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Kids (of all ages!) love discovery, and what better way to feed that need than by turning snowbound winter days into a fun family, friends' or couple’s outing. Better yet, set aside time for regular outdoor jaunts to create a memorable family tradition.
Identifying and following a set of animal tracks can be like a giant treasure hunt. The mere thought that a white-tailed deer, wild turkey, or maybe an elusive bobcat walked nearby connects your child to the outdoors for years to come.
Spending a sun-drenched, crisp winter afternoon in Iowa’s great outdoors is a sure cure for Cabin Fever, and offers exercise in an often sedentary season. Plus, your kids or significant other will gain an appreciation for an amazing season too many miss while confined inside four walls.
Any season is a good time to look for tracks, but winter and spring are prime. Snow and soft ground create easy-to-find, distinctive imprints. Busy families don’t have to travel great distances or spend money to enjoy this winter activity. A local park, family farm, river bottom or backyard will always show signs of life. Focus on well-used animal trails, park beaches or other dry, sandy areas, a river or pond bank, or any muddy area.
Turn your tracking adventure into a winter shed-antler or spring morel hunt for added fun. Print a few wildlife track guides off the Internet, and make a game out of who can find the most tracks. Make it a “teachable moment” by explaining how wildlife survive Iowa’s sometimes brutal winters and the importance of habitat.
Take along a few plastic grocery sacks and gloves and make it a practice to pick up litter along the way. Those environmental messages will carry over into future forays.
The next time you venture into Iowa’s greatest outdoor classroom, take a child. It’s inexpensive entertainment, a great learning experience and an opportunity to teach woodsmanship, the love of nature and environmental stewardship. It may just become a memorable family ritual.
WHAT YOU NEED • Appropriate seasonal clothes, including comfortable walking shoes or boots and warm socks • Sacks for trash and found treasures • Walking stick • Water and snacks (be sure to carry out your trash) • Binoculars • Camera • Journal for making notes and recording experiences • Field guides to animals and their tracks • Thermos of hot cocoa, cider, coffee or tea
For more great outdoor exploration ideas, try these DNR boards on Pinterest: Take it Outside, Iowa Wildlife, Iowa Trails, Outdoor Education and We Love Winter in Iowa.
This article originally appeared in the January/February 2008 issue of Iowa Outdoors magazine.