We’ve all found various ways of coping during the COVID-19 pandemic. From ordering take-out from our favourite local restaurants (or discovering some new ones) to reconnecting with friends and family on video calls, the pandemic has forced us all to look for silver linings wherever we can.

As the days become shorter, one silver lining we’re still taking advantage of is the great weather we’ve had this past summer and fall. The Region of Waterloo’s temporary COVID-19 cycling lanes provided safe spaces for cyclists – and made walking and running a little safer near some of our busiest roads. People have also taken advantage of our natural areas, including the Huron Natural Area in Kitchener, the Laurel Creek Conservation Area in Waterloo and the rare Charitable Research Reserve in Cambridge.

Rare is an urban land trust and environmental institute with more than eight kilometres of public trails. The reserve manages more than 1,000 protected acres in Waterloo Region and Wellington County that are used by researchers across Canada. 

On an unseasonably warm day last month, I had the chance to tour part of the reserve with Tamanna Kohi, rare’s Development & Communications Officer, and Christine Thompson, rare’s Major Gifts Manager. 

Two women standing for a photo on a forest trail

Tamanna Kohi, rare’s Development& Communications
Officer, and Christine Thompson, rare’s
Major Gifts Manager. (Communitech photo: Alex Kinsella)

“The eight kilometres of trails are free to access and enjoy nature,” said Kohi. “It’s natural anxiety relief.” Rare was able to keep trails open since they’re outdoors and physical distancing was not an issue. 

While rare does close some trails during winter, the Butterfly, Maple Lane, ECO Centre and Grand Trunk trails are still open. Hiking along the trails, you can see trees as old as 250 years and 24 habitat types.

Beyond trails and research opportunities, rare offers numerous programs for people of all ages. Their ECO (Every Child Outdoors) Camps normally run during March and summer school breaks. This summer, rare pivoted to offering education and videos on their social channels to help children connect with nature and become great stewards of our shared environment. 

The reserve also is home to multiple garden programs. There is a shared community garden with 10-foot-by-30-foot spaces available for rent from April to November. Thompson said the garden plots are always in high demand and usually sell out by February, when a waitlist is started.

The Springbank Food Bank Gardens at rare have over 15,000 square feet for growing vegetables for area food banks, including the Food Bank of Waterloo Region and the Cambridge Self-Help Food Bank. In normal years, the garden is open to volunteers who help with planting, maintenance and picking. Due to COVID-19, the garden was staffed by one rare team member this year. Keeping the program running was extremely important to the rare team. “Food security is an issue here in Waterloo Region,” said Kohi. “Getting good food is even more important. Healthy food is expensive.” 

Companies looking for ways to do good with food security can “adopt” plots in the Springbank Food Bank Gardens. 

Toronto-based Communitech member Fiix has been supporting rare as part of its corporate responsibility program. When creating a CSR program five years ago, Fiix used the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals as a foundation for targets to create unity between their efforts and the international community. “We asked our employees, customers, and community partners to tell us which goals resonated most with them and which ones we should prioritize,” said Fiix CEO James Novak.

The Life on Land objective was the most common response for the Fiix team. The UN describes the goal as one that protects, restores and promotes sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, sustainably managed forests, combats desertification, and halts and reverses land degradation and biodiversity loss.

“Rare is one of the few non-profit organizations in southern Ontario that specifically addresses Life on Land through conservation, research and education,” said Novak. “They are a small but mighty team, just like Fiix.”

Fiix employees have participated in hikes and volunteer days. They’ve also taken advantage of educational opportunities including events focused on pollinators and gardens. Over the last four years, Fiix has been recognized as one of rare’s Corporations for Conservation, which recognizes 25 leading companies for their conservation efforts.

Working from home during the pandemic inspired the Fiix team to create an internal initiative to connect employees remotely. “With everyone spending more time around the house, people were planting gardens more than ever before,” said Novak. “We decided to team up with rare to start the 1,000 gardens challenge.” The challenge encourages team members to nurture nature in their backyards or on porches and balconies.

While promoting and exploring nature at home is great, Kohi and the rare team are looking at how to stay engaged with individuals and companies post-COVID-19. “It’s just really hard to engage and know what exactly we’re going to need because we don’t know what state we’re going to be at,” Kohi said. 

Whether you need a break from the home office or are looking forward to getting your team together to volunteer when it’s safe, rare will be there.

forest trail

forest floor with fallen golden yellow leaves

closeup of fall leaves in the forest

sign at the beginning of frest trail reading Craig Campbell fern walk