The wintertime offers plenty of opportunities to get out and enjoy nature. And if there is anyone who knows about that, it’s Dubuque County Conservation Naturalist Kaytlan Moeller. Based out of Swiss Valley Nature Preserve and Nature Center near Dubuque, Moeller said wintertime is the perfect time to be outdoors.
“It’s an overlooked time for folks getting outside and enjoying what parks and nature centers have to offer,” she said. “Winter offers a clean slate. It’s the changing of the seasons, vegetation has died back, the bugs aren’t bothering you and you aren’t sweating a lot.”
Among the activities Moeller sees people engaged in during the wintertime are cross country skiing, snowshoeing and ice fishing.
She recommends people should research trails or parks they want to enjoy before beginning their winter activities. “Know in advance if you need a trail pass to use a specific trail. Check to see if you need a reservation for a certain activity or if there is a restroom nearby.” She also recommends knowing the weather forecast ahead of time as well as trail accessibility. “Is the road plowed to the trailhead or will you need to hike in?”
She said when it comes to enjoying wintertime activities, appropriate dress is key.
“For different sorts of activities, it’s always better to be a little cold at the beginning because if you are really warm and toasty while you are getting your gear on you will be sweaty and pretty miserable while you are out recreating. We always tell people to dress in layers and anticipate warming up as you go.”
Whether snowshoeing, hiking or cross-country skiing, trail etiquette is important, according to Moeller, who said it’s important for trail users to know the rules.
“There are so many different groups using the same trails in the winter. Cross country ski tracks require very specific conditions. You want groomed snow so it’s a fun experience. If you are a hiker, don’t step on the cross-country ski trail, go to the right. Research ahead of time if the trail is open for snowshoeing or fat tire biking.”
She also said users should practice the leave-no-trace principle, meaning if they enjoy a picnic or hot chocolate along the trail to pack out what they bring in.
Moeller said snowshoeing can be an inexpensive winter activity, with the cost of a good pair of snowshoes as little as $150. For those wanting to try out the experience first, Swiss Valley Preserve and Nature Center has snowshoes for people to use in the park. She said snowshoeing is an activity that encourages people to get off the trails.
“Other times of the year there is a higher risk of causing erosion or spreading an invasive species. But in the wintertime, we actually recommend using snowshoes as if you are mountaineering. If you want to go on a steep hillside, you can because you have very sharp cleats on the bottom of the snowshoes that distribute your weight.”
Moeller noted that in the Edgewood area, Mossy Glen State Preserve provides excellent snowshoe opportunities. “Mossy Glen is amazing this time of year. It’s not a super well-groomed trail and doesn’t have flashing signs that say ‘here’s where the cool spot is.’ It’s going to take someone with a pair of snowshoes who wants to go off-trail and look to find those really cool outdoor things in the wintertime.”
She said people should know their physical limitations when they play winter outdoor activities. “There are some apps for phones where you can track your location. So if you took a bad fall or needed help, you could send your location to law enforcement or nature center officials and they could find you easier. If you decide to do something more off the trail, plan ahead, know your route and let a loved one know where you are going.”
Moeller said the outdoors can be enjoyed year-round. She added the springtime also provides unique opportunities such as morel mushroom hunting and viewing spring ephemerals, those wildflowers that bloom for only a short time.
Moeller graduated from Edgewood-Colesburg in 2009 and earned a degree from Iowa State in fish and wildlife ecology with a minor in forestry. She said she spent time at Backbone State Park, Bixby Wildlife Preserve north of Edgewood and kayaked on the Turkey River.
A high school course piqued her interest in the outdoors. “I took an environmental science class with Mr. (Dave) Millis. We went to the tree farm of Jim and Jody Kerns and we got to learn environmental aspects of conserving nature and different management properties. That got me interested in the natural resources field.”
She said she often speaks with people in Dubuque County who comment on the outdoor spaces she explored growing up.
“They refer back to parks in Delaware and Clayton County. It’s cool to hear how far people will drive to see aspects of Backbone or Bixby or Mossy Glen. I grew up with them and maybe took them for granted a little bit. They are definitely treasured resources.”