Outdoor art at John's Outdoor Learning Center, Baraga Pow Wow Grounds
Art's Corner by Miriam Pickens
By Miriam Pickens
In September of 2017, I went to the dedication of John’s Outdoor Learning Center behind Houghton Elementary School. Bob Wheeler, along with friends, family, and community support, had expanded the original set of walking paths into a beautiful trail system and outdoor classroom. It was to honor his son, John, who loved working with children and was only a few weeks away from graduating from the Michigan Tech School of Forest Resources when he died in a tragic car accident in November of 2016.
Along this trail, I saw interpretive signs created by Joe Schwenk of Industrial Graphics and designed by Bob with help from family, friends, and 3rd-grade teachers from Houghton Elementary. The signs teach concepts like photosynthesis and scientific classification with pictures, cool facts, and Rex the dinosaur. There was even child-friendly seating so that it really was an outdoor classroom. Brush cleared and cedar chips laid down along the path by so many volunteers made the trails delightful to navigate. That beautiful September day with the painted lady butterflies flitting around, and so many friends gathered to honor John and the beautiful work done in his honor has created for me a beautiful memory.
In early spring, my friend Melissa told me that her son, three years old, loved climbing on the giant Blue-Spotted Salamander at John’s Outdoor Learning Center. I didn’t remember anything like that from my visit in 2017, so of course, I had to go back with my young friends LE and MJ to explore. I asked Bob how the trail system had evolved, and he told me “The original trail was constructed by Bill and Eloise Haller and much community effort. The extension of the trail down to Jacker was constructed by G&J Site Solutions. Geoff Kutzy and his talented crew started with a very rough and rocky area and with much community time and work, we created the comfortable walking trails and learning spaces.”
The expanded trail system has three classroom areas with seating. The seating, all made of logs, really has the feel of an outdoor classroom, and it’s neat that the three areas have different seating arrangements for different types of gatherings. There is signage at each of these classroom areas, making it really easy to teach the concepts.
Along the trail, there are laminated storybook pages, and it was neat watching older sister LE reading to MJ. It was a fun story and the kids enjoyed following the “storybook path”.
The real highlight for me though was the sculpted animals. About three years ago, Bob asked Rich Pethtel, famous locally for his chainsaw carvings, to create a life-sized Black bear for the trail. One that was durable enough so kids could climb on it. Since then there have been many more animal sculptures with educational signage created by The Print Shop in Houghton. Among the many cool critters, you’ll find a squirrel and a pileated woodpecker, life-size, climbing on trees, and an owl with babies perched between the branches of a large cedar. We found the giant blue-spotted salamander and its centipede prey. It’s so cool when a community comes together to create a green educational space like this. Community volunteers, a grant from the Keweenaw Community Foundation along with the generosity of the artists and companies involved, were what made this project possible. This trail is used extensively by classes at Houghton Elementary, and other schools would be encouraged to visit it as well.
I visited Rich Pethtel at Presence Chainsaw Sculpture, about three miles south of Chassell. We remembered each other from our days at the Eagle Harbor Fair and it was fun catching up and seeing his work. He told me it took four days to cut the giant salamander into shape, almost exclusively using his chainsaw. When he sculpts birds, he even uses the chainsaw to create the feathers. A Dremel is used to create features like eyes and talons.
After the salamander was carved, he used a propane torch to burn the fuzz off the surface. Then a light sanding over the whole animal and log oil is applied to waterproof and protect the carving. Many of the sculptures are left natural with darker burned areas, but the salamander had to be blue and spotted, so after the oil dried, Rich painted it. The salamander was Pethtel’s favorite piece, thinking about how much fun it would be for the kids. And another piece that was also fun was the giant chipmunk in the playground!
Rich does a lot of carving for people’s yards, and Sasquatch has been a favorite lately. But I wondered if Rich had done any other public projects, and he told me about the recent work done with Joe Bradley from UP Quality Construction, at the KBIC campground for the 43rd Annual KBIC Maawanj’iding Pow Wow coming up from July 23 - 25, this summer in Baraga. In the arena where the main events occur, there are brand new pavilions, and one displays a huge Golden Eagle. The main pavilion in the center of the arena is open-air, and each of the posts is carved with a different set of animals; the one with fish depicts a whole aquatic environment with water, plants, different fish, and even a turtle. The pine martin pole has a few martins playing around a tree that’s actually carved with carved rocks at the base. Of course, there are also martins peeking out of holes in this tree.
I’m so glad I went back to this awesome trail that led me to meet up with old friends and took me on a journey from a solemn memory in Houghton all the way to the KBIC Ojibwa Campground and Recreation Area. There’s a great kid-friendly outdoor learning center to visit in Houghton, and the Pow Wow this summer is going to be fantastic.