Learning the landscape, introducing dogs to horses and keeping people from swinging on poison ivy vines—it’s all in a day’s work for Trail Watch volunteers.
Sharon Bowen was on her Trail Watch route one day when she encountered a teenage couple “swinging on a vine like Tarzan.” She was concerned the vine might break. But more importantly, she says, “the vine they were swinging on was a heavy, hairy poison ivy vine! I told them they should wash thoroughly as soon as possible including their clothing. I don’t think they believed me right then, but I knew they would understand later, to their dismay.”
Sharon is one of 15 volunteers receiving a “100-Visit Pin” to recognize their 100th trip into the Forest Preserves wearing the neon-green shirt and whistle of a Trail Watcher. This dedicated group is part of the 183 volunteers currently enrolled in the Forest Preserves of Cook County’s Trail Watch program and regularly appearing in preserves across the county.
Revived two-and-a-half years ago by the Forest Preserves Police, the Trail Watch program recruits and trains volunteers to serve as extra eyes and ears for Forest Preserves police across the system’s more than 300 miles of trail. They call in anything unusual and lend a hand with things like directions. But their most important role is to be a friendly and regular presence in the Preserves.
Most Trail Watch volunteers say they’d be out on the trails anyway. “I was looking to volunteer with the Forest Preserves in some way, and being out on the trails seemed really cool,” said Andi Rizzo, who estimates she’s logged at least 200 Trail Watch walks. “What drew me to Trail Watch was the flexibility of the program. I can go when I want and where I chose. Since I work full-time, that was important.”
Volunteer Peter Gayford calls the typical day on Trail Watch “relaxing and peaceful,” adding that it “clears all my stress away.” According to Andi Rizzo, “A typical day would just be to decide where I would walk and just go do it. I make sure I greet everyone I see and am ready to answer any questions they may have. I also make sure I have my camera. I have taken thousands of pictures.” Volunteer Roy H. says a typical day involves walking about six miles, greeting people, offering directions, being watchful of safety needs and observing anything amiss.
Sharon Bowen’s typical day is somewhat atypical: she does her Trail Watch patrol on horseback. “I usually ride three days a week and, more often than not, wind up helping folks who just aren’t sure where they are, where they parked their car, or just how much farther they have to go to get back. Helping people is something I really enjoy.” She even lets dog walkers bring their dogs near to get over their fear of horses.
The most interesting thing volunteers report seeing is also what they say is the best benefit of Trail Watch—the Preserves themselves. Peter says he likes “simply being able to explore and enjoy nature.” Sharon says she loves “watching the different plants and flowers come up in each season.” And Andi reports that the “coolest things I’ve seen would have to be the forest preserves themselves. Believe it or not, before I joined Trail Watch I had limited knowledge of the Forest Preserves trail system. I am in total awe of how beautiful it is out on the trails.”
Roy offers this simple advice for those looking to join Trail Watch: “Always say hello to visitors on the trail. Many become friends…some become Trail Watch volunteers!”
Learn more on the Trail Watch page.