Home News and Features North Branch Nature Center: Enriching and Changing Lives

North Branch Nature Center: Enriching and Changing Lives

Lily Page of Berlin shows off the boat she made of natural materials for a race in the North Branch. Photo by Tom McKone.
“My life was very much changed by experiences I had here.” 

— Naturalist Sean Beckett
The attractive wooden sign motorists pass on Elm Street as they drive north out of Montpelier only hints at what the North Branch Nature Center is about. The second sign below suggests there’s more: “Trails Always Open.”

During four visits this summer, I heard many descriptors that didn’t fit on the sign: beautiful, wonderful, fun, relaxing, engaging, magical, vital, vibrant, tranquil. … “North Branch is my second home,” one man told me. “It’s my favorite place in Montpelier,” said one woman, and “It’s a big part of our family life,” said another.

To hundreds of people in central Vermont and beyond, the nature center is a gem that has enriched their lives and, in some cases, changed them.

“As a teen, I took a naturalist trip with North Branch to Costa Rica,” naturalist Sean Beckett said, adding that after the trip he joined the center’s teen birding club. “That put me on a trajectory of building a relationship with nature. It became the centerpiece of my life. … I wanted my career to be in helping people make those connections with nature, giving people experiences that could change their lives in the same way that happened with me.”

Growing up in Williston and now the program director at North Branch, Beckett majored in biology at Vassar College and worked in many places before deciding to return home to Vermont to take a position at the same place that started him on his journey.

While some stories, like Beckett’s, are dramatic, others are about quality of life: walks to enjoy wildflowers, attending bird banding demonstrations or programs, wading in the North Branch of the Winooski River in summer or snowshoeing on trails in winter. Casual visitors usually like the center; however, those who come back, join programs and activities, and get to know people often get hooked. Many people are in love with the place.

From a Small Acorn a Great Oak Grows

The North Branch Nature Center opened in 1996 as a satellite program of the Vermont Institute of Natural Science, located first in Woodstock and then in Quechee. It took over the Brown sheep farm, including an 1800s farmhouse. A decade later, the nature center split off and became an independent nonprofit organization run by two employees and dozens of volunteers. Chip Darmstadt served as the executive director from 1996 until this spring, when Naomi Heindel took over. 

With Darmstadt’s leadership, an active board of directors, a growing staff, and a wealth of dedicated volunteers, the center steadily added programs and enhanced its 28-acre parcel. This phase of the center’s development culminated in 2021, when the Our Future in Nature Capital Campaign reached its goal of $1.6 million. The campaign enabled many improvements, including renovating the barn so it could become a licensed preschool (in 2016), completing an addition that includes a fully accessible community room (in 2017), and weatherizing the original farmhouse to further the center’s net-zero goal (in 2020). 

The nature center now has 15 employees, about 700 members and donors, and a few hundred active volunteers.

Down by the Riverside

The enthusiastic four- and five-year-olds in the Nature’s Canvas camp were down by the river making natural dyes from berries they had collected. They ground the berries with a mortar and pestle, added water and then painted rocks and pieces of cardstock. It was one of several activities they raved about. “Seeing all the different places in nature” and making wood cookies and dragonfly’s eyes — crossed sticks held together by yarn woven in a diamond shape — were other favorites. Except in nature-themed camps, the dragonfly’s eyes are usually called “God’s eyes.” 

“I told my mom how to make dragonfly’s eyes, too,” five-year-old Walter Feldman of Montpelier excitedly told me.

A short distance downstream, the 9–13-year-old group in the Way of the Willow camp told me about writing in journals, building stone buddy benches, and writing and performing songs and a couple of “awesome” plays. A highlight was making a clay-lined fire pit, building a fire, and then making s’mores and popcorn in a Dutch oven. 

“We learned how to use flint and steel to start a fire,” said 11-year-old Tegan Raftery, who lives in Burbank, California, but has attended North Branch summer camps for several years while visiting her grandparents in Vermont. 

The older group also made wood cookies. Griffin Cummings, an AmeriCorps environmental educator and leader of the four–five-year-old group, explained that campers were each given a small slab of round wood to sand and decorate with paint markers. With adult assistance, they drilled a hole in it and then hung it on yarn.

While talking with the older campers, I told them that one of the four-year-olds had taken me seriously and pulled his wooden cookie tight to his chest when I asked if I could taste it.

“We made wood cookies, too,” 9-year-old Randolph homeschooler Izzy O’Brien told me. “They aren’t for eating,” she added, with a big grin.

Getting into Schools, and Getting Out of the Country

In 2009, North Branch partnered with Montpelier’s Union Elementary School to launch ECO (Educating Children Outdoors), a program that puts North Branch educators in schools on a weekly basis throughout the school year — which is more effective than one-time visits. It has since expanded to a dozen more schools from Barre City and Barre Town to Twinfield, Hardwick, and Warren.

Ken Benton, the center’s director of education, said a goal of ECO, the summer camps, and other programs is to provide “hands-on, active engagement.” 

“The focus is more at taking a step back and making observations first,” Benton said, “which is key to all of our education — not giving the answers but giving the tools for people to unlock discoveries on their own.”

In addition to ECO, North Branch offers week-long “educator institutes” to help teachers to increase their skills and comfort level with outdoor, nature-based education. 

“It was fantastic learning,” said Jess Henderson, one of a team of six Rutland educators who came up for an institute this summer. “The space at North Branch is wonderful and the staff is passionate and knowledgeable.” She said her team had been taking students to the outdoor space behind their school, but now they were going to be able to do that on a completely different level.

The center also offers intensive, weekend “Biodiversity University” programs for professional naturalists who want to expand their skills and for serious amateurs. One recent program focused on grasses and another on ferns.

North Branch continues to offer the one- or two-week naturalist trips like the one that inspired Sean Beckett many years ago. Former executive director Darmstadt retains his connection with North Branch — holding the honored title of “bird ambassador” — and this summer he and Beckett have been planning next year’s bird trips to Ecuador, Argentina, and Arizona.

An Essential Part of the Community

East Montpelier resident Georgia Valentine was introduced to the nature center back in 2002, before she had even moved here. While visiting her son and daughter-in-law, her three-year-old grandson wanted her to take him to the “critter room.” So began a deep connection that has included going on many naturalist-led nature walks, attending programs, participating in annual bird banding, and serving on the board, of which she is currently treasurer.

“When northern saw-whet owls are migrating through the valley, professional bird banders stretch cloth nets and call the owls,” Valentine said. “Owls get caught in the nets and the banders gently extricate them, attach a band and set it back on its way. You can actually adopt an owl, and if it’s caught someplace else on their route, you’ll get a report.”

Richard Paradis, a retired UVM conservation biologist and vice president of the nature center board, has a similarly long connection to the center, having joined a committee to help start a regional center back when the Vermont Institute of Natural Science bought the Brown Farm. He has been a volunteer ever since, and still remembers the day he painted over the VINS sign to reflect the creation of the new organization. He also chaired the executive director search committee and could not be more pleased about hiring Heindel.

A few years ago, Paradis and naturalist-writer Charles Johnson formed a volunteer committee that meets once or twice a week to do facilities maintenance and repair jobs for the center. Johnson — a former board member — loves many things about the center, including that right within the city it provides a variety of habitats and an opportunity for everyone to spend more time outdoors, either for recreation or for enjoying nature.

Volunteers help the center in many other ways, also, including support for events, mailings, and the library, as well as tending gardens and compost and watering saplings and the 20 new fruit trees planted in the orchard. AmeriCorps conservation technician Kerry Brosnan said that National Life, King Arthur Baking Company, Cabot Creamery, Ben & Jerry’s, 350 Vermont, and some other organizations have provided volunteers for short-term projects, such as planting the orchard and ongoing efforts, like Japanese knotweed removal.

This circles around to one of Naomi Heindel’s discoveries after she started working here: North Branch Nature Center is even more deeply rooted in the community than she expected. And everything is centered on the mission that drives her and seemingly everyone at the center — connecting people to the natural world.