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About a dozen people and few dogs strolled along the path in the warm, humid evening. Dan Cooper asked the other hikers if they wanted to see some wildflowers. He and his wife, Jennie Cooper, led them a few steps off the trail to a patch of short, white blossoms.

The group admired the plants and the couple discussed whether the blooms were locoweed or milkvetch. One walker snapped a photo of the flowers with his phone and spotted a large bumblebee hovering through the patch. 

The group continued along the trail May 9 at Edness Kimball Wilkins State Park, where the conversation often turned to plants and wildlife.

Dan and Jennie Cooper lead a hiking group on the first, third and fifth Wednesdays of the month, from April through September, through the local Izaak Walton League chapter.

“The Izaak Walton League is a conservation organization," Dan said. "And the first thing to do for conservation is to get people out enjoying the outdoors, so that they think it’s worth something." 

Anyone can participate, and most aren’t members of the Casper chapter of the Izaak Walton League of America, Jennie said. The goal is just to get people outdoors to appreciate nature.

The hikers often share what they know about an the area, Dan said. Conversations last Wednesday ranged from the natural features of the park to dog training to cigars. Dan and Jennie took turns holding the leash of their puppy, Gigi, while a few other dogs walked ahead and behind. 

Dan spotted a golden eagle in the distance. Someone asked how he could identify the bird. 

“Well, first off because it’s big, and second because it’s dark-colored and third because each species holds its wings at a slightly different angle,” Dan said.

Later the group watched ducks fly overhead. They talked about several birds they’d identified, or tried to, this season, like meadowlarks and yellow-headed blackbirds.

Lisa Sapio started hiking with the group for the exercise two years ago and has joined them for several hikes to various places on Casper Mountain. 

“I was looking for a way to get active. It was perfect,” Sapio said. “Wednesday nights get me out of the house after work for a little bit. It's turned out to be really fun.”

Margo Bell hikes with the group because it gives her motivation to get out and walk, she said. 

“We had some beautiful sunsets we saw last year,” she said. “It’s just nice to see different parts of Casper and the mountain and whatnot.”

Chris and Kathleen Bonatti strolled the path with wooden walking sticks. The long-time Izaak Walton League members joined the local chapter after they moved to town a few years ago. The hikes have helped them get to know the area and its wildlife and foliage better. 

“For me, every place I’ve been to has been a first time there -- except for the archery range, because I’m an archer,” Chris said.

Three years ago, the Coopers didn’t know of any hiking groups they could both join -- Jennie hikes with a women's group -- or any during evening hours. So they started the Wednesday hikes through the Izaak Walton League.

People participate for the company, exercise, to learn more about local outdoor destinations and for the safety of hiking in a group, Dan said. 

“This seems to serve a need,” he added. “It’s both social and an opportunity to get out more.”

Jennie pointed out a small, white flower called a sand lily toward the end of last Wednesday's hike. A few minutes later, she spotted a small moth on the road and moved it to safety. A few others gathered around to look at the patterns on its wings before it flew from her hand. 

Frogs croaked as the sky grew darker and a few drops fell from the sky. The group has had good luck with weather most of the time, but the organizers ask participants to RSVP for updates in case of changes because of the weather, Dan said.

A few hikers took shelter by the park’s ticket booth and perused a dry erase board where visitors write down birds they’ve spotted there

Someone pointed to a deer running across the field and sparked a debate over whether it was a whitetail or mule deer. 

The hikers always visit different places and experience a variety of terrain, plants and animals. The Coopers have led previous hikes along the Platte River, Yesness Pond and many spots on Casper Mountain, including to a cave near the archery range. Later this month they’ll trek to Window Rock arch on Casper Mountain.

“If you just come and bring your camera,” Dan said, “you might come on a really neat picture from time to time and build a collection over the summer.”

Follow reporter Elysia Conner on Twitter @erconner


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