The first root a plant sends into the earth, straight and narrow, is known as the taproot.
The taproot becomes the plant’s foundation, from which the rest of its roots grow. The goal of the Taproot Nature Experience is to give kids a strong foundation — a healthy taproot — that will nurture and sustain them the rest of their lives.
“When the top of it (a plant) gets burned or gets grazed off, its taproot still is there. And it anchors it to the Earth. These kids are growing their own taproot so that as they grow, it’ll give them strength and an anchor,” Taproot co-founder Zac Wedemeyer said.
Taproot does that by providing a space where kids can safely interact with wildlife, getting a taste for the outdoors in an environment that is less intense than camping.
Zac and Elesa Wedemeyer founded Taproot Nature Experience in fall 2007 and began offering summer camp programming in 2008. They also offer programs during the school year.
“They get to experience nature, and some of the teachers are just amazing,” said Jared Steffen, father of 9-year-old Taproot camper Owen Steffen.
I visited campers at Taproot Farm, located near North English southeast of Williamsburg, twice last summer. The Wedemeyers have since sold the farm but will continue offering camping and other programming with visits to area parks and nature-based locations.
Iowa City’s Harvest Preserve is a frequent stop. Others include Scattergood Friends School & Farm, Turkey Creek Preserve and Woodpecker Trail.
The morning of my first visit, Manny Kaine, 14, caught an 8-pound bass while fishing in the pond down the hill from the Taproot farmhouse. As he deftly strung a spinning reel fishing pole and attached a lure, he told me the campers throw back most of the fish they catch, including 3 pounds of sunfish they’d caught earlier that day.
Kaine had just finished showing a group of his fellow campers how to fillet the fish they kept, a skill he learned when he first came to Taproot years ago.
I met Kaine in early June while he was attending Taproot Leadership Camp, fondly known as TLC, a weeklong overnight camp at the beginning of the summer. Kids ages 12 to 17 spend the week honing their teamwork and leadership skills and training to become junior leaders and then return and help run the other camps during the summer.
While showing me a baby northern pike, no bigger than a minnow as it hid in the bottom of a bucket, the TLC campers asked if I wanted to see the injured baby deer they had recently rescued. Of course, I said yes.
On the way to the deer we were waylaid by a flock of month-old baby chicks. The campers informed me the chicks wouldn’t start laying for another five months and told me their names — Caramel, Falcon and Colonel Sassacre, among others — as they showed me how to hold them. Taproot Farm was also home to a famously territorial rooster named Penny, a menace known to chase smaller kids and beat them with his wings if they get too close.
We made our way up the hill to an abandoned pig pen, serving for a short time as an enclosure for the rescued baby deer, which the kids had named Cedar.
The campers noticed Cedar while on a float trip down the Cedar River in June. When they found her, she was about 1-week-old and had been abandoned by her mother.
“She was going to drown. She was holding on to the bank, so we kayaked over,” the Wedemeyers’ daughter Iris, 13, said.
The kids were planning to place the fawn higher up on the bank and leave her there but then noticed one of her hind legs was broken. They gathered her into their kayak and brought her back to the farm.
That type of exploration is what makes Taproot so unique, 19-year-old Anna Baynton said when I met her during my second visit later in the summer.
Now a Taproot teacher, Baynton began as a camper more than a decade ago.
Taproot’s looser structure encourages curiosity in children, she said as she untangled a fishing line.
“They get to learn how to entertain themselves and to find things that are cool in the world without someone telling them,” she said.
Finding things like injured baby deer, for instance.
“She’s so young she’s not even supposed to drink water. She’s just supposed to drink milk,” Iris Wedemeyer said, offering Cedar a bottle of goat kid formula after lifting her out of her enclosure.
Cedar drank half the bottle, and then Iris placed her back in the pen in the shade.
My second visit to Taproot Farm fell on a Thursday evening in late July during one camper group’s overnight stay.
After a wood-fired pizza supper, we walked through the rolling hills behind the farmhouse, pausing every few minutes to sample the edible flowers and berries growing along the path.
In learning how to fillet their own fish, raise animals and identify various and sundry plants, the kids also learned about the natural end of life. When I asked Zac Wedemeyer about the fawn from earlier in the summer, I learned she had died.
“She ate food, but she had really terrible diarrhea. It was clear that she was not all right. She just got thinner and thinner and then, one morning, we discovered her,” he said.
Wedemeyer contacted two licensed wildlife rehabilitators about Cedar, but the Department of Natural Resources prohibits helping deer.
The policy is in place because deer who can’t make it in the wild are thought to have a wasting disease to which captive deer are especially susceptible. Unless precautions are taken, the disease can find its way into the wild deer population.
The farm had raised goat kids before, which are similar to baby deer, so they gave it a shot raising Cedar, but she wasn’t strong enough to make it.
“A good friend of mine had a good point, that less than half of the healthy ones survive with the mom and with their full capacity, so one who is behind anyway, with no mom, doesn’t have much of a chance,” Wedemeyer said.
However, he said the Taproot campers who found Cedar learned from the experience and moved on from it.
“They’re very resilient,” Wedemeyer said.
Resilient, just like taproots.
Taproot Nature Experience
Cambium Camp, ages 5 to 7, 8:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Monday to Friday, each week from June 10 to Aug. 16 except July 1 to 5. Cost: $380 per week. Campers may sign up for one or more weeks for any of the camps.
Sapling Camp, ages 7 to 12, 8:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Monday to Friday, each week from June 10 to Aug. 16, with no camp July 4 or July 5. Cost: $380 per week.
Sprouts Camp, ages 3 to 5, 8:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. Monday to Friday, each week June 3 to Aug. 16, with no camp July 4 or July 5. Cost: $235 per week.
Seedling Camp, ages 5 to 7, 8:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. Monday to Friday, weeks of June 3 to 7, June 10 to 14, July 1 to 3, July 15 to 19 and July 29 to Aug. 2. Cost: $235 per week.
Summer Leadership Camp, ages 12 to 17, May 31 to June 8. Cost: $1,075.