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Ahee

World-class park just down the street


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Belle Isle's aquarium. photo by Renee Landuyt.

August 21, 2014
Welcome back to Belle Isle, where a mini vacation is awaiting.

Young and old can enjoy the outdoors through a variety of activities. The list is extensive and the pace guests choose to enjoy Michigan's 102 state park is up to them.

For those with energy to burn, play a game of tennis, racquet ball, soccer or softball, jog the perimeter of the island set in the Detroit River. Other guests may want to relax in the newly installed chairs by the Scott Memorial Fountain or recline on the beach or near one of the 19 picnic shelters. With time to spare, guests can wander through the nature zoo, aquarium, conservatory or lighthouse. Also, there are four spots from which to drop a fishing line.

With such a variety of activities, the 985-acre island park attracts a mixed population.

"Everyone comes out," said Belle Isle Park Supervisor Joseph Hall. "They come from all over the world. They come from all over the country and Canada and the city of Detroit. It's a very diverse crowd that comes."

Catering to the diversity of guests, the park staff, summer employees and law enforcement have a lot of ground to cover.

Facilities include:

• picnic areas,

• casino,

• Dossin Great Lakes Museum,

• the nature zoo,

• aquarium,

• Anna Scripps Whitcomb Conservatory,

• athletic field,

• a giant slide,

• a swimming beach,

• the Scott Memorial Foundation,

• fishing sites,

• playgrounds,

• paddling,

• biking and walking trails,

• handball courts,

• tennis courts,

• baseball and soccer fields,

• basketball courts and

• the Livingston Memorial Lighthouse.

Six months ago the state leased the park from Detroit for 30 years with options of two 15-year renewals. Detroit maintains ownership, but the state manages it and provides three law enforcement organizations, the Michigan State Police, the state conservation officers and the park rangers.

The state converged on the park, made, and continues to make, improvements to the land, structures and infrastructure.

"We are concentrating on what's in the public's eye," Hall said, pointing out 12 of 17 public rest rooms have been renovated and reopened. The casino building has been upgraded, the welcome center set up and the conservatory renovations include repair of leaky pipes and replacment of windows.

But that doesn't mean the infrastructure is ignored.

"We are working on the drainage system, redesigning the drainage and separating the storm and sewage systems. We must take care of that before we take care of the above ground," he said.

In the seven-page July report, Hall breaks down the work efforts by staff, contractors and volunteers into beach restoration projects, general park maintenance and operations, landmark restorations, shelter improvements and notes that 200 hazardous trees have been removed.

Private vendors have been contracted for food concessions, kayak and canoe rentals and carriage rides.

André DuCharme's passion is Detroit history and for a fee he will take you around the island in his one-of-a-kind electric carriage. The three-quarter ton white carriage holds six passengers who learn Belle Isle, or Hog Island, was once under the Pottawotamis' control, according to the Belle Isle Conservancy's website. Several owners took possession of the island over the years from 1768 until 1879 when Detroit purchased it. Along the way, it was renamed Belle Isle after territorial governor Lewis Cass' daughter, Isabelle. Detroit purchased the property for nearly $200,000 from Barnabas Campeau's descendants, turning it into a park with access by ferry. Ferry service continued through 1957. Access was also available via a wooden bridge built in 1889, however, it burned 16 years later and a concrete bridge constructed in 1923, named in honor of Gen. Douglas MacArthur. Two years later, the Scott Fountain was completed.

On the average, Hill said, it takes eight to 16 hours to keep the fountain operating, clean, water level corrections made and chemical checked.

"It's basically a giant swimming pool. We check every couple hours to make sure the pumps aren't over heating," he said.

The old golf course has reopened for disc golf and is available noon to 8 p.m. during the week and 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. on the weekends with a cost of $4.

Lighthouse restorations are underway. The marble lighthouse, built in 1929 with private donations, has been cleaned and joints replaced, Hall said.

Athletic fields are run by Come Play in Detroit with softball and kickball leagues formed and talks are underway to set up a rugby league.

If organized team sports are not your thing, there are miles of biking and hiking trails.

Hall said he is working on a grant to improve the paved hiking trail and remove the invasive plant species.

"There are so many other things to be done," he said. "We have been here six months and we are constantly going."

Along with the paid staff, Hall has five different volunteer groups assisting with landscaping and trash pick-up of the 1,000 newly-installed trash containers.

"This is a beautiful park. Where else can you sit on the beach and view the Detroit skyline or see a fountain and visit a conservatory?" Hall said. "I get to go in every day, provide experiences for everyone. My job is to provide a safe and clean place, to provide memories, provide a place to form memories."

A recreation passport to visit the island is required and can be purchased by checking "yes" on the license plate renewal form or at the welcome station. For more information,

visit michigan.gov/

recreationpassport.

Hours are 5 a.m. and 10 p.m.

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