A Unspoken Mission

By Naturalist Zachary Mork

On a crisp autumn afternoon, I unlock a small wooden cabin and walk silently inside. Realizing that visitors may arrive very soon, I take one final glance around the room, making sure I haven’t forgotten anything before the event begins. Decor? Check. Apparel? Check. As I finish my mental checklist, a new sound breaks through the quiet atmosphere – the sound of children heading towards me. It is the cue that I have been waiting for. As the eager students get closer and closer to the old cabin, I get to my place, take a deep breath, and whisper to myself…

“It’s showtime.”

For the next two hours, I am no longer Zach the Naturalist. Instead, I am the character “Jacques,” a fur trader from the early nineteenth century. These students have come to see how Jacques used the land now known as the Indiana Dunes National Park. During their visit, Jacques will teach them about his trade, the importance of beaver, and how trappers used their efficient traps to catch them.


Although Jacques the fur trader looks and sounds like a completely different person, it is still me, underneath it all. During the presentations, I often look around at all the students sitting inside the cabin. In my head, I am trying to note if my character has been keeping them engaged and interested in learning more. Most students appear attentive and wide-eyed throughout the entire act.

Here at Dunes Learning Center, our primary mission is to “inspire a lasting curiosity and stewardship with nature.”  While it seems like a straightforward goal, the ways to carry it out are more open-ended. Over my past few months as a naturalist, I found that an effective way to inspire that curiosity is to help students open their eyes to a natural world filled with wonder and amazement.  It is an unspoken mission that, when accomplished, leads to the primary one.


There are many different ways to present the rich history and unique biodiversity of the Indiana Dunes to kids. For example, a hognose snake found on the trail plays dead when it feels threatened, an exciting opportunity to discuss defense mechanisms and food webs with students. Or, a visit to a historical site, where students can physically see how actions from long ago impact our lives today. In some cases, it can even come from our own backyards!

Playing the role of “Jacques” is one of my favorite ways to teach kids about the amazing natural and cultural history of the Indiana Dunes region. On any given day, if my demonstration gave students a sense of wonder, or if I made them feel like they really were back in the 1800’s (even if only for a second), then I accomplished my unspoken mission for the day.


Zachary Mork


Chloe’s Poem 

By Naturalist Lily Eligator

“...and then, I have nature and art and poetry, and if that is not enough, what is enough?”
-Vincent van Gogh  

One warm and sunny Thursday afternoon in September, I was getting ready to take my group of sixth graders up the “big dune” on our Cowles Bog hike. Met with a few groans and complaints about the height of the dune (as I frequently am), I told them that I was positive that they would make it up with no problem and promised them a super long break at the top. 


Once everyone made it to the top safe, sound, and out of breath, I had each child sit down and start working on the page in their journals titled “A Few Minutes Alone.”  This page is meant to help kids internalize what they are experiencing, and I encourage them to write or draw whatever they feel has impacted them the most on the hike. After giving my students a few minutes in the shade to write, I asked for volunteers to share with the group. One hand instantly shot up; it was Chloe, a bubbly, outgoing kid, whose hand I saw frequently. 


“I wrote a poem,” she said emphatically, and I encouraged her to read it out loud. I don’t exactly know what I was expecting from this poem, but I know that I wasn’t expecting to be moved by her words as much as I was. This moment really forced me to pay attention to the present. Fortunately, Chloe and her parents gave me permission to share her beautiful poem with you: 

I see the leaves glisten,

I see the trees shine, 

I hear the people around me listen to the birds’ sweet cry, 

I sit in silence all light is above, as I write this poem to express my love; 

The light peeks through, the blocked light that leaks

In the world of nature, 

Where the sun shines and lay, 

The sand is crunchy and I am happy to see all today

-Chloe D., 6th Grader at Francis W. Parker School, written September 2019

Listening to this poem (and reading it multiple times since hearing it) made me so happy. It reminded me of why I pursued environmental education in the first place: I love watching kids create connections with the world around them. Not all of the kids who walk through the doors at Dunes Learning Center will become scientists, climate activists, or naturalists. Some of the kids we meet will become lawyers, doctors, engineers, and yes - poets. I am so happy to help a child to connect with their world, whether they are future scientists, poets, or anything in between.


Lily Eligator


A Beautiful, Biodiverse, Natural Area

By Naturalist Bella Santana

Born and raised in Beverly Shores and Chesterton, I am no stranger to the Indiana Dunes or to Lake Michigan. Despite growing up just a 5 minute drive to the Indiana Dunes National Park (will saying the phrase “National Park” ever stop feeling strange to this Region native who grew up saying “National Lakeshore”?), the amazing natural beauty that encompasses this area is something that I never really thought twice about until getting older. 


When I say older in this context, I mean middle or end of high school. From how I remember looking at and valuing this area as a child and especially as a hormonal teenager, I often thought, “Man, why on Earth did my parents have to choose Indiana? Why not somewhere mountainous, somewhere more exciting, somewhere this or that, yada yada…” 

I think this might be because the Indiana Dunes ecosystems had become so normal to me. The Lake Michigan shore was the place I ran around and swam as a toddler and into my teenage years. The surrounding forests were simply places with trees where I would go on walks with my friends and family. And the wetlands? Those were just a flash of green I would drive past without a second glance. It wasn’t until getting older and experiencing life outside of NWI that I found what I valued in nature, the world, and myself. Something had finally clicked inside of me and I allowed myself to become aware of how fortunate I was to grow up, and continue to grow older in such a beautiful, biodiverse, and natural area.


As they say, better late than never, and I am so grateful to now appreciate this area and the natural life that composes these ecosystems. I can’t help but wonder if I had been introduced to DLC programs at a younger age, would I have come to appreciate this area and my upbringing here earlier? Let’s be honest, I’m a wee bit bitter that my mom never sent me to camp here as a kiddo…But don’t worry Mom, I do still love you. ;)


I kept this mindset all summer long while taking young campers on hikes, especially when interacting with kids who had never been to camp or had never really gone on a hike. When one of these kids found something of interest while out on our hikes, even if it was just one tiny thing, I felt so much happiness and hope these encounters will lead them to appreciate not just the Dunes and Lake Michigan, but the area where they are growing up. 

Furthermore, I hope those experiences on trail, no matter how uncomfortable (a 5 mile hike in the blistering summer heat) or short (an encounter with a frog or snake), will lead these individuals to have an appreciation for the natural world as they grow older. As the DLC motto goes, kids need nature. And nature sure as heck needs present and future kids to care about it!

Bella Santana


A New Way to See the Darkness

By Cabin Leader Allison Nash

“To go in the dark with a light is to know the light. To know the dark, go dark. Go without sight, and find that the dark, too, blooms and sings, and is traveled by dark feet and dark wings.” — Wendell Berry 

For the past 7 weeks I have worked as a Cabin Leader at Dunes Learning Center. Although this is my first summer here, I am by no means new to camp. I grew up attending Camp Bedford in Southern Indiana. I started as a camper in 2007 and as a counselor in 2016. This is my first summer away from Bedford. When I first got here, I thought that without the camp traditions I had grown up loving, camp wouldn’t be the same. In some ways, I felt confident because I know how camp works. But, in a lot of other ways, I was nervous because I didn’t know how this camp worked. I was nervous to be going into a new place without a light to guide me. 

Kids hiking at dusk

And I was right. Camp at Dunes Learning Center is different. But I have grown to love our traditions here! One of my favorite new traditions is the Night Hike. Every week, I get to lead 14 young campers through the wilderness, in the dark. We do different activities, talk about nocturnal animals and, for a short time, we allow the campers to walk by themselves during what we call a “Solo Hike.” Sometimes, they’re terrified. Sometimes, they’re amazed. But every week, they show me a new way to see in the darkness. A few weeks ago, a young girl was horrified. Before heading out by herself, she whispered, “Is this allowed?” but, she did it. When we rejoined as a group, I asked her how she was feeling. She told me, “At first I was scared. But then I noticed the fireflies. And it’s like there was light after all.” 

cabins at sunset

Sometimes, at camp, we are pushed out of our comfort zones. Sometimes things are different and scary. But, by being okay with the challenges, we can see the world in a whole new light.


Allison Nash

Cabin Leader

Bringing Back Memories

By Cabin Leader Isabelle Staph

Growing up in “The Region”, Indiana Dunes National Park was always the destination when it came to field trips from elementary school through high school. Bailey Homestead, West Beach, and even a three-day trip at the Dunes Learning Center itself were all trips I remember fondly, and have started to resurface a lot more in my head since starting training in the beginning of June. 

Sand, dune grass, Lake Michigan with clouds

Every year, Dunes Learning Center hosts schools for a three day experience during which they get a taste of what summer camp is like, called Frog in the Bog. In fact, when I was in fifth grade, I attended said trip (and trust me, it was the event of the year at the time). If someone had asked me what I did on that trip two months ago, I probably wouldn’t have been able to remember anything besides rolling down the dunes and eating some really good mac ‘n cheese for dinner one night. However, as soon as I began training in early June this year, I was suddenly flooded with memories from my three days at Dunes Learning Center nine years ago. My memory was quickly jolted by things like the Cowles Bog Hike, campfire songs, and of course, the food waste challenge. 

kids at a campfire

If someone had told me in fifth grade that I would eventually end up working as an intern here at DLC, there is no way I would have believed them! Back then, I had little to no interest in working outdoors, or really anything concerning the environment. Now, I could not picture a job more suited for me. Every day at DLC brings new adventures and challenges, whether it is trying to memorize trails for the night hike, or having to reassure my cabin kids that the spider in the shower will not hurt them. 

What inspired me to write about my experience at DLC from nine years ago to now, was to illustrate that the memories formed in a place like this are ones that last a long time; and to show that Dunes Learning Center can be fun not just at age 11, but even more so at age 20!

four DLC staff

Isabelle Staph

Cabin Leader

Mistaken Identity... Sort Of!

By Naturalist Nate Bibat

The first two months as a naturalist at the Dunes Learning Center (DLC) have been an absolute adventure. I can say that at the age of 23, I have reached my dream job of working, teaching and playing at the place that sparked my love of the outdoors. It is amazing! During my time here, I have come across two recurring questions that are constantly asked.  One question I often hear is, “Is this the visitor center?”

This question comes from visitors from all over the country that find themselves walking through our campus hoping to explore our newest National Park. The second question comes from parents, chaperones and students attending our programs who ask “Do you work for the National Park Service?”

To answer these questions…

Indiana Dunes Visitor Center

Indiana Dunes Visitor Center

Dunes Learning Center is NOT the visitor center. Although we love to see many visitors taking time to explore the natural wonders of the dunes, our campus is reserved for the students and teachers who participate in our programs. If you are interested in touring our campus, we have many opportunities throughout the year to attend open houses and special events we host. Make sure to follow DLC on social media (Facebook, Twitter etc.)  to get updates on when those events will be!

Please don’t get upset if we politely guide you to the visitor center if you find yourself on campus. The visitor center of the Indiana Dunes National Park is located at: 1215 IN-49, Porter, IN. So make sure to plug in that address when planning your trip!


Second, we are NOT a branch of or employed by National Park Service. In fact, the Dunes Learning Center is a 501(c)3  nonprofit, meaning we are a separate entity from the National Park Service (NPS). However, we are very well integrated with NPS as their education partner. We have a very strategic and meaningful partnership with them that allows us to serve and advance their mission, specifically educating  future generations about the Indiana Dunes and inspiring a lasting curiosity in nature. The best way to think of this partnership is DLC as an “extension” of the NPS. It would be difficult for DLC to exist without NPS and all our other amazing partners that support our mission. Now more than ever, kids of all ages and backgrounds need to be exposed to nature as our culture transitions in an ever changing technological progression.

What inspired me to address this question was from my experience in the nonprofit sector. During my senior year of college, I had the amazing opportunity of partnering with DLC in a final project that was a part of the nonprofit professional accreditation program at my university (Indiana State University, to be precise!). This is how I discovered and learned about DLC which lead me to join this amazing organization. With that said, I hope these answers provide more clarity in who we are and what we do!


Nate Bibat


The National Park In My Backyard

By Naturalist Carlos Tellez

Growing up in the region, Indiana Dunes National Park has always been my summer vacation! I grew up running down the dunes, skipping rocks, collecting colorful rocks, and playing in Lake Michigan. As a kid, I was always told to never grow up, but I knew at a certain point, I would have to.

carlos group.jpg

In college, I had a lot of daydreams about the perfect job. It wasn’t until I found geology my sophomore year that I was able to narrow down the perfect job to a few choices. Classes became more interesting as I got closer to my idea of the perfect job. I graduated college and summer vacations were no more... I had to find a real job and grow up.


Coming back to the region, the only thing I could think about was walking through the National Park. So, I took my dog, Earl, on a hike that day.  As I drove from spot to spot in the National Park I stopped at all the visitor centers to ask about volunteering. As I started to drive home on Highway 12, I saw a sign for the Dunes Learning Center. I said to Earl, “That sounds like a place to volunteer.”

As I walked up to the program office with Earl, I was greeted by Erin, the Education Director. As Erin told me more about Dunes Learning Center and I told her about graduating and what my perfect job was, she told me about something way better than a volunteer job: a paid naturalist position was still open.

I was ecstatic, but then I thought, “Is she offering me or Earl the chance for this position?” We later found out that dogs aren’t allowed at DLC. So I took the chance and interviewed.  In a week, I found out that I got the year-long job and that I would work at the same National Park where I spent my summer as a kid. The perfect dream job has now become a reality, an interpreter at a National Park.

Carlos river.jpg

I spent that summer doing exactly what I did as a kid, running down dunes, skipping rocks, collecting and identifying rocks with campers. I thought that I had succeeded at what all the adults had told me, “never grow up.” In the fall, I started to learn about different natural sciences and picked up several outdoor hobbies. In the winter, I learned about lesson planning for Science Olympiad competitions. In the Spring, I learned the most important lesson - that I did grow up.

I grew up so that I could teach kids that are just like me. To make sure they have a fun, safe environment in which to learn, be curious, and have their questions answered about the National Park in their backyard.


Carlos Tellez


Earth Day: An Environmental Turning Point

By Naturalist Allie Moskal

Spring is in the air and so is our celebration of Earth Day (April 22). Earth Day began in 1970, thanks to the efforts of U.S. Senator Gaylord Nelson to spread awareness about environmental issues. At this time there were no Clean Air or Clean Water Acts, nor any regulating organizations to hold polluters accountable. Over the past 49 years, Earth Day has grown into a globally recognized holiday. This day of observance is a reminder of our appreciation for the environment and validation of the incredible improvements humans have made throughout history.

NYT: Earth Day newspaper

Before the creation of Earth Day, common pollutants were increasingly effecting many natural resources. In 1968, the Grand Rapids Press released an article titled “Is Lake Michigan Dying? If it is, What Should We Do About It?” The article explored what humans have inflicted upon the lake, including raw sewage seepage, dumping by commercial ships, and even nuclear power plant contamination along the lakeshore. During the early 1900s, Lake Michigan was an acceptable site for dumping toxic waste, which was leading to the poisoning of the United States’ largest source of freshwater. In February of 1970, in a meeting with the Council on Environmental Quality in Chicago, President Nixon addressed the state of Lake Michigan by saying “... unless something is done now with the potential pollution of Lake Michigan, it could become like Lake Erie, which at this time could be classified as a dead sea, an inland sea. We do not want that to happen. And the time to act is now." Remarkably, the fate of Lake Michigan was dramatically improved as actions were taken by citizens.

Lake Michigan map

During America’s rising concern of environmental quality in the 1960s and 70s, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was created on December 2, 1970. During the EPA’s nearly 50 years of work, the agency has enforced many acts including the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, Pollution Prevention Act, Safe Drinking Water Act, Endangered Species Act, and many more.

Though awareness of environmental issues now seems to be common knowledge, the problems we face are far more complex than they appear. Currently, anthropogenic climate change is the hot topic, especially within politics. It is incredibly important to remain involved in environmental and sustainability matters through voting and activism. Just as humans have contributed to environmental problems such as climate change, deforestation, resource exploitation, and species extinction, we have the ability to reverse these issues. And the time to act is now.

During my journey through the environmental and sustainability field, I have had the opportunity to work with extraordinary activists for the environment, many of whom have inspired me to lead a sustainable life. I am honored to be part of Dunes Learning Center where I can help instill a love for nature in younger generations. I have experienced first-hand the importance of environmental education as it teaches children creativity and compassion. Through my work as an Interpretive Naturalist, I feel Earth Day is everyday.

Being a friendly Earth advocate can become an lifestyle by making environmentally conscious decisions daily. You can celebrate Earth Day 365 days a year by using reusable bags, voting, educating yourself, supporting your local farmers market, and thousands of other small steps. Since the founding of Earth day nearly 50 years ago, we are headed in the right direction to improving the health of our Earth.

Allie Moskal

Allie Moskal


Spilling the Beans: A Secret Garden Exposé

By Naturalist Ben Sehl

We have just caught wind of a new development at the Dunes Learning Center! The previously secret garden at the DLC has recently been EXPOSED. Hold onto your trowels and rakes, folks: we have uncovered all the dirt on the garden happenings in Goodfellow field.


The old basketball courts from historic Camp Goodfellow have been used as a garden space for a while now, but some new improvements and adjustments have propelled it onto the scene in spectacular fashion. What a slam dunk! Boy Scouts from Troop 929 made some major additions in spring 2018, including new raised beds, benches, tables and 250 gallon jugs that catch rainwater from the newly constructed shade roof. Changes are taking place outside the garden as well. The National Park Service has cleared the surrounding area of vegetation as part of a habitat restoration effort, with the end goal of converting it into a prairie ecosystem. The restoration has made the fenced-in garden more visible than ever, and boy is it ready for its public debut!


Despite a late start to planting in summer 2018, the secret garden was a wild success. Dedicated secret garden volunteer and Indiana Dunes National Park advocate Sue Labovitz is reported to have called it the “garden of the year.” Carlos Tellez, DLC naturalist, was overheard saying, “I’ve never seen so many tasty veggies!”

We also have reports that DLC summer campers were central to the garden operation and helped plant, weed, water, and decorate all summer long. The garden grew quicker than ice melts on a hot day and the DLC staff ALMOST had more vegetables than they could eat!


This year, the DLC garden has a lot to live up to, which is why staff have gotten an early start on planting. A source close to Dunes Learning Center has told us that there are already vegetables sprouting in the NPS greenhouse, and plants will be in the raised beds by early May. Staff is also trying out a “Fungarium” concept in the southwest corner of the garden. Various logs and decomposing material are being compiled in attempts to represent as many different species of fungus as possible.

The reports keep rolling in about the DLC’s Secret Garden and golly, folks, we just cannot wait to hear what else is in store!

BEFORE: Basketball court buried by trees and invasive species. AFTER: The not-so-secret garden!


Ben Sehl


Who's Teaching Who?

By Naturalist Megan Harrison

During my two years at Dunes Learning Center, countless people have told me how lucky I am to explore outside for my job. While they are absolutely right, the best part of my job has been connecting with campers. Coming into this position, I was certainly ready to teach kids and hopefully impact their lives, but I had no idea that they would do the same for me. One camper in particular who has impacted me is Amari.


I was fortunate enough to get to know Amari during his first Dunes Discovery Camp and learned that he wants to be a zoologist! As a wildlife major, I was really excited to share this common interest and started talking his ear off about colleges, programs, etc. It should be noted that Amari is still in middle school, and probably not applying to colleges yet... However, I hope that when he looks back on that day, he sees how much I believed in him.

Too often, we tell kids “you’re too young to know what you want to do” or “that’s too much school, you won’t stick with it” instead of “WOW! You’ll make an awesome astronaut/veterinarian/doctor!” As Lady Bird Johnson once said, “Children are likely to live up to what you believe of them.” With tears in our eyes, Amari and I said goodbye at the end of camp. I spent the next few months wishing I had asked him more about his dreams.

Luckily, Amari and I crossed paths again during a Frog in the Bog program! Returning campers are another reason I love being an educator. It is like catching up with an old friend when they walk through the door. This was definitely the case when Amari greeted me with his trademark smile and hug. His return to Dunes Learning Center gave me the opportunity to talk with him more about his dreams.


Amari has always been an animal lover and this drew him to zoos. He wants to be a zoologist so that he can give animals a happy, healthy life inside of zoos. Learning about more animals, Amari says, is what drew him to summer camp and encouraged him to come back to DLC for a school program. He also mentioned that the friendships he formed here have had a huge impact on his life. We said goodbye again, and I started to reflect on why Amari has made such a lasting impact on me.

Here is what I realized: Amari reminded me that dreams are valid, regardless of your age. You can never be too young or too old to start pursuing your passion. He also taught me that a little kindness can go a long way. Amari is the type of kid who will always have a smile and a hug for you. I have seen campers, classmates, naturalists, and teachers light up when Amari enters a room, because he truly does spread kindness to everyone.

I am so thankful for Dunes Learning Center for making these connections happen. Without places like DLC, kids would have fewer places to explore their passion for nature. May we never stop teaching and learning from kids.  


Megan Harrison


Lakeshore to Park -- What ‘Park’ Means to Me

By Naturalist Baleigh Haynes

Can a name alter the feelings, thoughts, and opinions of others? As of this February, the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore changed its name to Indiana Dunes National Park. But does the word ‘Park’ have any more significance than Lakeshore? Well, that would depend on who you are asking. The National Park System is well known, comprised of many different units; National Monuments, Preserves, Historical Parks, Historic Sites, Battlefield Parks, Military Parks, Battlefields, Battlefield Sites, Memorials, Recreation Areas, Seashores, Rivers, Reserves, Parkways, Trails, a few others, and of course National Lakeshores and National Parks. All of these influential sites make up the 418 official units within the National Park System.


 The general public has a tendency to only recognize parks when they hear the words “National Park Service.” They think of parks such as Great Smoky Mountains, Grand Canyon, Rocky Mountains, Yosemite, Yellowstone, Zion, and Olympic. These are just a few of the phenomenal parks that can take your breath away. It’s no wonder people by the thousands flock to such places.

NPS sign.JPG

Lakeshore to Park, so what does that really mean? It means that costal Indiana was just put on many people’s radars for the first time. United State citizens and international visitors alike can plan vacations and “bucket lists” around visiting all 61 National Parks. But what about the other 357 sites that make of the National Park System? The words ‘National Park’ have an advantage in the minds of some, with this unit ranking better than another. The label ‘National Park’ draws in more visitors than any other type of unit in the System. Yes, typically parks are larger units of land and can accommodate more visitors, but that doesn’t mean they have a higher value.

 Being affiliated with the Indiana Dunes National (now) Park, I feel quite honored that our lakeshore has become the 61st National Park. It is encouraging to think that more people will experience the sights and sounds of our little piece of Lake Michigan bordered with sand dunes.


Lakeshore to Park, what does that really mean? National Lakeshore to National Park in reality is just a name change. ‘Park’ does not change the history of the past 53 years. In fact, it does not change the history of the past 100 years when the movement for the ‘Indiana Dunes National Park’ was first desired. ‘Park’ does not change this ecologically diverse region, nor the ways in which it has been preserved and conserved. ‘Park’ will not change the beauty that is evident in our marram grass-covered sand dunes, rare black oak savannas, rich wetlands, prairies filled with wildflowers, or the soft rolling waves that wash onto beaches. However, ‘Park’ has given a new name for those who were unaware of the all the beauty our lakeshore has to offer.  


Baleigh Haynes


Coming Back to the Dunes

By Naturalist “Azima” Aziwoh Sewuh Ndimbe

‘‘Whoever can name five plants with the scientific names will receive a gift at the end of the month.”  My dad set this challenge but it turned into a quest for who is best at memorizing difficult scientific names of plants from our local community garden, called Limbe Botanical Garden. This grew into a beautiful passion that has influenced every aspect of my life.


 I grew up in the country of Cameroon, found in Central Africa. This area is predominantly a tropical rainforest ecosystem. In the course of my studies, I became fascinated by the diversity of native plants and animals in my area. I was even more intrigued by the vast diversity of ecosystems around the world, and looked forward to experiencing them at some point in my life.

In 2015, I had the opportunity to participate in an exchange program through the National Park Service to work as an Interpretative Naturalist Intern at Dunes Learning Center. This opportunity became the most influential part of my career. This ecological hotspot is totally unique! I had the chance to not only learn about the biodiversity in this area, but was able to teach and help kids fall in love with the outdoors. For a year, I learned different techniques and taught approximately five thousand students, ranging from 1st to 12th grade, through different environmental education programs offered at Dunes Learning Center.

This experience teaching outdoors inspired me to start an environmental education initiative back in Cameroon when I returned in 2016. The program was called Kids For Nature (K4N). I had the chance to work with 20 schools in our local communities doing outdoor environmental programs. This program created completely new opportunities for these kids, and resulted in the planting of almost 100 native plants. We created 5 school gardens and very excited kids who love being outside.

My love and passion for the outdoors is the reason I returned to Dunes Learning Center. I want to learn more about the field of environmental education, and the dunes just feels like the best place to foster this passion. I have met so many people who share their experiences and teaching techniques. My ultimate dream is to create an Environmental Learning Center back in Cameroon, and Dunes Learning Center is the reason I have this dream.


Azima Ndimbe


Duck Hunt

By Chief Naturalist Anthony Escobedo

A very fundamental concept that we like to include here at Dunes Learning Center is to teach the importance of understanding where food comes from. Many students in my trail groups are shocked if they find out that I am an avid outdoorsman who hunts and fishes regularly. This includes many comments like “Aren’t you supposed to be a naturalist? How can you do that?” This usually leads to a conversation about conservation and sometimes ethics. Occasionally I have a student or two who themselves have been hunting either with a family member or friend. It usually just leads to good conversation sharing hunting stories, as if we were in the hunting blind or old buddies getting together to trade tales. On one very special occasion I met a young man named Keegan. Keegan began telling me all about his hunting adventures with his dad, Greg (the parent chaperone with the group), including how he has shot a goose and deer “so far.”


Keegan and his father Greg were members of my “Chubby Squirrels” trail group. They attended a three-day overnight program with Keegan’s school at Dunes Learning Center. One thing that appeals to me about hunting, specifically waterfowl hunting, is the camaraderie. Hunters can instantly bond with one another as they begin talking about tales of a hunt. When I met Keegan, we instantly formed that bond. Recognizing the excitement in both of our voices and seeing the excitement in his eyes, I knew he was a special kid, a born leader. I was graciously invited by Keegan and his father Greg, on a duck hunt and jumped at the opportunity.


While walking up to the duck blind, I struck up a light conversation with Keegan to break the ice. Much like any other 10 year old kid, Keegan was still half asleep at 6:00 am, whereas I was excited to be hunting with some new friends. Keegan, Greg, and I tossed out a few decoys and quickly got in the blind. Within minutes, we had the first duck come in, a drake mallard. We kept our heads down, but our eyes on the bird. I couldn’t help but take my eyes off the bird for a brief second to take a look at Keegan, who was frozen with excitement and anticipation. When the bird came in close enough I yelled, “Take him, Keegan!”

Keegan popped up and unloaded his 20 gauge. The bird folded and his dad walked out into the pond to get it. Just a few seconds later, we had a tornado of birds circling over us. We did everything we could to scramble back into the blind, everyone calling out birds: “There’s some to the left.” “There’s some right on top of us!” “Keep your head down, there’s some coming in behind us!”

Again I looked over at Keegan, and saw him grinning from ear to ear. A wood duck came from the left and I heard Keegan yell, “Take him, Anthony!” I thought to myself, “How the tables have turned,” and I unloaded my 12 gauge and finally watched the bird fall. “Nice shot!” he told me. “All you.” His excitement was contagious, and I couldn’t help but smile as well.

It was one of the best hunts that I have ever been on, and it wasn’t because of the number of birds we saw. Right before my very eyes I watched this young man, at 10 years old, grow into a fine outdoorsman. The laughing, story trading, and heckling is all a part of being in a duck blind, and Keegan fit right in. It’s really the memories that hunters pursue… and this is a memory I will cherish forever. Thanks, Keegan and Greg.


Anthony Escobedo

Chief Naturalist

Why I Teach Outside

By Naturalist Abigail Stone Lauer

In my current role as an Interpretive Naturalist for Dunes Learning Center, I love my daily interactions with local schoolchildren and their teachers. My passion for the outdoors and environmental education is rooted in having attended summer camp myself. When I was seven, I went to an overnight camp in northern Michigan, which was my first experience away from my family. I learned an important lesson about independence in the outdoors -- how to be adaptable in new environments and challenge myself.


My first mentor in nature was one of my counselors. Ethan was a person that I looked up to from a young age. He had a way of connecting to each individual camper and sharing his personal passion for the outdoors in a wholehearted, genuine way. Eventually, I ended up working at Camp Lookout and falling in love with nature because of mentors like Ethan.


Spending time outdoors has helped me to stretch myself and grow in ways I had not expected, particularly getting out of my comfort zone. This has become my mantra and I learned it from my camp counselors, mentors, and family. When I was in college deciding what I wanted to be when I grew up, I realized I am happiest in nature and working with children. I teach students what I have learned from all of the people who have influenced me to this day.


As my time as a Naturalist at Dunes Learning Center comes to an end, I think of how formative this experience has been for me. During the last year, I have spent every day with students, facilitating hands-on education through the natural world in a safe and positive learning environment.

Each naturalist gets a project during their year at the Dunes Learning Center. My project is the Naturalist Notes section on our website. Every month, I get the chance to read and send in stories from the trail including amazing experiences my co-workers and I have had. I have been working on my own Naturalist Note for a while, and wanted to share why I chose to be an environmental educator. For me, it’s simple: my classroom is outside, it’s hard to beat, and someday I hope to have an impact on my students the way others have influenced me. Kids need nature and nature needs kids.


Abigail Stone Lauer


Indiana Master Naturalist Training

By Naturalist Allie Moskal

I started my journey at the Dunes Learning Center in June of 2018 and have grown tremendously as an Interpretive Naturalist. The majority of my knowledge about the incredible ecosystems here in the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore have been through professional development and trainings at work. DLC provides all new naturalists the opportunity to participate in the Indiana Master Naturalist (IMN) program. IMN is a hands-on learning experience designed to educate environmental enthusiasts about Indiana’s natural resources. Upon completion of the classes, final exam, and 30 hours of environmental volunteer work, participants earn a certificate.


The class met at Gabis Arboretum in Valparaiso for class every Wednesday over the course of three months. The classes covered environmental topics including botany, ornithology, amphibians, and wildlife rehabilitation. All of the courses have provided me with new knowledge that I’m able to incorporate into my interpretive hikes at DLC. Having the opportunity to take these courses has reignited my passion for the environmental sciences.


Wildlife Rehabilitation was my favorite class. Local certified wildlife rehabilitators brought wounded animals in and talked about how we can help wildlife in emergency situations. I had the opportunity to hold an alligator and corn snake, pet a tortoise, and observe a red tailed hawk. I was overjoyed interacting with these incredible wild animals. This class reminded me of my passion for animals, something I hope to turn into a career in the future.


Botany of trees was another fascinating class that I was able to immediately apply to my lessons at work. The day after class, I led a group of students on a hike through the oak savannah. We found blue spotted salamanders and puffball mushrooms, but the best part was their interest in trees! The students had lots of questions about trees, all of which I was able to answer. We identified, discussed the life of deciduous trees, and counted the rings on several fresh cut trees. I could feel the enthusiasm from the students. I always look forward to learning new information that will help me improve my skills as an Interpretive Naturalist.


Allie Moskal


Winter Ecology and Grumphet Shelter Building

By Alana Murray, Senior Naturalist

Sitting inside on a cold winter day with a cozy blanket, some hot chocolate, and a fire blazing is the only way to spend winter. This mentality seems to be common among many people during this time of the year. However, here at the Dunes Learning Center, every day is a great day to be outside! During the winter, students come to campus for a unique outdoor experience and learn about the different ways animals survive the harsh conditions of winter. Winter provides many obstacles for animals trying to find food, water, and warmth. Students learn first-hand the specific adaptations animals possess to combat these obstacles.

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For example, one of the student activities is caring for our grumphets. Grumphets are tiny little organisms that “grow” only at Dunes Learning Center. These organisms live in test tubes full of water and enjoy staying warm. Students are tasked with the challenge of building a shelter to keep these tiny creatures at a temperature warm enough for them to stay happy. Using sticks, leaves, pine needles and a lot of imagination, students dig into their creative sides and construct homes for their grumphets.

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The goal is to keep the grumphets warmer than the one left out in the snow without a shelter. Many students come up with creative ways to keep their grumphets warm. Digging holes in the ground, using already existing structures, or imitating bird nests are some ways students have constructed shelters. Many like to imagine different rooms in their shelters, speculating that their grumphets would enjoy a living room, a large dining room, or even a nice blanket for their bedroom.

There is no limit and no wrong way to go about it, but each naturalist tries to remind the students what elements the grumphets need protection from such as the rain, wind, and snow. Students become extremely invested in learning the outcomes of everyone’s shelter and who was able to keep their grumphet the warmest. After determining the success of everyone’s shelters, students discuss the different ways that their shelters can trap heat to keep their grumphets happy. As a group, they brainstorm ways their shelters could better keep their grumphets warm and how animals in the dunes might build their own shelters to keep warm. Learning about animals in winter teaches students that there is still lots of activity, even during the cold seasons. Even though it is cold, life does not stop here in the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore!

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Alana Murray

Senior Naturalist

The Fossil That ALMOST Got Away

By Naturalist Carlos Tellez

During the summer, naturalists have time to plan some of their own activities, so I often talked about fossils. It was really neat because I got to show off my personal fossil collection. I have collected many fossils over the years, and the kids were interested in learning a little bit more about them. I would let the kids pass around the different fossils and minerals (such as calcite) that make the fossil.

One day, I was showing off my favorite fossil, a trilobite, to a group of kids. This trilobite has two pieces that come apart. I gave two pieces to the kids, but once it came back to me, there was only one piece. I WAS SO SAD - I thought I had lost my favorite trilobite piece! We spent ten minutes trying to figure out who had the piece last and how it had disappeared. We searched that area from top to bottom until we found it. It was an emotional rollercoaster, but at the end of the day, one of my funniest, most memorable moments during summer camp.

I was inspired by a student to draw a comic to illustrate this story. I would ask students to write in their journals, and one boy would always doodle on the side of his worksheets. I asked him to hold off on doodling and work on the assignment. As I was talking with him, he got more into his doodle and was hiding it from me. So, I told him to show me the drawing. He had drawn a picture of me and I thought it was hilarious. This lead to my idea for the comic strip.

This is a trilobite!!! My favorite fossil!!!

This is a trilobite!!! My favorite fossil!!!

Here! Pass it around. Trilobites are the first Predators.

Here! Pass it around. Trilobites are the first Predators.

Alright! Did everyone look at it? Wait, where did it Go?

Alright! Did everyone look at it? Wait, where did it Go?

Oh no!! We have to find it!

Oh no!! We have to find it!


Carlos Tellez


Crafting a Connection

By Naturalist Ben Sehl

Dunes Learning Center supports professional development for the naturalists in many ways, which feeds directly into the quality of programming that we provide for students. In just a few short months, I have been able to attend this year’s Environmental Education Association of Indiana (EEAI) conference, a 10-week Indiana Master Naturalist (IMN) class and a weekend fungus workshop; all paid for by the DLC. Not only are these interesting and valuable opportunities for me, but I can use what I learn to improve my teaching methods and the depth of information that I include in my programs.

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At the EEAI conference in September, I attended an especially impactful talk given by a primitive skills instructor. He focused on making fire by friction with a fire bow and the steps involved in crafting the bow, including carving multiple pieces of wood and making a natural rope. Both the process of making the bow and the fire bow itself have fit perfectly into our Walk Through Time hike. Native peoples like the Potawatomi, who are included in the program, crafted fire bows and other tools using only materials gathered from the land.

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The informed gathering and crafting of tools is an important skill that has unfortunately faded from general knowledge. I have been able to engage students in that living history by teaching them how to craft a rope using only natural materials. The process starts with the students gathering dried stalks from a stinging nettle plant and ends with a sturdy rope that they can take home and even wear as a bracelet. This activity not only connects the students with an ancient tradition of tool crafting but also provides a hands-on example of how people interact with and use resources from the natural environment. The students learn that stinging nettle is a nutritious edible plant as well as a useful raw material. It is just one example of hundreds of plants that can be used as medicine, food, or tools. At the end of the program, they have their rope bracelet as a reminder of what they learned.

Natural rope bracelet, made from stinging nettle fibers

Natural rope bracelet, made from stinging nettle fibers

Teaching students to make their own tools is a hands-on way to connect them to both history and the environment. This connection is increasingly important as we continue to lose touch with how our use of resources affects the land that we live on. It is important to reach students in creative and interesting ways. Dunes Learning Center encourages us as naturalists to be creative and pursue new information and techniques that will make meaningful impacts on our students.


Ben Sehl


Fall Conference Reflections

 By Chief Naturalist Anthony Escobedo

Each year that I attend conferences, I always gain something new: a new teaching technique, a new plant I’ve learned to identify, a new friend. This year I was fortunate to attend two conferences, the Environmental Education Association of Indiana conference at Camp Mack in Milford, and the North American Association of Environmental Education in Spokane, Washington.

At the top of Spokane Mountain

At the top of Spokane Mountain

One recurring topic at both conferences was the importance of hope and positivity in chaotic and stressful times. That message really resonated with me. Seeing all the different people doing amazing things all over the world, you have hope. Hope that everyone will have an opportunity to have a profound experience in nature and that one day people will see themselves as a part of nature.

While in Washington on a field trip up Spokane Mountain, I met Jenna Gatzke, who is the Coordinator of the Prairie Springs Environmental Education Center in Wisconsin. I was surprised when I found out that Jenna began as a Dunes Learning Center Naturalist! Her DLC experience is what inspired her to do this kind of environmental education work. It’s great to learn that the next generations of environmental educators are arriving through groups like Dunes Learning Center.

Jenna Gatzke and Anthony Escobedo

Jenna Gatzke and Anthony Escobedo

All in all, the greatest part I took away from this year’s conference wasn’t something new; rather it was a renewal. The renewal of inspiration to continue to do the life changing work that we do everyday at Dunes Learning Center, a renewal to continue to inspire people to imagine, question, and explore. My insatiable desire to connect people to their environment is now stronger than ever, and I’m so grateful to be with an organization like Dunes Learning Center.


Anthony Escobedo

Chief Naturalist

(In character during the Walk through Time)


By Naturalist Megan Harrison

Last month we had the pleasure of teaching Highland High School’s environmental science class. These juniors and seniors completed hikes through jack pine forests, dunes, deciduous forests, and of course, the beach. After learning about the ecology and succession in the Indiana Dunes, naturalists and students headed to the Little Calumet River for Riverwatch. Hoosier Riverwatch is a program that utilizes citizen participation for local water monitoring efforts.

The Highland environmental science class has experience monitoring water quality, but they had a new and very exciting observation: a BEAVER! Our group was busy sampling macroinvertebrate insects when the much larger beaver stole the show. This close encounter allowed students to observe, learn about unique adaptations, and explore their curiosity.


Despite the elusive nature of beavers, our group was able to spend a lot of time observing the beaver and his behaviors. For example, he entered the river by sliding down on his stomach. Beavers typically enter this way in the same spot every time creating something known as beaver slides. Once in the water, he showed off by swimming around the group, chewing on some snacks, and even laying on the bank to groom himself! Naturally, there was a flurry of cameras and cell phones from both the students and the naturalists but there was also time for a quick lesson on beaver adaptations. I can think of no better classroom for this lesson than the Little Calumet River!


Naturalists taught the students about many wildlife adaptations. For example, hair is important to mammals, but not usually vital for water dwelling animals. Since the beaver is both, they have two layers of fur. The first is for trapping in warmth, and the top layer is waterproof to keep them dry when they come back to shore. Like ducks, beavers also have webbed feet for swimming through their aquatic environment. Their tails are adapted for their underwater lifestyle as well. The classic paddle shape is important for steering underwater, but also provides balance on land.  For many, including myself, this was the first time seeing these adaptations at work in the wild.

As an educator, it’s very easy for me to say how interesting or important our native species are but it’s quite another to get students to actually believe it. Seeing curious teenage minds at work was one of the most rewarding experiences that I have had in my career.

Highland High School Environmental Science Class

Highland High School Environmental Science Class

I believe the best way to gain an appreciation for nature is to experience it first-hand. I have learned, studied, and even taught about beavers, but have never appreciated them to this extent until that day in the river. Our only real shot at saving our beloved Mother Earth is to encourage future generations to care. This experience could not have aligned more with the mission of Dunes Learning Center: “to inspire lasting curiosity and stewardship in nature.” Thank you Highland High School for sharing this great experience with us!


Megan Harrison


(In character during the Walk through Time)