It had just snowed, and flurries were drifting through the air as we hiked. Returning to the clearing we had recently discovered, we laid on the ground and stared up at the sky. We threw snow into the air and made snow angels. We laughed and smiled; we simply enjoyed being with each other in such an incredible, wild place. In these last moments, my final Conserve adventure, I reflected on the indescribable happiness and peace I had found here at Lake Elaine.
During my time at Conserve, I came to love many people, activities, and places, but one that will forever have a piece of my heart is Lake Elaine. During my first weeks at Conserve, I remember hearing about this lake, but with my poor sense of direction, I couldn’t seem to figure out where it was. Therefore, the first time I saw Lake Elaine was during Science class. I remember catching a glimpse through the towering trees, and simply being filled with wonder. There was something remarkable about this place that I couldn’t quite put into words.
As a result of this fascination, I chose to have my phenology spot on Lake Elaine. I trekked way out to the backside of the lake and proceeded to leave the trail, pushing my way through trees, not knowing what I would find. To my amazement, there was a little clearing between a few black spruce on the shore. It felt as if that spot was made just for me. For the following four weeks, I journeyed out to this same spot. My friend Helena also had her phenology spot on Lake Elaine, and we would walk together for the beginning of our hikes each week. I enjoyed this hike more and more each time. I began to find joy in the trees, to listen more intently; I could feel the life of the forest around me. Similarly, each week I noticed more about my charming little clearing on the shore. With each phenology trip, I became more connected to Lake Elaine.
When we got the news about leaving Conserve early because of Coronavirus, I was devastated in so many ways. However, one thing I immediately knew I was going to have a difficult time leaving was Lake Elaine. There were still so many things to discover, sights to see, and sounds to hear.
On our last phenology day, I took extra long on my hike. Looking at every tree, I tried to ingrain each step into my mind. When I arrived at my spot, I simply laid in the snow and stared up at the trees I had come to know and love.
On this last day, Helena came over to my phenology spot, even though her spot was on the same lake, she had never seen mine before. It was then when we realized that by taking the same hike each week, we had never gone to the other side of the lake! We decided we needed to see the rest of the trail, so we continued, going all the way around the lake. What we found was absolutely breathtaking. Through the dense pines was an alluring clearing; all the trees simply stopped and allowed the sunlight to cover our faces. After admiring this clearing for some time, we continued along the winding trail, finding ourselves engulfed with the beauty of the biodiversity surrounding us. It amazed me how quickly the forest changes from one combination of species to another in the matter of a few feet. The ecological diversity surrounding Lake Elaine is exceptional.
Soon we reached the exit of the trail; I had to say goodbye. But I wasn’t quite ready yet, so I visited Lake Elaine twice more before departing from Conserve. I went once alone, taking time to stop and look at the small details, to observe with just the soft sounds of my own breath and footsteps adding to the natural hum of the forest. My final visit was during my last day at Conserve; I returned with Helena, and our friend Sylvia. With a dusting of snow drifting down on us, together, we had an extraordinary last adventure.
It was with these memories that I departed Conserve. I keep the moments spent at Lake Elaine close to my heart, and I know that I will never forget all of the memories I made, all of the things I learned, and the deep connections I formed. I feel as though during my time at Conserve, I just barely tapped the surface of all the discoveries I could make, and all that can come from knowing a place. I now realize that this love I have for Lake Elaine didn’t stay in the forests of Lowenwood, it came back with me. It inspires me daily, inspires me to show everyone how incredible a sense of place can be, how much joy and wonder can stem from simply being in wild places. Perhaps now it is my turn to help others find their own Lake Elaine.
Photos provided by Ally, CS20, Menasha, WI.