Detroiters try ice climbing at Pictured Rocks during Michigan Ice Fest

A bus full of Detroiters arrived at Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula for the five-day Michigan Ice Fest, held Feb. 8-13. Participants learned how to ice climb, went hiking and dog sledding, and met other outdoor enthusiasts. 

The trip was sponsored by Detroit OutdoorsBus for Outdoor Access & Teaching (BOAT), and other nonprofits that work to get people outdoors. The trip was geared toward BIPOC Detroiters interested in furthering their outdoor experiences, and a BOAT bus provided the transportation from Detroit to Munising. 

The trip marked the culminating excursion of a year-long partnership between Detroit Outdoors and Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore—supported by a grant from the National Park Trust—to bring Detroiters to the area, said Garrett Dempsey, program director of Detroit Outdoors. This partnership has also included taking Detroit Parks & Recreation staff to Pictured Rocks, as well as taking a Hamtramck High School group on a backpacking trip there.

Aside from staff, none of the 28 participants in the Detroit group had ever ice climbed before. Ice climbing is somewhat like rock climbing—you use tools and ropes to climb a vertical surface—but the surface is a wall of ice rather than rock. 

Participant Erma Leaphart-Gouch said this wasn’t just her first time ice climbing—it was her first time even thinking about ice climbing. Before she went, when she told people her plans, some warned her not to do it. “I’m 68. And they were like, ‘Do you have a death wish?’” she said. But she knew instructors would be there to guide her. 

Leaphart-Gouch said climbing was tricky at first until she got the hang of the technique. “But when I did it right, it was just wonderful. First, the sense of accomplishment—I did it. And second, it’s empowering, and it’s fun.”

The group ranged in age and included some kids, whose eyes may have been opened by the experience, Leaphart-Gouch said. “They’re going to be asking their parents: ‘Where are we going next? What’s the next big thing?’ And I just think that’s beautiful.”

Photo courtesy Garrett Dempsey

Candace Calloway, a leader with Outdoor Afro Detroit, joined the trip as an individual participant and brought her sister along. She had been rock climbing before, but not ice climbing. It was less like rock climbing than she expected, so it was a learning process. But, once she got it, she said, “It was exhilarating.” 

Calloway said she appreciated being able to connect with other climbers, including some who came all the way from Tennessee, as well as the locals. She had never been to Munising, and she thinks the small-town location was a new experience for some participants. “Most of us, when you’re from Detroit, you’re not used to such a small town,” she said. 

“There was also not a lot of Black people out there,” Calloway said. “It was nice to engage with the people who live there locally, because it kind of broke down some of those biases that I had in my mind. I had a perception of people who were living in the U.P., and it was nice to be allowed to go out and have some experiences to break down those perceptions.” 

She said others in the Detroit Outdoors group shared that they could see themselves coming back to the area, and they talked about how to get other people to be less nervous about trying something like this. 

“Some people [who attended] didn’t even climb,” Calloway said. “They just came because they had never been that far north. They just came because they had never been with other Black people out in the outdoors, or they were scared to go alone.” 

Photo courtesy Garrett Dempsey.

Transportation is a significant barrier for youth-serving organizations, Dempsey said. BOAT addresses that need, but it also helps support participants. “The organization and staff are really intentional about connecting folks with these spaces and recognizing that for many folks, for a variety reasons, whether it’s socioeconomic or cultural, some things have kept them from easily accessing these places,” Dempsey said. 

The most meaningful part of the trip may not be the ice climbing, Dempsey said. Maybe the participants will ice climb again, and maybe they won’t –more important is the connection with nature.

It’s important “for people to get outside with a small group of people they can build relationships with. That’s where you see the mental health benefits, the physical health benefits,” said Micah Leinbach, executive director of BOAT. “That is what really matters—whether that’s ice climbing, whether that’s hiking, whether that’s fishing at your local park, whether that’s getting on a bike, we’re trying to enable all of that.” 

The partnership has been crucial for connecting Detroiters with public lands in the state that they may not have had access to in the past, according to Dempsey. 

“We really believe in the idea of public lands, whether it’s national forests or national parks, or state lands, or a city park in Detroit,” Dempsey said. “That land is there for all of us to enjoy together.”


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