Local Faces

A Walk in the Woods: Beaver Lake Nature Center’s director wants visitors to head for the trees

Michael Davis photo

Beaver Lake Nature Center, located in Baldwinsville, features nine miles of trails and offers hundreds of programs in the wilderness surrounding its 200-acre glacial lake. In July, programs will include guided walks, canoeing and kayaking, and a Reading Scavenger Hunt.

Heidi Kortright is the center’s director. She earned her bachelor’s degree in wildlife biology at West Virginia University, where she met her husband. They were living in Ohio when the couple struck an agreement: Whoever found the first job would decide where they would live. Her husband found a job as a forester in Bernhards Bay, and as soon as they rented their apartment their landlord mentioned Beaver Lake. They eventually saw in the newspaper that Beaver Lake was hiring interns. Kortright became a naturalist at Beaver Lake in 1985 while also working toward a master’s degree in forest resource management at SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry.

She went from being a naturalist, to the head naturalist, to the director of Beaver Lake Nature Center, in 2011. Family Times recently caught up with Kortright at Beaver Lake. (This interview has been edited and condensed.)

What sparked your passion for the outdoors?

My father. He was a cost analyst, but he wanted to be a forest ranger, so he used to take all of us kids on hikes. We lived in a very developed area in Northeast Ohio, so picnics happened at roadside rest stops. In our development behind our house was a strip of forest, and my father would take us hiking and exploring there.

Do you have any recommendations for parents wanting to encourage interest in nature for their children?

It’s difficult, especially when you have a household where perhaps both of the parents work outside of the house. It’s difficult to get everything done and then find time for recreation, but I think it’s necessary. Coming to this nature center and taking part in any one of the many programs that we offer would be a great way to start if parents aren’t quite sure how to do that.

What are some of the types of animals one can expect to see at Beaver Lake?

White-tailed deer, grey squirrel, red squirrel, beavers—but more in the evening because they’re more active around dusk. You might see rabbits, yellow warblers, goldfinch, definitely lots of bird species, like the belted kingfisher, green heron or great blue heron, or perhaps a northern water snake or a milk snake.

What is something you wish people knew about Beaver Lake Nature Center?

Even though the center has a high attendance—we average just under 300,000 visitors a year—I wish more people knew of the center. I’m always amazed by the people who have never visited.

What events do you have going on at Beaver Lake this summer that are new or different from previous summers?

What we are trying to do are programs that a parent or a caregiver could do with children that isn’t set at a scheduled time so that they can use the time they have available. One of the programs that we do is a reading program for children, Reading Scavenger Hunt. We have clues and the child, with an adult, will follow the clues and they end up finding a container filled with books for all different reading levels. It’s usually in a nice, cozy spot, like on a bench looking at the lake or in the middle of the woods. There are notecards inside the container so if they aren’t able to finish the book that day they can always write down the title and get it at the library or remember it for the next time they’re at the center.

What is an activity that Beaver Lake offers that you find families frequently enjoy together?

This might sound kind of basic, but the trails. Our trails are designed so they zigzag through the woods. Even on a beautiful fall day when our attendance might be high, you don’t necessarily see someone else on the trail. I think families coming out and enjoying hiking is a wonderful and easy thing to expose a child to. Of course, in the summertime we have kayaks and canoes that people can rent. That’s a whole different view of the nature center, so that’s always fun. Canoeing and kayaking can be one of those things that you might not do often or you’re unsure about where to go. Beaver Lake is a great place for that.

Now that people have so many options to experience life virtually, do you worry that nature centers will become obsolete?

You know, I don’t. In fact, more and more nature sites are being established in this area. There’s Sterling Nature Center in the last couple of decades, Great Bear Trails in Fulton, and I’m excited about that. The more an area develops I think the more you need to get away from it sometimes. You need that opportunity to just take a walk in the woods.

What do you think sets Beaver Lake apart from other county parks in Central New York?

We are the only nature center in Onondaga County. There are parks and zoos, but we are the only nature center. Nature centers are different from the other parks because of nature study and the whole mission of Beaver Lake, which is to introduce people to nature and the educational component of that.

What’s a recent unusual encounter you or a visitor had with an animal here at the park?

The one thing with all the new technology is that people used to have to describe to us what they saw. Sometimes we would be clueless as far as trying to identify what they saw. A couple came in and showed us a picture of a groundhog that had climbed about four feet up in a tree. They had thought it was a groundhog but they had never seen one in a tree before.

What is your favorite spot in the park and why?

I like the Three Meadows Trail because it goes through different types of habitats and I like to bird watch. So you’ll go through a more open field and forest area, then you’ll go through the forest and down by the lake. I love that trail.

How many trails does Beaver Lake have?

We have eight trails. There are different lengths, from a third of a mile to three miles. The different trails go through all the habitats that we have.

What questions do children most commonly ask?

They always want to know about the wildlife. They want to know what they’ll see. When our naturalists do guided hikes, the children are very inquisitive. We want to converse and children love that.

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