DANVILLE — It was the reactions of adults to a popular children’s program that has led to a week of new experiences at the Vermilion County Conservation District.
“The Outdoor School program, we’re starting our 47th year this fall,” said conservation district Environmental Education Supervisor Lara Darling. “When I tell people what Outdoor School is all about, they’re like, ‘Man, that sounds like a lot of fun. I wish I could do that,’ I’m like, ‘Why don’t we?’
“That’s how the Outdoor School for Adults program came about. It was just me talking about it to other people.”
The Conservation District will host the event Monday through Thursday this week, running the gamut of mornings and evenings, indoors and outdoors, from marshes and wetlands to forests and ponds.
This first-time event was so immediately popular that it quickly sold out the available 25 spots.
“I thought, ‘We need to try it and see if enough people will sign up,’ and sure enough, they did.”
Darling said she has people coming from Indiana, Champaign and Vermilion counties in Illinois, and as far away as Bloomington.
Monday was wetlands day.
Participants will hike down to the Middlefork River — the only Wild and Scenic River in Illinois — and discuss all the river systems in the county. The hikers will then journey to the marshes behind the education center at Kennekuk County Park for “pond dipping.”
After lunch, they will then travel to Heron County Park to tie in with the day’s theme.
“Hopefully, we’ll see a bald eagle, Great Blue Herons, maybe a river otter,” Darling said.
Today is set to be conservation day.
Darling is having Todd Jones, a graduate research assistant with the University of Illinois within the Department of Natural Resources, to speak.
Jones has been monitoring the songbird populations at Kennekuk for three years; studying nest predation and populations.
“He’s going to be out here with bird mist nets to hopefully catch some birds, be able to tell us what they are, maybe band them for scientific research,” Darling said. “Then he’s also going to be sharing his research with us.”
The group also will hike Lookout Point Trail later that afternoon.
Wednesday and Thursday, participants will be at Forest Glen County Preserve in Georgetown.
The first day there will focus on forest ecology, and that’s where the group will do a “critter crawl.”
“That’s where they’re gonna roll over dead logs, look underneath the leaf litter and see if we can find beetles, millipedes, centipedes, earthworms, salamanders, turtles — just any of that forest floor stuff — and talk about renewable resources and how they make our soil more rich and organic.”
That afternoon, Gary Wilford, the retired VCCD supervisor, will speak on biodiversity of the county.
“We’re on the edge of habitat ranges for so many different types of plants and trees,” Darling said. “The biodiversity we have here in Vermilion County is phenomenal.
“You can’t go to Champaign County and find beech trees. But you can find beech trees all over Forest Glen, because that’s the extent of their range.”
Thursday will be prairie day.
She said one of the big topics of that last day will be how Illinois looked during Native American and pioneer times, and how the state has changed — the prairie playing a large part in that.
“There’s less than one-tenth percent (of prairie) left,” Darling said. “A lot of that is because the soil of the prairie is amazingly, organically, rich. It makes wonderful soil for corn and soybeans.”
There will be a catered dinner outside Thursday evening (weather permitting), followed by a nocturnal exploration hike.
She said the group will perhaps hear owls and coyotes, and possibly see bats.
Gean Menglekoch — a bat expert with the Illinois Natural History Survey — will bring an echo meter that will listen for bats and identify them.
To end the week of activities, the class will wrap up with “fancy” s’mores — instead of Hershey’s chocolate, Ghirardelli chocolate will be used.
Will there be another Outdoor School for Adults? Depends on how well this week goes, Darling said. But because of scheduling, it might not be until 2021.
Until then, Darling will continue to promote the benefits of living in a county with so much nature nearby.
She cited a study that said children with trees outside their classroom window test better.
For adults, getting out in nature can have positive effects on hypertension, diabetes and other medical conditions.
“That’s the other thing I try to focus on with kids, too,” she said. “Don’t forget, when you’re stressed out, just go outside and sit for a little bit. Or come out here if you can. That’s what I’m also hoping to get across this week with the adults, too.”