Finding Nature Everywhere

Every time I travel, I always look for places where I can find nature and see some of the local wildlife. I will most often start my travel plans by purchasing field guides and doing some research on the Internet to find out what the area is known for or if there are any special animals or locations that I should be paying attention to. For example, I am already scoping out where I will find the nene (Branta sandvicensis) when I visit Hawaii next year. The nene is the official state bird of Hawaii and its population is very threatened by hunting and loss of habitat. I cannot truly believe that what I’m most excited about seeing next year is a drab looking bird which is in the same family as the Canada Goose, but this bird is quite significant and I hope to see it alive before it completely disappears from the planet. While my husband will be looking at volcanos when we visit Hawaii Volcanoes National Park on the Island of Hawaii, I will be madly scrambling to see nenes and most likely will not be paying any attention to the hot lava that will end up burning my feet. Pretty typical.

Image from: http://www.arkive.org/nene/branta-sandvicensis/

Image from: http://www.arkive.org/nene/branta-sandvicensis/

Some trips are more challenging than others in terms of finding nature, but after a recent visit to the city of St-Louis, MO, I am now convinced that you can easily find something exciting to do outside if you do a little bit of online research. Even in the city! Believe it or not, there are a lot of outdoors and nature activities to do out in St-Louis. What? Yes! I ended up visiting a lovely park with a fascinating past called Lone Elk Park. The park is located approximately 22 miles from downtown St-Louis and was once operated by the U.S. government as a place to store and test ammunition. It is also home to a population of deer, elk and bison. Yes, bison!

Bison at Lone Elk Park

Bison at Lone Elk Park

Today, the 546 acres park offers a few hiking trails as well as picnic areas and BBQ pits strategically placed so that visitors can get great views of the park’s ungulates. It was quite funny to see the many caution signs asking visitors not to approach or feed the animals when picnic tables are placed within their habitat. In some ways, this is highly representative of the conservation versus recreation conundrum faced by those who must manage wild places. Although I consider myself a purist when nature is concerned, I have learned to accept that a degree of intrusion and degradation in nature is necessary for the sake of conservation. Although this sounds counter intuitive, it actually makes sense. If people don’t get a chance to visit and experience nature first hand, they will not advocate for its preservation. To make people care about what goes on outside, they must experience nature for themselves. Even if that means a few damaged trees and fire rings. This is an interesting topic that I am sure to revisit soon!

The truly fascinating aspect of Lone Elk Park is its wildlife and the story of how the park got its name. The park’s first herds of elks and bison were established in 1948 after the city of St-Louis acquired the land. Why the city chose these animals for the park seems to be unknown. In fact, many different types of animals might have been explored as residents and it has even been said that Lone Elk Park was once home to 70 Barbados sheep! The animals remained a part of the landscape even after the military re-acquired the park during the Korean War. Unfortunately, all the animals were destroyed in 1958. Many years later, a lone elk bull was found roaming the park apparently missed during the round up, thus giving the park its name. Following the discovery of the elk, public sentiment grew for the park and it was later reopened to the public with 6 elk from Yellowstone National Park and buffalo from the state of Oklahoma and the St. Louis Zoo. Lone Elk Park is part of the area’s largest contiguous green space, which also includes Castlewood State Park, Route 66 State Park, Tyson Research Center, Al Foster Memorial Trail (which connects to multiple other trails in the city of Wildwood, MO) and the Beaumont Boy Scout Reservation which also offers camping.

This trip to St-Louis was quite eye opening in terms of what can be available to do outdoors in big cities. I think that when we visit more urban areas, we forget that there might be hidden gems and great opportunities to be had. In addition to Lone Elk Park, I also visited the Endangered Wolf Center. The center cares for and breed 5 species of endangered wild dogs including the Mexican Gray Wolves, Red Wolves, Maned Wolves, Swift Foxes and African Painted Dogs. This was truly a once in a lifetime opportunity. To see the painted dogs being trained was amazing and I cannot even begin to explain how I felt when I had the miraculous opportunity to hear the pack howl. Here is a short video that I manage to capture of the experience. It may sound crazy, but it was life changing.

African Painted Dog in training

African Painted Dog in training

What about you? What are some of your favorite trip discoveries?

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