feet above ground at its highest point and features a rope bridge, cargo nets, pod-shaped play structures that sway in the breeze and other elements designed to evoke a sense of adventure and risk. The mission, according to Whiting’s wife, Sara, who initiated the project, is to lure individuals off technology and back into the woods by providing “that daring, invigorating experience you get from being up in the trees."

Built with durable, sustainable and naturally rot-resistant Brazilian ipe wood, the sprawling walkway is the centerpiece of an ambitious $20.4 million Whiting Forest revitalization that includes 1.5 miles of ADA-compliant pathways and an accessible playground, café, amphitheater, forest classroom, stream restoration and newly planted apple orchard.

The orchard is visible from the walkway’s 40-foot-high Orchard Arm platform, where a glass floor is an adrenaline-boosting thrill.

Elsewhere on the grounds, a visitor center is nearing completion in the renovated mid-century modern home where Whiting lived with five older siblings and his parents, Macauley (Mac) and Helen Dow Whiting. Helen was the grand-daughter of Herbert H. Dow, who founded Dow Chemical Co. in Midland in 1897. And the family home, built in 1948, was designed by her uncle, the prolific Midland architect Alden B. Dow, who was designated Michigan's first — and to this day only — architect laureate before his death in 1983.

A rope bridge stretches from the hard walk to a "pod" in  Dow Gardens' new Canopy Walk in Midland.

Transformed into a contemporary education and meeting center, the repurposed space includes a replica of the iconic “Rainbow Rug” that graced the Whiting family home, and the oversized, Alden B. Dow-designed “Woods of the World” front door. It showcases 336 blocks of wood from 94 countries, all collected by Helen on the couple’s global travels. Representing 58 tree species, the door is a stand-out among the center’s photographs, documentaries and exhibits that focus on Dow family and Whiting Forest history, sustainability, animal-life, threatened and endangered species, nature and other topics.

Befitting a forest-centered project, only six healthy trees were removed during construction of the Whiting Forest walkway, says Kyle Bagnall, Whiting Forest program manager, citing the great pains taken during both design and construction phases to avoid harming trees.

In many areas, for example, the six-foot-wide walkway was engineered to wrap around various trees.

“Sometimes, the trees go right up through the Canopy Walk,” says Bagnall, explaining that project designers left extra room around trunks on and near the walkway to allow for windy day-swaying and future growth.

Reforestation is another element of the Whiting Forest project and includes the planting of 3,000 native trees and shrubs to replace those lost to the Emerald Ash Borer and other invasive species.

While researching the treetop project, the Whitings were impressed with “Out on a Limb,” the canopy walkway at the University of Pennsylvania’s Morris Arboretum in Philadelphia. They hired the same architect, Metcalfe Architecture and Design. Landscaping was done by Jonathan Alderson Landscape, also of Philadelphia.

And the Canopy Walk has exceeded expectations, Mike Whiting says.

“Every once in a while you have a project where everything seems to go right, everything comes out better than you expect,” he says.

Since 95 percent of the construction work was done by local companies, he points out, “the workers are motivated, they really put their heart and soul into it, and it shows in the quality of the work.”

The attraction is so first-rate, he says, that it should draw visitors from all around Michigan and the Great Lakes region “and, really, all over the country. I think it really is that special.”

Elizabeth Lumbert, director of Dow Gardens, and Mike Whiting, president of the Herbert H. And Grace A. Dow Foundation,  enjoy the view from a small bridge in the new Canopy Walk in Dow Gardens' Whiting Forest in Midland.

And that’s in keeping with a project goal — expanding the audience base at Dow Gardens, which draws 140,000 visitors annually, says Elizabeth Lumbert, gardens director. The main gardens are located just across the street from Whiting Forest and will be connected by a pedestrian walkway. A second pedestrian bridge leads to the Grace A. Dow Memorial Library, also with additional parking.

Weather permitting, the Canopy Walk will be open all winter, Bagnall says. In summer, water misters installed above the large cargo nets on the Spruce Arm, 35 feet above ground, will provide relief from the heat — a feature project designers hope will entice visitors to not only climb on the netting but lie back and gaze up at the clouds.

Shel and Rita Stark of Ann Arbor couldn’t stop smiling during a recent Canopy Walk preview. They were so impressed with the workmanship, design and simple fun that they promptly sent photos to their 6- and 8-year-old grandsons in New York.

“They are really going to be excited by the netting, both the long swaying bridge and the area where you can jump up and down,” says Stark, a mediator and arbitrator who found negotiating the bridge both exhilarating and intense. “You felt so ungrounded and yet it was totally safe.”

And Rita Stark, a quilter, says she experienced a “sense of reverence for nature” perched high in the trees.

“When we looked down at the reflection of the forest in the pond, it was magical,” she says. “It was just fantastic.”

A worker walks past the orchard on one of the walks made of recycled tires.

If you want to go

What: Whiting Forest at Dow Gardens, 2203 Eastman Ave., Midland

Admission: Entry to Whiting Forest and the Canopy Walk is included in Dow Garden admission. A yearly pass is $10 per person; daily admission is adults, $5; youths ages 6-17 and college students, $1; children 5 and under, free.

Hours: 9 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. daily in fall; 9 a.m. to 4:15 p.m., Nov. 1-April 14; 9 a.m. to 8:30 p.m., April 15-Labor Day. Weather permitting, the Canopy Walk will be open year-round.

Information: (989) 631-2677;

Etc.: During the grand opening week, Oct. 7-14, special experiences include the debut of the Whiting Forest Café in the former lodge; outdoor photo and exploration stations, scavenger hunts and a display detailing the construction process.