We travel to Riveredge, northwest of Milwaukee, to learn about the energy and vision of the place, starting with its new executive director.
In the 1960s members of the White Fish Bay Garden Club took the encroachment of urban sprawl on natural areas to heart.
The organization teamed up with the Junior League of Milwaukee. They put their minds and combined fundraising muscle together to set aside a space. $15,000 covered the down payment on 72 acres along the Milwaukee River outside of the small town of Newburg. It was a space where they coped research could be done, and where future generations could explore nature.
Today Riveredge Nature Center encompasses more than five times that acreage – including marshes, ponds, prairies and forest – and is celebrating its 45th year.
Jessica Jens had been on the job eight months when I met her amidst Riveredge’s towering maples and red oak. The power-packed strawberry blonde came here by way of Upham Woods Outdoor Learning Center in the Wisconsin Dells; and before that UW Extension.
Although she grew up just ½ hour’s drive from the edge of Riveredge, Jens knew nothing about it.
She started her professional career and agricultural education before earning a masters in outdoor education. She describes her strategy as simple – just get people outdoors and give them a good time.
“Giving them positive experiences and trying to inspire them for a love of the natural world.”
Riveredge has already carved a strong niche of children’s nature camps and family activities. More than 350 volunteers keep the place ticking. They staff camps and workshops and keep invasive plants at bay.
Jens gazes up to the tree tops. That’s where she hop help where one of her Riveredge innovations will soon unfold.
“We're looking at starting a tree climbing program at Riveredge.”
Actually the process has pushed beyond the exploratory stage.
“Certified, there is nobody in Wisconsin to do that so we are currently raising money to bring a certified tree coach. He’s coming out from Colorado in November, so that we can put the ropes up in our trees, our giant trees. And you can put six ropes in one tree, kind of lure them outside, give them a whole new perspective on nature in the canopy of a tree, like a squirrel .”
Not all of Riveredge’s volunteers think this tree climbing scheme is such a swell idea. Jens says Riveredge’s mission is solid, but it’s navigating in a changed world, one in which many kids aren’t bounding out of the house to play outdoors.
“The amount of research that’s out there showing that families just aren’t necessarily getting outside. But with technology, which is not bad ......”
Jens backpedals a bit.
“I’m okay with technology but you have to do it deliberately in a way that can help intrigue people to be outside and increase their learning.”
Technology isn’t the obstacle to kids exploring the natural world. Jens says the problem goes deeper.
“Parents are concerned for their children’s safety when they’re outside. Just to say hey go run around, hey go play in the woods; it’s a different time, it’s a different society.....We can’t keep doing the things we were doing 35 years ago because people have changed, society has changed, families have changed. So we have to be constantly be looking and evaluating ...what we need to do to reach them to encourage them to come outside to learn.”
Keith Hiestand is using vegetable patches to draw kids outdoors at Riveredge. Among the multiple hats he wears is keeper of the organic children’s organic garden just outside Riveredge’s main building.
“We have summer camps at Riveredge and we have a couple of camps that are specifically garden focused. So the garden campers mainly work out of that children’s garden but they also come out here for two days a week,” Heistand says
"Here" is a former worn out cornfield just a mile east of the kids garden. In 2007 Hiestand and others at Riveredge started its transformation to a permaculture farm. Its heart is a mixed fruit orchard of sour cherries, pears, Italian plums, along with disease resistant apple trees.
“Because in the Midwest it’s difficult to grow apples without using sprays and we’re committed to keeping this project 100 percent organic.”
There were a bunch of adults oohing and aahing over the sea of green when I visited, but when kids campers visit, Hiestand does something special. He sets them loose on a food quest.
“They follow a map and they find these little treasure boxes there are a series of clues about ‘what am I’ and once the kids figure it out, there’s a sample of what that plant produces, either an apple, a plum or a pear.”
Once Hiestand placed Nutella inside the treasure box.
“That was really popular and we had a whole discussion about is Nutella a healthy food or not; there are hazelnuts in here, but what else is in Nutella.”
Another of Riveredge’s projects captures the interest of kids and adults alike. 2013 is year eight of a 25 year commitment to raise “baby sturgeon from the egg stage to wee prehistoric looking fish that fits in an adults hands.
Sue Borchardt are part of the team of volunteers covering shifts every day of the week – her’s has been Monday mornings.
She says the work is not glamorous. Volunteers flush out filters, clean the tanks chop up a combination of worms and other baby sturgeon delicacies.
“And then we have twelve in the freezer for later today, because they get fed four times a day,” Borchardt says.
This is Borchardt’s fourth year as sturgeon tender, her partner Corinne Baum started this season.
“I wanted to do it for my son who is eleven because he has some special disabilities so I thought it would be a fun opportunity,” Borchardt says.
Baum says this isn’t her son’s first dip into nature – he’s happiest when exploring.
“He loves the outdoors, he loves animals and plants, anything to do with the outdoors. So I thought it would be fun for him to see the fish. So he comes with me some of the time.”
When the sturgeon are released Baum and her son will tenderly ease a bucket into the water. The hope is that one day adult sturgeon will retrace the Riveredge water r imprint and spawn in the Milwaukee River.
That could take years, but Corinne Baum hopes her son’s sturgeon is one day spotted thriving in Lake Michigan.
That could happen.
Over recent weeks eight sturgeon nurtured within this trailer tucked in the Riveredge forest were found in Lake Michigan – one as far away as the northern Michigan.
Baum calls that experience environmental education at its best.
Riveredge Nature Center will team up with the Department of Natural Resources on Saturday morning when it releases 1100 fingerling sturgeon. The action takes place at Lakeshore State Park on Milwaukee’s lakefront.