For the past 25 years, Philadelphia's largest man-made lake lay hidden in the woods, surrounded by cyclone fencing and a thick layer of native plants. The only visitors to the 37-acre East Park Reservoir tended to be ducks (lots and lots of ducks), turtles, foxes, and other wildlife.
Occasionally, a few bird-watchers would sneak up to the area, too, to observe the nearly 200 species of birds that migrate to and from of the Strawberry Mansion ecosystem.
Thanks to a partnership between Audubon Pennsylvania and the Philadelphia Outward Bound School, that's all about to change. On Saturday, Sept. 29, the serene and pristine body of water will officially reopen to the public alongside the new, 14,000-square-foot Discovery Center, dedicated to nature conservation and leadership development.
The public is invited to test-drive the site in a free opening-day Discovery Day celebration Saturday from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Activities include bird walks, live bird presentations, a make-your-own native seed ball demo, arts and crafts, and rides on a 300-foot zip line for visitors 12 years and up. (Sign up on-site for time slots between 11:45 a.m. and 3 p.m.) There will also be Outward Bound-type challenges designed to develop teamwork, communication, and leadership skills.
Following Discovery Day, the reservoir and Discovery Center will have public hours Wednesdays through Sundays from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. through Oct. 31 (and Thursdays through Saturdays during late fall and winter). Visitors can sit by the reservoir, walk the ¾-mile trail that lines the water, and explore indoor exhibits about birds, birds' nests, the reservoir, and the Delaware River Watershed. They can also attend frequent gardening workshops, bird walks, and plant walks, all of which are free.
"You can really feel immersed in nature here, which brings an incredible opportunity for us and the community," says Greg Goldman, executive director of Audubon Pennsylvania. "You walk up the path, and all of a sudden this majestic expanse of water lay in front of you — it creates this quiet, calm, sanctuary feeling,"
The Discovery Center also has a sizable outdoor ropes course and three-floor indoor rock-climbing gym — largely for Outward Bound participants — that will be open to the public on upcoming community days, including Oct. 27, Nov. 11, and Dec 29. (Activities per date are not yet set.)
An approved program of the Philadelphia School District, Philadelphia Outward Bound works with 6,000 middle and high school students annually, 75 percent of whom are from low-income families. Students either visit on school trips for one-day leadership and team-building programs or are selected for five-day or two-week wilderness expeditions.
The Discovery Center will host the one-day visits and will also serve as an introductory space to teach kids canoeing, climbing, and other skills before they set off on longer trips.
"This creates a space where we can build trust with kids who've often never been exposed to nature — and with their parents to who we say, 'Hey, we're going to take your kids on an 80-mile overnight backpacking trip' — and get them all comfortable before they go," says Dan Hoffman, interim executive director of the Philadelphia Outward Bound School.
"They're going to come from North Philly," he says, "but they're going to feel like it's northern Maine."
Audubon will host programs for elementary school students, and all-ages events such as the bird walks. The two groups expect to collaborate on future programs.
Both Audubon and Outward Bound are committed to serving their Strawberry Mansion neighbors, along with Philadelphia schoolkids and the public at large.
"We hope this nature portal can help people understand that everyone has a right to a clean environment, and the importance of taking action to protect it." says Jean Bochnowski, deputy director of Audubon Pennsylvania.
Discovery Day at Fairmount Park's new Discovery Center
11 a.m.-3 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 29, Discovery Center, 3401 Reservoir Dr., discoveryphila.org. Public hours for the new center are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesdays through Sundays through Oct. 31 (and Thursdays through Saturdays during late fall and winter). The "Visit" tab at the top of the website lists hours, public transportation, and other details. The "Events" tab has a calendar of upcoming public events; click on each event for details.