Education, inspiration and stewardship in the Northwoods: North Lakeland Discovery Center
A place to learn, grow and connect to nature
Story and photos by Lori C. Adler
Enriching lives and connecting people to the Northwoods is the mission of North Lakeland Discovery Center. Based upon the care of the land, the passion of the director and staff, and the quality and breadth of the programming, the center is living up to its mission.
Located in Manitowish Waters, North Lakeland Discovery Center has a lot to offer. The 62 acres maintained by the center include forest, bog, lakeshore and riverside areas. Within those 62 acres is Statehouse Lake, a 21-acre seepage lake (meaning it has no inlet or outlet). The diversity of this piece of land provides for many distinct ecosystems.
The area, and most of the current onsite buildings, was originally a Youth Conservation Camp (YCC). The YCC program started in 1962 and was modeled after the Depression-era Civilian Conservation Corps. The camps provided high-school youth (boys initially but then girls were allowed in the mid-1970s) a place to spend the summer learning about conservation and outdoor careers while working to plant trees, clean up lakes, and restore natural areas. In 1996, the YCC program ended, and the DNR took over the maintenance of the camp and surrounding land. Wanting the facilities and the opportunities for education to remain part of the Manitowish Waters area, the North Lakeland Discovery Center was created as part of the North Lakeland School. An independent Board of Directors was eventually established, and the center became its own entity, but it is still very much a part of the educational programming at local schools.
Though there are lots of drop-in activities such as hiking, canoeing, and picnicking, the education programs provided are the heart and soul of the center. Executive Director John Heusinkveld said the center operates year-round with a small staff of just eight people, and yet, he notes, “The diversity of the programs we offer are generally what you would find at much larger centers.”
Programming at the center itself includes everything from one- or two-hour workshops and short hands-on activities for children to day-long events. About a week each spring is dedicated to school-based environmental education during which time many area schools bring students to the center for day-long field trips. In addition, the Traveling Naturalist Program provides educational programming to be brought to many places in the Northwoods area including schools and libraries. Education Director and Naturalist Licia Johnson explains that the center provides the “best classroom,” adding that it is “the primo spot for education.”
There are on average 50-70 programs held throughout the summer, and programming is geared toward both adults and kids. All new programming is created each winter, and as Johnson explains, it is a collaboration of staff members, each having something to contribute, Johnson feels it is more than just knowledge however, adding, “I think it’s the passion and energy we have.”
In addition to ongoing programming, there are several well-known events held every year, including the 15th Annual Northwoods Birding Festival (May 31-June 1), the Float Your Boat Trivia Rally (June 22), and the Summer Family Play Day (July 3). The programming and many events, however, cannot be accomplished with just eight staff members. The center relies heavily on the many volunteers who help throughout the year. Annie McDonnell, Naturalist and Volunteer Coordinator, states simply, “Our volunteers are really, really important to us.” In 2018, almost 300 people volunteered providing over 3,000 hours of work to the center.
While some programs and events are free, some do require a fee. This is because the center is a 501(3)C non-profit organization. It is the money raised from fees, as well as fundraising and donations, that allow the center to operate. Aptly named “The Big Event,” the annual main fundraiser for the center raises over one-third of the center’s operating expenses for the year. The year’s Big Event (themed Nature’s Garden Party) is scheduled for May 26 and features a silent auction and gourmet dinner. There is also a strong membership coalition, numbering over 1,100 people, whose annual dues help to support the center.
To help provide additional sources of income, the center also rents out various facilities on the grounds. About 15 weddings take place at the center each summer. There is a large amphitheater facing a platform overlooking the lake which is usually used for the ceremonies, and then plenty of lawn area to allow for large banquet tents. In the main lodge building, there is a full commercial kitchen which can be utilized by caterers. In general, the center can accommodate about 300 wedding guests. In addition, there is a vacation rental called the director’s cabin, which is available for anyone to rent but is a favorite of brides and members of the wedding party, as well as a small two-room apartment in the lodge.
There are several sleeping cabins onsite as well. These are the originally cabins that housed the YCC teens and can sleep 12 people each. These cabins are not rented too often, but they do occasionally get used for family reunions and youth groups. One group of kids from Chicago spends ten days every year at the center. These are kids who generally have not spent much time in nature and are in awe of how quiet and dark the Northwoods can be. Lynn Wildes, Facility and Event Coordinator, tells the story of having to add signage to the restrooms to say “Men” and “Women” because they used to just say “Bucks” and “Does,” and the kids, not understanding what this meant, were confused on which restroom to use. “By the end of the 10 days though,” Wildes adds, “they belong here.”
Since the cabins aren’t used quite as much these days, several have been converted to other uses. One is now a small nature center with a classroom, hands-on activities, and a few live animals including an endangered box turtle and three permanently injured bats. Another cabin is used as a conference room, and two cabins, recently remodeled to include shared bathroom and kitchen facilities, are used to house the center’s summer interns. Generally four college interns come each summer, with one helping with programming and the Nature Nook, and the other three assisting Water Program Coordinator Emily Heald.
The water program at the center is utilized by many area towns and lake associations. Heald oversees the lake management program which covers 25 area lakes. She is also involved in the area’s Aquatic Invasive Species (AIS) surveys, the Clean Boats Clean Waters program, and lake level monitoring. The center was recently won the Wisconsin Lake Stewardship Award for the Regional/Multiple Lakes category. This is a huge accomplishment as the award reflects the professional and volunteer efforts of the center. Though a group effort, Heald has made significant contributions to the winning of this award. “It’s always fun to win big awards,” Heald modestly adds.
Awards and programming aside, the center is a great place to come and enjoy nature. Open year round, there over 12 miles of trails to hike, or cross-country ski as trails are groomed in the winter. There are several loops to choose from, covering a variety of ecosystems, and many with interpretive signage. People can also enjoy canoeing or fishing on the lake, or swimming at the beach. There are places to sit and reflect and areas perfect for a picnic. Several different themed gardens (including pollinator, rain, vegetable, and deer resistant) grace the grounds, and to burn some childhood energy, there is a nature playscape as well as volleyball and basketball courts.
Autumn Hill, who recently began as the center’s membership and marketing coordinator, sums the center up perfectly.
“I’m so impressed with the quality of programming and the experiences people can have here,” she remarked.
All of this, right here in the Northwoods. The North Lakeland Discovery Center is open daily from dawn to dusk, with the Nature Nook open Monday through Saturday from 9 a.m.-4 p.m. More information can be found at discoverycenter.net or by calling 877-543-2085.