An excerpt of this article appeared in the September 2015 issue of Indy’s Child Magazine. Digital readers are treated with the article in its full transcript here at IndysChild.com.
In Bourke Patton’s role as the Executive Director of the Indiana Natural Resources Foundation – the nonprofit arm of the Indiana Department Of Natural Resources (DNR) – there are a lot of subjects that cross his desk. But on this particular day I’ve managed to pull him away for a quick 15 minutes to discuss the Hoosier Outdoor Experience.
It’s a topic I know lights a fire under him because in the 2+ years I worked for Bourke at the DNR, the Experience had grown from an event in its infancy to a full-blown, well to plagiarize its name: Experience. And now, facing its 8th year, the Hoosier Outdoor Experience has attracted a title sponsor (Central Indiana Ford Dealers), over 60 different activity providers and boasts an attendance level pushing 25,000.
So we start first with the basics: The Ford Hoosier Outdoor Experience is the largest event of its kind in the Midwest. For 2 days, Fort Harrison State Park – located on an old army base just 8 miles east of central Indianapolis – transforms into truly interactive grounds for every type of outdoor recreational activity under the sun.
And not only is your family invited, but for FREE. It is all part of the DNR’s drive to get families outdoors and as they call it, ‘recreating’ together.
There are the activities you might expect of an outdoor recreational event like canoeing, fishing, shooting sports and mountain biking. There’s a climbing wall, orienteering lessons and hiking instruction. And there’s more unique fun like archaeological digs, tree dog demos and plant identification.
The point is, there are 50+ different activities for families with children of all ages to get out and do together, and the Experience wants you to try them.
The beauty of its setup is in two things: One, you never feel like you are one of thousands on property while there. The expansive Fort Harrison State Park makes sure of that by courting you in a way that only a 1,700-acre park can – with a beautiful landscape you immediately drop on your must-return list. And two, it isn’t a full day of classes or verbal instruction – you are put directly in the driver’s seat: Want to learn how to mountain bike? Your family is outfitted with bicycles and ride out with a group guide. A bow and arrow is placed in your hands in addition to one-on-one facetime with industry experts.
In today’s world of tech with smart-this, video game-that and on-demand-over-here, I’ve often felt that many of us forget what it means just to enjoy being outside. And apparently I’m not the only one.
“In my first week at the Foundation, I learned there was a national trend – a decline in people involved in outdoor recreation. The Department Of Natural Resources manages land for Hoosiers but if people aren’t using the land – you know, the state parks, nature preserves and forests – is there even a purpose to us having them?” said Bourke. “We had to do something to stop the trend from reaching Indiana and get Hoosiers engaged with not only the properties we manage but also the activities that would drive them there.”
The idea for the Hoosier Outdoor Experience was born. A couple select states across the country were attempting similar events – Oklahoma, Arizona – none though quite on the scale as the Indiana DNR.
But there was one major hurdle: The DNR doesn’t employ experts on staff in all these recreational fields. So instead of trying to retrofit their group of employees into teaching roles for sports or hobbies they didn’t know, they turned the model on its head and reached out to existing partners.
And that’s how the event is run even today. Families interested in learning about camping skills will meet local organization Camptown. The mountain biking trail is run by the Hoosier Mountain Bike Association. And so on.
The DNR figures if they can connect event attendees to the outdoors and the providers who specialize in them, it’s instant kismet to make the activity stick. A speed-date of sorts in outdoor recreation, but one with a guaranteed match.
In my few years of working the Experience, I watched it mature into a well-oiled machine. Attendees are asked to park outside Fort Harrison and bused in. From there, the park is divided into a number of different ‘venues’ containing the various activity centers. Friendly volunteers are everywhere. Virtually every division of the DNR has employees out helping. It’s a truly collaborative environment and the enthusiasm comes to its helpers easily.
New this year is a revised layout that encourages attendees to walk each venue – previously, old State Fair trolleys (which are now being taken out of commission for much-needed repair) shuttled people back and forth. For an event founded in personal health and recreation, the 1-mile loop lovingly encourages families to stay active while onsite. It’ll be an easy day to secure your 10,000-steps-a-day goal. Strollers and wagons are definitely recommended for little ones.
Bourke notes his favorite memory of the event was a family who visited the Experience for the first time: They fell in love with mountain biking and were spotted a couple weekends later in full cycling regalia at a follow up event. So if the goal is to turn people on to new hobbies, this was a success. “If for any reason later down the road this event disappears, we’ll know it was worth it based on this one family alone. They embraced it and found something new – this is what drives us to keep going each year.”
When the gates open at Fort Harrison State Park in Indianapolis later this month, it will be for a truly incredible event. They open to relatively little fanfare. It’s not something you’ll see plastered on every news station or every local publication. And for all purposes, is still quietly underground in a hasn’t-hit-mainstream-yet kind of way. But it’s time the secret came out.
So friends, I say again: The Ford Hoosier Outdoor Experience is coming. And you need to be there. Your new favorite outdoor activity awaits you.
The Ford Hoosier Outdoor Experience runs 9/19-9/20 at Fort Harrison State Park. This event is FREE and open to all ages. Advanced registration is kindly requested to help event organizers best plan for your family. Visit HoosierOutdoorExperience.com for details and stop by the Indy’s Child Family Fun Zone on 9/19 where we’ll offer fun tailored to children ages 12 and under.