Get your head in the clouds: Whiting Forest welcomes adventure for all

Epiphanies often come with a change in perspective. Some of the most breathtaking perspectives often happen in nature.

With that in mind, the masterminds behind the recently completed canopy walk at Whiting Forest have delivered an entirely new perspective of Midland. Since the groundbreaking ceremony in June 2016, many have anticipated the reopening of Whiting Forest of Dow Gardens.

The highest point of the new canopy walk sits 40 feet off the ground and provides a stunning view.

With help from the Herbert H. and Grace A. Dow Foundation, the extensive $20 million project is now home to the longest canopy walk in the nation. The stats are quite impressive, at 1,400-feet long and 40 feet off the ground at the tallest point, the ADA accessible pathway overlooks 54 acres of forest trails, ponds, a playground, cafe, amphitheater, fire ring, an apple orchard – all part of an effort to make the most of this Midland relic. Increasing walkability and connectivity, two pedestrian bridges will connect the site to the rest of Dow Gardens property and Grace A. Dow Memorial Library.

(Video produced and filmed by Ben Tierney.)

After a tremendous amount of brainstorming, teamwork and sweat equity, Whiting Forest reopens to the public on October 7, 2018, giving visitors a true experience of adventure, wonder and awe. The space is now truly a multifunctional learning environment for all ages, with plenty of new programming planned.

The project required numerous local and national contributors. The team included 423 construction workers, 39 construction companies, 11 design firms including Metcalfe Architecture and Design and Jonathan Alderson Landscape Architects and involved a total of 80,000 construction hours.

Such measures were necessary in order to create sustainable features that preserve the integrity of the site as well as ensure long-term use and safety. These initiatives include not using salt to melt ice in areas where plants would be damaged by choosing a recycled rubber porous pave material for trails.

The most impressive statistic of them all is that a mere six trees were removed during the course of building the canopy walk, with 1,000 new trees planted and another 2,000 planned.

"There is just something innately good for you in a forest. It’s good for your soul," says Whiting.

The intentional care to create a sustainable, dynamic, forest experience is the direct result of the vision of Mike Whiting Jr. president of the Herbert H. and Grace A. Dow Foundation. Whiting had a strong desire to using Whiting Forest as a catalyst to connect with nature.

“The idea is to get people outside, away from computer screens and hectic lives,” says Whiting. "There is just something innately good for you in a forest. It’s good for your soul.”

Property History
The first piece of the Whiting Forest property was acquired by Herbert H. Dow, the founder of the Dow Chemical Company, and his wife Grace in 1905. Herbert’s favorite hobby was tending to the apple orchard on site. To irrigate the extensive orchard, he dug his own pond, which remains a beautiful feature of the forest today.

An inspiration for restoring the apple orchard on site was the fact that one of Herbert’s original apple trees still stands, producing a few apples each year even though it’s over 100 years old.

Ownership of the property passed to Willard and Martha Dow in 1939. Ten years later, the property passed to their daughter Helen Dow Whiting and her husband Macauley.

In 1947, Macauley and Helen Dow Whiting commissioned Helen’s uncle, Alden B. Dow, to design this home for their family. A classic example of mid-century modern architecture, it was enlarged a number of times over the years.

Mike Whiting Jr. discusses the renovations to the Whiting Forest Visitor Center, which was once his childhood home.

The Whiting’s took great efforts to create a beautiful home for their six children and continued the apple orchard. When they retired in 1980, the Whiting family donated the rest of the property to the community. Now owned by The Herbert H. and Grace A. Dow Foundation, it was opened to the public in 2004 as Whiting Forest. After a comprehensive restoration, the Whiting’s home, opened in 2018 as the new Whiting Forest Visitor Center.

Mike Whiting Jr. discusses his inspiration for the project at the entrance to the canopy walk.

Inspiration for a new age
When Mike Whiting was on the hunt for inspiration, the only thing he knew was that he wanted to bring more people into Whiting Forest and he wanted the focus to be mainly on one thing: nature for all.

“When conceptualizing the Whiting Forest project, we focused on how to bring that childhood experience to others and how to instill in people an appreciation of nature,” says Whiting.

Netting suspended 35 feet off the ground amongst a group of Spruce trees is one of the elements of risk and adventure.

That eventually led him to the University of Pennsylvania’s Morris Arboretum in Philadelphia, a permanent exhibit and hands-on experience that is a canopy walk among the trees. Determined that some aspect of that design would make its way back to Midland, Whiting went on to track down the design firm responsible – Metcalfe Architecture & Design.

Metcalfe Architecture & Design and Jonathan Alderson Landscape Architects of Philadelphia began developing plans for construction in the summer of 2014. On June 23, 2016 the project officially broke ground.

A bit of context for the scope of the Whiting Forest Canopy Walk might put things into perspective for how fortunate the Midland is to have these new amenities – The renovation of Whiting Forest is the largest project Metcalfe has ever done.

You can hear more from Alan Metcalfe here on inspiration for the design:

(Video credit: Produced by Whiting Forest and filmed by Dan Tuma Media.)

Project Details
Aside from being the longest in the world, the canopy walk includes safety features such as cargo net lining the floor of the spruce arm overlook that safely hold visitors as they float over the forest floor. There is also a single access point to enter the canopy walk that allows children to run at their pace throughout the walkway without parental concern. Kids want freedom, parents want safety, and the canopy walk design provides both!

A child at play in the new Whiting Forest Canopy Walk.

The experience isn’t designed to inherently feel safe at the first step, however. The walkway is intentionally engineered to move, shake and provide a bit of daring flexibility. The orange poles you’ll see throughout, netting and the different challenges positioned at different points are all moving or asking to be touched so they can. No worries on safety – the walkway was designed with the architecture of a bridge in mind, so despite any movement, you aren’t going anywhere.

The entire canopy walk and new paved trails are ADA accessible.

A principal architect on the project, Alan Metcalfe speaks to this design element: “The intersection of play, perceived risk and nature is what we are chasing as a vehicle to developing well-rounded children. Any place where a kid can feel they're the boss, where they can be braver than their parents—they're going to want to be there all the time."

There are three different nature experiences: the spruce arm overlook, the pond arm overlook, and the orchard arm overlook. The highest point of the canopy walk, the orchard arm overlook, features a clear glass floor that creates a sense of floating and perceived risk. A sheltered pavilion elevated 30 feet above a vernal pond protects from the rain and provides an idyllic view. Cargo netting suspended 35 feet high in a stand of spruce trees features a mist generator to cool visitors on hot days.

“Our design for Whiting Forest of Dow Gardens is dynamic,” says Metcalfe. “It combines physical, visual, and sensory elements to engage families and visitors of all ages in the experience of nature.”

Mike Whiting and Alan Metcalfe talk to a group of media representatives on how the project came together.

As if kids wouldn’t be entertained for hours with the canopy walk alone, Whiting Forest also features a 13,600-square-foot nature playground that is modeled after many the renovations you’ll see in the forest, so even little children aren’t left out. Features include a sandy beach, flowing water, slides, moveable chairs, a waterfall, places to slide, swing, hide, and roll downhill. A crowd favorite is the giant pod structure connected to a cargo net for climbing. Including all ages are swings and slide structures at different scales for toddlers and older children.

Metcalfe continues on this design element, "We wanted something kids feel is theirs, not ours. When kids have places to inhabit that adults cannot, it's a lot more enticing to them."

For adults, the project incorporated the Whiting Forest Cafe. Situated next to the nature playground, where parents and families can socialize while watching their children.

To establish a stronger connection between Dow Gardens and Whiting Forest, the design team worked with The Herbert H. and Grace A. Dow Foundation, Dow Gardens staff, and architect Alan Metcalfe, to prepare a comprehensive master plan that provides a variety of programming for the expanded garden. The forest classroom provides flexible indoor and outdoor spaces for arts and other programming.

Some of the history of Whiting Forest inside the new visitor center.

Unlike many destinations, the Visitor Center is worth noting as well. It is the restored and repurposed mid-century modern house donated to the public by Macauley and Helen Dow Whiting, and designed by master architect Alden B. Dow. It functions a hub leading to terraces, amphitheater and both bridges and includes functional rooms for special programs, classes and events.

The amphitheater is built into a hill that runs down to Snake Creek and provides the last portion of the ADA path access from Dow Gardens to Whiting Forest.

Snake Stream Restoration
With the expertise of Jonathan Alderson, Whiting Forest is restoring Snake Creek through habitat restoration, pedestrian circulation, and mitigation of the waterflow and erosion. The reason for the project is to address the destruction of the ash forest to connect people to plants, water, and wildlife. The diverse plantings include 19 various species of canopy trees native to Michigan that will help strengthen local wildlife and improve the regional ecology.

Jonathan Alderson talks more about the restoration of Snake Creek in this video:

(Video credit: Produced by Whiting Forest and filmed by Dan Tuma Media.)

Plan your visit!
Whiting Forest is a no brainer to add onto any weekend activity. Access to Whiting Forest and the canopy walk is included with admission to Dow Gardens. Yearly admission is $10 per person, valid one year through the month of purchase. Daily admission is $1 for kids 6-17 and for college students. Kids 5 and under are free and adults are $5.

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