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Connecting with nature: Park naturalists help children, adults find beauty in Red Wing

The rabbits make it safely to home base, but their numbers are dwindling as more predators join the game as foxes. Zach Dwyer / RiverTown Multimedia1 / 4
Teams were divided into foxes and rabbits to show how predators and prey interact. Here the rabbits are trying to escape the foxes in a game similar to freeze tag. Zach Dwyer / RiverTown Multimedia2 / 4
Erin Aadelen and Anna Sills are Red Wing's resident Park Naturalists. They explained the difference between predators and prey at a recent program with Kid's Junction. Zach Dwyer / RiverTown Multimedia3 / 4
The foxes now spread out, easily outnumbering the rabbits and showing how the predator slowly overwhelms the prey. Zach Dwyer / RiverTown Multimedia4 / 4

A new program is attempting to help visitors and citizens connect to the outdoors and gain a deeper appreciation of their communities in Red Wing.

Erin Aadalen and Anna Sills are the two-member team that makes up the Park Naturalists program. The program now enters its second year, after Aadalen helped launch it the winter of 2016 Sills has served as a naturalist last summer.

The park naturalists focus on providing public programming and educational opportunities. One effective way has been guided hikes every Thursday at Barn Bluff, where they have talk about Red Wing history, flora and fauna of the area, river ecology and more.

"Our job to get the community involved and to help make personal connections to the area because it's special and unique," Sills said.

Making citizens and visitors more aware of their surroundings can be essential for the continued strength of the park system, they said.

"It's cool to visit a new place because you form new personal connections to it. It makes you want to take care of it more and be an activist, which is one of our end goals," Aadalen said.

This can help visitors or residents to be connected with their outdoor spaces through the variety of hands-on and educational programming.

It wasn't as easy of a process last year, with programming only just beginning and people unaware of the opportunities. But the numbers are already showing a rapid improvement.

"More people know we're here and we've had double the amount of people in June compared to the program last year. It's been fun and an overwhelmingly positive experience," Sills said.

The program isn't specific to any age group. Hikes and educational talks tend to attract adults, while scavenger hunts and booklets are more popular with the youth, according to Aadalen and Sills.

"Last year we only did one youth program, and we already have seven on the books for this year, with people wanting more. We've also been approached by homeschool groups and seniors about custom programming," Aadalen said.

The park naturalists have been working with youth groups including Kid's Junction through Red Wing Community Education and the YMCA day camp through summer rec.

On an afternoon in Colvill Park, the naturalists taught Kid's Junction participants about the food chain of predators and prey. They used a game similar to freeze tag to show how the foxes and rabbits interact in the wild. This is just one example of fun ways to get kids to understand more about nature and the environment around them.

Many organizations have reached out to the park naturalists, but they're limited currently with only two people. But they see many opportunities going forward.

"I would like put together our own youth program and have more collaboration with local organizations. I'd love to do biking or paddling programs too," Aadalen said.

Once the word gets out and attendance continues to grow, Sills and Aadalen say they can see programs branching out in the future.

"I think we're actually a hidden gem for a lot of tourists because they come here to learn about the area. We want to reach out and have them know we're a resource that's available to them. As of now they stumble upon us and think it's awesome, but we want them to know beforehand and deliberately go," Sills said.