The Ridges Sanctuary

Preservation, Education, and Research

Nature Notes: A Forest Days Hike in the Woods

Posted on May 12, 2024 by Jackie Rath   No Comments Yet | Posted in Blog · Nature Notes

Ridges Educators work relentlessly to bring quality Forest Days programming to Gibraltar students in grades K-6. Forest Days are designed to bring students outside and into their local forest for place-based environmental education. Forest Day lesson topics include the carbon cycle, patterns in nature, the role of decomposers in the forest, food webs, and other interconnecting themes. With the change in seasons, each month brings new opportunities for students to learn and explore. In addition to the collaboration with Gibraltar Schools, the Ridges is fortunate to collaborate with Rotary Club of Door County North to maintain these programs and provide each K-6 grade student with adventure packs to use at home to explore even further.  

We recently featured educator Libby Humphries’ passion for creating environmental stewardship with Forest Days students. This month, we encourage you to read Sheryl Honig’s narrative on the vivid experiences of her students as they engage with nature on a spring day.  

Join the children on a hike through the forest….  

By Sheryl Honig, PhD., Ridges Sanctuary Director of Education 

We leave the hard, angled universe of the school and its garage, asphalt, and buses. Just like that we are in a soft, gentle place. A canopy of luxurious pine needles mixed with dainty emerging maple leaves floats above us. The quaking and big toothed aspens drip with catkins. The ground is a treasure trove of pale brown leaf shapes that we recognize as old friends as well as brand new find: catkins! The spent pollen catkins and the perky tight green catkins that encase the precious seeds. Even as this group of energetic humans (I found one!) passes through, the chickadee and black-throated green warbler persist in their mission of tweeting out their territory.  

We notice the ubiquitous (but usually invisible to humans) blanket of Canada Mayflower. We are recognizing their pointed spoon shape, and we scan the sides of the trail for a “double” – if we find a mayflower plant with more than one leaf and we peek between the leaves, we find a lovely spear of white flower developing inside. 

This part of the forest is an 80-year-old pine plantation in which maples and big-toothed aspen have grown up. We can recognize the white pines here because their trunks are thickest, and after a rain they stand out as black pillars among the others. We find fresh wood chips at the base of a pine where a pileated woodpecker has carved out a rectangular hole for harvesting insects. There is one lone red pine with its pink and tan bark along this part of the trail, giving us a foretaste of the red pine grove ahead.    

As we pass a few maple and hornbeam saplings, we bend them down so there is an abundance of emerging leaves at eye level to study. Children gather around the leaves, with magnifiers, noticing everything: this is striped! This is softer than the other one! The veins are different on this one! It requires grit and persistence, this study of nature up close. No moving on to chase another one. It is not so much the finding more; it is the close looking. What do you notice?   

We approach the trail intersection, and someone alerts us: we have to look at the baby beech! All winter we have been watching a beech sapling, about a foot tall, with 4 budded branches. Through the winter, we noticed individual buds nipped off.  Would it survive? Today, we see that the few remaining buds are just beginning to open! Will this be enough food-making machinery to keep it going? Farther down the trail we come upon a much taller beech sapling and out of each of its buds multiple leaves unfurl!

We have reached the “sign.” Which way to the mother tree? That way! We walk. Do you see her yet? Yes! We run to the “mother tree” and, of course, throw our arms around her. She has been here since before the pine plantation, when this part of the park was a homestead.  Tips of metal tubes, leftover from maple syrup days, protrude from her bark.  More than half of the maple’s crown is a snag, but on one side a strong arm lives on and branches into several other stems, all bursting with new leaves. 

“She’s alive!”   

We leave the exuberance of finding the mother tree and have to walk carefully, in single file, as we approach something we have seen on the map all year: the patch of (threatened) dwarf lake iris. The patch is abundant enough that all 18 children can line the edge, bend down, and study the gorgeous little purple flowers, their petals equipped with bright yellow “runways” to guide pollinators straight into the pollen. This is so beautiful! Now that we are still, some of us become aware of flying insects around us. Screams bubble up; it’s a bee! It’s not a bee! After a long winter of empty air, the invading flying insects make the forest seem different; there is an element of unease about this development.    

We tiptoe around the pink and white hepatica and make our way to the large “tick tarps” that have been laid out in a big U shape around my teaching tarp. We rest our bodies on the tarps, start noticing the leaf litter at the edges. And, since the snow is gone, and the forest is in motion again, cries of “a spider!!” begin to take our conversation in unexpected turns. In May, focusing on any other topic is hard to maintain. Fortunately, I have collected 40 large, laminated photos of common spiders so we are ready to ID any finds. By now, we don’t even need photos of millipedes, centipedes, rollie pollies, worms, ants, larvae, or beetles. We are forest floor experts! 

Our forest day has only begun. Our forest is rich. Complex. More than any human could invent. It might take more than a lifetime to truly understand it.   


We are on our way. 

Related reading: Creating Environmental Stewardship by WisCorps Environmental Educator Libby Humpries.

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