If you sit down to talk through memories of the Nature Center over the last several decades with Bill Desmarais, he will come prepared with show and tell.
He’s collected newspaper clippings, photos, and many memories since he first connected with the Nature Center in its earliest days.
Bill was actually introduced to ICNC by the organization’s first director Curt Abdouch, whom Bill had worked with at Fontenelle Forest (where Curt was Chief Naturalist) near Omaha, Nebraska. When Curt moved to Cedar Rapids to take on the role of Director of Indian Creek Nature Center, Bill followed along shortly after, taking a science teaching position at Washington High School in 1974.
He recalls his early introduction to the Nature Center as being quite memorable.
“Curt asked me to come out and help and I never will forget he was so excited to show me the barn,” said Bill. “So, we went into the barn and of course on the ground floor at that time there were still milking cow stanchions. We went up in the loft and he said, ‘this is going to be our big program room’ and while we were walking around through the straw I broke through a board, board and in the floor and came face to face with chickens. That was my first introduction to nature,” he laughed.
Curt knew Bill had participated in the National Outdoor Leadership School and was an avid outdoorsman, and so he asked Bill to lead some early presentations at ICNC.
Bill’s first volunteer gig at the Nature Center was offering a backpacking workshop, a tradition he continued and thoroughly enjoyed for years as an ICNC volunteer. “The barn wasn’t even ready yet when we offered that first program so we just sat out on the lawn,” he said. “Later, I did a whole series of programs called Rocky Mountain Memories.” Bill also brought students with the Iowa Naturalist Club out to do programs, such as the popular Haunted Halloween Hikes.
Bill had the opportunity to help upgrade the barn so the Nature Center could begin programming on the site. And he says the official records will need to be checked, but he recalls joining as a Member very early on in 1974, putting him in the first group of members of the Nature Center.
From there, the list of memories go on and on. “We planted a whole bunch of trees on the floodplain one year,” Bill recalls. “I did a winter survival workshop. And I remember the first maple syrup festivals back in the early 80s. Back then we used that little kitchen in the barn…my wife and I spent almost two whole days washing dishes.”
Bill remembers working on the Bena property. And at one point, he lived just across the street from the Nature Center and earned the title of “Nature Center Ranger” keeping an eye on the property outside of regular hours. During the flood of 1993, Bill noted that he’s one of a small group of people who can say they have canoed around the Nature Center trails. Over the years, he said he’s enjoyed snowshoeing and cross country skiing. “I’m definitely an outdoorsman and so this has been a great spot in any season.”
In one of his most important roles at ICNC, Bill served on the board of directors, assuming the role of board president in 1997. “That was the year we decided to help out the DNR and restore the river otters to the state,” he said. “That was an amazing event to have their release here at the Nature Center. It was one of the single largest crowds we’ve ever had if I remember correctly.”
In more recent years, Bill would bring his Advanced Placement Environmental Science students out to ICNC for a variety of projects. “We did a number of fairly impactful studies on the stream habitat, the upland forest, and the prairies,” he said. “It was another way that helped me continue my work with the Nature Center.” Bill has also done major trail work projects with students at ICNC.
“Probably one of the most important and significant things that I am grateful for about the Nature Center is the people I’ve met, from the professionals to the visitors to the people I’ve volunteered with,” Bill said. “I’ve met hundreds of people over the years and they’ve always been so much fun to work with out in the fields and forests on this and that and the other thing.”
Bill says the ICNC mission, and staying true to that, is what has kept him involved for decades. “I’ve always been an environmentalist. In fact, the thing that got me into teaching was the world’s first Earth Day back in 1970. It got me thinking that it was neat and that I could make an impact.”
“And ICNC is unique because there was such a push for sustainability, not only talking about and caring for the plants and the animals. It has been a neat evolution for the Nature Center over the years and of course now Amazing Space is the ultimate sustainability example. I think we can look to that with a lot of pride.”
“I sure hope that the Nature Center continues,” Bill said. “I’m especially loving this new bent towards education with the preschool and the addition of the farm. I think that’s an amazing addition to explore organics and environmental agriculture. I think the Nature Center has got an incredibly bright future”