2016 marked several firsts for me, and many of those experiences ended up in the Outdoors section of the Quad-City Times.

We launched the section, which runs every Saturday, about a year ago to highlight the variety of outdoor recreational opportunities in the Quad-City area and beyond.

Our coverage has taken us — on bicycles, kayaks and four-wheelers — to every corner of the community, from Sherrard to Savanna and numerous spots in between on both sides of the Mississippi River.

I explored places previously unbeknownst to me and shadowed turkey hunters, morel mushroom harvesters, professional tree climbers and fat-tire bikers in their respective elements.

I witnessed a 93-year-old hiker trek up a hill with his cane in Blue Grass and a 17-month-old water skier glide near the shores of the Rock River in Rock Island. 

And who knew a cricket club in the Quad-Cities had grown to almost 200 players strong in the past decade? Teams, which primarily consist of immigrants from the Indian subcontinent, compete during the spring and summer on a converted soccer field just east of the East Moline Correctional Center. 

I stepped out my comfort zone to learn more about the hunting culture in the area, and dug deep into deer harvest and deer-vehicle collision data to better understand the importance Quad-Citians place in the pastime.

It really hit home for me when I sat down with a hunting family on the eve of Iowa's first shotgun deer season at their kitchen table in Long Grove. They chowed down on venison burgers, and I saw firsthand how the sport provides food for families. 

I also celebrated three years at the Times in December. My new roles helped spur more connections and interactions with new faces than I made during my first two years combined at the newspaper, and I'm thankful for that. 

For Christmas, my father painted for me a catalog of various stories I've written during my short career here on canvas and denoted his favorite Outdoors pieces with an “O.”

A few of my favorite moments include:

Leadville Trail 100 Run: During my summer vacation in Colorado, I ended my trip in Leadville, a small mining town about 100 miles southwest of Denver. Six Quad-City fitness fanatics braved the altitude — Leadville is the highest incorporated city in the United States at 10,152 feet — and near freezing temperatures in August to compete in a 100-mile race. I stayed up most of the night to share the story with readers back home.

Fall camping in Iowa: A couple of buddies and I took advantage of November's unseasonably warm weather to spend the night outdoors at Wildcat Den, a 423-acre state park 10 miles east of Muscatine and 15 miles west of Davenport. Our short adventure signified my first time camping in November, my first time camping at Wildcat and my first visit there in autumn.

Upriver bike ride: Just a couple of weeks prior, I tested my limits on a bicycle by pedaling through heavy winds, chilly temperatures and three counties along the Great River Trail from Rock Island to Savanna. If you go, do yourself a favor and leave a vehicle in Savanna or arrange for someone to pick you up, so you have the option to head home after the 60-mile ride.

In turn, I hope this section has motivated others — not just outdoor enthusiasts — to follow suit and connect with new people and places, as well. 

A reader emailed me this week asking for hiking advice around Lost Grove Lake, a 400-acre man-made body of water just northeast of the metro Quad-Cities. He credited the Outdoors section for inspiring him to check out city, county and state parks in and around town.

He and a friend are knocking destinations off their list, and they're even thinking about testing their hand at ice fishing when the time and conditions are right this winter. 

That's the tangible impact we set out to create with this platform, and I'm happy to see it in action. 

Want to help? Send me tips, story ideas or feedback at jcullen@qctimes.com.

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Jack Cullen is a reporter covering various sides of life, including the outdoors, across the Quad-City area. Outside of work, you can find him on the tennis court, where he serves as a coach at Augustana College in Rock Island.