Take a Hands-On Nature Hike!
- Matthew Lewis Contributing Writer
- 2007 5 May
When my brother Jonathan and I were growing up, we loved to play in the woods behind our neighborhood. We made trails, collected plants, picked raspberries, built huts, and even found a few skeletons from decomposed animals! (Mom made us keep those in bleach water for several months before she'd let them in the house!)
Mom and Dad were really good about letting us play back there. They never seemed to mind a little dirt (okay, a lot of dirt!), and Mom never got too upset when the creek water, which appeared clean and pure but really wasn't, turned our white socks a light purple! (Yes, we walked around in the water with our shoes on--hey, it saved us a lot of cuts and scrapes from glass and sharp rocks!)
A few times per year, our family would head out to a local park with forests and meadows and trails and just go on a nature hike. And, although "nature hikes" have become something of a cliché, they can still be very educational, and they're always a lot of fun! So since we're coming up on summertime, I thought a neat idea for this issue's Give it a Try would be a nature hike with a slightly different focus--namely, to do and observe things you may never have thought of before!
First, though, you need to choose a location for your hike. This does not need to be woods, although they work best. Most people are fairly close to a rural park, a secluded recreation area, or at least quiet country roadsides. Any of these should work well.
You don't need much equipment for your nature hike. You may want to take a small picnic lunch with you in a backpack, and basic first-aid equipment is always a good thing to have along. A pocket knife, flashlight, and magnifying glass would all be helpful too, and don't forget your compass! But unless you're in very unfamiliar territory or a large, uninhabited area, you probably won't need serious amounts of survival equipment.
One thing to remember is to always have at least one responsible adult (preferably two or more) along for your hikes. Ideally, take your hike as a family with Mom and Dad both along! Also, unless you're hiking on your own property, check the rules of the facility before collecting plants or other items from your hike--it may be illegal to keep them.
Now let's get on to some ideas for your hike--remember, we're trying to come up with things you've never done before, so feel free to be creative and vary these ideas to fit your needs. Just be sure your variations are safe!
Tracking animals or people by their footprints and other signs left behind is an uncommon skill, but it can be a lot of fun. Start by finding some animal tracks in the ground. Using a field guide that contains outlines of animal tracks, try to identify what kind of animal left the tracks.
Next, try to figure out about how old the track is. Are there leaves or specks of dust in the track? If so, do they look like they blew into the track after it was made, or did the animal step on them when it made the track in the first place? Is the track in mud, or does it look like the ground has dried substantially since the track was made?
Can you tell where the animal was going and why? For instance, if you find deer tracks pointing toward a lake, you might assume that the deer was going to get a drink. On the other hand, if you find deer tracks in a running pattern, you could assume that something had frightened the deer and it was running from an enemy.
Tracking people can be a fun family activity, although it requires a safe area that everyone is familiar with since you'll be split up into two groups. Also for that reason, a good set of walkie-talkies or two-way radios are a good idea in case you have trouble finding one another again. Also, this is definitely not a good idea for children to do alone.
To start, divide into two groups, and give one group a head start of five or ten minutes. This group should try to leave enough tracks that the group following them has something to go by, but not enough to make it too easy for them! The first group could walk in streams or through grassy areas to make it difficult for the second group to find their tracks. After ten or fifteen minutes, the first group should stop and hide somewhere. Meanwhile, the second group is trying to follow the tracks to find the first group. It's harder than it sounds, so the first group should make sure to deliberately leave signs and tracks frequently enough to show a reasonably clear trail. See how long it takes the second group to find the first, or if they have to call on the walkie-talkie and arrange for a meeting place!
When you walk through the woods, animals and birds know you're there and most will run away or otherwise behave unnaturally. However, if you sit still and watch, and are careful to be extremely quiet, it won't be long before they get used to you being there (or don't notice you at all) and begin to act more naturally. Observe the habits of birds and animals that are aware of your presence, and contrast that with their behavior when they don't know you're around.
You can also have a good time watching bugs--at least for awhile! In our part of the country, all you have to do is look closely at a small section of grass. You'll soon see several bugs crawling through the blades of grass, each intent on some errand of its own. Watch their movements and compare it to how you would expect to act in a similar environment. If you see the same types of bugs I normally manage to find, you'll probably wonder, A.) How do they move so fast on such short little legs, and, B.) If they can't run that fast without running into grass stems and tripping over dust particles, why don't they slow down?!
Still water is also a good place to observe insects and bugs. Some "skate" around on the top of the water, while others actually swim about in it. Don't spend too much time around stagnant water, as mosquitoes will be numerous. I don't know about you, but I've seen enough mosquitoes to last me a lifetime!
Yes, eating! You need to be extremely careful in your identifications, but there are all kinds of edible plants and berries out there, and it can be fun and educational to find and eat some of them! Again, though, be very careful so you don't wind up eating something poisonous. Some plants have poisonous look-alikes, and some are even edible at certain times of the year but toxic at other times.
One of my personal favorites is wild raspberries. They're thick as can be around here toward the middle or end of June. They prefer well-drained soil and can often be found on slopes alongside highways (although some people say berries growing too close to roadways may accumulate toxins from the passing cars). Raspberries are easy to identify by their leaves, which are arranged in groups of three or five, and are green on top and silvery-green on the bottom. Raspberry stalks can be light green or dark purple and have sharp thorns, so be careful when picking! Wild raspberries are ripe when they reach a shiny, near-black appearance and come off the plant easily, sometimes simply falling off at a touch.
Cattails are another "wild food" that you may find interesting. I have heard that cattails always have some edible portions, year-round. There are so many different ways to use cattails for food that I don't have room in this article to go into them all, but a quick Internet search will show plenty of ways you can eat these common plants.
There are many other edible plants and berries, but many of them only grow in specific geographic areas. Do some research for what's available in your area and go on a foraging expedition! (Again, unless you're on your own property, check to make sure this is okay to do as some park districts have rules against picking plants.)
By the way, it's worth saying again – be very sure of what you're looking at before you eat it. Some wild edibles are almost impossible to mistake, while others are difficult to tell from their poisonous counterparts. A wrong guess could cause you to become a little sick, really sick, or even to die, so don't take any chances!
It is comforting to know that (supposedly) very few plants will actually kill you, provided you only eat a small quantity. If you try some wild "food" and find it tastes bitter, soapy, or otherwise unpleasant, you should stop eating it immediately, and probably drink lots of water just in case.
We're coming up on the best time of year to go hiking and enjoy the outdoors. I hope this article has given you some ideas to add some extra interest to your nature hikes this summer! So have fun learning what you can from God's creation, and remember to be safe!
Matthew Lewis, a homeschool graduate, is a self-taught web developer who enjoys writing computer code almost as much as eating a good raspberry cobbler (and much more than making one). He admits to having never tasted cattails, but sheepishly says he nearly tried pine sap once as a substitute for chewing-gum (not advised).
This article was originally published in the May/June '07 issue of Home School Enrichment Magazine, a national publication dedicated to encouraging and equipping Christian homeschoolers. For more information, visit http://HomeSchoolEnrichment.com