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Group started as a defense against state budget cuts and now regularly fills up more than 200 opportunities to see fields, forests, creeks, and critters.

The spring emergence was in full swing in the Northern Kettle Moraine, as amphibians and reptiles thawed out and began wriggling and scurrying towards the warmth of the sun.

The 20 people on a herpetology field trip were having a spring emergence of their own. As ospreys soared above and chorus frogs serenaded from the shallows, they waded into the ephemeral kettle pond with nets, hoping to snare a newt or a glistening mass of salamander eggs.

“Give it to me, I’ll pick it up,’’ volunteered 8-year-old Briella Hawkinson-Madriaga, who sloshed into the pond in waders up to her armpits. She had many questions for Rori Paloski, the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) reptile and snake expert, who co-led the trip. She held a blue spotted salamander and learned that the thumbnail-sized spring peeper can freeze solid over the winter, only to thaw and start chirping its heart out for a mate come spring.

Briella Hawkinson-Madriaga, age 8, and her grandmother search for worms, salamander eggs, newts, and more during a recent field trip sponsored by the Natural Resources Foundation of Wisconsin.

Briella and her grandmother, Debbie Hawkinson, are two of the thousands of people who will investigate Wisconsin’s natural wonders this year on field trips organized by the Natural Resources Foundation of Wisconsin. 

The 260 field trips began in late April with archeology and reptile trips—like this one in the Northern Unit of the Kettle Moraine State Forest—and run through fall migration on the Mississippi in early November. Knowledgeable leaders from the DNR and elsewhere will take people on trips in nearly every corner of the state, from elk bugling on the Flambeau River to a search for fall color hike in the rock sea of the felsenmeer of the Blue Hills to a raft trip to explore the islands of Death’s Door off the tip of Door County.

You can learn trout fishing on the Kickapoo or see a bat swarm at sunrise along the Mississippi River near Trempealeau. You can partake in the ancient Japanese custom of Shinrin-Yoku or forest bathing, complete with a tea ceremony. 

Other trips focus on history, including a visit to the childhood farm of John Muir and a hike along the Milwaukee River to learn about the “Sewer Socialists” and their environmental legacy. There’s even a prairie hike to see “Non-Binary Nature,” the “queer native species of Wisconsin” on a prairie near Mineral Point.

The foundation, which got its start in 1986 to support DNR endangered species programs during a budget-cutting era, has been offering field trips since 1994, and boy, are they popular. To sign up, first you have to be a member of the foundation–a minimum donation of $25–and then be ready at your computer at noon on the first Monday of April. Popular trips were already full by 12:03 p.m.

“If you’re not on your computer at high noon, you’re going to be aced out,’’ said Tom Meyer, a DNR staffer who leads wildly popular kayaking and hiking tours of the natural areas in the Wisconsin Dells.

But there are still about 1,000 openings in 150 trips, which you can find on the foundation’s web site. They range from wheelchair accessible outings to “extreme,” adventures, like the one that requires a quarter-mile “army crawl” to reach a cave in the Niagara Escarpment of Door County.

The trips cost anywhere from $18 to $78 for an ebike tour of Door County. Some of the trips are fundraisers for specific sites or funds. The reptile trip included a $15 surcharge for the Wisconsin Reptile and Amphibian and Reptile Conservation Fund.

Debbie Hawkinson said the trip was well worth it for a beautiful spring day out in the woods with her nature-loving granddaughter. She had spent much of the past year confined to home, waiting for hip replacement surgery.

“If COVID taught me anything, it’s that when you see something you want to do, you should do it,’’ she said.

Field trip leader Rich Staffen shows off salamander eggs.
A group goes netting for newts on a field trip organized by the Natural Resources Foundation of Wisconsin.

Meyers said the field trips began to share natural resources success stories, such as the return of the trumpeter swan, with foundation members who supported the efforts. They grew from there, as people learned they could access some of the state’s hidden gems with expert guides.

And although he’s been leading trips for 25 years, he still gets a kick out of getting down on the sand and peering into spider dens with kids during his tour of the “Wisconsin desert” on the Blue River Barrens.

“To interact with kids under 10 is such a joy,’’ he said. “There’s so much wonder in nature.