Full Circle, First Catch

In early December every year, my staff and I get together for a day-long meeting to reflect on the previous year and to set strategy for the years to follow. Early in the meeting, I ask my colleagues what their favorite things from the past year were. This helps us refocus on what’s important and what motivates us to do what we do. 

Marcus Nack, the Environmental Education Manager at Starr’s Cave Nature Center remembered when they took a bus full of Burlington School District students from the PiECES afterschool program out to Big Hollow at night for an owl prowl. They walked some trails and talked (quietly) about how owls are active at night. They played some calls in hopes of an owl responding back but couldn’t seem to get a reply. 

With time running out, they were making their way back toward the parking lot when it happened. The distinctive call of a barred owl, “Who-cooks, who-cooks, who-cooks-for-yoouuuuuu.”

Everyone froze. Eyes widened. A group of kids momentarily silenced in the cool night air. Then one of them breaks the tension, “Was that a recording? Did you do that?” he asks Mr. Marcus.

Nope. That, my friend, is nature. And people like Marcus live to create such experiences for people.

You see, more than a few of those kids had little to no experience with this kind of nature. Many had never been in the woods at night, let alone heard the distinctive call of a barred owl.

Before the trek concluded, more owls joined in, allaying any suspicion of planted audio devices. The kids no doubt talked about it for weeks. 

One of our field techs, Cade Rowland, said his favorite day was the Youth Jamboree event, held the first Saturday of June. For him, it was a kind of full-circle moment. A dozen or so years ago, Cade was in the 6th grade class from Mediapolis that partnered with my department on a semester-long bobwhite quail habitat restoration project at Luckenbill Woods. We cut trees, planted shrubs and prairie flowers, and the class even hatched baby quail in their classroom to get a sense of just how small they really are. Holding a baby quail in the palm of your hand really puts in perspective their habitat needs.

Their teacher submitted the project to Disney’s “Planet Challenge” competition which awarded classes with the best environmental projects various prizes. That 6th grade class from Mediapolis won the top honor that year and was treated to an all-expense-paid trip to Disneyland where all 66 students, plus some teachers and the still-astounded conservation guy (me), were the guests of honor for three days. 

Jump ahead a whole lifetime later and one of those students, now working at that very conservation department, gets to help a new batch of middle schoolers learn about the outdoors at the Youth Jamboree event. 

“It was cool being on the other side of event,” Cade said. "I wasn’t just a participant anymore. I was giving back to my community. I really liked that.”

Full circle indeed. 

Other staff favorites included some of the projects we completed in the parks. We made incredible progress this year on invasive species control and forest management. Some of that work has been going on consistently for the better part of a decade and we’re really seeing some noticeable results. 

I remember getting stopped after a meeting earlier this year so a local mom could tell me how much she appreciated our Park Ranger helping her young son who was fishing at one of our parks for the first time. He’d been frustrated about not catching anything when the Ranger stopped to say hello. Just as the Ranger drove away, the boy hooked something. Reeling it in, he discovered it wasn’t a fish at all, but a softshell turtle. Pandemonium ensued. 

Surprised to the point of being scared, the boy didn’t know what to do. Neither did the parents. Would it bite? Was it safe to touch? What was it, even? It didn’t look like any turtle they had ever seen. 

The boy’s mom then told me that the Park Ranger hit his brakes, backed up, jumped out, climbed down over the bank, picked up the turtle and, on his knees next to the boy, proceeded to and describe what it was, where it lived, what it ate, and how it wasn’t necessarily uncommon, but certainly a rare catch. 

She said it was probably the greatest day of that little boy’s life. At least you’d sure think so judging by how much he talked about it afterwards. 

It’s certainly not everyday you get to be part of a kid’s first big catch, or see the wonder in kids’ eyes when they hear an owl for the first time. There are plenty of days when your equipment breaks down, when outhouses need cleaned, when meetings go long, budgets get cut, and work is, well, work. 

But then there are those days when you realize why you do this. Why you get out bed every day. I try to reflect on those experiences with my staff because though we don’t always get to see them, it’s important to remember that the work we do creating and maintaining parks and getting people into them makes it possible for those life-defining moments to happen. 

And that makes it all worth it. 

This is an installment of my long-running monthly newspaper column which runs in The Hawk Eye and now also the Burlington Beacon