Post by Jen “Blanding’s Turtle” Berlinghof
This year marks the 30th anniversary of the Lake County Forest Preserves’ popular Halloween Hikes at Ryerson Conservation Area. This event is a witch’s potion of sorts: a dash of theater, a drop of night hike, a splash of environmental education, and a heap of old-fashioned family fun.
Over the years, thousands of people have followed a trail lit by luminaries, watched nature-themed skits, and capped off a delightful evening with apple cider and a doughnut next to a cozy fire in the historic Albright Cabin.
For many of those folks, the Halloween Hikes have become a family tradition. Many visitors came to the hikes as children years ago, and now they bring their children to experience the magic. Yet, the tradition doesn’t end with the visitors. This event has become an important, long-standing tradition for Forest Preserve staff, volunteers, and their own families, as well.
Preparations begin well in advance with brainstorming for nature skits that will be performed in the woods. Each year, original scripts are created, costumes and sets are designed, and lighting and special effects are coordinated.
These short vignettes aim to teach the audiences about local nature and forest preserve projects in a fun and interactive way. Performers are by no means professional actors. Forest Preserve staff—from Department Directors to interns—and volunteers perform the skits, along with their extended families who often get wrangled into helping (but, we never have to beg very hard).
A few nights before the event, everyone involved gathers at Ryerson Conservation Area to share a pot-luck meal and carve intricate jack-o-lanterns that will dazzle visitors during the Halloween Hikes. Pumpkins fill the Ryerson Welcome Center where groups gather before their hike. Themed pumpkins line the woodland trail that stretches between the skits. The cabin, trails, and roads all glow with the light of pumpkins on this enchanting evening.
As the sun sets on the Friday night of the hikes, hundreds of luminaries are lit along the trail, and the actors take their forest stage. None of this would be possible without a behind-the-scenes team setting out the candles, fixing the lanterns just right, transporting the props, and providing those last-minute costume fixes and tarps (if we have a rainy night).
And then, it’s show time! After visiting with our live education animals for a bit and experiencing a Halloween-themed “touch” table, the first giddy group (many in costume, too) gathers with a trail guide, and off they go.
Each night, an enthusiastic horde of volunteers guides 15–20 groups along the trail to experience the magic of the woods at night, pointing out sights and sounds as everyone’s eyes adjust to the darkness. Lucky groups hear the hoot of a great horned owl or spot the shadow of a flying squirrel gliding between the trees as they hike along, skit-to-skit, crunching on the freshly fallen leaves under their boots.
After traversing the trail, participants end their experience in a log cabin, noshing on local doughnuts and sipping cider by a fire. After the public has left, staff performs their skits one last time for each other, while a volunteer records it all for posterity, and YouTube, of course.
2 two nights
and 28 gallons of cider later…
…staff, volunteers, and their families head to the cabin to warm up and reminisce about the experience. While the numbers of families that have participated over the years is impressive, the number of years some staff and volunteers have been involved is just as amazing and speaks to how truly special this event is.
Looking through the vast archive of photos throughout the years of Halloween Hikes, you can literally watch this Forest Preserve “family” grow (and grow up) over these last three decades—ready to carry on this Lake County Forest Preserve tradition for many years to come.