Last updated: August 19, 2016
Some gifts come in a box. Some come in a bag tied with colorful ribbon. Mine came in the form of a hike. I was 10 years old at the time, attending a week long outdoor education program with my fifth grade class. Every day found us hiking beneath towering redwoods, splashing through creeks hunting for salamanders, or watching the waves of the Pacific crash against the sandy shore. My knowledge from these experiences was far reaching. I learned to sit quietly in the woods and be perfectly content. I learned the joys of watching a coyote move through the brush, and seeing hawks soar high above you. I learned that one of the best feelings in the world is a hot shower after a long camping trip. Most importantly, I learned the truth in naturalist John Muir's statement: "going to the woods is going home."
Today, I am lucky to call some of the greatest wilderness on earth "home". As a park ranger, I get to live, work, and play in the beautiful Rocky Mountains. My inner 10 year old still can't believe that this isn't a dream. Visitors often approach me to comment on how lucky I am, and how I have the best job on earth. I couldn't agree more! However, when pressed what the best part of my job is, it isn't the fact that I get paid to hike that jumps to mind. Nor is it the fact that I get a national park as my backyard. No, what springs to mind are the many junior rangers who I get to meet along the way. Kids who, just like my 10 year old self so long ago, are finding out what is so special about being outdoors. I love hearing their stories of wildlife sightings, or how proud they are to have finished a hike. Getting to share this place, not only with people, but with the next generation of outdoor adventurers and wilderness stewards, is an honor that I don't take for granted. After all, I know first hand how a hike can change a life.
In a world of technology and fast paced life styles, it is crucial that today's children are introduced to the benefits of being outdoors. Not only can I speak from personal experience on the power of playing outside as a kid, but studies show that children who interact with nature before age 11 are more likely to have positive attitudes about them as adults. In an effort to get more kids outside, the National Park Service is using its upcoming birthday to focus on the next generation of park goers--kids!
This August, the National Park Service turns 100. Our centennial year has been filled with a plethora of programs to celebrate America's best idea, and the people who take care of it. However, if we want to celebrate our 200th birthday, we know that we will need others to care for these parks. To that end, our Centennial goal is to "connect with and create the next generation of park visitors, supporters, and advocates".
What does this look like here in Glacier? Formal programs geared directly towards students ranging in age from pre-school to high school! Glacier is bursting with kid-friendly activities! Not only does our park have many trails for you to explore with your family, but our park rangers are more than happy to start kids on their journey to becoming a junior ranger. We also have educational exhibits found on trails and in visitor centers. This summer, our Apgar Nature Center was improved with a variety of hands-on activities, all designed to teach kids about what makes Glacier unique. Don't tell anyone, but I can often be found there, building mountains in our sand box right alongside the junior rangers!
Our junior rangers have many program options that put them at the fore front. Children can join a ranger on an exploratory hike through the park, or hunt for macroinvertebrates alongside a ranger in our "Creatures in the Creek" program. Additionally, all of our talks, walks, and strolls are kid friendly. Older students can explore different park career opportunities by getting involved here at Glacier. We love having Scout groups come to visit, and are lucky to have partnerships with local outdoor education programs such as the Glacier Institute.
Although many people are excited to come back to Glacier in the fall--when the leaves are changing and the kids are back in school--visitors should expect to see a youthful presence here even then! Throughout the school year, our education rangers provide curriculum-based field trips to students in grades K-12. High school students are able to apply science skills from their classroom with in-field experience, and elementary students engage in hikes and hands-on activities that tie into state standards. Having children visit the park is as helpful to us as it is to them: last fall, middle and high school students helped us remove invasive plants!
As enriching as these field trips are to curriculum, there is a side of them that is hard to quantify. I've been privileged to be a part of our education staff, sharing the splendors of fall with students as we hike the Oxbow Trail. One group of local first grade students stands out in my mind. We took our time moving down the trail, enjoying the magic of fall leaves. Through their eyes, each small hole in the ground became the potential home for everything from a squirrel to a bear. Each impression in the muddy ground was an exciting animal print, and every shadow we saw was 100% an animal. It may have been a two mile trail that I hiked almost daily, but with the fresh perspective of a six year old, I saw it differently. As I glanced down the long line of students tromping through the woods behind me, I couldn't help but smile. They looked right at home here.