Over the past several years, I rediscovered my love of the outdoors. Camping, hiking, wandering, exploring. Like most pre-video game era kids, I spent more hours outside than inside while growing up; in the woods, in creeks, by the river. I guess you could say I’m in my second childhood now, because I just want to go back to those days of spending hours upon hours getting lost outdoors, especially large expanses of wilderness where the outside world hasn’t entered.
A few years ago, I noticed while browsing Indiana’s DNR website that they offered “master naturalist” classes, which sounded right up my alley. I wasn’t looking for a new career or anything, but we all need hobbies that make us feel alive (and believe me, I’ve had more than my share of hobbies). Since my prime hobbies over the past several years have been camping & hiking state/national parks & nature preserves, wouldn’t it be awesome to learn more about what I see, and perhaps be able to share that knowledge? (The answer is “yes” by the way!) I can’t necessarily go back in time and get my dream job of being a ranger or naturalist in a national park full of mountains, but there are other options, including volunteer opportunities right here within our own state parks.
So in September 2014, I signed up for an Indiana Master Naturalist course being held at Camp Cullom in Clinton County (between Mulberry and Frankfort). The course consisted of eight, three hour seminars, with each seminar having it’s own unique field specialist. Our host that sponsored the class was Leah Harden, who is the administrator of the Clinton County Soil & Water Conservation District. It turns out that Camp Cullom was the perfect location for these classes, as it offered just about everything you could possibly want for nature classes. It has a prairie, a stream, ponds, rolling forested hills, and Indiana’s largest non-university space observatory. And these classes were very hands on, as almost every week, we ended up out in the field. The class itself consisted of about 15 adult learners from all walks of life; there were master gardeners, farmers, hunters, retirees, all avid outdoorsy people like myself.
I couldn’t possibly go into detail about every class, but I can guarantee each one I came home excited to share something I learned with my family. Here’s a summary
Week 1: Birds and Observation with Mary Cutler, Tippecanoe Co. Parks Dept.
Learning how to *properly* use binoculars, identifying birds by size, silhouette, etc. Birding has never been a big interest of mine, but since I took up nature photography, it’s become more interesting. I also maintain bird feeders in my backyard wildlife habitat, so learning the subtle differences in some of our Indiana species is a bonus. Speaking of bonus, we also put together bird houses that we were allowed to take home.
Week 2: Forestry with Lenny Farlee, Purdue Department of Forestry and Natural Resources
Trees, shrubs, invasive species. It’s amazing how much you can learn in just 100 feet of forest edge! As much time as I’ve spent in the woods, I’ve never really taken the time to learn proper names. I don’t seem to have a good memory when it comes to proper names either, at least not without practice, and that’s where a good field guide comes in handy.
Week 3: Soils/Geology with Sherry Fulk-Bringman, Purdue Department of Agronomy
Silt, sand, clay, organics, the water table…all things that sustain life on this rock we call Earth. Normally I would find the study of dirt to be a little tedious, but I’ve never seen it broken down to it’s very elements this way. Honestly, I can’t even imagine the work people involved in soil conservation have to put in. Looking at how they’ve mapped out the geology and soil structure of virtually every inch of the state is mind boggling, yet essential.
Week 4: Wildflowers & Native Prairie with Robert Easter, NICHES Land Trust
While I don’t know Bob Easter personally, I’ve been in the NICHES facebook group for a long time and have known of him and their work in restoring & protecting numerous nature preserves in the area. Bob is a wealth of knowledge in the field, as we walked the prairie he dished out more info than I could keep up with, and he even discovered some invasive species within the prairie (something that an elective class in October would be addressing). Bob was a lot of fun to listen to, as he quickly bounced from one thing to another, put him in a prairie and he’s like a kid that raided the candy jar, you can sense the excitement. While his teaching style was a little scattered, his enthusiasm was infectious.
Week 5: Astronomy with Russ Kaspar, Prairie Grass Observatory
One of the great things about classes being at Camp Cullom is that it has this privately owned observatory right in the middle of it’s prairie, located far enough out of metropolitan areas for a nice dark sky. This particular observatory is an official asteroid tracking & discovery station, and they have discovered more than 20 confirmed asteroids. Using mostly their 16″ LX200R telescope, we observed the Moon, Saturn and it’s rings, as well as a globular cluster that contained more than 100,000 stars. Simply amazing.
Week 6: Stream Ecology with Sarah Brichford, Wildcat Guardians/Hoosier Riverwatch/Purdue Ext. Water Quality Specialist
Macroinvertebrates! This was a fun seminar, as my family does a lot of hiking & playing in creeks. Learning how to judge the health of a waterway by all the nymphs, larvae, and other invertebrates living in a stream was fascinating. Sarah got into a swollen stream with a net and pulled out everything from crayfish to mayfly nymphs. Then we examined bottled specimens and tried to identify them. This is the one activity I have actually brought home and taken my son out and tried with him, we got in the Wildcat near our home with a net and found mayfly nymphs, left handed snails, and a tiny leech.
Week 7: Native Prairies with Angie Manuel, interpretive naturalist at Prophetstown State Park
This class, at least to me, was a mix of our wildflower and forestry seminars. Angie used a lot of her knowledge from Prophetstown and applied it to the prairie at Camp Cullom, and also to the plants we found at the woods edge. I’ll admit, a lot of this info is fascinating to me, yet it doesn’t stick very well in my brain (another reason for field guides!) I would imagine collecting seed for prairie plants has to be extremely time consuming and tedious, kudos to those who do it. I was excited to learn more of the background of Prophetstown and why the DNR hasn’t done more, such as not including much with the Native American side of the park (DNR only recently took control of that aspect, and hasn’t found much help from Native America groups yet and they don’t want to do it wrong). Also learned there are several Indiana mounds at Prophetstown, but they’re not accessible or protectable within the park so they don’t advertise it. The future for Prophetstown is looking bright though, as plans are in the works for a true nature center, if Indiana ever allocates the money for it.
Week 8: Indiana Mammals with Rob Chapman, Purdue Extension Wildlife Specialist
This might have been one of the funnest classes, learning about native mammals and how to identify them from their skulls. I had no idea that ARMADILLOS are an Indiana native species, yet they supposedly live in the southwest corner of our state, and have been spotted as far north as Terre Haute (black bears are also expected to eventually make a comeback in Indiana, yea!) Meanwhile, the opossum is not native, it actually migrated here from South America about 150 years ago, after American settlers killed off most of their natural enemies. The highlight of the class was attempting to identify 30 skulls using a key that Mr. Chapman has been developing (I like to think of our class as an experiment in how well the key works). I only attempted 8 skulls myself, and got 7 of them right.
As I write this, I am NOT a certified Indiana Master Naturalist. I completed the course, and passed the test. But the final step in being certified is completing a minimum of 24 hours volunteer service with an approved nature organization (parks dept., DNR, etc.) At the moment, I still need to complete 10.5 hours. I did 4 hours at the Hoosier Outdoor Experience, another 4.5 hours of trail cleaning at Turkey Run for National Public Lands Day, and 5 hours also at Turkey Run for their Halloween weekend scavenger hunt. As it gets colder, volunteer opportunities are reduced, but I’ll fit it in eventually. And then I’ll be looking toward the Advanced Indiana Master Naturalist rank…
If you have an interest in nature, whether just because you like being out in it, or because you own land and want to learn how to properly conserve it, the master naturalist program is an ideal way to learn more. It won’t teach you everything, but it’ll give you the resources on how to continue learning. I hope to get my son in the Junior Master Naturalist class next year, and maybe even my wife in them down the road too.
Many thanks to class sponsor Leah Harden, who also took most of the pics here. Your efforts are appreciated.