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Owl prowl: Night hikes through a nature interpreter’s lens

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The following blog post looks at our owl prowl programs from the perspective of a nature interpreter and what it feels like to prepare, navigate, and successfully lead a group of people through the trails in High Park at night.

During the transition from fall to winter, when bright yellow and red leaves fall and decompose into the seemingly dark and now colder Black Oak Savannah, the High Park Nature Centre has been hosting an ongoing event called owl prowl. If you have ever had the opportunity to be an owl prowl participant, you might recall playing in-depth owl trivia quizzes, hiking through one of the trails amidst towering white pine trees, dissecting real owl pellets, and defrosting from the evening brisk next to a roaring campfire. Leading this evening escapade allows nature interpreters like myself to share these beautiful experiences with the participants.

However, nightly nature walks can be intimidating — both as a participant and as a nature interpreter. At first, I felt uncertain about leading a group of strangers into a forest at night. What if I got them lost in the woods because I couldn’t tell if we passed that big oak three times already? To add to my worries, I later realized that before I was even expected to lead a group, I needed to get to know the trail at night all by myself. I was intimidated by who or what I’d encounter while venturing into the dark forest cloaked by the night sky when setting up the trail in preparation for the owl prowl. My co-lead always offered to accompany me while setting up the trail, but I knew that completing the trail alone at night in nocturnal wildlife territory was something I had to do eventually. Although terrifying it also felt empowering to confront my fears, both as a nature interpreter and as a woman.

These onset feelings of vulnerability would always come while setting up the trail and then go once I re-entered the forest with owl prowl participants. Despite all of us venturing into unfamiliar trails at night, there was a sense of security that grounded me by being with other people. On occasion, some participants would vocalise their fears of walking through the forest at night, but would be comforted by the fact that we had flashlights if needed, and that there were no predators in High Park that would attack a big group such as ourselves. Navigating through the forest as a unit usually allows my body to adapt to the darkness by using my night vision, the moonlight, and sumac landmarks to guide my group back to OURSpace, our outdoor classroom and restoration space.

Unfortunately, even without fear looming over one’s head, it’s rare that folks get to spot an owl during an owl prowl. While I’ve never spotted an owl during my walks, the prowls became less about finding an owl and more about learning about the owls and the land. In addition to interactive activities our guided hikes informed participants on birding basics such as, to never share the exact location of an owl sighting, get too close or crowd an owl or their space, or use flash photography when capturing photos of owls.

After navigating groups through the forest we are welcomed back to OURSpace with a toasty campfire where we talk about the things we’ve all learned from the trail and we always get to learn something new. At the end, the owl pellet dissection gives participants an opportunity to touch and tangibly bring something home to share with friends and family from their owl prowl adventure.

I’ve learned to embrace feelings of intimidation, fear and vulnerability as part of experiencing the unfamiliar when it comes to nature. Through experiences like owl prowl, participants and nature interpreters alike take a step closer to bridging the gap between not knowing and knowing more about the land that we live on.

Jee-Ho is a nature interpreter at the High Park Nature Centre. She studied environmental governance and political science at the University of Guelph and is now completing her master of teaching at the University of Toronto. She enjoys diversifying her experiences in environmental justice and horticultural therapy.