KELLOGG WEAVER DUNES — Most jokes about crossing the road involve a chicken, but on Saturday it wasn't a joke and they weren't chickens.

More than two dozen volunteers met at Whitewater State Park to learn about the region's native turtles before heading out to the Kellogg Weaver Dunes Scientific and Natural Area to help newly hatched turtles make their way safely across the road from the sand prairie to the water.

Spotting a turtle wasn't guaranteed and the likelihood of seeing a turtle not fortunate enough to make it completely across the road was high. 

The turtle rescue happens twice a year. In the spring, volunteers help mother turtles to cross the road as they head from the water to lay their eggs in the sand prairie and back again. In the fall, volunteers help the newly hatched turtles make it safely across the road from the sand prairie to the water.

"This is a great opportunity for kids to get out there, get hands on and hopefully get inspired that they can participate in conservation, they can make a difference," said Sara Holger, an interpretive naturalist with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources at Whitewater State Park. "There are things they can do in their neighborhoods, in their backyards or even as they think about what they want to be when they grow up. It's planting that seed early on that there are jobs in the conservation field and it's fun stuff."

The events don't just get the very young excited about nature, though. College students Lillian Payan and Kiana Johnson were surprised by their friend Micayla Coble with the turtle rescue field trip. Coble, originally from Rochester, is a student at the University of Wisconsin–River Falls and was formerly an intern at Whitewater State Park.

"I think it's just important to get out and connect people to things that they love, because if you are connecting people to things that they love, they are going to care about it more so they are going to want to protect it," Coble said.

Shortly after Coble and her friends and three other volunteers set out to their portion of the road, they came across a turtle making its way to the other side. Instead of picking it up, the group of six gathered around it and let it finish its crossing with their protection.

A few hundred yards before arriving at the Nature Conservancy area, the caravan of cars that had left Whitewater State Park came to an abrupt stop as Holger put her car in park to jump out and move a baby turtle. Unfortunately, she was too late and the turtle had been crushed by a passing car before her arrival.

But some turtles would be spared that fate. After donning bright orange safety vests, volunteers were broken into groups and sent out with clipboards to parts of the road in search of turtles to rescue and document.

The Kunz family spent their summer exploring the state's parks and learning about the wildlife that calls Minnesota home.

"It's just in our backyard, it's amazing," Yasmin Kunz said.

On Saturday, the Rochester family of five headed out to Whitewater State Park to help the turtles cross the road – an event Kunz said the family has been awaiting for years.

Kunze said the family has wanted to attend this event but in years past have tried to attend only to find out it was already booked up. The day's event as well as their summer outdoors is a way for Kunze's children – Sophia, 8, Maja 7, and Olivia, 4 – to learn what is around them and how they are part of the habitat, she said.

Describing what she was doing, Sophia Kunze said "looking and helping baby turtles."

"I've seen three turtles," Sophia said adding that she helped one cross the street although she didn't know if it was alive or not. (Mom Yasmin said it was.)

Baby Turtle Rescue Field Trip

Volunteers, from left, Clarissa Schrooten, Eric Martinson and Ted Midthun look for baby turtles along Wabasha County Road 84 during the Baby Turtle Rescue Field Trip hosted by Whitewater State Park Saturday, Sept. 7, 2019, at Kellogg Weaver Dunes Scientific and Natural Area near Weaver. (Joe Ahlquist / jahlquist@postbulletin.com)

Joining the conversation, 5-year-old Zinnia Schneider Baldus said the group also saw "a big, fat snake."

Zinnia, her older brother Iver and their dad Eric Baldus, all of Minneapolis, were at Whitewater State Park camping for the weekend when they heard about the turtle rescue and decided to join in.

As dad said that both Zinnia and Iver love animals, his daughter chimed in.

"And turtles!" Zinnia said.

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