FUNKS GROVE — Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer had nothing on the red-nosed, pink-cheeked nature explorers who investigated the outdoors at Sugar Grove Nature Center on Thursday.
It was among the coldest days for the annual Winter Wilderness Camp since it started about 10 years ago and the first time in years that a decent amount of snow was on the ground, said Jill Wallace, environmental educator for the center about 10 miles southwest of Bloomington.
But temperatures in the low teens didn't keep the 21 children, ages 6 to 9, from hiking a trail through woods and prairie and playing in Imagination Grove.
The annual event takes place during the Christmas school break and gives parents a bit of a break, too. A group of children ages 9 to 13 will attend camp Friday.
“Most of the kids are bragging about how many layers they have on and are raring to go,” said Wallace.
The cold did alter the schedule somewhat — moving lunch indoors, for example. But three intrepid girls still went outside to roast their hot dogs over a campfire.
One of them was 7-year-old Clara Ponnou-Delaffon of Normal, an avid reader of the “Little House on the Prairie” books.
She told the other girls about how children in those days kept warm by placing boiled potatoes in their pockets.
“They also had shawls and mufflers and all that stuff,” said Clara.
And when another child asked during a talk by a “buckskinner” why the trappers didn't buy things instead of killing animals, Clara pointed out there were no grocery stores back then.
A benefit of the snow was the ability to see a variety of animal tracks during the hike.
When hike leader Patty Koranda, who goes by “PK,” pointed out some deer and coyote tracks side by side, a couple of children speculated that the coyote might have been following the deer.
Koranda enjoys satisfying the curiosity of children, asking them sometimes leading questions to help them explore the world around them and figure out some answers for themselves.
A retired teacher, Koranda has been volunteering at the nature center for about five years, since becoming involved in the University of Illinois Extension's Master Naturalist Program.
“I like that the kids get to explore outside,” she said after leading her second hike of the day. “So many people walk through the woods but don't really look at the woods.”
During their hikes, the children looked for squirrel nests, studied tracks, peeked into a birdhouse, peered under logs and asked questions. A lot of questions.
“I'm still teaching, but it's the fun part of teaching,” said Koranda.
Khloe Chenoweth, 8, of Minier said her favorite part of the hike was looking at “the round thing with a caterpillar inside” — a gall on a plant. “I've never seen one before,” she said.
Koranda showed the children a gall that had been broken open by a bird or other animal to eat the insect larva inside and another one that was still intact from which an insect will emerge in the spring.
After lunch, Rick Erickson, who portrays a buckskinner from the peak fur-trading era of 1825-1840, explained what life was like then and showed the tools trappers used. He also had some pelts and hides and described how they were prepared.
The children also drew pictures of birds in journals they can take home to record what they see in nature.
Feeders at the nature center attracted woodpeckers, chickadees, cardinals, bluejays, nuthatches and more, which some of the children identified with the help of photographs on the walls.
All provided good subjects for the children even though they rarely sat still very long, much like the children who were watching them.