FARMINGTON — Surprised and just plain grossed out, Darinka Bochanegra watched as her teacher bent over and picked up a piece of dried animal dropping.
"Ooh!" she said, backing up a step as sixth-grade teacher Machelle Dahl held her hand out to display the animal scat.
"It won't hurt you," she assured the circle of girls, "else I wouldn't have picked it up."
The teacher reminded the group of students from the Salt Lake Center for Science Education that the characteristics of the dropping are an indicator of the kind of animal that left it behind.
Braving a persistent wind and slate gray skies early Thursday, the Salt Lake students were among the first of 10 or so school groups to check out the newly opened trail at the Great Salt Lake Nature Center at Farmington Bay's Waterfowl Management Area.
The 1.3-mile loop began hosting groups just this month and is the result of a collaborative effort by the state Division of Wildlife Resources and Utah Wildlife in Need (UWIN), a nonprofit foundation tasked with helping Utah's native wildlife.
"It's a win/win for everybody," said the nature center's executive director, Justina Parsons-Bernstein. "It protects the habitat and gives people access at the same time."
Each year, about 4,000 school kids trek to the nature center, and another 20,000 visitors are noted annually.
The trail, featuring boardwalks and observation decks, will help make the experience more family-friendly and educational as visitors cross streams and wetlands and get up close to big ponds.
Envisioned for two years but never a reality, the trail got a kick-start when Parsons-Bernstein went after and won a $10,000 conservation grant from the American Birding Association.
UWIN then stepped in and secured a $160,000 grant from the state parks and trails commission — which was matched with in-kind donations of material and labor.
"It really fits within our mission to educate all about the Great Salt Lake ecosystem," said UWIN communications director J.D. Davis. "These children who visit are the next ambassadors, the next caretakers of that ecosystem. We're able to get them out into the marsh where they can get their hands dirty and give them educational experiences in a natural classroom."
Davis County, Farmington city, Boy Scout troops and local construction companies pitched in to help create a trail for everyone of all abilities to enjoy the wild nature of wetlands.
Hunkered down in her pink hoodie, Malise Jenson, 12, was pointing at a hole in the ground Thursday — most likely a den for a mink or fox.
The aspiring veterinarian later gestured toward some birds sailing and then diving over the marshes.
"Whoa. It's like they are doing a circus act just for us," she told her teacher.
The young girl, pausing every few steps to look through her binoculars, was enchanted by the wetlands.
"It's amazing. I like everything about it — the plants, the water, the birds. I like how peaceful it is."