I rediscovered my love for nature, thanks to Metro Parks

SHAYERA JANOTA, Guest Blogger

Biker crosses Big Walnut Creek on a bridge in Three Creeks Metro Park
Shayera Janota bikes across Big Walnut Creek at Three Creeks Metro Park. (Tina Fronk)

My love for nature and the outdoors started as a child. I grew up in Aurora and my parents took me to many parks in northeast Ohio. I loved rocks and streams and the sunlight filtering through tall trees. I thought every animal I saw appeared just for me. In middle school, I was in the natural history club and I loved learning about the outdoors and history of my state. It was a friendship between nature and me. This love for the outdoors seemed to fade away in adulthood. It was only when I discovered Three Creeks Metro Park that it returned.

I moved to Columbus in 2003 and realized that most of my life was being lived on concrete and asphalt. I missed feeling soil under my feet and seeing something other than power lines overhead. I knew Columbus had parks, but I never seemed to make the time to visit them. That changed with my first visit to Three Creeks, which happened completely by chance.

In 2014, I moved to the southeast side of Columbus and noticed the Alum Creek Greenway Trail near my apartment. While I had spent a lot of time biking in the past — I would use it to commute to work — it had been several years since I had done any serious riding. I decided to make use of the trail and see where it would take me. Based on a recommendation from another cyclist, I headed south, where, as I had been told, the scenery would be amazing.

The advice panned out. Even though at first I could only go a few miles, I discovered beautiful woods, fields and waterways. Each trip, I saw a change in the trees and flowers. There was always at least one deer eating nearby and plenty of birds singing. The trail was in great condition and had enough variety to keep me from getting bored, but not so hard as to seem impossible.

I continued riding in the spring, at least once a week, and went a little further each time. I found on my early trips that I could get to the Confluence Trails area within thirty minutes. I brought a book and snack, found a bench by Turtle Pond and enjoyed a quiet break before continuing. I followed the trail through the park and made my turn around at the bridge over US Route 33.

As fall came to a close, I realized that, despite all of the miles and hours I had accumulated in the park, I hadn’t really seen much of it. Added to that was my concern about a sedentary winter. I’m not an all-season cyclist and once the snow settled in I was afraid I wouldn’t get my exercise. I had also come to enjoy my time outside. All of the work-week stress seemed to be absorbed by my surroundings. I wasn’t willing to walk away from that for even a few months.

Barred owl perches in snowy tree nest
A barred owl settle in at a snowy tree nest at Blacklick Woods. (Terrence Peck)

Fortunately, I had noticed a ParkScope on one of my trips and had taken a copy home with me. On the first cold weekend, with the bike stored and my heavy coat on, I went over to my park, as I now thought of it, and went on an owl hike. I was glad to be outside and sharing my time with people who had this same interest. Then, as a bonus, we saw an owl! This was the first one I’d ever seen in the wild, but it wouldn’t be the last. I went on similar hikes at Blacklick Woods and Battelle Darby Creek. I had gone from a winter shut-in to a (chilly) butterfly.

In 2015, with the return of warm weather, I decided to head back out on the bike. I wanted to see if I could increase my distance and do a 20-mile round trip this year. Since I’ve never been satisfied with not knowing what’s around the next bend, I used the Alum Creek and Blacklick Creek Greenway trails to get to Pickerington Ponds and later Blacklick Woods for a total round trip distance of 40 miles. I had also continued to attend programs and even park my bike and hike on my own. I was getting to know my backyard quite well.

When another winter came around, I decided to give the 2016 Winter Hikes a try. I had read about them the previous year, but a foot injury had made any long-distance hiking impossible. I set out to complete all the hikes and met my goal. I joined Friends of Metro Parks and earned my hiking stick. Now I had a stick, a love of hiking and a handful of parks I hadn’t visited. This gave rise to a new goal and by late spring I had visited every park then in the system. I had favorite trails with favorite views. The only downside was that I still wasn’t in the best shape and found myself taking long pauses to catch my breath. I needed to find some way to give the illusion of fitness.

The answer was in a pair of binoculars my parents had given me when I was in high school. If I hiked with those, I wasn’t out of breath, I was looking at birds. I figured if I was going to stop to look at birds, I should be able to identify a few. I went to several birding programs and was surprised to learn just how many birds were in the area. I grew up with bird feeders, but I never imagined there were so many species. As a collector, and fan of Pokémon, it wasn’t long before I was trying to see them all. I went from “I’m just interested” to “I’m adding that to my list.”

Today I feel like I’ve reconnected to the child I was. My bike rides have helped me feel better about my health than I have in a long time. When my friends and family want to spend time together, I suggest a hike. I’m talking to people about birds we’ve seen and learning new tricks for ones that are a little harder to spot. When the birds aren’t as abundant there are still programs about fungi, bats, geology and a whole host of other topics that teach me something new. Thanks to Three Creeks and the rest of Metro Parks, I’ve been able to reconnect with the world.

Tell us about your favorite Metro Parks and what you see and do there

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