From State Parks to Amusement Parks: Detroit ICO's Adventures in Camping

Huddled around a picnic table in the woods of Muskegon State Park, 9 young campers laid out plans to set up the space they would call home for a couple of days.

They had just traveled four hours from the Fauver Martin Boys and Girls Club of Highland Park--the unofficial headquarters and main partner of Detroit Inspiring Connections Outdoors.

Within minutes of their arrival mosquitos descended, seeking every patch of skin they could reach. Smacks rang out as the swatting began, and nearly everyone was in agreement: “Last year wasn’t this bad.”

All but two of the teens had past experience with trips like this. The Detroit ICO chair, Garrett Dempsey, and Club director Jeanette Kwiatkowski have been taking Boys and Girls Club members on outings together for three years. Single day field trips (held once a month), weekly Nature Club meetings, and a handful of longer, more adventurous outings for older youth -- camping, skiing, paddling, or rock climbing -- (about four over the course of a year) keep everyone busy. As the last remaining ICO program in Michigan, Detroit ICO seeks to cover as much ground as possible.

At 19, TJ Harrison is the oldest youth member in the Club; he remembers when the idea for these trips was born. “Mr. Garrett came to [us] one day with an idea about going camping. He was really excited about it so I said ‘Why not?’ It was something different, I never did it before, and I just said ‘Let’s do it!’ Now I go every year.”

Garrett explains that ICO’s goal in working with the Boys and Girls Club is “to foster an outdoor ethic [...] that the youth would not likely find in their day to day, urban life.” Highland Park is situated smack dab in the center of Detroit, boxed in on all sides by the city’s sprawl -- certainly not the most convenient location for outdoor exploration. Undaunted, however, “Mr. Garrett” and “Ms. Jeanette" (as they’re known at Fauver Martin), work to make sure that kids and families involved with the Club can come to expect outdoor experiences as an option consistently available to them.

Garrett and Jeanette also work to make sure that these kids and their families can expect their voices to be heard and their input to be valued in the process of tailoring ICO programming.

This outing to Muskegon, for example, was participant-driven from beginning to end. Every activity and every meal -- even the camp location -- was at one point the suggestion of a teen (often Gabby Struthers, a youth member whose planning was instrumental to the trip’s success), and Garrett was quick to give them credit.

“They set the vision for the trip,” he insisted. “I stepped in to finalize details.”

These young people are used to taking the lead--they are all members of the Keystone Club, a group at Fauver Martin that teens can join to organize community service projects.

Garrett frequently extends opportunities for the teens to actively shape their outdoor experiences as well, which speaks not only to the trust that he places in them but to the teens’ investment and commitment.


Detroit ICO participants discuss rules and goals for their camping trip.

Before they left for Muskegon, Garrett gathered the group around a pad of paper for another of these opportunities. “Let’s talk,” he began, sketching out a backpack on the blank sheet, “about what we want to take with us and what we want to leave behind.”

The equipment, food, and bags had already been loaded into the vehicles -- he was speaking, instead, about less material luggage.

“Sometimes we carry this extra stuff around with us and don’t even realize it. To make this the best trip possible let’s try to be intentional about what stays and goes.”

“Bad attitude” was one of the first responses from the teens.

“Take it or leave it?” Garrett asked, hand hovering over the page.

A chorus of “leave its” sent the phrase to the side, barred from accompanying the group.

“Patience” was next.

“Take!” In it went, at the very top of the backpack.

Debbie Downers. Cooperation. Grit. Humor. Selfishness. Initiative.

Before long the teens had generated a list of ideas a mile long. Satisfied with their choices, they added their signatures to certify the agreement and then hurried to the cars. It was time to head out.



Detroit ICO participants unpack all of their equipment at the campsite.

Upon reaching the campsite, the group--tired, hungry, sore from the drive, and covered in fresh bites--discussed the plan for the afternoon.

There was a lot on the agenda. It was all hands on deck to get the camp assembled as the group, broken into teams, tackled unpacking, tent construction, sandwich making, and locating a water source.


The next hour or so went smoothly--it was clear that most of them had done this before. They were so comfortable, in fact, and so confident in their skills, that they raced to get their tents up--boys versus girls. The girls won.

Gabrielle Struthers joins other Detroit ICO participants in an archery competition.

The competitive spirit that they fostered in the campsite would have a chance to grow later on. After a good portion of the work was done everyone folded themselves back into the cars and headed to the nearby sports complex for a bit of outdoor recreation.


Once there they were offered lessons and instruction in archery and luging (a high speed winter sport that looks very much like competitive sledding). The teens were admirably unintimidated by the newness of the experience; they enjoyed challenging themselves to use the unfamiliar equipment and to master proper stance.



David Taylor rushes down the luge track at a sports complex.



Detroit ICO participants set out on a scavenger hunt.Later, when the sporting portion of the afternoon was over, they took part in one more activity -- unlocking the series of scavenger hunt boxes hidden in the area.


This last activity differed from the others in what it evoked in the group; while the first portion of the day’s recreation was entertaining for the teens, it seemed that the scavenger hunt’s less structured opportunities to interact with their surroundings offered them something that earlier activities did not: adventure.

“I like the adventure part of [being outside],” declared LaShand Taylor as she scanned the trees for a scavenger hunt box. LaShand, one of the most enthusiastic teens, is always engaged. Her next sentence was accompanied by a grin that could only be described as anticipatory. “You never know what’s gonna happen.”


LaShand’s brother David, similarly curious and enamored of observation, echoed some of that sentiment. “I’m adventurous, so I love this. Just discovering everything, seeing all that’s out here--it’s just amazing that this is how the world is. Bugs, birds, everything in nature.”

Detroit ICO participants gather to discuss plans on their scavenger hunt.“Adventure” was a word on so many tongues, and it extended beyond the boundaries of the scavenger hunt to become a thread that ran throughout the entirety of the trip.

In their free time at the campsite many of the teens took the opportunity to navigate their space. They gathered in small groups and made their way into the trees and up sand dunes. These treks led to some noteworthy discoveries: a small beach, a shortcut to the park’s stunning blockhouse, and a small, tree-ringed clearing at the top of some dunes where they took in the night sky and Lake Michigan’s distant roars.

When asked how their hikes went JaVaughn Turner (arguably the quietest of the bunch) surprised a few by stopping to make a correction. “I don’t want to call it hiking.” There was, apparently, a better word to use. “Exploring,” he offered. “Adventuring.”

“It feels like you’re the first person to discover it, doesn’t it?” Jeanette reflected, smiling. “It’s like finding gold.”



Garrett Dempsey and Andreya Thomas set up the campfire before dinner.Independent adventure featured heavily in this trip. But there was room (and need) for collaboration as well. Nowhere was this better witnessed than around the campfire and at portable stoves.

The teens weren’t the most experienced when it came to cooking, especially over a large fire and for a large group. That first night they learned a lesson in timing. The appetizer burned, dinner wasn’t ready until 10:30, and dishes had to be washed in the dark.

But a less tenacious, less close-knit group might not have been able to make it happen at all.

The next morning brought another challenge: rain. Together the team working on breakfast prep constructed a temporary shelter from rope and tarp, guarding both the chefs and the food.

Mealtimes reliably drew the teens together.  

Detroit ICO participants make breakfast at their campsite.

Andreya Thomas (the group’s youngest teen at 13, and the first camping newcomer), Daysha Harrison (TJ’s younger sister), and Martez Martin (the other camping newbie) stood around the portable stoves on the last night of the trip, sipping tea, stirring pots of spaghetti, and testing one another’s knowledge of their lives.


“What’s his middle name, then?”


“Alright, who’s her boyfriend?”


“Yeah? What’s my favorite color?”  



Two Detroit ICO participants lead their group on a kayaking trip.Get-to-know-you conversations and team-building games frequently centered around these spaces, but group bonding also came about in an unexpected place: on the water. The morning’s activity was kayaking, a tried-and-true crowd-pleaser among these teens.

At first glance, no one would guess that kayaking could facilitate much collaboration or group work. Apart from Garrett and Martez, who took on a canoe together, the group members were each situated in their own, individual kayaks.


Asia Jones volunteered to lead the way. She sped ahead, completely comfortable on the water, and the others followed.


After a few minutes the teens grew even farther apart, some drifting in the back and some putting serious strength behind their paddles. Martez wanted to see the bright flowers atop lily pads, Andreya experimented with her strokes, and TJ tipped his head back and watched the sky, commenting that when he’s paddling he prefers to “just relax.”

Garrett Dempsey and Martez Martin paddle by in a canoe.
The gaps became more pronounced. A passerby might have mistaken them for several, separate parties if it weren’t for two things: one, their signals to one another (head tapping, arms moving, thumbs up, etc.) and two, their checkpoints.


Before they left the dock they had designated these checkpoints along their route. When one of these spots came up, the teens needed to reconvene. This was often a rough process punctuated by grumbles--some people pulled up too quickly, others nearly clipped neighbors with their paddle or dripped water on their heads. Fine motions aren’t easy in a kayak.


“Watch it!”


“I said to slow down!”


Any frustration that may have been felt wasn’t much of an obstacle to the teens’ cohesion, though. Someone almost always extended a hand to steady another person or to pull their kayak in more closely to the group. In most cases it was almost an unconscious process--most reached out without looking and with the foresight that only familiarity can produce.



Detroit ICO participants gather together on the water in their kayaks.


Detroit ICO participants jump over Lake Michigan's waves.

If familiarity was the theme of the morning, the afternoon’s trip to the dunes represented just the opposite.


The lake looms large in Michigan, literally and figuratively. It defines the state in ways that go beyond just demarcation of physical boundaries--Michigan’s history, culture, and even its economy have been shaped in part by the existence of that freshwater. And yet, for all of its presence in many people’s mental maps of Michigan it hadn’t yet been pertinent to the teens’.


None of them had seen the lake before, much less stepped foot in its notoriously chilly water. It was what had brought them out to this part of the state.


Asia Jones buries her friends in the sand along Lake Michigan.There, on the edge of the water, they were buoyant in every sense of the word.

They sat in the path of wave after wave, letting themselves sway and bob. When the foamy surf rolled in some leapt to escape its reach and others let it lap at their ankles until they were rooted beneath wet sand.

When they were done in the water they buried themselves in the dunes, ensuring, in the process, that little pieces of Lake Michigan--tucked under their fingernails, dusting their hair, pressed into their shoes’ soles--would come home with them the next day.




Detroit ICO participants meditate on the shores of Lake Michigan.


Campsite at Muskegon State Park.The last morning arrived quickly.

Dismantling the camp was harder than putting it together. Sleeping bags didn’t quite fit into their sacks anymore, the hook meant to uproot tent stakes briefly went missing, and, though it was technically impossible, the equipment seemed to have multiplied. Everything eventually made it back into the cars, and the group performed a final sweep of the campsite for trash that they might have missed.

Finding none, they stopped at the picnic table that, an hour before, had held breakfast, and sat for a moment of reflection.

The idea was to share thoughts and favorite moments that defined the trip or that were meaningful. Recognizing those things and being in the present, Garrett suggested, was important.

In an almost perfectly inverted replication of the “packing” process that took place before leaving the Boys and Girls Club parking lot, he prompted the group to consider how they would remember it--what they would carry home.

Some thanked Garrett and Jeanette for making the arrangements and for giving them the freedom to create their own experiences. Others said that the dunes were the highlight of the trip. And still others expressed excitement for something that was yet to come: Michigan’s Adventure.



A trip to an amusement park might not be the most conventional way to round off a weekend of camping, and it certainly wasn’t a natural setting in the same way that the campground or the dunes had been but, strangely enough, it was a good fit for this outing.

Inspiring Connections Outdoors is committed to facilitating access to outdoor recreational opportunities, and spending time at Michigan’s Adventure certainly was an outdoor recreational opportunity--one that the teens otherwise would not have been able to enjoy. Much like their recent “adventures” in Michigan, the group’s trip to Michigan’s Adventure required time, transportation, and funding; the amusement park’s distance and price of admission often prevent them from visiting.

So this last leg of the journey was certainly a bonus, or as TJ described it, “the icing on the cake.”

Detroit ICO participants pose in front of a Snoopy statue at Michigan's Adventure.

By the end of the day they had drifted in water, basked in sun, and left as content as they had been upon leaving the lake.

“That was straight,” Martez decided, easing back into Garrett’s truck with a worn out smile.



When they pulled into the Boys and Girls Club parking lot late that night the group had travelled over 400 miles, round trip. A handful of stiff joints and achy muscles bore testament to the distance they had covered.

Journeying far from home can be and has been an incredible means for Detroit ICO to conduct outings--there are wondrous things to experience outside of one’s comfort zone. However, this year the group’s focus will turn to developing more local opportunities for outdoor connection.

The biggest and most exciting project on the horizon? A collaborative effort between Detroit ICO and Nearby Nature to reactivate Scout Hollow, a local campground in Rouge Park (Detroit’s largest park). Garrett is looking forward to seeing this space give the city’s youth an opportunity to create their own relationships with nature and the outdoors, right in their backyard.

“I grew up in a city--in an urban space, but I had an opportunity to both connect and enjoy nature in my city as well as outside of my city. Those early experiences I had created a lifelong relationship with nature. And that’s one of the most important relationships I have in my life. It has enriched my life in so many ways. I see in Detroit--in that section of Rouge Park--this amazing space to help connect lots of other kids with nature. And maybe it’ll mean something to them and be positive for them as it has been positive for me.


Inspiring Connections Outdoors contributes to the creation of more equitable outdoor environments by connecting youth from communities historically marginalized in the outdoor and environmental movement with outdoor activities that promote wellness, connection, and leadership. If you’d like to be part of the ICO family you can find information about how to get involved
here or on the Meetup app, or you can contact the team via email ( If you’d like to support Detroit ICO, you can send a gift their way and receive a gift in return: a copy of James Mills’ incredible book, The Adventure Gap. Follow all of the Detroit ICO adventures on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram!  

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