Aug 222013

The Smalley Family tests one of the new tent camping sites in Oak Openings’ new White Oak Campground. Chris Smalley, park services supervisor for Providence, Farnsworth, and Blue Creek, took this photo as his family enjoyed an evening at the new campground. “We had a great time camping,” Smalley said. “The girls loved it and I learned that I’m not too old to play freeze tag. The crew at Oak Openings has done a nice job.” The campground opens officially to the public on Labor Day Weekend, visit to make reservations. PHOTO COURTESY OF CHRIS SMALLEY

BY ART WEBER | MIRROR OUTDOOR EDITOR — When the calendar turns to September family camping will be back in the Metroparks for the first time in over a decade. The reason it’s back is rooted in disaster. One horrible night a little more than three years ago, a tornado ripped through the southern sector of the preserve, knocked forests down, twisted things into unrecognizable forms. Death and destruction was left in its path. Among the losses in the preserve was the Mid-Point Camp on the Oak Openings Parkway near the Lodge. Called Mid-Point because of its location near the halfway mark on the 15-mile hiking trail, it happened that there was no one in the camp that night of the tornado. The next morning both park crews and Mother Nature began the healing process. Trails were reopened, huge blowdowns were removed. It wasn’t long before new growth pushed its way up among the littered trees. By the next growing season a big patch of a state-listed species – old field blue toadflax – took hold in a spot not far from Jeffers Road. A spot where they’d never been seen before. It was the first evidence – the first bit of hope – that the loss of forest would be replaced by the unique flora of the Oak Openings. But, heading into the fourth summer season after the tornado, the Mid-Point Camp still stood silent. “We had a meeting to discuss what it would take to reopen the campground,” Russ Maneval, park operations supervisor at Oak Openings, said. “We were three years into the shutdown and we were trying to look at the big picture, thinking about all the options. “Marty Overholt (Metroparks’ maintenance planning coordinator) suggested using a different site, the White Oak Picnic Area.” White Oak, located just east of the old scout camp and also on the Oak Openings Parkway, has long been the most overlooked picnic area in Oak Openings Preserve. The relatively small area is overshadowed, especially, by Mallard Lake, as well as Springbrook and Evergreen Lakes. Not that White Oak isn’t loaded with assets. It’s snuggled in a beautiful woodland standing high between two swales and on a low ridge that slopes gently down to the wide floodplain of Swan Creek. The floodplain below is bounded by woodland, featuring a good-sized manicured recreation field and well-established tallgrass prairie. A nice open picnic shelter was improved long ago, and modern flush restrooms were a major upgrade just a few years ago. “The idea of converting White Oak to a campground was born of the effort to reopen the scout camp,” Russ said. “But White Oak already had the improved restrooms, the play area, and the setting. It represented the perfect opportunity to experience camping in the Oak Openings and it also was a chance to open it as a campground open to the public as well as scouts.” Formal planning started in February. All the planning and work comes to fruition when the camp opens Friday, August 30. “We’ve got the potential to be open every day of the week, every week of the year,” Russ said. “We’re set up to take reservations on smart phones or on our web site, Or they can call our offices. Reservations are made just like on any other facility we rent. “Reservations should be made at least 48 hours in advance, but we’ll always try to take care of visitors inside that 48 hour window. We know there will be out-of-town visitors who are looking on short notice for an overnight site. Rangers will try to accommodate them.” Ten sites are ready to go. Eight individual sites have been established, along with two group sites. The individual sites can handle up to two tents and six to eight people. Group sites can handle up to five tents each, 25 to 30 people. Rates are $20.00 for individual sites, $30.00 for group. Firewood is provided. “All of the sites are private settings,” Russ said. “They’re designed to enhance the visitor experience. Tucked into the trees so no one feels they’re on top of the neighbor.” The camp isn’t about making a profit. “It’s about providing an opportunity to experience overnight tent camping in the Metroparks and, specifically, the Oak Openings Region. It’s a chance for us to serve another user group.” Every member of the family is welcome, including the dog so long as it’s controlled on a leash. All that’s asked is for the dog’s name, breed, and sex to appear on the registration. Everyone from the rangers and field staff all the way up to Metropark Director Steve Madewell’s office is excited about the project. Steve has given it his enthusiastic seal of approval. If the campground is successful there are already plans on paper to add seven more sites. “This is the perfect use for that site,” Russ said. “It’s a win-win situation. “White Oak was very underused as a picnic area. We’ve got heated flush toilets, a dishwashing station with heated city water, gray water disposal site, picnic tables, fire rings, firewood – everything for a great tenting experience.” Hikers will love that there’s easy access to the 15-mile hiking trail. Not to worry, though, you aren’t required to hike the whole thing. What you won’t find are spots for RVs and camping trailers. This is about having a close-to-nature tent camping experience – with some welcome amenities and the advantage of nearby supplies. “You’re only 10 minutes away from the village of Whitehouse, 15 from Swanton,” Russ said. Yet you feel like you’re 100 miles from home, immersed in nature. It’s poised for success. Though scouts and other youth groups have continued to use Oak Openings for overnight camping, family camping was phased out of the park district over a decade ago. Forty years ago Secor Metropark had a half dozen or so tent sites in the woodland north of Lone Oak Picnic Area that were rarely used. They were phased out in the early 1970s. Farnsworth Metropark had a family campground along the Maumee River upstream from the boat launch but usage faded as the noise of truck traffic increased along the old US 24, significantly degrading the camping experience. That campground was closed in the early 2000s. Russ doesn’t think that’s going to happen at White Oak. “I think this is going to be a hit,” he said. Others do, too. It’s not lost on Metropark staff that with the opening of the new US 24 the old campground at Farnsworth is quiet again. Thoughts are turning to the possibilities for all that wonderful frontage along the Maumee River. Stay tuned.