November 3, 2015 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Henry David Thoreau had Walden Pond. Yogi and Boo-Boo had Jellystone Park. Mary and Alex Graeve have Hitchcock Nature Center.

Their backyard is the 1,270-acre preserve located just five miles north of Crescent, Iowa. Mary and Alex are the children of Amy and Chad Graeve. Chad is the park ranger and natural resource specialist for the land situated in the heart of the Loess Hills.

The unique geological formation was created after the last Ice Age when glacial flooding receded along the Missouri River basin. Much of the remaining sediment was swept away by winds and settled in layer upon layer to form the steep, rugged terrain that is known for its sometimes challenging hiking trails. The park is also a Mecca for area birders, especially because of its position along what is called “Hawk Highway,” a major migratory path for birds of prey that will remain particularly active through December.

“I grew up in the country,” says Amy, a substitute teacher in the Lewis Central Community School District, “and this, to me, is the only way to live.”

The park is not only a place of great natural beauty, it’s a place of romance. The couple met when Amy brought her students to Hitchcock on a field trip.

“I had a habit of flirting with all the prettiest teachers,” Chad says with a wry grin.

Chad is also a wild-land firefighter, which means he may be called away with only hours notice to hop a plane at Eppley Airfield. His most recent assignment had him battling a blaze in Montana last August. Amy worries about the perilous work, and the lingering stench of smoke that forever permeates his firefighting gear is a constant reminder of danger.

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The park has not always been the pristine, densely wooded landscape familiar to campers, birders, and hikers today. The campground, for example, was built over a junkyard.

“That’s where we go to find stuff,” says Mary. A raised eyebrow and questioning look is all it takes for Alex to chime in. “You know…stuff…a wagon wheel, an old high chair,” he says. “The best, coolest stuff.” The Graeve kids are natural-born archeologists when it comes to excavating the flotsam and jetsam of what to them are relics on an ancient civilization.

“We call it treasure,” Mary says. “The highchair is our throne, and we have a castle in the woods,” she says in describing a primitive shelter they erected near another of their hidden get-aways, a double-super-secret treehouse.

Imaginations in Hitchcock park, it would appear, run as wild as the surroundings.

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Living in the woods may seem a barrier to socialization for the kids, but Amy believes they have struck a nice balance. Mary and Alex make instant—if temporary—friends with the children of families staying in the nearby campground. They have robust school, extracurricular, and sports lives. And the children frequently host fireside sleepovers.

“We instill in our kids that, first and foremost, they should be the best of friends because they do spend so much time together,” Amy says. “This is our little place—our family place—and the way we live ensures that family comes first.”

If family comes first with the Graeves, a deep respect for nature isn’t far behind.

“My role is to be a steward of the land—to take care of it, to help it heal,” Chad explains. “Introducing people to that concept of stewardship and helping them to connect with nature,” he says, is one of the most rewarding parts of his job.

“Hitchcock is a very special place,” he continues, “and I have the special privilege of doing my part to keep it that way.”

Visit pottcoconservation.com to learn more.

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