The young Mike Whiting explored the forests, fields and ponds of his family's property in Midland, Michigan, sometimes eyeing it from aloft in its trees. Once, he said, he even tumbled out of a mature white pine.
The grown Macauley (Mike) Whiting, Jr., president of the Herbert H. and Grace A. Dow Foundation named for and established by his great-grandparents, is helping to share, in thrilling ways, the special setting with people from throughout the world. Perceived (as opposed to real) risk is part of the plan.
A $20 million, four-year effort, the creation of the Canopy Walk and other features at Whiting Forest of Dow Gardens is the Foundation's largest project ever, which officially opened to the public in early-October 2018.
Stepping Up, Up and Away
Imagination and adventure take flight, as it were, on the new, 1,400-foot Canopy Walk. At a quarter-mile the nation's longest, it reaches up four stories into the red pines and other trees. There, cargo nets beg young and old to dive in, wooden pods beckon all to duck inside, panoramic pond overlooks suggest that one pause for reflection, and transparent floors and other thrills await.
Three elevated walkway arms extend into the woods: the Spruce Arm bears the tree-supported cargo net, the Pond Arm a tranquil overlook, and the Orchard Arm a glass overlook 40 feet above the ground.
Besides the Canopy Walk, Whiting Forest of Dow Gardens features two pedestrian bridges, an expansive Playground, Café, Outdoor Amphitheater, Forest Classroom, and orchards re-established where Herbert H. Dow, founder of The Dow Chemical Company, tended his own more than 100 years ago. (Indeed, one of H.H. Dow's trees still stands and bears fruit there.)
The project's 1.5 miles of trails (re)link Whiting Forest and the horticultural Dow Gardens, each a bit more than 50 acres, and both Foundation properties. They're also connected to the Grace A. Dow Memorial Library, owned by the City of Midland.
That's adult stuff.
Come here, instead, to venture out as a kid again. There are hills on which to tumble, a playground in which to mess with water and what-not, walkways that sway and set to chattering clusters of steel rods - all in a setting that celebrates sky and trees, water and fields.
And, save extra time for that 13,600 square-foot playground. Along with a water feature that practically demands interaction, there are structures to climb up, over, into and through, as the young spirit moves you, plus swings and a slide. The entire family will enjoy a water fountain, picnic tables and comfortable seating.
The Canopy Walk itself is accessed through a single gate, making it easier for families to keep track of their members as they wander through the trees together.
At ground level, a porous rubber paved walkway is friendly to both the environment and visitor. Steps rise to walkways poised on steel pillars. Although built to barrier-free standards of the Americans with Disability Act (ADA), they sway to the footsteps and shenanigans of visitors, matching, in a way, the gently swaying pines and other trees through which they pass.
Those trees (mostly red pine, along with white pine, maple, oaks, beech and birch) were wrapped to protect them from damage during construction, and just six were felled to make room for improvements.
Additional young white pine, white oak and sugar maple trees have been planted, ready to take over as red pines complete their life cycles. Meanwhile, the banks of Snake Creek, flowing through the forest, were re-established with nearly 3,000 native trees and shrubs.
Recreation & Play, by Design
The Canopy Walk, Playground and other Whiting Forest features were designed by Metcalfe Design, a Pennsylvania firm that had created a smaller canopy walk there that impressed Whiting and others intrigued with the concept. Architect/designer Alan Metcalfe, the firm's principal, oversaw both the Pennsylvania and Whiting Forest projects.
Metcalfe is a specialist in immersive experiences, "sensitive to the subject of how people interact in the world," he says. His designs foster social interaction, physical challenge, perceived risk, and engagement with nature.
"We don't want to tell them what to do," Metcalfe said of visitors young and old. "We want to give them a venue in which to do it."
"Ninety percent of adults can't remember what it's like to be a kid," Metcalfe says, and so he designed a place and experience to remind them. And it's open to all; of visitors in wheelchairs, Metcalfe noted, "You're 40 feet above the ground, in a wheelchair, and that's pretty cool. You're usually stuck on the ground."
A Touch of Home
"This is personal to me," Mike Whiting said to a group of journalists getting a Whiting Forest sneak peek. "This is the home I grew up in, and this was an awesome place to be a kid."
(Blogger's note: It still is, regardless of the kid's age!)
That Whiting home itself, designed -- and enlarged, as the Whiting family grew -- by Whiting's uncle, noted Midland architect Alden B. Dow -- has been repurposed into a Visitor Center, preserving the exterior while converting the interior for new uses.
"This," Whiting said of the meeting space within which a few dozen people were gathered, "was our living room."
"And a room that was my bedroom," he said later, "is now a public bathroom."
"It's a little weird," he said with a laugh, "but I'm dealing with it."
When Whiting became president of the Foundation 4 ½ years earlier, he launched a search for a project, "something big."
He landed on creating from his family's home a place where all kinds of people would flourish amidst nature. "We want to get people out in the woods. There's just something good for the soul to be out in the woods." He aimed for something that would provide the adrenaline rush of a theme park, he said, "but then you get the benefit of being outdoors."
Nearly all of the construction contractors and their crews were Midland-based, Whiting said, praising their craftsmanship and commitment. "They blew it out of the park." Architect Metcalfe added a compliment of his own: "Romance with craft is not that easy to find. It's here."
"It's going to be beautiful in all four seasons," says Elizabeth Lumbert, Dow Gardens director. Indeed, it had its own diffused-light charm on a misty fall morning, when media got a sneak preview.
Whiting Forest, like Dow Gardens, is open year-round, closing only for Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year's Day. The Canopy Walk will otherwise close only when ice renders trails temporarily unsafe. (Hours shift through the year; find updates here.)
Admission covers both Whiting Forest of Dow Gardens and Dow Gardens itself. An annual pass is $10 this year, rising to $20 on January 1, 2019. Daily options include adults, $5; kids ages 6-17, $1; ages 5 and under, free; and students with ID, $1. One-hour guided tours of Whiting Forest are offered for just an additional $2, reservations required.
"A Forest Like No Other"
That's the project's subtitle, and its driving force, says Mike Whiting, is "love of nature. People spend too much time in front of their computer screens. We want to help get them out in the woods."
Or more specifically, his boyhood woods. Now, Whiting Forest Of Dow Gardens.