Throughout the years, nature and DuPage forest preserves have played an important role in Debby and Tom Gerhardstein’s lives as they raised their family and pursued careers.
Now their two grown sons live in Downers Grove with their families, including two young granddaughters.
“We did a lot of camping when our kids were young and lived within walking distance of the Illinois Prairie Path and Herrick Lake, so we shared our love for riding and being on the trails while providing a means of exercise,” Debby said.
Now the longtime DuPage County residents are transitioning to retirement as they approach their 40th wedding anniversary in January. Tom is former owner of Fromm Airpad, a Warrenville packaging company, and Debby is a retired nurse who served as executive director of the ThinkFirst National Injury Prevention Foundation based in Naperville.
"Working out physically and aerobically has always been important to Tom, and he tries to get that exercise outdoors when he can,” Debby said. “He appreciates the efforts being made to add connector trails between preserves and other bike trails to minimize road travel.”
Here’s their story.
Discovering DuPage Forest Preserves
Growing up in Naperville in the 60s and 70s we had both explored Pioneer Park, Burlington Park and McDowell Grove. Springbrook Prairie had not been developed and Greene Valley was farmland; Deb’s step-uncle, John Augsburg, was one of those farmers.
When we married and moved to the Wheaton-Warrenville area, we spent our time at the preserves flanking these towns. Each of the three houses we have lived in has been within walking distance of either the Illinois Prairie Path or a DuPage forest preserve.
In Wheaton, we could walk to the path, Herrick Lake and St. James Farm. In Warrenville we are surrounded by Blackwell, looking out at the nursery from our windows, walking past sections of it in our neighborhood on daily short walks and walking to McKee Marsh for longer walks; door-to-door it’s close to 4 miles. We can easily ride to the Prairie Path at Batavia and Butterfield Roads, or wind our way to Winfield to catch it there.
The shoreline at Blackwell Forest Preserve. Photo by Debby Gerhardstein
Tom became familiar with the forest preserve staff and event policies during a 10-year stint as co-chair of the NAMI DuPage (National Alliance on Mental Illness) “Run For The Mind” walk/run race with his sister, Mary Bazan. Various forest preserves have been available for races over the years; NAMI DuPage has held their annual fundraising race at Herrick Lake, Danada and St. James Farm.
Tom worked directly with Forest Preserve District staff to ensure rules were followed on tent setup and traffic safety, and he knew the trails well enough to be able to position volunteers with water stations along the route. He was impressed by how much the land meant to the rangers and other staff, and their diligence in protecting it. Holding community events such as this can be a great way to introduce people to the forest preserves, while raising awareness and money for good causes.
Tom Gerhardstein stands next to a fireplace at Goodrich Woods in Naperville. Photo by Debby Gerhardstein
Favorite Forest Preserve and Time to Visit
These are some of the most beautiful and diverse preserves in the county, any time of the day or year, for walking or biking. Each has its own unique features, like boating, snow tubing, historic horse farms, archery and hayrides. But we especially like to walk the remote trails, to get away from traffic noise and take in the scents and sights of the plants, trees and wildlife.
A sunset at the Blackwell native plant nursery. Photo by Debby Gerhardstein
This year we set a goal to see the preserves we had never seen by walking or biking every DuPage forest preserve with a trail map on the Forest Preserve District’s website. This really added to our favorites, including large trails for biking, such as Waterfall Glen in Darien, Springbrook Prairie in Naperville, and Hawk Hollow in Bartlett, as well as small, endearing woodland trails like West DuPage Woods in West Chicago, Fullersburg Woods in Oak Brook and Goodrich Woods next to the old one-room schoolhouse in Naperville. Two favorites we’ll be returning to often are Hidden Lake, adjacent to the Morton Arboretum, and Maple Grove in Downers Grove, which is the perfect setting to meet our sons’ families.
Tom Gerhardstein pulls one of his granddaughters in a wagon as his other granddaughter and his son follow on a walk at Maple Grove Forest Preserve in Downers Grove. Photo by Debby Gerhardstein
What Brings Them Back Time and Time Again
There is something about being in nature that is good for the soul. It has transported us from our workday or home back to unspoiled outdoor territory. It has helped our children know the importance of enjoying and protecting our environment.
Tom especially connects with the open prairies that he has always enjoyed on his bike. Debby is drawn to the woods for their trees and woodland plants. The chance to spot a deer or other wildlife or capture a photo of a monarch butterfly or an interesting scene are part of the draw.
Tom and Debby Gerhardstein stop to read a sign during a walk at Blackwell's McKee Marsh
Catching the Nature Bug
We both recall childhood days with an abundance of caterpillars, monarchs and lightning bugs, and building forts in the woods. Debby spent a lot of time at her grandparents’ home in the woods and enjoyed countless opportunities to climb trees and play along Blackberry Creek in Kane County. As a young adult she spent two years in New Hampshire’s White Mountains where she planted her first garden, building on that later in Illinois. She and Tom enjoy gardening together, with mainly perennials and some annual and vegetable gardens.
Debby Gerhardstein stops during a hike at Mayslake Forest Preserve in Oak Brook. Photo by Tom Gerhardstein
While nature is resilient, it is also vulnerable — to weather and to human encroachment. Once gone, species of animals and plants can be lost forever. We are grateful to all those before us who pushed to develop forest preserves to protect natural habitats, and support laws that protect our environment.
Debby and Tom Gerhardstein walk at Blackwell's McKee Marsh.
Favorite Thing to Do in the Preserves
Walk—you miss more when on a bike and pass up more photo opportunities. We walk at a fast pace while looking for wildlife like deer, turtles and monarchs, and we don’t mind stopping to watch them. We like to look up plants and trees to identify and learn more about them; our phones provide us with identification apps, cameras and emergency access, so while we try to ignore calls, we always bring our phones.
A new stretch of the West Branch DuPage River Trail recently opened at Blackwell Forest Preserve. The trail was rerouted and moved to higher ground to prevent frequent flooding. Photo by Debby Gerhardstein
Favorite Nature Quote
John Muir did so much to lead the preservation of national forests and other natural areas. We like his quote, “In every walk with nature one receives far more than he seeks.”
Tom and Debby Gerhardstein stop to take a selfie while walking at Danada Forest Preserve in Wheaton. Photo by Debby Gerhardstein
How Nature Inspires
Being in nature motivates us to reduce our carbon footprint and support habitat protection. We’re inspired to plant more in our own yard to support birds, bees and butterflies, and to develop gardens of plants we enjoy. We also find the forest preserves wonderful places to be with our kids and grandkids, and it warms our hearts to see them developing a deep appreciation for nature and being outdoors.
Advice to Others
We are amazed at how many beautifully maintained preserves we have in DuPage County, and how many we knew nothing about. Our goals included exploring two new trails a week – ones that we had not done at all or in the past year—and one bike ride a week. We completed all forest preserve trails between June and October, once the new Dunham Forest Preserve trail opened in October.
Not only did this provide a needed 2020 activity, but it also became a lifestyle. No matter what your activity level is, we suggest you visit a favorite forest preserve or new forest preserves on a regular basis, even if it’s simply to sit on a bench and enjoy the view. And don’t wait until you retire — make time whenever you can and it will help balance everything else you do.
A monarch on thistle at Greene Valley Forest Preserve in Naperville. Photo by Debby Gerhardstein