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Thanks for the Memories

Reflecting back on 33 years with DNR.

It sounded like a simple request.

“Please write one last blog for OutdoorIllinois Online before you hang up your DNR hat and retire.”

May 31, 2012 will be my last day before I retire after 33 years of state employment.

But when I actually sat down to start formulating a plan, it hit me: How do I wrap up the last 33 years of my life? This agency—the mission to preserve, protect and manage Illinois’ natural resources for today’s citizens, and for generations to come—has seeped into every nook and cranny of my existence.

Upon further reflection, this agency has actually been a part of my life since age 4, when we moved to Illinois. It started with Dixon Springs State Park, where my sisters and I scampered over lichen-encrusted boulders, and Cave-in-Rock State Park, when we timidly explored the depths of the cave after picnicking on the banks of the river while watching barges ply the Ohio.

A move to east-central Illinois meant our lives revolved around Fox Ridge State Park, where we attended Girl Scout Day Camp and explored the deep glacial valleys with the unbridled enthusiasm of youth. Kickapoo State Park stands out as another early memory, picnicking on a sand bar and a sun-drenched day splashing around the Middle Fork of the Vermilion River.

Majoring in zoology, the college years took me to Sam Parr State Park, where I spent one lonely deer season waiting for a handful of hunters who persevered and successfully harvested a deer despite a memorable ice storm. Or the spring day I doggedly pursued a bird calling “tick-a-ta-we-o-tick” at Horseshoe Lake while waiting on Alexander County turkey hunters to bring in their harvest. My persistence paid off and to this day the call of a white-eyed vireo transports me back to the Horseshoe Lake. I still feel an innate connection with Banner Marsh State Fish and Wildlife Area after tromping every inch of the area, preparing a vegetative analysis of what was, at the time, of one of the state’s newest properties.

And then there was the field trip to sites associated with the Cache River State Natural Area when my botany professor stepped off the trail, exclaiming with great exuberance about a plant I have no recollection of, my eyes instead scanning the ground for the source of my one-and-only phobia. Yes, I was responsible for the class losing focus that afternoon, but I don’t think pointing out a cottonmouth mere inches from his foot hindered my grade. My unparalleled knack at locating legless creatures continues to be, in my opinion, one of my finest attributes.

And then I started working for the agency.

Visits to state-owned sites became much more frequent. I was given the opportunity to experience first-hand what few people recognize—the richness of Illinois' natural resources.

I remember my first yellow-headed blackbird, a state-endangered species nesting near Chain O’Lakes, and marveling at a scientific name that rolls off the tongue—Xanthocephalus xanthocephalus. There was the wood thrush which woke our survey team in the pre-dawn hours before another day afield at Siloam Springs State Park. The feeling of returning “home” as I headed toward a teaching assignment at a Becoming an Outdoors-Woman program at Lorado Taft State Park each June, and then again in the fall, marveling at the autumnal beauty of the drive to Camp Piasa deep within Pere Marquette State Park.

I got to assist researchers working with red squirrels at Iroquois County Conservation Area, participated in my first prescribed burn near Sand Ridge State Forest and banded giant Canada geese at formerly surface-mined properties throughout southwestern Illinois. I joined a team inventorying bats in a DNR-owned cave—something few will have the privilege of experiencing since White Nose Syndrome has made its mark on the United States. My first—and only—sighting of a badger was as I led a group of teachers on a tour of Jim Edgar Panther Creek State Fish and Wildlife Area.

This list goes on and on and on. For each site I’ve visited something special has occurred that is branded in my being.

This may be my “swan song” as a DNR employee, but erasing this agency and its mission from my soul is impossible. The youngest nephews grinned when I announced my retirement, quickly responding with “Will you take us fishing that day? What was the name of that park we wanted to camp at?”

Thanks for the memories…past and future.

By: Kathy Andrews