BY KATIE MATTESON
Did you know that just 10 minutes from downtown, you can find 78 acres of nature just waiting for you to explore? It’s River Bend Nature Center, located at 3600 N. Green Bay Rd. in a forested area on the banks of the Root River.
But there’s more…The grounds and trails are open sunrise to sunset every day of the year and the buildings are open year round from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday. During ski/snowshoe season and canoe/kayak season the buildings are open 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturdays and 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sundays.
And here’s the best part…there’s no admission charge. Why? Because the property is owned by Racine County and operated without tax dollars by River Bend Nature Center, Inc. The center is self-sustaining through private support, program revenue, special events, and equipment and facilities rental.
The 501(c)(3) non-profit corporation was formed in 2012 to continue and expand the mission begun by the Racine YWCA 50 years before to provide outdoor recreation and environmental education.
When the YWCA needed to sell the property to fund its core operations, Racine County stepped up and purchased it under the condition that a non-profit corporation unrelated to the YWCA would continue to operate the nature center.
When Jeanne Dernehl of Caledonia was hired as executive director in January 2013, a hearty crew of volunteers had already worked for the better part of a year restorating the property and updating the buildings.
While one group cleared invasive plants, primarily buckthorn and honeysuckle, from around the buildings and cleared trails, another group installed a new roof on the main building, renovated the interior spaces of both buildings and cleared outdoor spaces.
Dernehl said that during her tenure at the center she’s drawn from her diverse skills and experience to take on the challenges of reinvigorating the nature center. She’s a graduate of the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design, had worked in the past as director of Discovery World Museum, Small World Montessori School in Racine and in the private sector as executive manager of a national marina management business.
She said her first goal was to get the educational program off the ground, so her first hire was a naturalist who could develop the environmental education curricula and train the volunteers and staff.
Along with one other full timer who takes care of administrative tasks and coordinates the recreation program, the small but mighty staff of three hosted over 20,000 visitors to the center last year with help from its dedicated crew of volunteers who serve as naturalists, summer camp assistants and help with special events, group service projects, maintenance and Habitat Healers (pulling invasive plant species, planting native species and maintaining the trails).
Included in the visitor numbers were the 8,000 K-8 students who participated in the field trip program. Teachers are offered a variety of curricula with hands-on environmental educational experiences which are aligned with the Next Generation Science Standards required by the state.
Thanks to a partnership with the Racine Unified School District and private underwriting, the center offers fall field trips for all Kindergarteners in the district at no cost to the family or the individual school and plans are underway to add another designated field trip in the spring.
Dernehl hires seasonal staff for the summer nature camp that takes place from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. from the mid-June through mid-August, for campers ages 4-6, 7-9 and 10-13. An after-camp program is also available in the afternoons. Fees are charged per week, with discounts for River Bend Nature Center Friends and some scholarships are available.
The center also offers a full range of enrichment programs for children and adults that give hands-on experiences to learn where maple syrup comes from, participate in an outdoor challenge course, learn general survival skills, take a beginning canoe/kayak course or take a guided canoe/kayak paddle, take an archery course, hunt for treasure in the geocaching and orienteering class or learn about the center’s wildlife and ecosystems. Fees for these programs vary.
In addition, the River Bend Carving Club offers wood carving classes for beginners on the first and third Saturdays of every month. The drop-in classes are from 9:30 – 11:30 a.m. and are for adults and children 10 and older. The cost is $3 per student.
Special events are also scheduled throughout the year, such as the Full Moon Paddle, Pancake Breakfast and the Candlelight Trail Walk, as well as a lecture series and book club.
Other outdoor recreational activities at the center include equipment rental of canoes and kayaks in the warm months and snowshoes and cross country skis for the snowy months.
The staff will also work with groups for customized activities as a part of retreats or other special events, as the facilities are available for private rental.
Detailed information about all the offerings, volunteer opportunities and making a donation to River Bend Nature Center are available by phone at (262) 639-1515, email at info@RiverBendNatureCenterRacine.org or visit RiverBendNatureCenter.org.