Hidden in Plain Sight - Nature Centers in Northeast Wisconsin

June 5, 2013

Judy Brown

The Country Today

Dotting the landscape in many communities in eastern Wisconsin are treasures hiding in plain sight.

You may have sped past the entrances to these nature centers located primarily on county and state roads not knowing of the collective information, displays and exhibits depicting the flora and fauna of Wisconsin’s natural world.

Besides the exhibits, nature centers present a diversity of programming for a modest fee for individuals and groups, ranging from star gazing, making your own rain barrel, bench building, bird hikes and creating your own walking stick from invasive buckthorn.

For folks in eastern Wisconsin, the sight of a large bear may be daunting, so even the professionally taxidermied bear standing guard at Mosquito Hill Nature Center in New London gets your attention because the bear was taken about 20 miles from the center.

At the Gordon Bubolz Nature Preserve in Appleton an assertive lynx presides over a display of mammals of Wisconsin.

Consisting of coyote, gray wolf, badger, raccoon, red fox, muskrat, short-tailed weasel, opossum, striped skunk, river otter and beaver, the display provides ample evidence of the critters and creatures moving around in their natural habitat and possibly in your neighborhood.

A sampling of nature centers shows many similarities among these educational and entertainment facilities, such as providing expansive trails for hiking, running, snowshoeing, cross-country skiing and birdwatching.

Some nature centers covering several hundred acres capitalize on their hardwoods by collecting sap and turning the sugar bush into fundraising events such as hosting “Maple Syrup Sundays.”

Beginning in February and running through April, Riveredge Nature Center offers seven different programs wrapped around maple sugaring culminating with a pancake breakfast.

“We have a maple sugaring open house,” said Julia Courtright, Riveredge spokeswoman. “This year we had 500 people come out. We take them through the property and provide games for kids. They learn how Native Americans used the forest and how to tap a tree.”

Ledge View also attracted about 500 people to its maple syrup event, and “if the weather is nice we usually get more,” said Jane Mingari, assistant naturalist.

Last year the Gordon Bubolz Nature Preserve processed 120 gallons of maple syrup. For its Maple Syrup Saturday more than 570 visitors tempted their sweet tooth.

Riveredge is also gaining recognition for its lake sturgeon rearing program for the Milwaukee River.

Coordinated with the Wisconsin DNR and several public and private agencies and organizations, the program began in 2006 to raise sturgeon to grow up in Lake Michigan.

“We have a group of volunteers that raises sturgeon from eggs in tanks filled with Milwaukee River water,” Courtright said.

“We raise them until they are about six months old,” she said. “Then in October we have a release day when everybody gets a sturgeon in a bucket and they release it into the Milwaukee River. It’s our hope that in 30 years that they will come up the Milwaukee River and spawn. They stay in Lake Michigan until they spawn.”

Individual nature centers sometimes become known for a signature event or attraction.

You’ll get down and dirty while staying cool at Ledge View’s caves formed in the bedrock of the Niagara Escarpment by ancient groundwater and glacial meltwater.

“In the spring we have school groups who tour the caves from the first week in April to the last day of school every day,” Mingari said.

Caving students on field trips discern the difference between stalactites, stalagmites, columns and cave coral on their hike into several caves.

For Ed Hammer, a retired environmental science teacher, driving busloads of Fond du Lac students is a familiar occupation.

“This is my seventh trip this year bringing students to the caves,” Hammer said. “They come over for the caving experience. They brought their own lunch and a change of clothes.”

Nature centers increasingly are becoming destination points for school field trips, group outings and more recently for homeschool youths.

“We have an entire curriculum designed for homeschool,” said Diane Rader, environmental educator at Riveredge.

Outdoor classrooms are a particular magnet for homeschoolers near Bubolz Nature Preserve north of Appleton.

“They also come for other field trips, but for most they just jump in with any program we have to offer,” Mandy Bohn said.

While a few nature centers are publicly supported, most rely on popular fundraisers to support the facilities and programming throughout the year.

And it helps to have a long list of volunteers, Bohn said.

“We are up to 574 registered volunteers,” she said. “About 120 participate on a regular basis.”

Besides the beauty of the volunteer spirit that propels many of the nature centers, Mary Swifka of Mosquito Hill Nature Center near New London reminds visitors that they can pick and choose exactly how much they want to breathe in at any nature center.

Swifka treasures the fall colors among the hardwoods.

“When the trees change color and you are walking on the north side of Mosquito Hill, it’s one of the prettiest places,” she said.

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