Rarely does a photo on Facebook make me jealous, but one of my friends put one up last summer that made me drool with envy. She was in a creek with a bunch of other people lifting a giant rock to find one of the most elusive salamanders in the area, the Hellbender.
This giant salamander lurks under huge rocks in some local creeks and rivers. It can grow to be over two feet long, though most are smaller. There are times when I have searched for them, but without success. Hellbenders are also known as snot otters, among a bunch of other nicknames. There is something so prehistoric looking about them that draws me to them. It would be like grabbing a chunk of prehistory in my hand.
The same is true of rattlesnakes. I search for them and look for them, and even camp in places where they are known to be, but have never seen one. There is something primordial waiting to be experienced at the rattle of a rattlesnake. Will it touch something deep down inside of me that sings of danger or will the sound blend into the background of grasshoppers and birdsong?
These are experiences I want to have. There is something about the thrill of seeing a rattling rattlesnake that attracts me at a gut level. The same is true for seeing a hellbender. Deep down, something in me wants to see one of the largest salamanders in the world. These are experiences that cannot be bought or bargained for. There is no trophy or fancy knick-knack that goes with seeing these things. There is simply that inexplicable sense of connection that comes from being face-to-face with something bigger.
Sometimes, this something bigger is from nature. Other times it is manmade.
Last year, my family spent a weekend in Elk country in Pennsylvania. At one point, while driving, we looked to the side of the road and saw an elk sitting on the side at eye level. We stopped and just stared into the eyes of this giant, animal that was full of quiet power. It was an experience I will never forget.
The same is true of our visit to Kinzua Bridge State Park in Pennsylvania. While the bridge is mostly gone, what is left has been turned into an overlook with a glass bottom. There was great joy in watching my children feel the awe of standing on this structure built in a different era and realizing how tall and amazing it is.
Audubon is leading a group to visit Kinzua Bridge during the peak of leaf season on October 11 for those who have never been there. The new visitors’ center, overlooks and interpretation make it a great place to spend the day.
Life is basically a bunch of experiences that happen one after the other. Some days are amazing, some days are there to make people have a greater appreciation for those days that are amazing. As I get older, one of the things I appreciate the most is a new experience.
It turns out that some experiences can be bought. Audubon Community Nature Center will be holding their annual OctoberFEAST on Saturday, October 22. This tapas dinner and auction will have amazing artwork and experiences available in a combination of raffles as well as silent and live auction items.
Some of the experiences are things you can’t do just anywhere. One good example of that is the hellbender survey, but there are also things like vegan feasts, maple syrup making, looking for rattlesnakes, and birds and brunch. All of these take place with amazingly gifted scientists, chefs and others who are donating their time. Sports, while not a part of nature, are also experiences that are different in person than on television. Last year, families got a chance to experience Buffalo Bills games and see the Cleveland Indians in person.
One of my favorite stories from last year’s OctoberFEAST involved a donation of 100 mugs from Whirley Industries in Warren, Pa. The winner of those mugs was thrilled to see a way to make his bid help both Audubon and his favorite local cross country team. He won the mugs in the auction, then turned around and had the local high school mascot printed on them. The high schoolers then sold the mugs as a fundraiser and earned money to keep their cross country team running. It was an auction win whose fundraising impact went far beyond the original auction.
Audubon Community Nature Center builds and nurtures connections between people and nature. ACNC is located just east of Route 62 between Warren and Jamestown. The trails are open from dawn to dusk as is Liberty, the Bald Eagle. The Nature Center is open from 10 a.m. until 4:30 p.m. daily except Sunday when it opens at 1 p.m. More information can be found online at auduboncnc.org or by calling (716) 569-2345.