The Centennial

Fontenelle Forest

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100 Stories

As we look to the future, we celebrate our centennial by paying tribute to the forest itself and the thousands of people who have appreciated and helped preserve it over the past hundred years. We want to hear your stories, and we’ll be asking for submissions throughout the coming year.

In Our Backyard

Conveniently located off Hwy 75 and just minutes away from downtown Omaha, Fontenelle Forest and Neale Woods are National Natural Landmarks right in our backyard. Each year, hundreds of people volunteer their time to support the organization and 80,000 people come to hike the 26 miles of maintained trails, play and explore the 2,000 acres of upland and lowland forest, native prairies, wetlands, lakes and waterways, and experience the classes, camps and other programs offered through Fontenelle.

Share Your Story

Thank you for submiting your story. We will review your story and notify you when it has been approved and online.

My husband and I have been members of Fontenelle Forest for going on three years now. Our favorite thing to do is go for hikes on the weekends at Fontenelle as well as Neale Woods. We love spending time together among the peace of the trees and learning new trails; we are proud to say we no longer need to use the map! It is so fun watching the forest change throughout the seasons. The best is when we get the special treat of seeing deer romp across the paths! We also tried snowshoeing last winter for the first time and we cannot wait to go again this winter. We are so thankful to have access to such a beautiful place in our city and are proud members now and for years to come.

Written by Brittney

Since 1960, our family has lived close to the Mormon Bridge, so Neale Woods has been a nearby attraction. This center provides a convenient place to hike, and gauge ones health, while enjoying the sights, sounds and peaceful solitude of nature. For exercise, as one gets older, walking on ground is also a lot easier on the joints than walking on sidewalks...We remember a time, probably in the early 1970s, when now Marjorie Garabrandt showed us rare lady slipper orchids just inside a wooded area.

After I retired, while I have on occasion volunteered for prairie burns, adopt a trail, etc., my main interest has been monitoring bird houses annually on the bluebird trail in Neale Woods, during the egg laying season. In about 1991, staff Shelly Bonsell, asked me to coordinate the 4 day interval for monitoring and record keeping of this 2-3 mile trail with other interested volunteers. A primary purpose of the record was to determine a reliable/honest count of birds fledged from eggs laid. The current 22 year average is about 58%

My favorite time for going to Neale Woods is early spring, when plants are just starting to come up and birds are returning. The hills can provide a healthy challenge and the open hilltop distant views and prairies are special.

Dick Behrens

Written by Dick Behrens

Over a decade ago, Fontenelle Forest placed a blink and you’ll miss it add for an environment educator in the Omaha World Herald. I was in my mid-twenties, wilting away behind video cameras and editing bays, regretting the career path I’d set for myself.

I spotted the ad one day and wondered if I could do a job like that, be an environmental educator. I had good public speaking skills, a fair amount of knowledge about nature and absolutely no idea if I was any good at working with children. Frankly, at the time, I was scared of them. But I called the number anyway.

I met with Helen to interview for the position. We walked the boardwalk and I shared why I would like a shot at being an environmental educator. We made a deal, if I thought I wasn’t cut out for the job, I’d walk away. If she thought I wasn’t cut out for it, I’d walk away.

I did walk away. I walked away after several wonderful seasons of being an environmental educator for Fontenelle Forest. I cannot express how much I owe to this incredible place. Turns out, I found passion in a career. Turns out, my special gift to society is my ability to connect children to nature. Turns out, over a decade later, I still am connecting children to nature as part of my career and still loving it!

Thank you, from the very bottom of my heart Fontenelle, for taking a chance on me all those years ago.
Happy 100 and many, many, many more!

Written by Jessica Korgie

From an old friend who once served as Executive Director of the Fontenelle Forest Association, from 1974 to 1984---iI send warmest regards and hearty congratulations on a grand century of conservation!

Former Board President, Jim Haggart once counseled me to have faith in future generations who would conserve the Forest. His wisdom has been borne out by time.

Howard Kaslow taught us how to make dreams into reality.

I served under Board Presidents: Virgil J. (Jim) Haggart, Jr., Fred Bennett, Howard J. Kaslow, Bill Chisholm, Mel Quinlan, Walter J. Duds, and Thomas Knight. I pay tribute to each of them.

I also send best regards to beloved friends, Gary and Marj Garabrandt, Neal Ratzlaff, Andy Saunders, Evelyn Solonynka, Howard Kaslow and Jim Haggart, who among many others will always be a part of the Forest we have all come to know and love.

May God continue to bless your efforts at Fontenelle Forest!

Written by Robert W. Fluchel, Director, Parkville Nature Sanctuary

My grandfather was a naturalist at the forest in the 1930's. My siblings and I enjoyed many hikes with grandpa. He entertained us with countless stories such as encountering a
mountain lion in the forest (decades ago) and visiting the legendary "hermit" of Fontenelle
Forest. Grandpa's humorous claim to fame was discovering the state champion (largest)
poison ivy plant in the forest. I am thankful for the conservation work of many people and
to be able to continue creating memories with my family at Fontenelle Forest.

Submitted by Gavin Wolfe

Written by Gavin Wolfe

Ruby is my free-range baby.

When she was still growing in my belly, I walked up and down the trails of the Forest with children on their field trips and she heard their questions: "What is that?" "Can I touch this?" and, my favorite, "Does it bite?," delivered with a sort of delicious mix of terror and anticipation that only children truly experience. She dozed as we walked, I could tell, because as we loaded the kids onto their school buses and they waved goodbye and we waved goodbye, she would start kicking and fluttering around as if asking, why are we standing still, Mama? Let's go!

After Ruby was born, I started working with the very young children at Mud Pies. She was three weeks old on our first day back together. She slept the entire time wrapped tightly against my chest like a little moth. As she grew, she became somewhat of a personality. When she learned to wave, she would sit by the classroom door in the mornings and wave at the kids and their parents as they came in. When she learned how to crawl, she started escaping the ten feet across the hall to go look at our soft-shelled turtle in Habitat Hollow. Her third word, after Mama and Daddy, was Turtle. She does love that strange-looking little critter.

I grew up outdoors -- as many of my peers did -- in a world that no longer exists, for a myriad reasons I will not delve into here. Ruby gets to grow up outdoors, just like I did, within the quiet protected wild of Fontenelle Forest. She enthusiastically puts her feet in Dragonfly Pond. Her beloved friends take her out on their hikes and let her touch tree bark and leaves and point out things for her. She is learning to walk on our Boardwalk. She is getting quite the thorough education on birds of Nebraska (considering that this is not my strong suit) from Rick and Kate. She will easily sit for an hour watching the feeder traffic. The child would rather be outside crawling around in the grass than anywhere else. For her first birthday, Kate got her a Fontenelle Forest Staff onesie. A year ago, Elizabeth was present at her birth. Many of the women on staff at the time had contributed beads for a labor necklace to help Ruby into the world.

It is a gift to work in a place that foments the growth of children in a natural setting, whether they be here for an hour or every day. I am proud to call myself a part of the Forest, to say that my child is being raised by this village of individuals who care about the important things: nature, curiosity, education, global awareness and each other.

Written by Alex Martin

Fontenelle Forest and Neale Woods have been a place of solitude and peace; it’s been a place of learning and sharing and of healing the heart and soul for me over the past 25 years. Every hike offers something new and amazing; no matter how many times I've hiked it. As a part time Educator and long time volunteer through the Teacher/Naturalist program, I have seen many changes to the Fontenelle Forest Association. I’m excited to see the current changes and growth that Fontenelle is experiencing—appropriately, during its centennial year. I thank the founders of Fontenelle Forest Association for their wisdom and vision in setting aside and protecting this special jewel of nature for future generations.

May the forest be with you!
Dianne Guinn

Written by Dianne Guinn

As a physical therapist and one who teaches physical therapy students at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, I use volunteer activities and recreational hikes as ways to improve and preserve my personal physical and mental health. In a Prevention and Wellness course that I teach, I promote outdoor activities, including those that can be done at Fontenelle Forest and Neale Woods, to my students for the same reasons. There is plenty of evidence in the psychology literature about the need for humans to connect with natural areas to reduce the anxiety of modern living, and hiking, walking, or nature study at Fontenelle Forest or Neale Woods provides the opportunity to do that through physical activity and the experience of being connected with something bigger than ourselves, i.e., the natural world. In addition, my volunteer activities at Fontenelle Forest and Neale Woods provide a way that I can try to make a small difference in the effort to preserve our biological heritage.

Written by Robert Fuchs

A nature club for kids led by Fontenelle Forest director Jim Malkowski and sponsored by the Optimists Club of Omaha was formed in 1966. We were called the Junior Opti-Naturalists. On the second Wednesday evening of each month we met in the Natural Science Building for a typically enthusiastic and captivating lecture by Mr. Malkowski followed by a field trip on Saturday. There were about 25 of us kids in the club and our very devoted parents who drove us there and on the trips. Our caravan on the sandhill crane trip to Odessa, Nebraska left the forest at 2AM. Our trip to Burchard Lake to see Greater Prairie Chickens in courtship left at 3AM. We were hard core junior nature nuts.
We saw spectacular and stunning things I can envision perfectly to this day. Mr. Malkowski was our pied piper and he led us through the forest like it was his personal classroom of the world's most astounding and precious things. He shared tenets ecology, land stewardship and his deep knowledge of every plant and creature we came across. We annually competed to be chosen to recite our adventures to the Optimists luncheon which was terrifying but valuable.
I earned a degree in Ecology, became a wildlife artist, and continue painting nature professionally to celebrate and share its beauty to this day. I have to thank Fontenelle Forest and the naturalists Jim Malkowski, Curt Abdouch, Chuck Gibilisco, Dan Eddinger, and Ed Leninghoener there who mentored me and inspired a lifelong path of beauty.

Written by Andrew Peters

Fontenelle Forest defined a large part of my life. Growing up, my family frequented Fontenelle Forest regularly. We hiked all over the forest seeing trees, flowers, birds, spiders, and the occasional deer or turkey. My mom ran a summer art camp in our backyard one year and the field trip was to Fontenelle Forest to do nature sketching. I probably couldn't find that same drawing spot today, but I remember the spot at the base of a tree with large roots sticking out like it was yesterday. The roots provided just the right back support and I could hear the river and I loved feeling the sandy-clay dirt in my hands as I drew and felt myself as part of nature-scape, there.
I also loved the education displays inside the center. I might have liked them more then the woods themselves as that is what has become my college degree, my Peace Corps experience, my summer work, and everything I do: environmental education. I loved feeling the animal pelts, looking at snake skins, and seeing the mounted birds up close, so I could learn what they really looked like. I remember the bee hive with the tube that let the bees in and out. I've never been afraid of bees because I was able to see them up close like that. I still remember reaching my hand inside the dark holes of the guessing boxes to try to guess what was inside: a bone, an antler, a pelt? The hands on experience in the nature center gave me an enriching way to interact with my outdoors by giving me little tidbits of information and got me up close and personal to some of the things in nature that are harder to find or see.
One last memory is of a real good science teacher I had who took us on a field trip to Fontenelle Forest. A few of us were a bit ahead of the pack and our teacher dropped something down on the ground. When everyone got closer, he talked about if you're lost and starving, you could eat deer droppings if necessary, and he reached down and picked one up and popped it in his mouth. That will gross out any student with shock and disgust. I just laughed because I had seen him drop a candy chocolate milk-dud near the deer droppings. I use this joke with students I work with and know that humor can help any kid feel comfortable in nature. Fontenelle Forest is a place of learning, love, peace and laughter for me and I still find that when I go back home and visit.

Written by Krista Perleberg

Fontenelle Forest has given me many beautiful days and walks, but more importantly, it's given me my family.

I came to work at Fontenelle Forest in the summer of 1997 as a summer day camp counselor. It was here that my spark of love for nature grew as I learned the names of native plants and animals--but another spark was ignited on my very first day.

I met someone who became my best friend, and later my husband and father of my two beautiful boys.

Brad and I had a connection from the first day camp we ran together. We worked into the evening and on the weekends to create a week of nature-filled fun for our elementary school kids.

We secretly re-arranged the schedule so that we could do more camps together. I even talked him into doing a camp with 3 and 4 year-olds, a first for him. (One of his comments--you mean they need HELP in the bathroom?)

I returned to college in Rhode Island in the fall, and over the months Brad and my friendship continued to blossom over email. The following summer, I returned to Fontenelle for another summer of day camps.

It was this summer that our friendship grew into something more, and I haven't looked back ever since.

In October 2001, we got married on Fontenelle's Plaza on a beautiful autumn afternoon. As the yellow and golden-brown leaves fluttered to the ground around us, I thought back to how this all started.

We no longer live in Omaha, but come back often to visit family. We always try to fit in a hike at Neale Woods or a visit to the Wetlands Center. My three and five year old love dropping in on Kate at Mud Pies.

It's beautiful place where children can come to learn about the natural world, touch a snake or see an owl up close. Long hikes in the woods, a first kiss at the Camp Building--Fontenelle Forest will forever be connected to my heart and family.

it's where I met the love of my life.

Written by Anna Thomas Bates

In 2013, Fontenelle Forest is celebrating 100 years. Take off a zero, and you have the 10 years my wife and I are celebrating being married there. It is fitting those numbers coincide because it is my wife whom introduced me to Fontenelle. It was a beautiful outdoor wedding attended by our loved ones as well as butterflies, turkeys, and one particularly adventurous spider. In the past 10 years, my love for my wife and the forest has only grown (and now our daughter is learning the love of the forest).

Written by Jason Schleicher

My grandmother moved to Omaha in 1912 when she was 33. When Fontenelle Forest opened, she became a frequent visitor, showing her son and daughter (my mother) the beauty that can be found in nature. In turn, my mother took her children, I took mine, and now their children enjoy the Forest. Five generations, one wonderful place.

Written by Lorinda

I have worked at Fontenelle Forest now for approx. 8 years. Never did I imagine while I was hiking the trails here as a youngster that I would someday be paid to do so. This forest has been a big part of my life since I can remember, and I have since brought my own child, nephews, neices and grandchildren to the forest to share in it's quiet beauty. These days all are lives are so hectic. We are running here and there not only for ourselves but to transport family to activities and school. We forget sometimes that we really need nature. The recent push to get kids back into nature, to reconnect with our primal selves is mainly because we are losing that important link. When I was young I regularly walked alone in the woods, it was something I just had to do, like breathing and eating, we need to get that back. We are a species on this planet, and like all other species we have an impact on our environment, we need to conserve the wild places so we will always have some where to walk in the woods. Without these places we will lose a very important part of our humanity - that link that makes us a part of the whole, that link that energizes and heals us, the link that connects us to the quiet wild of nature.

Written by Debra K. Beck

My fiancee and I joined Fontenelle Forest just over a year ago. We love hiking the trails, or the boardwalk if its muddy, every chance we get! We always bring our camera to capture the ever changing beauty of the forest, and if we are lucky we catch a glimpse of the native wildlife. We love watching the forest change through the seasons. We even tried snowshoeing for the first time this winter! Each and every time we visit Fontenelle we have a sense of peace and calm and it is a wonderful escape from the rest of the world. The forest is our favorite place to go and spend time together. We are so lucky and thankful to have access to such a beautiful place and feel a deep connection with the spirit of the trees and animals.

Written by Brittney Novacek

Hal Gifford was a great supporter of Fontenelle Forest. His father was one of the men who were instrumental in preserving the land as it is today. He loved the Forest. His wife Emmy was one of the Junior League women who started Omaha Junior Theater which became the Emmy Gifford Children's Theater and is now the RoseTheater. They would alternate their philanthropic donations between the two organizations so that every other year Fontenelle Forest was the recipient of their charitable giving. Emmy once told me that people thought because Hal loved birds that she must love them as well. She said she hated birds, but loved Hal and supported the Forest because of his love of the place. I'm sure that Hal felt the same way about Children's Theater.

Written by Carol Russell

I worked at Fontenelle Forest during the summers between my sophomore and senior years of college - 1968 and 1969. Jim Malkowski was the executive director and the Nature Center consisted of an old house. The secretary's office was the front porch and Jim directed the activities out of the office in the living room. A naturalist used the rest of the house for his living quarters. I was hired as a "secretary" for a National Science Foundation grant to develop a program where teachers in the Omaha area would become naturalists for students coming to Fontenelle Forest on field trips. It was the start of the "Teacher-Naturalist" program. A syllabus was developed for what could be seen and experienced during the 12 months of the year in the Forest.

Written by Carol Russell

Besides being an avid recycler and having a strong affinity for little furry critters, I wouldn't call myself a nature enthusiast. However, that doesn't mean that I don't understand and appreciate the importance that Fontenelle Forest plays in our society, and on a larger scale, the world.

To on a daily basis have the opportunity to visit a place so serene and so pristine is truly magical, and to know that so many living things have a refuge from an ever expanding city is a comfort.

One hundred years ago, a group of people had the foresight to save this land so that I could visit today and experience its wonders. I want the children of my grandchildren to have this same opportunity.

Written by Stacey Coury

I've lived all over the US but I've seen things in the Fontenelle Forest that I've seen nowhere else.

Two weeks ago, on the Prairie Trail I heard 50 turkeys making not gobbles but weird blood curdling calls. Circling and slowly descending was a huge bald eagle. Eagle thanksgiving?

Several years ago a large grey owl nested in a dead tree near the start of the Oak trail. On the ground when I came around a curve in the trail, it flew absolutely straight up like a rocket back into the tree.

After seeing the devestation of the floods, I stayed out of the marsh until last fall. On my return I was amazed. On the hidden lake trail, flowers were blooming in the Fall. The flood had felled the scrub trees freeing the ground for strange plants with pink stems, read flowers, and green leaves. The huge cottonwood trees that had all but died were alive and healthy. For forest health we should hope those floods come often.

Written by Brian Bulat

My husband and I have been hiking the trails since 1979 where we'd go in from our apartment from the south end by the old power plant. He's taken beautiful photos of the river in a blizzard dotted with bald eagle sentinels in the treetops, Wild Iris along Hidden Lake, American Lotus on Great Marsh (which we always called Horseshoe Lake), and captured the deep green-gold light of the "Secret Valley" in spring. We listened to the wind symphony of the Cottonwoods in the "Tall Trees" section -- so many wonderful experiences bird-watching and enjoying the wildlife and beauty of Fontenelle. This year we were on the pond deck watching a group of bald eagles riding the thermals very high up above us with our 10 by 50s. Then I saw a small weather balloon. We've seen them before floating and landing. My husband looked and he said "That's not a weather balloon, that's eagle crap." We just cracked up -- guess they're not going to come all the way down and go back up for that. Lately I've been enjoying the Pileated Woodpeckers along the boardwalk. These days we live on the north end of the forest and we still love "our backyard" haven; we just go a bit slower, but the joy and wellness blessings are still there each time we enter.

Written by Penelope

Near the end of October every year, when my four children were growing up in the eighties and nineties, there was a Thursday and Friday with no school. Each child would invite a friend to spend a day with us in Fontenelle Forest. We would pack a lunch and spend the day looking for deer and animal habitats in fallen trees, talk about the trees and plants, and run and climb to our hearts delight. I particularly like late fall afternoons in the forest when sunlight shines low through the trees, expanding the views from the trails. One year, late in the afternoon, eight children and I were hiking through the leaves in a ravine, when we heard what sounded like someone following us. We had not seen anyone for some time and it seemed a little spooky. So, I shushed the children and we stood still behind a large cluster of trees to see who was following us. Pretty soon, a small flock of wild turkeys made their way past us. Their movements sounded just like a large person shuffling through the dry fallen leaves. To this day we laugh about our "stalker" in Fontenelle Forest.

Written by Merryellen Towey Schulz

Being a teacher, I was always looking for something different for a field trip. Fontennelle Forest is a very common place to take school children, but I was lucky enough in 1985 to have a docent, Tom Jetton, who would meet us at 6:30 in the morning with a group of elementary children. Picking up sleepy eyed students, wondering why so early, found out quickly the importance and reason for this time. The forest waking in the early morning is a very different environment than latter in the day. The students were able to see the mist that lays in the lowlands in the early morning. The students lost count of the number of deer they saw grazing and watching them. The birds were very welcoming with their songs. Squirrels could be heard if not always seen jumping from tree to tree or onto the ground crunching in the leaves. The sunrise and sounds were extraordinary compared to the middle of the day. The students were able to be totally surrounded by the wonders of nature. Exhausted by the time we left mid morning but an experience the students talked about throughout the rest of the year.

Written by Pat Little

My story began the first year James Malkowski arrived and started the teacher-naturalist program with the Omaha Public Schools and I stayed for seven years also serving as the Junior League of Omaha representative and volunteer coordinator. Jim treated us to an eye-opening journey training the group as the seasons changed and we enjoyed when we could catch a glimpse now and then of the inhabitants whether they be eagles, hawks, deer owls, etc. I will always appreciate the area for the history of the land and the foresight the Giffords and Neales had so many years ago to purchase such a beautiful and awesome that thousands of people to enjoy and be educated about our surroundings and the environment.
My two sons were Opti-naturalist members and enjoyed their monthly meetings and field trips. Day camp at Camp Conota was a must during the summer. I understand part of one bridge that the Day Camp group constructed is still standing.
The family has also inherited a landscape painting that Robert Gilder made when he had a studio in the Forest named Wake Robin. The painting was a gift to my in-laws, Donald W. and Dorothy Lyle in 1921 upon the celebration of their marriage.
I have had my life impacted greatly as a result of being involved with Forest activities and wish it another 100 years of existence and programs for all. NJL

Written by Norma J. Lyle

In Fontenelle Forest, I feel safe. I feel protected from the noise and confusion of Bellevue. I enter the forest in a hurry, with conflicting thoughts. I leave feeling peaceful.

It always amazes me that I feel so far away from the outside world. Sometimes I resent the plane flying overhead, the car racing along the Boulevard, or the train whistle blowing from far below the boardwalk.

I love all the signs of life I encounter. I feel almost giddy each time I spot deer along the trail. I love the sense of the changing seasons, wildflowers in the Spring, the thick canopy of Summer, and Fall leaves crunching under my feet. I’m even growing accustomed to the starkness of Winter, trees stripped of leaves and a clear view of the Missouri River.

I love the Forest because it’s there I have a proper perspective of my place in the universe. I realize many generations of native people have occupied this space before me. I like that sense of history. It’s here I best sense my role in the order of things. I feel an obligation to protect and nurture, not to dominate.

I feel that sense of belonging that I rarely sense elsewhere. I see creation all around me and I have respect for the smallest of creatures.

I’m so glad that Fontenelle Forest is right in my own backyard.

Written by Joan Ellen Givens

My first visit to the forest was WAY back in 1977. I was a high-schooler back then, wondering what I was going to study in college. I'll never forget the name of my Biology teacher; Miss Lipschultz. Such an odd name - anyway, she was about 4' tall. I had no experience hiking. Where I grew up, across the Missouri River, it was as flat as flat can be. When informed of this form of exercise in order to study plants of the forest, i thought that hiking with someone so close to the ground would be a piece of cake. Boy was I mistaken. That woman covered ground like a badger. Over every hill she would stop and point out something magical, as if it was placed there just for us to discover. I remember the coolness of the shade underneath the tress, the sounds of the wind through the leaves, and the rich smell of nature. That one experience at the forest left me with a desire to try to understand the complexity of nature, how the puzzle pieces fit together. All these years later, I am still searching and discovering.

Written by Denise Lewis

We moved to the area from southern England in 1963 when I was 13 years old…’Daddy, do the Native Americans there still live in teepees’ was my main concern about leaving my beloved woods in England. Mom found the forest and dragged me to Fontenelle Forest at first….it was different than the fern-filled forest in England! So we started hiking the same trail once a week throughout a year and looked at the changes in each season. I then dragged my friends to this cool place here in their hometown….a new discovery for many of them. We all had our favorite trails for each season. I was further impressed by Jim Malkowski, the first naturalist here, when he would bring a Great Horned Owl to events at our city parks. So amazing to see it up close!

Fast forward past high school….needed money for college so became a certified floral designer at a local shop in town….had 2 days off as week and used one as my ‘outdoor hiking day’…..almost always at the forest. I went on a blind date with a floral customer. He seemed like a really nice person so I invited him to come with me on my next hike, the following day. We met by Gifford Farm and walked the wetland area…..we saw all kinds of unusual things that day…..from a Yellow-crowned Night Heron to the first jewelweed flowers of the year with a Hummingbird feeding. I tried to explain to him that we had an exceptional hike that afternoon but he expected such shows every hike. Thirty-eight years later we are still walking the trails watching the fabulous Fontenelle Forest show…………..

Written by Deborah

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