On a local memorial to John Hauberg, an amateur historian and tireless defender of our region’s natural resources, you’ll find a description of him as "an inspiring companion to those who would explore the wonders of the world near at hand."

Although Hauberg died in 1955, I borrowed inspiration both from him and from the more contemporary Q2030 initiative to spend time exploring some of our nearby wonders.

I started at Niabi Zoo, filled with the awe one experiences in the presence of such stunning biodiversity. But the most fascinating specimen was a small primate my wife Jenni and I brought with us. Emma is not quite 2, so seeing the wonder of a zebra, a jellyfish, and even a carousel ride reflected in her eyes was glorious.

Much of the week was spent hiking, first at Black Hawk State Historic Site on trails that would have been familiar to its namesake. It can be a deeply spiritual experience to consider what Black Hawk was willing to sacrifice in order to come back to this very place, and live again among the burial grounds of his ancestors.

Next stop was Illiniwek Forest Preserve and a new trail system laid out in cooperation with Friends of Off-Road Cycling. The partnership has produced a well-thought system that allows cyclists and hikers to safely share trails narrow enough to help you feel fully engulfed by the forest. I closed the trifecta with a 6-mile loop on Loud Thunder Forest Preserve’s Sac-Fox Trail (more on that in a moment).

To mix things up, I broke out the bike and headed off on the River Trail-Duck Creek-Sunderbruch Park-Credit Island loop, one of the most remarkable bike rides in America. A patchwork of industrial, suburban, and rural vignettes, the loop weaves over Duck Creek, skirts cornfields, and rolls through upland wildflowers, all in the space of about 30 miles. Even broken into walkable segments, the loop is something of which all Quad-Citians should be proud.

Friday found me floating in a kayak I rented at Lake George. If there’s a more soothing sound than water trickling past the hull of a paddle-powered boat, I’ve not heard it. The Rock Island County Forest Preserve District is about 20 years behind in deferred maintenance on the spillway that sustains this lake, so I had plenty to think about as I ducked in and out of its many forest-encased inlets.

Looking back over those seven days, the highlight was the long walk at Loud Thunder. My father Richard “Swanie” Swanson, who also did a fair amount of walking, was once invited to speak on that subject at the Putnam Museum. It was one of my favorite talks I ever heard him give.

A phenomenon unique to walking, he held, was that, if you walk far enough, you come upon a door, and as you go through something remarkable happens. Your feet remain on the physical path before you, but your mind is freed to explore an infinitely vaster topography. Time recedes, along with all thought of spillways, finance, politics, and all the things that can weigh heavily on the mind of a forest preserve president.

All that remains is a profound communion with a presence and a power far greater than you and I. In this fleeting brush with eternity, I understood what the naturalist John Muir meant when he said, “The clearest way into the universe is through a forest wilderness.” I knew, too, that it will take the efforts of all of us to ensure these treasures are given the careful stewardship they need to ensure that Emma and generations after her can have experiences like this.

Connect with yourself, and connect with the power of the natural world in our own backyard. It is those connections that bring vitality to our region. The next time you’ve got a few free hours, head out to any of our region’s amazing parks and preserves. Experience for yourself what Muir meant when he said, “Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees, while cares will drop away from you like the leaves of autumn.”

Get out there, Quad-Cities. Enjoy the wonders near at hand.

Kai Swanson is president of the Rock Island County Forest Preserve District.

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