The Woodland Gnomes of The Ridges

Hammocks, butterfly nets, birdhouses, and book boxes appear along the Family Discovery Trail at The Ridges Sanctuary in Baileys Harbor. In the year that the trail has been open, not one item has gone missing, thanks to the trail’s caretakers, the Woodland gnomes.

This year, the friendly gnomes are the theme of a collaboration between the Baileys Harbor Library Summer Reading Program and the Family Discovery Trail.

“You will never see gnomes, but you know they have been there, because they take care of the trails,” said Brian Forest, the education and land management specialist at The Ridges Sanctuary.

Jeanne Majeski at the McArdle Library in Baileys Harbor selected the book Gnomes for a story walk along the trail. The book’s laminated pages are spaced in varying intervals throughout the trail and fixed to wooden stakes with painted red tops.

Gnomes is a charming illustrated encyclopedia, selected to familiarize children walking along the trail with its caretakers.

“This is a place where families can just go out and lose themselves for a couple hours outside,” Forest said.

Compared to its caretakers, the Woodland gnomes, who, at age 275 are “in the prime of life,” the story walk is very young.

“It’s our first time doing this,” Forest said.

The trail itself has been well attended since it opened last year. Forest estimates that in the 2014-15 season, more than 400 people went through the Family Discovery Trail, and last year The Ridges gave away 450 biodegradable birdhouses, all to families who completed its loops.

In addition to the Story Walk, the Family Discovery Trail has continued to build on last year’s collaboration with the McArdle Library by constructing three new reading boxes that the library fills with donated books.

The Ridges Sanctuary encourages a hands-on approach to nature along the Family Discovery Trail, distinct from its other trails.

“It’s not like the sanctuary proper, and the traditional trails are ‘look-with-your-eyes, don’t touch, stay on the trails,’ but over there we are encouraging them to just go crazy, and dig in,” he said.

Activities along the trail are not limited to digging. The Family Discovery Trail has a series of 12 interactive stations designed for family play, including wigwam construction, bridge building, and an area with hammocks for children to relax, read and contemplate nature. Bug spray and waterproof shoes are recommended, and practically required for those who want to participate in the interactive segments, and for fussier children.

Forest is hopeful that Gnomes and the Family Discovery Trail receive an even larger audience this year.

“We want this to take off, so we will change the story regularly and change out the laminated sheets,” he said.

But he believes the actual woodland gnomes will linger, out of sight, for much longer.