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Wetland Wander

A busy outdoor educator spends a day outside on her own.


Virginia tiger moth. Photo by Grace Gaard.

By Grace Gaard, Outdoor Educator

When I was younger, time seemed to go on forever as I spent much of it exploring the outdoors. Now as an adult, I’ve recently realized that my time in nature has changed. While I absolutely love facilitating students’ exploration of nature as an outdoor educator at Game and Parks, I’m realizing that making time to explore nature for myself is something I need to prioritize when I’m not at work. I still love to ramble and scour the ground for interesting leaves and tracks, and it’s this solace of spending time outdoors on my own when I feel the most connected.

Horsetail fern. Photo by Grace Gaard.

Spring is an extremely busy time as I travel around the state coordinating the Trout in the Classroom program. Participating classrooms spend a semester raising trout, and at the program’s conclusion, we take the students out on field trips to an approved local pond or wetland to release the fish. An outdoor educator’s work mostly requires us to be prompt, moving activities along efficiently while showing students a good time. Even when we’re outdoors, we’re on a schedule. Sometimes we forget to take moments to appreciate where we are.

Last weekend, I decided to participate in the City Nature Challenge Program at Spring Creek Prairie on my own. The beauty of this program is that it’s truly a loose exploration of the outdoors, and while going off to roam the wetland by myself, it dawned on me that I hadn’t gone wandering without an agenda in far too long.

Cricket frog. Photo by Grace Gaard.

At Spring Creek, I discovered so much to enjoy at a leisurely, dawdling pace. First, I noticed birdsong — a blue-gray gnatcatcher softly called and flitted from branch to branch. Then red-winged blackbirds, wrens and eastern towhees joined in, creating a magical symphony that can only be experienced on a quiet, sunny spring day. It was a welcomed relief from all the wind we’ve had these last few weeks.

As I ambled along the larger wetland’s edge, I caught glimpses of aquatic plants poking up through the surface, and the eyes of a bullfrog peeking out, too. Making my way down to a clearing, I spotted a track left behind by the hand of a raccoon, and nearby, delicate, bright-green mosses grew around a ledge where water seeped through to make a small stream. Strange orange slime covered the mud, and as my shoes squished along the bank, frogs hopped into the water to seek shelter.

Racoon track. Photo by Grace Gaard.

I admired an insect “art gallery” on a piece of old bark – the intricate patterns left behind from a hungry insect. Pressing on and wondering what more is around the corner, I found my destination as I beheld an impressively tall beaver dam holding back a wall of water. A trickle of water made its way through, creating a musical sound with the sun’s reflection dancing along the water’s surface. Then glancing around my feet, I noticed a snow-white Virginia tiger moth. Gently, I lifted it up to examine it more closely and noticed its fluffy legs and graceful antennae. It didn’t fly away from me and patiently climbed onto a blade of grass after I was finished looking at it.

Beaver dam. Photo by Grace Gaard.

After spending time exploring this wetland, I was reminded of all the other living things that share these ecosystems with me. We are all but a piece of the puzzle, and as I reflected on my time in this wetland, I see that wandering can be a formula for both observation and meditation. It allows me to be fully present in where I am and unworried by the plans of the day or the dinging on my phone. I still like to bring my phone along, but solely for the purpose of capturing the beauty I find in the natural world through photos.

So, next time you can spare even 30 minutes, get out outside and wander in a wetland. Pay close attention to all the life pulsing all around you, and I guarantee you’ll find yourself experiencing awe within 5 minutes.  ■

Insect “gallery.” Photo by Grace Gaard.