11 minute read

Crossroads of Community

Learning, leading and preserving at Crossroads at Big Creek

by Polly Fitz

At the doorstep to northern Door County sits a place so vast and varied that it defies description. A place with traces of old civilizations deep in the land, and an observatory for examining the far-away sky. A place where colorful meadows live harmoniously with deep forest, where land meets water and city meets nature, where past and future are equally present. This place is Crossroads at Big Creek.

“Crossroads is so unique because it’s unique to everybody who uses it,” explained Matt Luders, president of its board of directors. “The way I experience it is probably entirely different than the way most everyone else experiences it, and that’s the beauty of Crossroads. It is what you want it to be.”

Crossroads at Big Creek resides at 2041 Michigan St. at the northern end of the Bayview Bridge in Sturgeon Bay, opposite the traffic circle from the YMCA. The preserve currently includes about 200 acres of land in three parcels: The Cove, Ida Bay and the main campus. The preserve dates back to 1992, when the Sturgeon Bay Education Fund bought more than 50 acres of property to be used as a school forest. Ten years later, Crossroads and the school district ended their relationship, and Crossroads organized as an independent, nonprofit organization. Its program director and naturalist, Coggin Heeringa, served as the preserve’s first director and said the original mission remains the same today.

“The whole idea was to take science and history and the environment outside in the environment. We wanted to get kids away from screens and [provide] experience-based learning in the outdoors. We’ve stuck to those principles ever since.”

One glance at the Crossroads event calendar reveals a range of programs for all ages and interests, from guided hikes to kid-friendly nature programs to educational presentations. That variety comes from Crossroads’ partnerships with other organizations on the peninsula.

“Collaboration is the reason for our success,” Heeringa said.

The Door Peninsula Astronomical Society and Sturgeon Bay School District, for example, partner with Crossroads to jointly manage the astronomy campus, which includes the Leif Everson Observatory, Stonecipher Astronomy Center and several outdoor spaces.

The Door County Historical Society manages Heritage Village at Big Creek, a collection of historical buildings at the preserve that showcase late-19th-century and early-20th-century life on the peninsula. And organizations such as Wild Ones of the Door Peninsula host presentations at Crossroads’ Collins Learning Center.

Another big part of what Crossroads does – and

The Teacher

Coggin Heeringa

by Myles Dannhausen Jr.

Since its first days, the face of Crossroads at Big Creek in Sturgeon Bay has been that of Coggin Heeringa. She was the organization’s first employee, its marketer, its ambassador.

But at heart, she’s an educator.

“Coggin is a master teacher,” said Laurel Hauser, Crossroads’ executive director. “She really has dedicated her whole life to the environment and teaching. I don’t know that I’ve ever met someone who loves education as much as she does and has such a curiosity for how the world works and wanting to share it with people.”

After 20 years as the executive director, Heeringa is now the program director and naturalist at Crossroads, where she is equally adept at talking to 3-yearolds who are exploring the forest for the first time as she is talking to visiting professors in its Collins Learning Center. Heeringa is omnipresent at Crossroads.

At the end of her junior nature programs, her visiting students take a pledge to be good caretakers of the earth.

“She still has enthusiasm and joy,” Hauser said. “Kids respond to that.”

Heeringa’s writing (including regular columns in the Peninsula Pulse as well as other publications and websites) and public-relations work have given Crossroads a place not only on the Door County map, but among the most respected environmental and educational organizations in the state, attracting groups from far and wide that come to discover the preserve.

Before joining Crossroads, Heeringa spent 10 years as the naturalist at Newport State Park near Ellison Bay and has been the instructor of environmental studies at the Walter E. Hastings Nature Museum at Interlochen Arts Camp near Traverse City, Michigan, since 1971. That’s where she found her love for the outdoors.

“In college, I was a music major,” Heeringa wrote for the Love Wisconsin website in 2021. “I went to the Interlochen Center for the Arts as a camp counselor, thinking I would end up being a music teacher. When I was there, I realized I was a mediocre musician, but I really loved the forest. That changed my life.”

During the years since, she has been determined to change the lives of others – one hike, one program or one story at a time.

Photo by Brett Kosmider.

what makes it so unusual – is the role it plays in environmental and historical research. Crossroads has laboratory space, and the preserve itself is a popular site for university students and professors, as well as other research organizations, to study land and water.

Crossroads is the site of a multiyear archaeological study and dig led by local experts and a University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee professor. The project is literally unearthing information about who lived there hundreds and even thousands of years ago and how the land was used, while also teaching archaeology practices to students and area residents.

Another UW-Milwaukee professor is leading a project to inventory the plants, amphibians and birds at Crossroads, with the goal of making it a better place for migrating birds.

The biggest research project is a water-quality research program run by UW-Oshkosh through which researchers analyze water at Door County beaches and have been looking at toxins and microplastics in the water.

“Many of the improvements that have been made at the Door County beaches have been informed by the research we’ve done in our lab,” Heeringa said.

Although the extent of educational programming and research sets Crossroads apart from Door County’s many other parks and natural areas, it is also, at its heart, a place where people can experience and enjoy nature.

“I love that there are people in our community that are here five or six times a week,” said Laurel Hauser, Crossroads’ executive director.

(Clockwise from top left) Dan Collins and Nancy Aten (kneeling) have been instrumental in the restoration of Crossroads landscape. / Kids make discoveries in the creek. / A visitor meets a new slithery friend. / Building a new boardwalk to discovery. Photos courtesy of Crossroads at Big Creek. / Executive Director Laurel Hauser joined Crossroads in 2019. Photo by Brett Kosmider.

Mary Serafico is one of those people. The Sturgeon Bay resident has been going to Crossroads for 20 years.

“I’ve seen it grow,” she said. “I feel like it’s a friend.”

Serafico typically visits Crossroads several times a week. She said every time she goes, she takes a different path and appreciates the changing sights throughout the seasons. No matter the trail or weather, Serafico calls Crossroads her “go-to spot.”

“I really use it as a place to rejuvenate and relax and center myself,” she said. “It gives me peace in my soul.”

That Crossroads serves as a natural haven for people makes it especially inspiring, according to Hauser, because it showcases the power of change.

“This land was marketed as an ideal place for a gas station,” Hauser said of the area when the school originally purchased it in 1992. “It was kind of throwaway land.” Now, 30 years later, Hauser said the land’s natural variety makes it an uncommon attraction.

“We have a lot of different ecosystems in this little parcel, which is really inspiring to our restorationists,” she said. “We have a creek; we have wetlands; we have a little pocket of a boreal forest; we have upland meadow; we have an estuary.”

All of that variety – of ecosystems, research, partnerships and programming – has made it challenging for Crossroads’ leaders to discern and communicate a

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www.doorcountyymca.org www.doorcountyymca.org The Door County YMCA The Door County YMCA where families and where families and individuals ofindividuals of all ages all ages learn and grow togetherlearn and grow together! !

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Coggin Heeringa leads youth on a journey of discovery on the Crossroads trail. Photo courtesy of Crossroads at Big Creek.

specific identity, Hauser and Luders admitted. However, Hauser said that better understanding the land – what has been done and what the organization would like to do – is helping them to clarify their vision.

That greater understanding is thanks, in part, to three large state and federal grants that Crossroads received for land restoration in 2020. Hauser said the funds made the preserve’s leadership feel empowered about what it can accomplish with land restoration.

“We’re realizing that there’s such a desire in the community to understand how you restore land,” Hauser said. “Landowners contact us all the time. They want to do good things on their property, but they need help figuring out how to do that.”

The Habitat Healers program, which began in summer 2021, was a start, with volunteers helping with projects at Crossroads and learning along the way.

But regardless of its research and programs, Crossroads is and will remain a place where people can enjoy and connect with nature.

Free access, in fact, is one of the cornerstones of its mission, according to Heeringa. She highlighted Crossroads’ winter Ski for Free program as one example. It allows outdoor enthusiasts to borrow free cross-country ski and kicksled equipment to use on the preserve’s trails.

Unlike other natural areas on the peninsula that are state or county parks, Crossroads is a private, nonprofit organization that does not receive tax money for its operations. Instead, it relies on grants, donations and, Luders noted, hundreds of volunteers. For all that Crossroads has to offer, leaders described it as an “undiscovered treasure”: well known in the local community, but perhaps less so among Northern Door residents.

But that may be changing. Luders said that one of the board’s goals is to engage every child in Door County at least once. And Hauser noted that since the COVID-19 pandemic began, more people from the northern part of the county have visited.

“When we started and chose the name Crossroads, we thought of it as a metaphor between past and future, between people and the environment – all these different things,” Heeringa said. “The people shape the land, and the land shapes the people. It really is all connected.”