25 years in, Wild Bear approaches home

A quarter century in, Boulder County poised to get its first dedicated nature center in Wild Bear at Mud Lake Nature Preserve, just minutes north of Nederland

By Paul Hagey Aug 4 2020

A quarter-century in to leading Wild Bear Nature Center, Jill Dreves sees her dream of building a permanent nature center in Boulder County approaching reality.

A tattooed dragonfly on Jill’s right wrist flutters as she guides us along the nature center’s trail at Mud Lake. The property connects to 3,200-acre Caribou Ranch Open Space, which flows into the Indian Peaks sporting above.

“I’m a bone-chewer,” Jill says on more than one occasion as we roam the five acres of Wild Bear Nature Center’s future home at the 231-acre Mud Lake Nature Preserve, just five minutes north of downtown Nederland off Peak to Peak Highway, when asked how she’s held on to her vision for a permanent Boulder County nature center for so long.

A quarter century in, the vision for the nature center is close to reality. As we roam the property, Jill points out different features of the center’s preliminary design, which Boulder architecture firm Arc11 designed a concept for. It will have hands-on exhibits and an, overall, blend with the natural landscape, she explains.

“Nature is one of the key health and human services of our time,” Jill says.

The vision of building a stand-alone nature center that develops deep hands-on connection to nature for children and their families has flashed in her mind for a long time.

A Nederland elementary school teacher at the time, Jill founded Wild Bear in 1995, and, through it, has led programs for Boulder County-area children such as summer camp, after-school programs and school-day-off events. It also has programs to bring adults and families into the mountain forests. Wild Bear has four full-time employees and ramps up to approximately 15 in the summer with part-timers helping run the camps.

This summer, Wild Bear brought 25 to 30 children into the forest every day, despite the pandemic. Staff and families signed contracts, committing to remain Covid-free. Children headed to the woods with educators, who all wore masks, to explore the explore.

Jill Dreves talks about the plans for Mud Lake’s abandoned bus she had moved to Wild Bear’s portion of the preserve. 

Wild Bear also hosts family-oriented events, such as its annual Enchanted Forest event, where adults dress up in animal costumes along a trail and tell their stories to children who travel along it with their parents. The 20th event is scheduled for Saturday, September 26, but this year, understandably, will be virtual.

Ten years ago, Wild Bear opened an “interim” nature center open to the public 360 days per year. The wonderful current iteration in Caribou Village features multiple animals — a hedgehog, salamanders, a turtle, cockroaches — natural history exhibits on local nature, a storytelling area for kids’ programming and more. The Mud Lake nature center represents full reality of Jill’s vision.

In 1997, Jill left her teaching gig and leapt full into Wild Bear and has led it as executive director ever since.

A new logo, website and clarified mission, developed with the help of Boulder marketing and design firm Walden Hyde, help better reflect Wild Bear’s vision and combine as another effort to push the nature center into existence.

The new mission has simplified and clarified the one Wild Bear started with. The new wording: Inspiring a lifelong connection to nature and community through creative exploration of the outdoors.

Wild Bear’s wild beginnings

As a little girl running around the Northern Colorado Rockies, nature infected Jill.

Jill and her sister Amy grew up with horses and scoured their home of Rist Canyon, in the Front Range west of Fort Collins, butterfly nets in hand. They developed a deep, attuned relationship with nature there, thanks in large part to the guidance of neighbor Judy Bodenham, an entomologist at Colorado State University at the time.

Judy curated a careful, deep introduction to the natural world in all its deep, mysterious, multifaceted angles for her young neighbors. The sisters roamed the creeks, forests and mountains of their home guided, in part, by Judy’s tutelage.

Jill Dreves as a young girl with one of the horses she rode growing up in Rist Canyon. Photo: Wild Bear.

That experience settled deep in both sisters — serving as the quarter-century fuel behind Jill’s effort to build a nature center in Boulder County through the nonprofit she founded in 1995, Wild Bear. Amy earned a Ph.D. in entomology and now teaches and conducts research at the University of the Virgin Islands in St. Croix.

Decades later that deep connection to land and life is poised to bear fruit as Boulder County’s first nature center, Wild Bear, the nature-focused nonprofit Jill founded a quarter century ago.

Jill and her sister attended Stove Prairie School, which opened as a one-room schoolhouse in 1896, making it the state’s oldest continuously operated one-room school. The Bellvue-based school has since expanded, but when Jill attended, two schoolrooms, two teachers, K-3, 4-8, all ages mixed together.

A Nederland elementary school teacher at the time, she decided to pursue her big dream of providing a hands-on nature connection to children and their families.

The vision

On a recent Tuesday in Nederland kids ranging from approximately 6 to 10 years old play engagingly on the banks of Middle Boulder Creek, just above Barker Reservoir. In the Wild Bear summer camp, they exemplify Jill’s vision for Wild Bear: multi-age nature education modeled after her Stove Prairie School experience. 

Wild Bear’s new mission and logo show where it’s headed.

Wild Bear’s new logo. Credit: Wild Bear

Wild Bear milestones:

  • 1995 Jill Dreves founds Wild Bear
  • 1997 Jill quits her day job to focus on Wild Bear
  • 1999 Wild Bear, with the help of donors and the town of Nederland, bought five acres for a nature for $1.5 million, Nederland gave $1 million.
  • 2013, a six-by-eight-foot, 30-foot-deep sinkhole opened at the planned site for the original nature center
  • 2019, Wild Bear completed a five-acre landswap for current location at Mud Lake.
  • 2020, Wild Bear has a new website, logo and clarified mission statement as it finalizes plans for the nature center.

Like many a dreamer, Jill says “If I would have seen the journey beforehand, I would not have done it.”

Feature image: Jill Dreves describing the vision of Wild Bear at Mud Lake, future site of its nature center. 

Paul Hagey

Paul Hagey is BLDRfly’s founder and editor. When not wrangling video, audio and words in the name of story, he’s riding his mountain bike, trail running and hanging with his awesome wife Jen and their young daughter. paul@bldrfly.com