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Kids’ Fest serves as important introduction to outdoors

The U.S. Fish Wildlife Service’s Shawn Cirtwho grew up Chicago leads bird walk as part Kids’ Fest Wampum Lake Lansing.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Shawn Cirton, who grew up in Chicago, leads a bird walk as part of Kids’ Fest at Wampum Lake in Lansing. | Dale Bowman~For Sun-Times Media

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Updated: August 19, 2012 6:26AM

Shawn Cirton has more patience than I do. As he led the final bird walk Saturday at Kids’ Fest, Cirton reassured a young woman who first asked whether there were alligators in Wampum Lake, then asked whether things would jump out of the brush and get us.

In the moment, I tried to stifle a laugh. But upon reflection, those questions point to why Kids’ Fest is so vitally important. The woman wasn’t clowning; she was truly fearful of the wilds.

The outdoors event, which is co-sponsored by Fishin’ Buddies Inc. and the Forest Preserve District of Cook County, is in its third year at Wampum. John Kidd Jr., one of the founders of Fishin’ Buddies, said it was the best crowd yet (about 700).

I went with my two youngest kids and expected to take a few pictures, talk to a few people and go home. We stayed the entire afternoon.

The biggest hits were paddling a canoe for an hour on the lake — it was so popular they had a waiting list, and a lot of us never got to do it — and the climbing wall. My kids loved the archery shoot, which was run by young men and women from the Youth Conservation Congress. The fishing had a constant family mix. It was mainly stunted bluegills, but there were a few quality ones, too.

My favorite line of the day came from fisheries biologist Jim Phillips. While talking about gizzard shad, largemouth bass, crappie and bluegills and explaining that carp are from the minnow family, he added, ‘‘Carp can live on wet pavement.’’

Kevin Kuhn of Sand Ridge Nature Center had hides and skins that could hold the interest of adults as well as kids.

Before we ran out of time, we managed to get on the last bird walk with Cirton. There were ducklings, red-winged blackbirds, robins, a possible mockingbird, an American goldfinch and some too quick to be identified.

As much as anyone, Cirton understood how important it was to introduce the outdoors to a predominantly minority urban/suburban crowd.

Afterward, as Cirton packed up, I asked him how he got to work for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. He reviews projects, mostly those related to wetlands, at the Chicago field office in Barrington.

He grew up in Chicago, but he had a father who took him fishing. Fishing was the gateway to the outdoors for him, but he had a love of wild animals, too. That led him through school and to USFWS.

He became a relative rarity: an urban African American working in a traditional outdoor role.

‘‘Actually, I never really thought about it,’’ he said. ‘‘But for the most part, I am the only African American [in meetings].’’

Maybe Kids’ Fest will prod the next Cirton. Even if that doesn’t happen, Cirton said, ‘‘For minorities especially, this is important to get kids exposure to the outdoors.’’

A few claps of thunder came about 4 p.m. It was an apt reminder that Mother Nature has power to spare.

It was time.

Sportsman Channel filmed the event and will have a short video available later this summer on Xfinity on Demand in the Chicago area. Go to Channel 1, find Get Local, then choose Sportsman Channel.


At what point do we have the right to ask why we are spending millions of dollars and thousands of man-hours chasing Asian carp and not finding them in Lake Michigan and its near waters? After a massive survey that included half-mile-long nets last week, no Asian carp were turned up around Lake Calumet.

Wild things

With the extended drought across Illinois, Downstate deer-hunting advocate Tim Walmsley figures the first reports of deer dying from epizootic hemorrhagic disease will come ‘‘any day now.’’ EHD outbreaks usually occur in very localized areas when lack of water concentrates deer around remaining water sources. The last significant one in the Chicago area hit pockets of eastern Cook and Will counties very hard two years ago.

Stray cast

Ozzie Guillen reminds me of the saga of an American eel. (You can look it up.)

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