Ankle-deep in the water, a student peered into the creek. She gingerly reached for a creature crawling under the water. It disappeared under a rock. Mustering up courage, she lifted the rock, snatched the creature and let out a cry of victory. Her very first crayfish!
A student upstream scooped up a mussel shell and proudly held up his discovery for all to see. Another wide-eyed student examined a dragonfly with a magnifying lens and gasped, "Oh my!"
Become a Kane County Certified NaturalistWhat: Kane County Certified Naturalists 2014 program
Class times and locations: 6-9 p.m. Tuesdays, Jan. 14, 21, 28; Feb. 4 and 11; at Hickory Knolls Discovery Center, St. Charles; 9 a.m. to noon Saturdays, April 12, May 3, and May 17; locations vary
Tuition: $250, includes core classes, field trips, and unlimited "Learn from the Experts" classes
Details: Advance registration is required. Call (630) 444-3190.
The enthusiastic students were all adults on a field trip at Ferson Creek in LeRoy Oakes Forest Preserve in St. Charles. They were learning ecology with the gusto of grade school kids, and having a great time doing it.
How did "grown-ups" get to do something so fun? They joined the Kane County Certified Naturalist program, or KCCN.
The Kane County Certified Naturalists program is sponsored by Forest Preserve District of Kane County, the St. Charles Park District, and the Geneva Park District. Now in its eighth year, this award-wining program provides in-depth learning about local and regional ecology. The program is for ages 18 and older.
A new session begins in January. The program begins with six indoor class sessions held on Tuesday evenings at Hickory Knolls Discovery Center in St. Charles, from Jan. 14 through Feb. 18. These core classes are designed to build a foundation of knowledge in ecology and natural history. Topics include geology and climate, prairie, woodland and wetland ecology, and aquatic systems. All of these topics are brought home with discussions about local issues such as habitat protection, restoration, and education.
Come spring, KCCN students will apply their classroom knowledge in the field. There are three field trips to some of the finest natural areas in Kane County. Field trip locations are subject to weather conditions, but our destinations include the Dick Young Forest Preserve in Batavia, Blackberry Maples Forest Preserve in Elburn, the Campton Hills natural area in St. Charles, and Peck Farm Park in Geneva.
For many Kane County Certified Naturalists, the field trips are the most rewarding part of the program.
"I thoroughly enjoyed our classroom experiences," said Dolly Scanlen of Elgin. KCCN Class of 2013, "but I must admit that our field trips have been my favorite. Getting outside is what it's all about."
There are some pretty cool places to explore in Kane County, as Scanlen and others will attest. Many "KCCN-ers" have said that they never knew so many fabulous natural areas exist so close by.
I've heard some people say that before KCCN, they were hesitant to explore nature on their own, feeling that they're past the age of poking around the woods and wading in ponds. Others are less shy about their interest in learning about nature, but have been unsure where and how to do so.
But KCCN-ers prove that you're never too old to have a sense of wonder, it's never too late to be curious about the natural world, and it's right here in our back yard. KCCN provides the opportunity to explore places like heron rookeries and mud flats, sparkling streams and hill prairies, to witness rare plants and -- if we're lucky -- endangered wildlife. KCCN students get to walk through world-class grasslands and magnificent oak woodlands.
Exploring and discovering nature is an ongoing process. In addition to the core classes and field trips, there are classes called "Learn from the Experts." These draw on the expertise of professionals in various disciplines of ecology. Learn from the Experts classes are offered year round, at sights throughout the county. A minimum number of hours of Learn from the Experts classes are required for KCCN certification, and students may select from an array of these classes.
Volunteer work at forest preserves and park district natural areas as part of the program as well. Volunteer opportunities include everything from cutting brush, harvesting native plant seeds, and being a host at the Butterfly House at Peck Farm Park and a helping with special events such as Maple Sugaring or Earth Day.
Students have a year to fulfill these requirements. Upon completion of the classes, field trips, and volunteer work, students earn their certification as a Kane County Naturalist. Then -- with due pomp and circumstance -- we celebrate graduation around a campfire, complete with diplomas, s'mores, and surprise gifts. Properly feted, graduates past and present often recount the tales of KCCN adventures -- and there are plenty of those.
Why become a Kane County Certified Naturalist? KCCN-ers explain it best.
"I've often said, 'If I knew then ...' I would have studied to be a naturalist while in college," said Dolly Scanlen. "I pursued another career and, having recently retired, decided to take advantage of the next best thing -- the KCCN classes."
Dolly was so enthused about KCCN that she convinced her adult daughter Liz to take the class with her. The Scanlens were one of two mother-daughter teams of students in the Class of 2013.
Susan Bell of St. Charles was an eager candidate for Kane County Certified Naturalists in 2012. She jumped at the opportunity to sign up for the program.
"Joining the KCCN program provided me with tons of information about local natural areas," she said.
People like Wayne and Georgiana Koska, a husband-wife KCCN team from Geneva, Class of 2008, said they appreciate the opportunity to learn close by. Although they have traveled around the country to see natural areas, Wayne remarked, "We like going out with a small group of people to see and learn about nature up close. Being able to interact with naturalists and ask questions in real-time really enhances the experience."
Certified Naturalists Suzi Myers of St. Charles, Class of '07, and Sarah Kimber, '08, of Batavia have taken KCCN to the next level and are now teaching Learn from the Experts classes. Their upcoming program on the work of Aldo Leopold will be held in February at Creek Bend Nature Center in St. Charles; call (630) 444-3190 for details.
Learning about these ecological treasures naturally leads to the desire to preserve and protect them. Many KCCN students have become champions of the preservation and restoration of natural areas.
Dave Schoenknecht of Elgin, Class of '13, is one of many such people. He volunteers his time in numerous ways, from hands-on restoration at preserves such as Fitchie Creek in Elgin to creating educational material online.
"In the Certified Naturalist program everyone's enthusiasm about becoming better stewards of our local environment (is) contagious," Schoenknecht said. "The combination between classroom learning, field observation, volunteerism and continuing education has proven to be a great environment to hone my environmental sensitivities. It feels more like a community than a class."
Registration for the 2014 class of Kane County Certified Naturalists is now open. To receive an application package, call (630) 444-3190 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
• Valerie Blaine is the nature programs manager for the Forest Preserve District of Kane County. You may reach her by emailing email@example.com.