Standing before a half-circle of 6-year-olds with turned up faces, “Grandpa” Norm Page stretched out his red walking stick to draw attention to a 36-year-old redwood tree with growths on the tips of its needles.
“Would you believe that’s a seed? It falls off the tree, drops down, and a new tree grows. That tiny little seed makes a tree like this? Amazing,” he said.
He darted a few steps away across grass dotted with morning dew to point out an 8-inch hole in a bushy blackberry bramble.
“See in there? Right now, I bet at least four or five animals are sleeping in there, right while we talk,” he said. The first-graders’ eyes grew wide as they listened to Page list off all the nocturnal animals that could be hiding right in front of them.
For most park visitors, the nature area at Lodi Lake is a place for bike rides and morning jogs on the sturdy paved path. But volunteer docents lead schoolchildren on tours each week that transform the riparian grove into an open air, walking classroom.
Fifteen docents, led by Watershed Education Coordinator Kathy Grant, spend their spring and fall mornings in green fleece vests teaching school groups about the flora and fauna of the Mokelumne River.
The program got its start in 1986, when the City of Lodi purchased the land from private owners and turned it into a study area with easy-access trails and 18 plant and animal markers along the paths. Today, the docents run 60 tours a year and keep students’ interest in nature alive.
“It’s one of these programs that doesn’t get a whole lot of attention, but we volunteer whatever it takes,” Grant said.
The sun was just warming the trees when Melissa Hopps’ class from Oak View School in Acampo began their tour of the nature area on Thursday. Their leader for the next two hours would be Page, an 83-year-old retiree who started his docent work in 2010. Page has 35 grandchildren and great-grandchildren in his family, but most of them have grown older and moved away, so Page volunteers to keep curious kids in his life.
“Having raised all my children in the woods, and hunting and fishing with the grandkids, this was natural,” he said. “The main objective its to teach these little fellas about nature and to appreciate what we have.”
He stays spry with 2.5-mile walks and weight-lifting each day, but the kids give him more energy, he said.
“I could work with them all day and not get tired,” Page said.
Last year, he led 31 tours, more than any other volunteer. He carries a Miwok grinding stone in the back of his truck to show children on the tours, and keeps a small Native American-style basket in his vest pocket.
Leading the 15 students down the paved path, Page pointed out native plants and animal homes nearby. Mosquito fish darted back and forth in a canal, and a mossy red bat house hung in a tree. As soon as the bat wakes in the evening, it will search for water, then insects for its dinner, he explained.
The students found a praying mantis on a sign, and jumped to show it to Page.
“It’s nature! Don’t kill it, it’s nature!” they chorused.
Page stopped at a mass of bright green wild grapevines to share what he knew of Native American history.
He explained that members of the Miwok tribe would wrap their food in the wide flat leaves, and dry the grapes to make raisins.
The blackberry brambles all along the river were also a key food source for the tribe, Page said.
“And a good source of food for you, if you want to make a berry pie,” he said.
On the edge of the river, a willow tree grew out over the trail. Page shared that the Miwoks used tea made from the leaves to cure headaches. Later, scientists found the key ingredient for aspirin was contained in the tree. The Native Americans also used peppermint tea to cure stomachaches.
Following the group was Laura Kepner, in green shorts and sunglasses, who biked over from her home in Woodbridge. She is the nature area’s newest volunteer docent, and was shadowing Page to learn how the tours work.
“I’m looking for some volunteer work I can do with my son,” Kepner said. She taught earth science at Benjamin Holt Preparatory Academy in Stockton until her child was born two years ago.
“It’s nice to get involved in something so close to home,” she added.
Page’s was the only group the leave the main path to venture onto the narrow trails.
“We’re tough,” he said to his charges. “We’re going to go to the jungle-type stuff.”
The children raised their hands over their heads and marched in single file to reach a small river overlook point before high stepping back to the main path and the main treat: Western pond turtles sunning on logs at Pigs Lake.
So many red-eared sliders, a popular pet turtle, are released into the lake that they are pushing out the native reptiles.
The furry tails of the abundant squirrel population held the most fascination for students.
“So the gray squirrels are bad, and the red squirrels are good?” asked Nathan Hoyt, 6.
“Not quite,” said Page. Just like the turtle situation, the same goes for the gray squirrels, whose territory is being overtaken by invasive red squirrels.
Page ended the two-hour trek with a moment in his favorite place of the nature area. The class stood together on a quiet shaded path in the very middle of the grove of tall oaks between the two paths.
“Wouldn’t you like to live here?” he said.
Contact reporter Sara Jane Pohlman at email@example.com.