'Experience the Forest Day' opens doors to the wilderness
The public lands in the Black Hills National Forest belong to us all regardless of age or background. The forest service’s concessionaire has teamed up with a range of disability groups to make sure everyone has a chance to enjoy a bit of wilderness.
On a recent day at Horsethief Lake , the fish are biting, it’s finally not too hot, and the view of the hills over the water is picturesque.
For more than 200 people, this is a special day - called "Experience the Forest." The forest service and the concessionaire Forest Recreation Management organize this event to give people with disabilities a chance to enjoy the outdoors.
Jodi Massie and a friend of hers quickly become the center of attention.
“A red sided garter snake – and the reason why I call him Noodle is because he’s long and skinny like a piece of spaghetti," Massie said to the crowd. She's a forest wildlife technician and this event's resident reptile whisperer.
“All the critters you see on our table are all species you can find here in South Dakota," Massie said. "Noodle here, he loves to eat earthworms and pieces of meat – that’s his favorite food.”
Noodle makes friends with the guests – though some are less excited than others at the invitation. Massie has bits of snakeskin, inviting the crowd to feel for themselves.
This event gives people living with a wide range of intellectual and physical disabilities a chance to meaningfully experience nature. For some, touching and feeling go a long way.
Annie Stoff enjoyed a collection of furs, antlers and horns, running her fingers through the matted fur of a buffalo hide.
"The part that I like about it is they’re letting me touch it," Stoff said. "I can’t see, I’m legally blind and in a wheelchair.”
Stoff said she loves getting outdoors, but there’s a pause as she considers how many opportunities like this she gets.
“Not very often, but I’m really going to enjoy this,” Stoff said.
Access is an undeniable challenge out here, but for one day in the woods the mood is overwhelmingly positive for everyone – regardless of ability. At the lake, anglers are up to their gills in trout. By the time the microphones turned off anglers had hauled in five fish.
This “Experience the Forest” event began 16 years ago and happened annually until the pandemic.
Everyone gets something unique from the day, especially Cade Campbell. He’s been a participant in the past and is now working his first summer as a seasonal ranger.
“When it came up this year and I could give back to the people who had done it for me, I had to take the opportunity. I didn’t know how much actually went into putting this event on," Campbell said. "There’s a lot of contributing factors that go into this, and it’s nice to see people with intellectual disabilities can still get out and have some of the fun.”
Campbell said in his first year helping to organize things, he already feels a sense of joy from creating this opportunity. That emotion is mirrored by Ty Gerbracht – she’s operations manager with Forest Recreation Management and longtime organizer of the event.
“It’s amazing to watch the looks on the faces of all our guests who don’t get to spend much time in the forest,” Gerbracht said.
Gerbracht said while they accept donations to help offset the cost, this is less about fundraising and more about creating a days’ worth of joy.
“We have a donation board hanging over there – a lot of our local businesses will contribute the meat for the food or the buns or the money – quite frankly,” Gerbracht said.
It’s reached the point where she said they’re ready for more.
“We coordinate with the Forest Service, we have Mount Rushmore here and represented, we have South Dakota Game Fish and Parks," Gerbracht said. "We want to expand our reach to people. If there’s people in this setting and this would be a wonderful way to spend a day – please contact us.”
She encourages groups like adult daycare services, work service and assistance groups to contact Forest Recreation Management to learn how to get involved.
For the foresters though, introducing people to the Black Hills is always a special day. Stephen Keegan is a forest landscape architect. He said regardless of who he’s talking with - it’s worthwhile to share the beauty of the forest.
“This is a great event for all of us who work it," Keegan said. "We get an opportunity to get away from our normal work and all, but also do something different and put a smile on people’s faces.”
Those smiles were especially wide at the picnic area, where some food and a little bit of live music helped finish out a long day of exploring the wild.