Relieve spring fever and get back to nature with the Saginaw Bay Nature Festival

If you have spring fever, you’ll find relief at the Saginaw Bay Nature Festival.

The Rotary Club of Pinconning and Standish hosts the annual festival, offering school and community programs throughout March, April, and May. Festival events include classroom presentations on birding and nature, school field trips and public tours of various natural parks and preserves in the Saginaw Bay area, nature-related programs for the public, an Appreciating Nature through Art Workshop and a Nature Art Competition for students in grades K-12.

“We call it a festival, but I don’t really think that’s what it is,” says organizer Mike Stoner, secretary of the Rotary Club of Pinconning and Standish. “When you think of a festival, you think of a weekend activity. This is more of a 'connecting people to the land around them' event.”

The primary way the festival seeks to connect people to nature is by reaching out to kids. Through them, the club hopes to reach parents and grandparents, says Mark Fuhrman, Rotary Club president and principal at Linwood Elementary School. “A lot of kids don’t have access to these experiences,” he says.

The festival has succeeded in several ways, for individual families, for the schools, for the community, and as a Rotary Club fundraiser.

Fuhrman says he hears families talking about festival events at school.

“One student who went fishing last year who asked if he could go again,” Fuhrman says. “I heard him talking to his dad the other day and he says they were going fishing. I think it’s connected the dad with his son and is a way for the two of them to find common ground.”

The festival also has enhanced the school curriculum. 

One highlight is the final banquet at the Saganing Tribal Center near Standish where the top 9 winners of the Student Nature Art Contest are exhibited. Students from Pinconning, Standish-Sterling, Au Gres-Sims, plus two parochial schools, are invited to create art in any medium. Fuhrman says the project ties into the school curriculum as well as the festival. It also encourages kids to explore art, something many schools have cut.

“People are amazed when I tell them we don’t have an art class,” Furhman says. Art still is part of other curriculums, such as creating diagrams in science. But this contest inspires students to learn more about art. “It really has been amazing to see the kids and how they’ve really delved into art. The other thing is the parents. I can’t tell you how many parents have come to me and said we are so glad you are doing this. When the kids come home, they’re talking about it.”

Another festival project by students grew into a multi-year effort that benefits the community. Two years ago, the club started working with local high students to create interpretive signs for the Pinconning Park. They quickly discovered the signs were significantly more expensive than expected, Fuhrman says. 

The project turned into a problem-solving opportunity. The students found help at the Bay-Arenac Career Center, from local businesses, and in grants. As part of the 2017 festival, they researched, created and designed the signs. As part of the 2018 festival, they installed them. In the end, they gained experience and saved money. 

“They did it all themselves,” Fuhrman says. “What those students did, they just couldn’t get that (experience) another way.”

Now, when Stoner leads elementary school kids on tours of the park, he makes sure to point out that high school students were responsible for the signs. It gets their attention. Fuhrman says his own son was 5 years old when used what he had learned on one of the signs to warn Dad about a patch of poison ivy.

While the festival’s primary goal is connecting people with nature, a secondary goal is to raise money.  The club hoped to raise $4,000 to support its programs including college scholarships, sending students to a Rotary Youth Leadership Camp, and buying thesauruses and dictionaries for students in three school districts.

In financial terms, it’s been a success. The first year, the festival raised about $4,500. The second year, 2017, about $5,000. In 2018, it raised $6,000. Stoner said the 2019 festival has already brought in $6,000 in sponsorships and the money helped the club expand its scholarship programs. This year, though, they may consider additional projects.

“I don’t know what it’s going to be,” Stoner says. “We’re looking at ways to put the money back into things that will have long-term benefits.”

The festival also has drawn the community together. Local businesses sponsor the overall event and donate prizes for a raffle. The Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe donates space for the final banquet and has expressed interest in becoming more involved. The Pinconning Journal and Arenac Independent newspapers provide extensive coverage. The local chamber promotes the events.

The festival also is getting attention from around the state. Already this year, Stoner has gotten calls from other organizations wanting to get involved in the 2020 festival. He’s also heard from organizations hoping to mimic the festival in different parts of the state.

“This is an evolution,” Stoner says. “People’s thinking has changed. The more people are becoming divorced from the land, the more difficult it’s going to be for future generations to make use of it because it’s going to be gone.”

For the full schedule of events (and check back often with more events still to be scheduled), visit the Rotary Saginaw Bay Nature Festival on Facebook here.