Nature Detectives on Wheels

A nature detective on the case at Pella Crossing.

This summer, after a decade-long hiatus from mountain biking—and when I say mountain biking, I mean the blood-on-your-knees, dirt-in-your-teeth  variety—I was thrilled to find myself navigating roots and rocks and whoop-de-doos on a dirt trail with my two boys, ages 8 and 11. Until this point, my kids hadn’t done much true mountain biking. We’d mostly tooled around on flat gravel and paved bike paths. Now we were riding at Meyers Homestead at Walker Ranch, where the trail is decidedly uphill. Uphill for 2.6 miles, to be precise. But how do you cajole kids barely out of training wheels to chug steadily up a rocky trail?

I recently blogged about Boulder County Open Space’s Nature Detectives Club and how it got the kids and me out on the hiking trails. This time the clever program had us bouncing down Colorado’s hillsides on our fat tires.

At open space trailheads throughout Boulder County, there are metal boxes filled with the program’s Mystery Guides. The colorful pamphlets are filled with puzzlers, quizzes, checklists, and games, all of which teach kids about nature, from birds and bugs to predators and prey to trees and wetlands. It’s an ingenious program that helps families inspire kids to get outdoors, whether on bikes or on foot. After kids complete three guides, the Open Space department sends them a prize worthy of pint-sized Lewis and Clark types.

Biking at Pella Crossing.

When you have kids, it’s important to have low expectations. Our packs filled with water, snacks, and pencils, we grabbed a Mystery Guide pamphlet at the Meyers Homestead trailhead, and pedaled away. We vowed to turn around if anyone in our party started to wilt. We stopped often, ostensibly to complete activities in the pamphlet, but the breaks were also a good excuse for the kids to catch their breaths. At a dead snag, the boys completed the first two activities: drawing their own predator (big fangs, bulging eyes, and enormous claws!) and guessing what animals might make a home in an old snag.

The kids charted our progress on the pamphlet’s map (under the power lines, through a stand of trees, across a meadow).  They felt like pirates in search of buried treasure. About two thirds of the way, my eight-year-old’s energy started seriously flagging. I said we should call it a day, but my 11-year-old was determined to make it to the top, where we were promised a canyon view.

Biker gang at Pella Crossing.

We used the rest time to work on another Mystery Guide activity. This time, I blindfolded the kids, spun them in circles, and led them to a tree. With their eyes shut tight, they gave the tree a good feel and sniff.  (It’s true. My kids are Boulder tree huggers.) I led them back to the start and challenged them to find the same tree with their eyes open. It was a little like pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey, great outdoors style.

We went a little farther and a little farther yet on the bikes, and at some point we crossed a threshold. My younger son realized he might just make it to the top. He was reinvigorated by the possibility, and we made a successful push to the trail’s end. It took us two hours and 15 minutes to bike up. There was much pumping of fists at the top. Then the fun part: We zoomed down the trail—the kids scaring the unflattering padded biking pants off me as they fishtailed through the turns. We made it back to the trailhead in 20 minutes flat.

The boys were elated to have accomplished the ride. I was thrilled to be back in the saddle. The next day, we brought my six-year-old daughter and headed for Pella Crossing near Niwot, another open space site where kids can do the Nature Detectives program. Pella Crossing marked their third completed guide—our first was a hike at Walden Ponds—so they soon received their prize in the mail. I won’t say what it was (don’t want to ruin the surprise for future detectives), but I will say it was three nature explorer tools, any one of which would have been a cool reward to a kid 11 and under.

Boulder County’s Nature Detectives Club

Following are the nine open space sites where you’ll find the Mystery Guides. At the Nature Detectives Kids Club page, there’s info on each area and pdf’s of the Mystery Guide pamphlets.

1. Agricultural Heritage Center

2. Betasso Preserve

3. Caribou Ranch Open Space

4. Carolyn Holmberg Preserve

5. Meyers Homestead Trail at Walker Ranch

6. Walden Ponds Wildlife Habitat

7. Heil Valley Ranch

8. Mud Lake Open Space

9. Pella Crossing Open Space

Watching the birds at Pella Crossing.

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