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Get Outside! Discover Nature, Win Stuff

By Karla Nagy, Northwest Quarterly magazine

Right here in Winnebago County, we have access to more than 10,000 acres of green spaces, 42 forest preserves, four rivers and 100 miles of hiking trails.

Residents can take advantage of these facilities and resources on their own, as well as through myriad guided hikes and paddles, programs, children’s day camps and activities, and special events, organized and executed by the Winnebago County Forest Preserve District (WCFPD). This summer, to encourage more people to get out and discover the natural wonders right in our region, WCFPD has devised a season-long competition that will culminate in participants qualifying to win some pretty terrific prizes.

Called Get Outside! Winnebago – short form, GO – it was conceived by Jamie Johannsen, director of marketing and community relations for the WCFPD,  to build upon the popularity of competitive adventure races.

“We wanted a way to help people to discover the many different ways of enjoying our forest preserve – nature centers, golf courses, historic sites, fishing, hiking, paddling,” she says. “People have favorite activities and don’t explore others. It’s like ordering the same thing from the menu at your favorite restaurant. You hesitate to try something new.”

So, Johannsen has created a sampler platter, of sorts, to give folks a taste of the diverse menu of  offerings and activities at WCFPD locations. From June 7 to July 30, teams participate in various scheduled events to earn points towards those prize packages. To encourage family participation, teams must consist of one person over the age of 18, and one person under the age of 18, and they can take part in as many or as few events as they wish, with a full or partial team.Teams can complete a selection of self-guided activities to earn points on their own schedule.

The activities take place at various WCFPD facilities throughout the county, from Klehm Arboretum to Macktown Historic Site, Severson Dells Nature Preserve to Sand Bluff Bird Observatory, the Ledges to Seward Bluffs. Teams can register here beginning May 1, and GO passports picked up at a number of WCFPD facilities. Teams that participate in a scheduled guided event and have their passport stamped earn 4 points, and with proof of completion of a  self-guided  activity (ie a photo), 2 points. GO passports must be turned in by Aug. 1, and the drawing held Aug. 6.

“We want to encourage people to do new things, and do more things, and raise awareness and participation,” Johannsen says. “We also wanted to remove any obstacles, so it’s all free. We want to turn people on to all of the facilities and activities available. We introduced the competitive component, with prizes, to draw families.”

Teams with certain point totals are put into drawings for prizes. Third prize (20-23 points) is a Family Birding Package, with binoculars,visor caps and a birding guide; second prize (24-29 points) is a Family Camping Package, donated by Blaine’s Farm & Fleet, with an eight-man tent and cookstove,; and the grand prize (30 or more points) is a kayak, donated by Rocktown Adventures.

“We want to support the program, because it’s going to highlight our area’s natural assets, and expose people to the diverse selection of natural recreational opportunities in our area,” says Kevin Versino, general manager of Rocktown Adventures. “We chose to donate a kayak, because it’s a summer event, and we encourage all manner of paddling activities.”

Rocktown Adventures is an independently owned outdoor retailer that’s just opened a store in Aurora, Ill., and will soon open its Rockford location at 313 N. Madison Ave., across from the Riverview Ice House.

Other Get Outside sponsors are Swedish American health System, OSF Saint Anthony Medical Center and Blains Farm and Fleet, Loves Park.

GO will kick off on June 7 from noon-3 Hononegah Forest Preserve, the county’s oldest, with refreshments, games, activities and exhibits. Participants can pick up their passports and get a preview of and tips for taking part in some of the activities. Free family camping and a frog night hike at 7 p.m. will earn points for registered participants.

“To be eligible for the prizes, teams must register, but it’s not necessary for participation,” Johannsen emphasizes. “Our goal is to expose more people to more of our offerings. Forming a team and registering is our ideal for taking part, but anyone can do as few or many of the events as desired.

“The most important aspects of GO are to connect with nature, and to share it with others. We don’t have enough of that anymore.”

Registration and  a schedule of the events will be available at beginning May 1.