Posted: March 9, 2021
March 16, 2021 marks the one-year anniversary of what I consider the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in Iowa: the day schools across the state were closed. Soon after, I wrote a Winneshiek Wild column about how, in the face of incredible uncertainty, I was able to find some relief and comfort in the certainty of spring’s arrival.
It now seems that I was not the only one who looked to the outdoors as a way to make it through not only that shutdown, but 2020 in general. Across Winneshiek County (and Iowa, and the nation as a whole), 2020 was a banner year for people going outside.
Our local campgrounds were full all the time. Trails, parks, and scenic destinations had more visitors than we have ever seen (did anyone else give up trying to visit Dunning’s Spring on a Saturday?) If you were hoping to buy a bike, kayak, or fly-rod last summer, I hope you pre-ordered in April.
It didn’t hurt that we had consistently stellar weather all last summer and fall, but I think that we would have seen such increases even if the weather hadn’t cooperated. Outdoor activities fit the bill of what people needed: entertainment, time with others, beauty, fun.
As an organization, our mission is to connect people to the natural resources of Winneshiek County, so increased use of our outdoor spaces and facilities is something we love to see. But we—and other land managers—also have a duty to protect those natural resources, so we always encourage users to visit trails, parks, and natural areas in ways that also protect the resource itself and ensure that future users also have a quality experience.
This time of year, as we head into spring, can be an especially fun time to be outside as we all shake off winter and nature starts to wake up. But it’s an important time to have a little extra consideration for how you are outside. Waking up is hard, so we should try to give nature a little grace and breathing room as it yawns and stretches.
The basic tenets of respecting a natural area don’t change with spring’s arrival. Trash goes in appropriate containers or home with you; respect and follow any guidelines, barriers, or regulations. But spring often does bring with it a more seasonal and sticky concern: mud. As the snow melts and spring rains arrive, many trails and natural areas can become soggy and soft.
We should all stay off these areas for the same reason that farmers keep tractors out of wet fields and gardeners wait to start digging: tracking through wet earth is not good for the ground (or your shoes) and can leave footprints or tire tracks that can eventually set like concrete in the dried mud. So, if the ground is so wet, fragile, or steep that you are leaving tracks, grinding out plants, or otherwise damaging the earth, it is not the right time to be there. Come back later when things have dried out and firmed up.
On trails, it’s also important to avoid going off-trail to get around wet areas. Some of my favorite walking trails are show-stoppers during spring wildflower season because the flowers are right at the trail edges. If I walk off the trail to avoid some mud, I could be trampling those exact flowers I came to see, not to mention wearing down a new path that wasn’t meant to be there.
Speaking of flowers: the emergence of spring wildflowers is one of the best parts of spring in the Midwest, both for their beauty and for the way you can track spring’s progress by their flowering. As an educator and a parent, I put a lot of value in hands-on experiences outdoors and I generally am a big fan of collecting or playing with “nature treasures” of all sorts. Except for spring wildflowers.
Spring wildflowers (wild trilliums, dutchman’s breeches, bluebells, etc.) are so fleeting, so picky about their habitat needs, and such an important early nectar source for pollinators, that they really should not be picked. And their other moniker—spring ephemerals—holds true if they are picked: they won’t last more than a few hours before wilting. Best to leave them be.
For animals, spring is a busy time as migratory birds return and everyone focuses on finding a mate and raising young. This makes for some of the best wildlife viewing of the year as animals show off flashy colors, woo each other with calls and songs, or relentlessly dash around collecting food for little mouths. Watch and enjoy, but don’t interrupt; they have important things to do.
As spring weather calls, many of us will also return to trails, parks, and natural areas we haven’t visited since last fall. We all have important, but possibly different, reasons for being out there: exercise, connecting with others, spending time alone, mental health, or maybe just feeling warm sun on our skin. Our public trails, parks, and natural are shared resources and all users are welcome, so make space for each other as we all wake up, stretch, and head out into the new season to enjoy beautiful Winneshiek County.
Want to track spring changes? Click here for our downloadable “Signs of Spring” checklist and field guide.