Going Off-trail with Geauga Park District Naturalists

I have always liked exploring, ever since I was little. I could always be found outside, in the woods, up in a tree, or down by the creek. Not much has changed now that I am adult, other than the amount of time I have available to go out exploring. Becoming a volunteer with Geauga Park District (GPD) has helped me make time to do what I enjoy most!! I highly recommend becoming a volunteer if you are able to.

Recently, GPD hosted a couple backcountry naturalist-led hikes. I had the privilege of photographing both of these events. Basically, a backcountry hike means that the naturalist will take you off-trail to parts of the park that are not normally seen. Unlike most park systems, GPD actually allows off-trail exploration without a guide. They just ask that you are very careful. The buddy system is always encouraged. Maps are available for every park. If you have a GPS unit or your phone, make sure you take them with you in case you get lost.

Several of our parks do have areas that are considered a nature preserve and are not to be explored without a guide. It is the goal of Geauga Park District to keep these areas as close to their natural state as possible.

Backcountry Heron Hike

The first hike was on November 3 at the Rookery. I wrote an article about this park earlier this year. After writing it and seeing some of the photos that Sandy (communications specialist with Geauga Park District) sent me for the article, I was determined to find a way to get back to that nesting ground and experience it for myself. Sandy let me know that they sometimes arrange hikes led by the naturalists back to that area in the fall.  So, I kept my eyes on the program list and signed up to be the photographer for that event as soon as I could.

John Kolar and Dottie Drockton
John Kolar and Dottie Drockton

It was a bit chilly and quite windy that day. I pulled into the parking lot, put on my mud boots, and joined the group gathered around the picnic tables. I passed out binoculars to everyone that wanted them. The two naturalists leading the groups were Dottie Drockton and John Kolar. We headed down the interurban trail learning about how the electric railroad used to run along the way. With the rain the night before, I was certainly glad I wore my knee high rubber boots.

Dottie and John warned us that it would be hard to find the nests with so many leaves still on the trees. The herons had already left for warmer grounds, which is why we were able to take this special hike. With everyone’s eyes peeled for those nests made of sticks, we weaved through the trees and brush. “There’s one,” someone shouted and we all looked up trying to see what another hiker had found. There they were, high in the tree tops. We all spread out trying to take a count of how many nests we could see. We also scoured the ground beneath the tree looking for remnants of what the herons were eating. It was so exciting to be able to see this special place that was virtually untouched by humans as it should be.

Here are a few photos from the hike:

John showing hikers some bones we found
John showing hikers some bones we found
Wooly Aphids
Wooly Aphids
Hikers anxious to leave the trail
Hikers anxious to leave the trail
Looking up at the nests
Looking up at the nests
Some of the many nests
Some of the many nests
nests
Great Blue Heron Nests
wetland
Wetland area at the Rookery

Backcountry Ravine Hike

The second hike was on November 9 at Big Creek Park. This time it was just Dottie leading us on an adventure through the ravines at Big Creek. When we pulled into the parking lot that day, we were one of the first cars there other than Dottie and three students from Detroit. These students were originally from India, studying engineering in Detroit. They came to Geauga County to go to Observatory Park. They searched online for a Dark Sky Park and found Observatory Park was about a four hour drive. They looked up other events on the GPD website and ended up signing up for this hike. Here is the kicker – this was their first time hiking….EVER!!

As everyone arrived, we got them signed in and Dottie gathered us up for introductions. We took a group picture then headed into the woods. Our youngest hiker led the way with his map. We stopped several times along the trail for Dottie to give us a little history about the park. We got to the trail’s end and headed out along the edge of the ravine. We all safely climbed down a steep hillside to Big Creek. We skipped rocks (something else the students from India had never done before). We found some salamanders and even a garter snake.

After over an hour of exploration, we headed back up the hillside and back to the parking lot. It was too bad that those students did not come out the night before to go to Observatory Park since it had been a cloudless night.  On this night, they would have a bit of trouble seeing anything past the clouds. But they very much enjoyed themselves on their first hike. Hopefully they will come back and visit again.

Here are some photos from the hike:

Big Creek hiking group

Zach - our leader
Zach – our leader
Big Creek
Big Creek
down in the ravine
Down in the ravine
The way we got down into the ravine
The way we got down into the ravine
Skipping rocks
Skipping rocks in Big Creek, some for the first time

Skipping rocks

Tree huggers
It took three people to get all the way around this tree. Tree huggers!
looking at the garter snake
Looking at the garter snake
Nature's balance beam
Nature’s balance beam
The way we got out of the ravine
The way we got out of the ravine

Thank you to Geauga Park District, John, and Dottie for these adventures. Getting “lost” in the woods is always fun, but being able to learn so much about our parks at the same time is just awesome! Geauga Park District offers so many wonderful programs for all ages.  Check them out and sign up for one today.

Have you ever gone exploring in Geauga County off the marked trail?  Tell me about it in the comments below.