By Siv Schwink
I have never seen them, but it is my understanding that Homer Lake Forest Preserve is home to a population of flying squirrels. Really. They don’t have wings but instead have flaps of skin extending from their wrists to their ankles, which they use to glide through the air. They are fairly small and exceptionally cute. (I know this from pictures).
Since flying squirrels are nocturnal, I reluctantly accept the idea that I will not likely spot one, even as often as I visit the park throughout the seasons. Still, I love the idea that they are there, these mysterious little creatures, in this little pocket of wilderness, tucked away from the corn and soy fields of central Illinois.
Located about 14 miles southeast of Champaign-Urbana, Homer Lake Forest Preserve is home to a good number of remarkable species: fox, coyotes, deer, river otters, muskrat, mink, beavers, box turtles, and oh so many species of birds. Along the lake’s three miles of shoreline, it’s not uncommon to spot a great blue heron fishing or aquatic turtles basking on a log. And while most of the animals will make themselves as difficult to spy as possible, signs of their presence are there for the astute observer to find.
It’s the perfect place to bring children for some low-key, unstructured playtime — to let them explore and learn through their observations and to ignite their imaginations. Nature sustains all of us, though for most of us, our daily rhythms have little to do with it. That means for our children to experience it, we have to take them there. Nature wiggles and moves. It has texture, color, scent and sound. And it is best learned about first-hand, by small hands.
A connection to nature, fostered at a young age, can contribute to a lifelong love of the outdoors and a more complete understanding of one’s place and purpose in the world. And you don’t have to be an expert on the natural world to be able to lead a child to a place of discovery. Give a child a magnifying glass and set boundaries for a miniature-world expedition. Look on the underside of leaves, on tree bark, and along the ground. Turn over a stone or a log and find out what lives underneath — a salamander, a hard working colony of ants, roly-poly bugs, or millipedes?
When you are done searching for small creatures, let the imagination loose: build a fantastical home for a cricket, toad, gnome, or fairy with natural items collected along the trail. Be sure to collect only materials that are no longer growing, such as dried leaves, seedpods, twigs, and acorns. It takes just a small pile. A walnut shell could be a bathtub or a bed, an acorn cap might serve as a dish. Since these items shouldn’t be removed from the forest preserve, leave the little home intact, and maybe visit it again to see how it weathers.
Pond dipping along the lake is another fun activity that all children seem to enjoy, and it requires little preparation or guidance (close supervision for safety is necessary next to the water). Give a child a bucket or plastic tub and maybe a fine-mesh net, and he or she will know exactly what to do on the lakeshore. Additional supplies could include a magnifying glass and plastic cups or containers as scoops. You may find crayfish, minnows, dragonfly nymphs, pollywogs, and frogs, to name just few. When you are through, remember to release the creatures where they were found.
Homer Lake Forest Preserve offers plenty of opportunities for family recreation throughout the seasons — definitely a worthy day-vacation destination. In the warmer months, the park is a favorite spot for boating, fishing, hiking and picnicking. There are picnic shelters with barbecue grills at many spots along the lake’s edge. And there are in total about 10 miles of groomed trails for hiking through restored prairie, forest, restored wetland and along the lakeshore. Individual trail segments range in distance from about a half mile to about 4-and-a-half-miles long.
A portion of one of the shorter trails, the Timberdoodle, is paved, and features a self-guided trail brochure (available at the trail head, next to the Interpretive Center) with short nature descriptions that corresponds to 11 stops along the path, marked with numbered boulders.
Homer Lake changes throughout the seasons, and no two visits will produce the same experience. In the fall, it’s fun to stomp down the trails and listen to the fallen leaves crunching under foot. In the winter, Sled Hill is a favorite attraction.
No matter what the season or the weather, the Homer Lake Interpretive Center is a great indoor nature experience for toddlers on up through adults. Here you’ll find live animal exhibits (aquatic turtles, box turtles, a fox snake, and fish), taxidermy exhibits, interpretive displays, animal puppets, puzzles, books for all ages, and interactive displays for children. Bird feeders are set up outside a viewing area, along with microphones, so visitors can listen to the birds’ calls as they watch.
The Interpretive Center staff is always welcoming and ready to answer any questions about local wildlife. This is where the Champaign County Forest Preserve houses its environmental education team, and they can provide information on their many outstanding public, school, and youth group programs (the Owl Prowl is a great favorite!).
The Interpretive Center also lends “discovery backpacks” and “insect backpacks” for use while exploring the park. Trail maps are available at the Interpretive Center and at kiosks at various locations around the park.
Homer Lake Forest Preserve details:
- Cost: Free
- Park hours: Open daily 7 a.m. until 10 p.m., from early April through late October; open 7 a.m. until 5 p.m. in the winter.
- Interpretive Center hours: Open Monday to Friday, 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Also open April through October on Saturdays, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Siv Schwink is a mother of three, freelance writer, and avid animal lover. She writes a weekly pet column for the News-Gazette, and formerly worked as an interpretive naturalist for the Champaign County Forest Preserve District. She holds a bachelor’s degree in comparative literature from UC Berkeley and a master’s degree in Scandinavian Languages and Literatures from the University of Washington, Seattle.