By Steven Libowitz   |   May 7, 2024

NatureTrack has a simple but vital mission: To foster a lifelong fascination with nature through outdoor field trips. The nonprofit was founded in 2011 by Sue Eisaguirre, who wanted to reach a broader community than she was able to do through her work heading up the docent and K-12 outreach programs for the UCSB Sedgwick Reserve. So she founded NatureTrack to cover the whole of Santa Barbara County with the goal of making nature more accessible for everyone, particularly children from low income families who might not otherwise have the chance. 

In the last 13 years, NatureTrack has done remarkable work, providing field trips for school children; letting them immerse themselves in local parks, preserves and beaches, engaging their curiosity and instilling a perhaps new appreciation and awe of the wonders of the natural world. The day trips are provided at no cost to the participants or the school districts, with the organization covering everything, including transportation. There are never more than five kids per docent on the trips, so everyone is able to get all the attention and answers they might want. 

As you might imagine, teachers and their students normally rave about the experience, with schools booking excursions year after year and enthusiastically endorsing the program. 

But not long ago, Eisaguirre found one of the instructors holding back from providing a full-throated recommendation. 

“She was a little hesitant because the trips are so popular, and our availability fills up so quickly,” Eisaguirre explained. “She said she loves what we’re doing and didn’t want to be selfish, but wanted to make sure her class gets a spot again, so she’d tell other people about it after she booked her trips.” 

Indeed, NatureTrack’s field trips have become so popular that virtually the entire school year’s schedule is booked within a few weeks after registration is opened. 

“It just kills me that our K-12 field trips have such a long wait list that we are not going to be able to get to the bottom by the end of the year,” Eisaguirre said. “We’ve just had too many requests and there’s only so many of us to go around.” 

Indeed, it’s astonishing that NatureTrack is still basically run on a shoestring, with just a single employee in addition to the founder – who puts in much more than 40 hours a week – and its cadre of volunteers, some 100 strong. Maintaining the 5-to-1 participant to docent ration means there are only so many trips they can handle. 

Also adding to the demand for the docents is the stupendous success of New Tracks, the organization’s program to increase access to nature for wheelchair users, not only within the school system but for people of all ages. Using Freedom Trax, a device that transforms a manual wheelchair into a battery-powered, all-terrain vehicle capable of traversing previously difficult topography, the program provides those with physical disabilities access to beaches and trails, many for the first time. 

“The Tracks program is just taking off like crazy,” Eisaguirre said. “We have 15 of them available, so we’re doing our best to make sure they get used. We have a whole bunch of senior homes that are participating, and we’re going out once or twice a week with different homes.” 

The Freedom Trax device lets kids of all ages and abilities explore the outdoors (courtesy photo)

The excursions into nature have been a wonder for the elderly who have often not experienced an excursion to the beach or a nature trail for many years. Indeed, Eisaguirre was moved to hear that when program director Abby Pickens shows up at Mission Villa, the midtown memory care facility, the residents often recognize her. 

“Abby has been with them outdoors enough that it seems to have helped their short-term memory,” she said. “It’s like it turned on one of the switches.”

NatureTrack has also been lending out its Freedom Trax devices for anyone to use regardless of age or extent of disability, Eisaguirre said. Students use them not only for official NatureTrack field trips, but also school or family excursions to such places as the Botanic Garden. One Los Olivos family borrowed a Trax so that the brother in a wheelchair could join them for the ceremony on the beach in Santa Barbara, while another was currently taking one to Big Bear to test it out to make sure that it will work for their son so he can confidently attend sixth grade science camp next year. Another was flown to Hawaii for a family that was meeting on a beach there to fulfill the grandmother’s bucket list to visit the beach with her children and grandchildren one more time. And Wilderness Youth Project has employed the Trax so disabled kids could participate fully in their own programs. 

“We really do believe that the Trax shouldn’t sit idle,” Eisaguirre said. “If people want to borrow them, they are available at no charge. I’m just thrilled that people are using them.”

Special Freedom Trax Days are slated for June 23 at West Beach near the Pier, July 21 at Pismo Beach, August 17 at Avila Beach, and September 28 at Arroyo Verde Park Ventura. 

Pickens has also revived NatureTrack Family Days, a bimonthly opportunity for families to experience the equivalent of a school trip by visiting nature sports with docent-led hikes, games and connecting with other families. 

“They get to see the fun interactive nature games that we do with the kids, and the parents are learning those as well and just enjoying exploring nature like we do with the kids,” Eisaguirre said. “Those are really building momentum too, and it’s ideal to see the preschool age children with their families, because it means they are starting at that early age to see how fun nature is, and how easy it is to spend time in nature with their kids. It’s not some long, arduous hike, but a gentle walk, stopping, exploring, looking at the colors, doing fun things with simple little activities that get the child and the parents engaged.” 

Upcoming Family Days include May 4 at El Capitan State Beach, July 14 at North Campus Open Space, and September 21 at Lake Los Carneros. 

There are a lot of ways to support NatureTrack in its work, including donations of any amount, which, with only two employees, go almost entirely to the program costs, including the training of docents. But even those with limited funds can be a part of the program by volunteering, either serving as a docent, or with administrative work, much of which can be done remotely. 

Help yourself, too, by spending more time outdoors.  

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