I can remember every detail of the day I told my high school guidance counselor that I wanted to be a naturalist.

First, there was the look on her face. A stern woman by nature, Mrs. Kobak pursed her lips and furrowed her brow – even more than usual – as she looked over the top of her glasses and stared a hole into my nave, 16-year-old soul.

After what seemed like an eternity of silence – the proverbial “crickets,” had the little Orthopterans dared sneak under her door – she folded her hands on her desk, leaned forward, and in a voice that haunts me to this day, said, “That, my dear, is not a career choice. That (don’t you love how she couldn’t even bring herself to say the word?) is a hobby.”

For all I knew, she was right. The college catalogs back then had no clear-cut degrees leading to a degree in nature education. And so began my circuitous 20-year path to becoming a certified (or is that certifiable) naturalist.

I won’t bore you with the details of my eventual career in publishing – how I’d catch frogs on my lunch hour, or ponder the spiders outside my office window. And the story of how I’ve been able to blend my lifelong naturalist hobby with my late-stage naturalist career will have to wait for another time. But I will tell you about an opportunity where you, too, can learn how to be a naturalist and become completely enthralled by the ecology of our area. It might not lead to a career, but it will lead you to appreciate the nature that surrounds us in more ways than you ever thought possible.

What I’m talking about is our Kane County Certified Naturalist program. Now in its 14th year, KCCN seeks to “promote awareness and citizen stewardship of Kane County natural resources through science-based education and community service.” At least that’s what the official description says. But you know what else we do? We have a whole lot of fun!

Through a combination of classes and field trips, you can learn how to see our northern Illinois landscape through a naturalist’s eyes. The rolling hills that dot Kane County become unique remnants from our Ice Age past. The ancient oaks and hickories in our woods speak of bygone days, while their saplings give us hope for the future. The frogs in our wetlands? They’re sentinels of environmental quality. And don’t even get me started on the stories our local prairies tell.

Well, OK, I think we have time for just one. Illinois was once known as the Prairie State and featured 22,000,000 – that’s 22 million – acres of glorious tallgrass prairie. But as our state and country grew, more and more prairie became farmland. Today just 2,500 acres of original, untouched prairie remain. That’s the same as starting out with $100 and ending up with a penny.

But what could be a depressing account of destruction turns into a happy tale of restoration as you learn about the work being done by our partner agencies – the Forest Preserve District of Kane County, the Geneva Park District and the nature department here at the St. Charles Park District – to bring back this vital piece of our local ecology.

Here’s how the program works. The 2021-22 session gets underway in January with six weeks of evening classes. Then in April, May and June, we solidify our classroom ecology concepts with four Saturday field trips.

Ah, but I know what you’re thinking. What about COVID?

To accommodate learners who would rather not meet for in-person, socially distanced instruction, we also are offering a virtual option via the online platform Zoom. These classes will begin at 6 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 13, while in-person classes will start the following night, Jan. 14, in the spacious meeting rooms at Hickory Knolls Discovery Center in St. Charles.

Once the six core classes are complete, we’ll take a break and allow the weather to warm up a bit before starting the springtime field trips. These excursions will consist of visits to area parks, forest preserves and museums that best illustrate the concepts discussed during class.

From there, you’ll have until April 2022 to complete an additional 30 hours of a combination of advanced coursework (our Learn From the Experts classes) and volunteer service at any of the three participating agencies. After that, it’s on to graduation and your new life as an official KCCNer. Your one-time fee of $300 covers your costs for the entire year, as well as a certificate and nifty polo shirt once you complete the requirements.

I should also add that, again due to COVID, we’re offering a core-class-only option. For a reduced fee of $150, you can take part in the six online courses but not the field trips, subsequent LFE classes and volunteer opportunities, nor the certification and nifty shirt. Still, it’s a good option to start you on your road toward learning what nature is all about.

Information session on Nov. 12

I know. It’s a lot to absorb. To help sort out the options, we’ll be hosting a KCCN information session at 7 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 12, at Hickory Knolls, which is located within the James O. Breen Community Park at Peck and Campton Hills roads in St. Charles. If you’d like to come, just shoot me an email or call and we’ll add your name to the attendance list.

On the other hand, if you’re ready to sign up now, please do. The Geneva Park District currently is processing registrations. Click on the Register Now tab at www.genevaparks.org, then click Browse Activities and use the keyword Certified in the search box.

I’m no Mrs. Kobak, so I think you’ll find that being a naturalist is more than just a hobby. It’s a way of life. And we’re here to help you discover it! Hope to see you soon.

• Pam Otto is the outreach ambassador for the St. Charles Park District. She can be reached at 630-513-4346 or potto@stcparks.org.

When was the last time you found a salamander? This opportunity and many more await when you enroll as a Kane County Certified Naturalist. The program has graduated more than 300 nature enthusiasts since its start in 2007.
When was the last time you found a salamander? This opportunity and many more await when you enroll as a Kane County Certified Naturalist. The program has graduated more than 300 nature enthusiasts since its start in 2007.