815 Outside Makes Nature Fun Easier

While sheltering in place, many people discovered what outdoor enthusiasts already know: Communing with nature is good for our bodies and souls.

There’s been a sharp increase in the number of people using area parks, forest preserves and other green spaces in recent months, says Severson Dells Development and Marketing Assistant Jessie Crow Mermel.

The 815 Outside program makes it easier to navigate our region’s many natural areas and organized activities.

Summer programs presented by the Forest Preserves of Winnebago County, and supported by other nature centers and organizations, are explained under the “Get Active” tab on the 815 Outside website.

“Nature has been a sanity saver for me, and others, these past couple months, even if just stepping outside to listen to the birds or hear leaves rustling in the wind,” says Crow Mermel. “Being outside is a great way to clear your head and heart. We all spend too much time on the computer, with social media, and listening to news. It’s a great way to get grounded and a lot of people are finding solace through nature.”

Severson Dell’s Shelter-in-Place Reading Group formed in March to help people feel less isolated and more inspired. Nature essays and articles are read and followed up with group discussion at 9 a.m. Thursdays and can be accessed at seversondells.com/reading-group. To receive reminder emails, contact [email protected].

Even during the pandemic shutdown, people always have been able to use the paths and grounds at most parks, nature centers and the 43 preserves, which are on more than 20,000 acres of land and include four rivers. The Forest Preserves of Winnebago County officially reopened May 1.

815 Outside began in 2019 as the brainchild of Winnebago County Board Chairman Frank Haney, who was inspired by Severson Dell’s “Unplug to Connect” breakfast program. The whole idea is to help people get healthier by urging them to use the county’s green spaces.

Winnebago County ranks as one of the unhealthiest counties in the state, based on a wide range of health data such as heart disease, obesity, diabetes and other conditions.

815 Outside is an alliance of non-profit and public service organizations working together to direct people to nature locations for birding, hiking, bicycling, picnicking, fishing, camping, paddling, geocaching and more. The website offers maps, nature news and ideas for enjoying the outdoors.

“When we started 815 Outside, we not only wanted to attract nature lovers, but wanted everyone to discover the benefits of being outdoors,” says Crow Mermel. “We always encourage diversity. If you look at nature as a teacher, the healthiest ecosystems are about biodiversity.”

A program called Explore 20 in 2020 began this spring and will continue through Sept. 7. The goal is for each participant to visit 20 locations, which may include forest preserves, Severson Dells, Rockford Park District properties, Nature at the Confluence, Nygren Wetland Preserve and more.

People are asked to post pictures and identify a location on Facebook, Instagram or Twitter with hashtags #815outside and #Explore20in2020. If you’re not on social media, send photos to [email protected].

Each person who visits 20 locations will be entered in a drawing to win a first, second or third -place prize, each of which includes a t-shirt, items to use outdoors and gift certificates to Kegels Bicycle store.

Proof of litter clean-up will earn you extra entries for prizes.

Crow Mermel says about 165 individuals/families have registered for the program so far.

“There’s a huge interest in this program, partly because a lot of people have more time and interest in getting outdoors during shelter-in-place. Everyone can encourage others to get outside and learn to be good stewards of our planet.”

Some people are afraid of the outdoors but can ease their fears by learning about good outdoor safety habits, she says.

For example, there are many species of ticks in Illinois, but only a few cause problems for humans. A video on the Severson Dells website explains how to reduce tick encounters.

Learning about plants and animals in nature and being prepared when venturing outdoors helps to alleviate fears.

To register for Explore 20 in 2020, go to 815 Outside.com. ❚