What happens when you walk into the woods with a group of kids and just walk? It's strange to think of, but people make artificial boundaries everywhere. This is the trail. Stay on it. This is the fence. Do not go beyond it. Don't go here. Don't go there. The world is full of invisible walls that trap us in ways we often don't even notice.
So, what happens when you let a group of kids go off into the woods with you and choose their own path? Fun, mostly, but also some wet feet, many thorn bushes and some false turns. What happens most often is the unexpected.
I led this particular group of kids on something called a ''Muir Trek.'' This walk is named for John Muir, a man famous for his passion for nature. He loved to get outside and walk, climb trees and explore. He's most famous for being the inspiring force behind making Yosemite a National Park. I know him best as a figure of, as one of my campers put it, being a ''nature freak.'' He climbed trees in raging storms and rode the branches as they whipped back and forth. He threw some food in a sack and walked a thousand miles. He sketched alligators and flowers while wandering alone.
Get outside this spring and take a ‘‘Muir Trek.’’ Named for John Muir, a man famous for his passion for nature, the treks involve going off into the great outdoors and choosing one’s own path.
Photo by Jeff Tome
The Muir Trek is a walk designed to allow a group of people to wander with a naturalist familiar with an area and stumble into their own adventures. These kids found slippery frozen puddles that became makeshift ice skating rinks. They stumbled across animal tracks and discovered what ice you can walk on and how to tell when the ice is thin. At one point, the group explored an island and found an isolated puddle filled with dead tadpoles. A few ice-cracking moments later and the last living tadpoles were being caught and sent into a different part of the pond where they could spend the winter. (And yes, in the process they discovered that some tadpoles take two years to grow into frogs.)
There's a lot to be said for wandering someplace where you haven't been before ... and even in places you visit all the time. There are always new things to discover, wherever you happen to be. It might be an animal or plant you have never noticed. It might be a part of the property right off the trail that makes you want to see it. (Always leave a marker on the trail in a place you aren't familiar with so you don't lose your way. It might be as simple as hanging your hat on a tree by the trail so you can find it again if you go off a little ways.)
The Chautauqua Watershed Conservancy has land all around the area that is open for exploration. Some of the properties have trails, some do not. All of them are full of new territories waiting to be explored. As winter fades to spring, visit some new places. Lands owned by the Chautauqua Watershed Conservancy are listed at www.chautauquawatershed.org.
The mission of the Chautauqua Watershed Conservancy is to preserve and enhance the water quality, scenic beauty and ecological health of the lakes, streams and watersheds of the Chautauqua region. For more information or to donate to its 2011-12 membership campaign, visit the CWC website at www.chautauquawatershed.org or call 664-2166.
Jeff Tome is a volunteer with the Chautauqua Watershed conservancy and senior naturalist at the Jamestown Audubon Center and Sanctuary. He finds new things to explore throughout the region but has a special fondness for the Watershed Conservancy's Dobbins Woods Preserve and Outlet Preserve.