Wetlands Centre offers variety of programs to help youth connect with nature this summer

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Area youth can connect with nature this summer through a variety of programs and day camps offered at the Driftless Area Wetlands Centre in Marquette. (NIT file photo)

By Audrey Posten, North Iowa Times

From dipping a net in the wetland and testing water quality to casting for trout and digging for dinosaur “fossils,” the Driftless Area Wetlands Centre in Marquette will offer countless opportunities for area youth to connect with nature this summer.

“We want to help kids learn how to love nature and the outdoors,” said Wetlands Centre Director Alicia Mullarkey. “We want to help them see what’s right outside their door and get them excited about what’s here.”

Activities will kick off Wednesday, June 5, with the first weekly Wetland Explorers program. Held from 10 to 11 a.m., these programs include guided nature exploration for preschool-age (2-5 years old) kids. At 11 a.m., kids of all ages can join for Nature Playdays.

Thanks to a grant, Mullarkey said the Wetlands Centre was able to purchase mud pants, which will allow groups like this to play in the wetland.

These programs are free and will be held each Wednesday through July 17.

Several different day camps are also planned for this summer.

“In the past, we’ve partnered with Clayton County Extension,” Mullarkey said. “We’re going to continue doing that, but there was enough interest that we decided to do some of our own too.”

Two camps for youth in kindergarten through third grade will be offered with the Clayton County Extension. 

The first, held Tuesday, June 18, is called “Crawlers, Fliers and Jumpers,” and will give campers a hands-on experience learning about the wetland’s diversity and bugs. Youth will play games, compete in a STEM jumping challenge and create while learning about insects and why they are so important. 

The second camp, called “Bee a Bug Watcher,” is offered Tuesday, June 25, and will help kids discover the interesting insects and creatures around where they live and what those bugs do for humans. They’ll see how and why bees are helpful, while sampling local honey.

Both camps will run from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. There is a small fee to participate, and registration can be completed at www.tinyurl.com/clayton-camp19. 

The Wetlands Centre is offering four day camps of its own thanks to sponsorship from the Alliant Energy Foundation, city of Marquette and Friends of the Marquette Driftless Area. The first, for ages 5 to 6, will run from 1 to 4 p.m. on Wednesday, June 12. A two-day event for 6 to 8 year olds will be offered Thursday through Friday, June 13-14, from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. each day. Kids age 7 to 11 can join the fun on Thursday, June 20, or Thursday, June 27; camps will run from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. each day.

The schedule will include science and nature art activities along with unstructured outdoor play and exploration. Activities will also be tailored to the interests and ages of the participants. Some experts on topics like birding, fishing and geology may stop by.

“We’re hoping to explore more of the wetlands,” said Mullarkey. “Especially with the older kids, we can do some water quality testing and learn about watersheds—really delve into the science. With the flood, it’s a good time to talk about water resources.”

There is a small fee to participate in these day camps. Call the Wetlands Centre at (563) 873-3537 or email driftlessareawetlandcentreia@gmail.com to reserve your spot.

In addition to the day camps, the Wetlands Centre will also offer two Tom Sawyer Adventure Days on July 9 and 16, from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. each day. Through these hands-on programs, attendees will explore the Mississippi River with Robert Vavra’s Maiden Voyage Tours, searching for wildlife and learning about river history like steam boating, clamming and commercial fishing. Lunch will include a hotdog cookout on a sandbar.

“Kids can go out and walk around on the sandbar,” Mullarkey shared, “and they can swim and have a blast.”

Several single-day programs will be organized by the Wetlands Centre, as well. 

On Saturday, June 8, a youth trout fishing program will be held at Bloody Run County Park, near Marquette, from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Gary Siegwarth, from Big Spring Trout Hatchery, will lead this event during Iowa’s free fishing weekend. Members from the Iowa Trout Fishing group will provide prizes and hands-on fly fishing instruction. Attendees can meet at the park’s campground shelter house; fishing poles will be provided.

“Gary stocks the stream right before the event, and the [Iowa Trout Fishing] folks have been fishing Bloody Run for years,” Mullarkey said, “so they know all the sweet spots.”

A Family Nature Night, with a focus on fireflies, will be held on Friday, June 12, at 7 p.m. Attendees can explore the wetlands and the nature center at night and learn about the wonderful world of fireflies. There will also be a campfire and s’mores.

Lastly, the Wetlands Centre will host its annual Dino Day on Saturday, July 27, from 9 to 11 a.m. Learn about prehistoric northeast Iowa at this event, which includes a fossil dig for kids, dinosaur displays and other educational activities.

The Wetlands Centre is open every Tuesday through Saturday, from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., and Mullarkey encourages families to stop by and check out the nature displays. Equipment for wetland exploration is also available.

The site’s outdoor areas and nature play trail can be utilized from sunrise to sunset.

“The trail is so nice to have,” shared Mullarkey of the feature that was added last year. “People come down frequently to walk it. It gets people out and exercising and, now, they’re more likely to go beyond the building and explore. There’s so much wildlife here, with the wetlands.”

Kids have particularly enjoyed the nature play trail, which includes stepping stones, logs, willow huts/wildlife blinds, a mud kitchen and more.

“There’s fun stuff for the kids to climb on. They’re playing in the tall grass and playing hide-and-seek. They’ll dig in rock piles and dirt piles. They’re digging for bugs and seeing different birds. They’re making art and shelters,” Mullarkey explained. “There’s just so much engagement. They’re out there for hours.”

Mullarkey likes that it encourages unstructured play.

“Every group finds something different to do. They come up with so many games to play,” she said. “Some of that stuff, I think kids have been missing out on.”

To learn more about upcoming events at the Driftless Area Wetlands Centre, follow them on Facebook or go to driftlessareawetlandcentre.com.

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