The Greater Omaha Chamber marketing team is on the move – experiencing the sights, sounds, creativity and tastes that typify our region. We’re exploring our community and encourage you to check out these Greater Omaha gems – because best-kept secrets are best uncovered.

 “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” ― Henry David Thoreau, Walden

There are no repeats, no do-overs or re-shares in the life of a forest; and Fontenelle Forest is a wooded refuge all its own. An evolving ecosystem that is as much adventure as it is sanctuary, the Bellevue-based forest boasts more than 240 species of birds.

When the Greater Omaha Chamber’s marketing team (John, Kim, Jessica, Jill O. and Jill B., along with a hand-picked threesome of fortunate children), recently visited, however, we were doing more looking down (avoiding snails on the forest floor’s expansive boardwalk) than scanning skyward for birds.

Nearly impossible to evade, the snails were making their way across the boardwalk at varying distances and a decidedly “snail’s pace.” Some of the ambling gastropods were permanently slowed by the team’s trek, an unfortunate event we were reassured would be managed by the forest’s expansive food chain.

Guided by staff naturalist, Grace Gaard, we navigated the woodland path to the Great Marsh, an impressive wetlands complete with canoes (and, soon to be complete with inexperienced canoers).

As we took to the water (which some of us did better than others – okay, everyone did better than I) Grace kayaked beside, pointing out beaver lodges and helping our team do more than smack the water with our oars. Actually, I only slowed my “smacking” when Grace finally gave my canoe a tow. As for the rest of the team, they took to boating like migrating herons, or, at the very least, like a cadre of creatives whose prowess is powered by more than Adobe Illustrator and an iMac.

For those who’ve experienced the Great Marsh of Fontenelle Forest’s Wetlands, you’ll understand why we rowed so long (more than an hour) and why so many visit the secluded oasis, a haven for a host of animals and a picturesque, naturally undisrupted loop of lake surrounded by reeds and bordered by a stoic grove of trees.

After our wetlands escapades, we headed to Fontenelle Forest’s Nature Center, a brief drive from the lake, to throw back our hastily prepared sack lunches (mostly popcorn and M&Ms, complemented by cheese sandwiches and granola bars).

If you know our team, then you already know John is our answer to bellowing, “Hey Google,” or “Hey Alexa,” and is a near-expert on almost everything.

“Hey John,” we asked, through mouthfuls of noon-time fare, “How many kinds of falcons live in Nebraska?”

“Hey John, why are snails so sticky?”

“Hey John, how cold does it have to be before we get hypothermia?” (You get the idea.)

Good thing John is good natured, because, following lunch, we had a new list of rapid-fire queries as we visited the Raptor Woodland Refuge with Bettia Turner, Fontenelle Forest’s assistant director of development.

Home to birds of prey no longer able to survive on their own, the Refuge allows visitors to experience hawks, falcons, ospreys and more, while concurrently fueling the forest’s raptor-rescue mission. (Fontenelle Forest rescued 617 raptors in 2017 alone.)

With Jill O., Kim and Jessica grabbing a birds-eye, camera-lens view of each raptor resident, the kiddos on the excursion got up-close-and-personal with George, an amiable screech owl with an impaired eye, marveled at Fisher, a bald eagle who survived a gunshot wound and cooed at owls with damaged wings.

The day was capped with a visit to Habitat Hollow, an indoor forest experience, followed by a sun-dappled hike under an autumn canopy of leaves, along an imaginative trail where, given time and ambition, you could almost hear an acorn drop (which was fitting, because an acorn did actually fall from a tree and hit me on my head, not an effort for the errant nut, I’m told, given my head size that, apparently, matches my ego).