Exploring Pigeon Forest is child’s play for KOO

Posted on November 13th, 2017

Out See Go
By Chris Engle, contributor

All outdoor adventurers start somewhere. For Kids Outdoors Otsego (KOO), here and now works just fine.

KOO – pronounced “coo” by its fans – is the brainchild of Sam Cornelius and Nancie Kersey, longtime friends and colleagues in education. They formed the group to offer kids and parents an easy way to dip their toes in an outdoorsy lifestyle which, as we head into a five-month Northern Michigan winter, is a necessity in avoiding cabin fever.

On Saturday, as a skim of ice crept across Pickerel Lake at the western edge of the Pigeon River Country State Forest, Cornelius and Kersey prepped walking sticks and nature journals as they waited for the kids to arrive.

We got there 10 minutes late because getting Paige ready for a day outside is no small feat, as anyone with a kindergartener knows.

Following closely behind was Kara Simon and her four kids – ages 9, 7, 4, and an infant bundled inside Simon’s coat. She said her kids were all “very excited” to go hiking with Sam and Nancie.

“We try to get out every weekend,” said Simon, joking that she’d “rather have all four outside than inside.”

Kiddos take in the ice at the edge of Pickerel Lake. Photo by Chris Engle

Almost immediately, the four oldest kids dashed to the frozen shore and slid out onto the window-clear ice. Minnows darted under the ice and the kids chased them around. They squealed as the ice began to crack and sink beneath their feet but, because the sandy lake bottom was only two inches below, the only danger was a wet foot. Cornelius snapped a few photos and grinned, pleased to see the kids already exploring.

Across the lake, a bald eagle soared above snow-covered pines. Welcome to Pigeon River Country.

Pickerel Lake is home to a state forest campground, boat ramp for canoes and kayaks, and a nearly 2-mile pathway circumnavigating the spring-fed lake. A foot bridge crosses Pickerel Creek at the southwest end and, at the north end, the trail winds through a soggy cedar swamp.

With our handful of kids taking intermittent breaks to collect twigs and eat snacks from their bulging backpacks, we set the foot bridge as a realistic goal for that morning’s hike. Along the way we followed the tracks of a fawn sharing our trail, but the woods were otherwise still and silent.

Pickerel Creek as it flows from Pickerel Lake in the Pigeon River Country State Forest east of Vanderbilt. Photo by Chris Engle

At the bridge, we took turns sending the kids across with a hefty walking stick to stabilize their crossing, with each passing the stick back to the next kid. Soon we were all across, taking a moment to marvel at a freshly dug badger hole before crossing back to the mainland.

Ariahna Simon, 9, prepares to cross a foot bridge over a spring-fed stream. Photo by Chris Engle

Cornelius and Kersey doled out mugs of hot cider back at the trailhead and stamped the “explorer notebooks” they’d handed out to the kids. Another KOO hike was in the books.

There’s much more to come, and their complete schedule thru April 2018 follows below. For more information about Kids Outdoors Otsego, visit their Facebook page.

Chris Engle is an outdoorsman and stay-at-home dad in Hayes Township, Otsego County. He can be reached at englemobile@gmail.com.

Kids Outdoors Otsego winter/spring schedule

Dec. 9: Family hike, community garden trails, Gaylord
Jan. 13: Experiential education workshop for helpers & parents, Pigeon River Discovery Center
Jan. 27: Snowshoe hike, Louis Groen Nature Preserve, Johannesburg, with HeadWaters Land Conservancy
Feb. 10: Winter Outdoor Fun Day, Otesego Environmental Learning Site, Gaylord
Feb. 17: Snowshoe hike, Wakely Lake Preserve, Grayling, with HeadWaters Land Conservancy
March 10: Snowshoe hike, Sturgeon River Preserve, with HeadWaters Land Conservancy
April 21: Outdoor activities at Family Fun Fair, Gaylord

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