NPS Senior Project Internship

Joel Kavaras, a senior from Independence High School in Cleveland, Ohio, is spending the last two weeks of his high school career job shadowing park rangers at Lake Mead National Recreation Area.

From May 11 to 19, he will get a behind-the-scenes look at the national park unit as he learns about the park’s education, outreach and interpretation operations. As part of the senior project internship, Kavaras will share his discoveries and experiences through this blog and on social media using hashtag #NPSProject.

In Ohio, Kavaras is a seasonal naturalist at Cleveland Metroparks. He provides customer service in the nature center and prepares and presents interpretive programs and exhibits related to the natural and cultural history of Northeast Ohio.

Joel's Blog


Day 8: Water Quality and Saying Goodbye

By Joel Kavaras | May 18, 2015

I left early in the morning again today to return to Lake Mohave on the southern end of the park. I saw the area from a different perspective, however, because I was working more on the research side of the park service, shadowing a biologist who monitors water quality and invasive species on both Mead and Mohave. We spent the morning boating across Lake Mohave between three locations where water quality samples are taken. At each location, we collected a water sample, took wind speed and temperature (both water and air) measurements, measured water clarity, and used a fluorimeter check the concentrations of both green algae and blue-green algae (cyanobacteria).

Leaving out of Cottonwood Cove, we made our first stop at Six Mile Cove to the south. The boat was much faster than any I've been on before (top speed of 35-40 mph), and speeding across the glassy blue water of Lake Mohave was an experience in and of itself. After Six Mile, we sped south for roughly 30 minutes to get to Telephone Cove, which I visited yesterday from shore.

A cloud rises over Spirit Mountain, which is visible from Telephone Cove

After collecting the data, we turned around and headed north for about an hour to reach our final test location, which is actually north of the docks at Cottonwood where we started. On the way, we could see a thunderstorm rolling in far (almost 100 miles) to the north, which ended up hitting Henderson and Boulder City. The weather on Mohave was great though. Windy, but still warm and sunny. It was the right day get out of Boulder City! Here's the view I had of that storm from the boat:

Dark clouds building in the distance

When we arrived at our final test location, which is near a popular swimming and cliff jumping area (don't cliff jump by the way, it's extremely dangerous and a lot of people die because of it), we collected the samples and data, reported some graffiti on opposite shore, and then returned to Cottonwood Cove to dock the boat.

Using the fluorimeter to measure the concentration of algae and cyanobacteria in the water.

Our readings indicated that there is not a dangerous concentration of algae in any of the three locations, so swimmers should be safe this week. If the concentrations were too high, however, we would have notified the park to put out warnings advising visitors to stay out of the water. Why is algae so dangerous? Well, when the algae dies, it produces a toxin that, if swallowed, will make humans sick, but dogs even sicker. If there is an algal bloom, your dog could die from swimming and ingesting too much water. So check the warnings before going in the water.

After returning to Boulder City, I met with Amanda Rowland and Nancy Bernard, the two people who helped plan this project and make it possible, to officially close out my volunteering/internship experience here at Lake Mead. I said goodbye to a lot of the people who have helped me out this past week, which, like any goodbye, is always a little bit sad.

I'd like to close out this blog and this experience in general by thanking everyone at Lake Mead NRA and elsewhere who gave their time and effort to help make this project the most enriching, valuable and enjoyable experience of my high school career. I learned a lot, and maybe I'll be back someday. I'll end with a quote that captures why park lands are so important;it's from John Muir, one of my favorite conservationists:

"Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and cheer and give strength to body and soul alike."

– Joel


Day 7: Katherine Landing

By Joel Kavaras | May 17, 2015

It takes about an hour and a half to drive from Boulder City to Katherine Landing, which is near the cities of Laughlin and Bullhead City (on the Nevada and Arizona sides of the Colorado River respectively), so we left at 6 a.m. to get there in time to set up for the 8 a.m. program. Upon arriving, we met with law enforcement to discuss the plan for the program. While they handled the boat inspections on the launch ramp, interpretive staff set up tables nearby with information about water safety, targeted mostly at kids. We gave away water safety-themed coloring books, T-shirts and stickers to educate kids on the importance of wearing a life jacket. At another table, the Quagga Mussel Outreach staff spread awareness of the eponymous invasive species, which has spread to waterways across the Southwest due to boaters not cleaning the mussels off their boats when leaving an infected body of water.

The water safety outreach booth had plenty of information and free giveaways

I spent the majority of the four-hour program at the water safety table, but I stopped by the law enforcement and quagga stations, as well, to get a feel for how the different departments of the park interact with the public. I also went on a quick tour of the Arizona side of Lake Mohave in the area just north of Katherine Landing, where I saw some of the more popular beaches in the park. The coves of Lake Mohave are beautiful, and the water gets warm enough for swimming in the summer months. The surrounding scenery is beautiful, too, and rich in cultural history. Views of Spirit Mountain and the rock formation known as "Sleeping Princess" add to the tranquility of the desert scenery and the calm waters of these coves. This part of the park feels totally different from the Lake Mead area to the north;it's calmer, more remote and sees higher temperatures (around 10◦ F warmer than at Lake Mead). Its relative seclusion from cities and populated areas is more appealing to me than the crowded Boulder Beach area of Lake Mead, and if I lived in the Vegas area, this would be a great day trip to get away from the city. It's far from Vegas but not so far that you'd have to take an entire weekend to visit.

I'll see Mohave from a different angle tomorrow, when I'll go out on the water with a park biologist to learn about the water quality tests that monitor algae levels to protect swimmers from potentially toxic algal blooms.

– Joel


Day 6: Visitor Center and Night Hike

By Joel Kavaras | May 16, 2015

With the volunteer trash-cleanup program canceled again (today it was the high winds at the Lake), I spent the day working the front desk at the Visitor Center. After a week here, I'm now equipped to answer a decent portion of the questions that visitors have (many tourists just want to know how to get to Hoover Dam), but I had a lot to learn along the way. If I ever want to camp in the park, need to find Hoover Dam or want to take the scenic route to Valley of Fire State Park, I'll be prepared.

I work at a similar "visitor" center (Brecksville Nature Center) back in Cleveland, and it was interesting for me to note the differences between the two. The biggest difference in the visitors themselves is the frequency of international travelers that come through Lake Mead vs. Brecksville. Understandably, more international tourists have heard of Hoover Dam than Chippewa Creek (the Cuyahoga River tributary that runs through Brecksville Reservation where I work), and this creates challenges different from those back home. For example, the language barrier is sometimes an issue that pops up at least a few times every day at the Lake Mead Visitor Center. Many tourists from abroad are also less familiar with the U.S. highway system, so when giving directions the staffers at Lake Mead have to keep that in mind. The other major difference lies in the West itself, specifically that it is enormous. Giving people directions to places hundreds of miles away (Grand Canyon, Yosemite, Zion) is common here, whereas back home we usually just direct people around Greater Cleveland. It's almost easier out here though, because the western U.S. is mainly traversable via the interstate highway system, which, for me anyway, is easy to navigate and direct people around compared to the mess of city streets and country roads in and around Cleveland.

After closing up at the Visitor Center, I took a short break and then headed back out to attend a night hike on the Historic Railroad Trail led by Aaron Leifheit, an Education Program Director for the Outside Las Vegas Foundation. Outside Las Vegas partners with Lake Mead NRA and other parks in Southern Nevada to lead programs that get people out exploring the public lands around the Vegas area (check out their site, it's a great organization à Aaron knows a lot about constellations and the stories behind the night sky, but what really makes him a great guide is his passion for outdoor education. He's approachable and happy to answer questions, and he's a talented storyteller, drawing in everyone's attention and making the subject matter interesting to the audience (on this hike that included a wide age range –from children to retirees).

The hike was from 7 to 9:15 p.m., so we were out on the trail when the sun set, lending to some beautiful views early on. The dusk hours are also the prime feeding time for bats, which conveniently inhabit the railroad tunnels along the trail, making it easy to spot these agile creatures during the hike. Once the sun sets and the last light fades, the hike is just getting started. The stars and planets begin to light up the sky, and slowly form into various constellations. The lights of Vegas, Boulder City and the Marina on Lake Mead also come to life, preventing the full extent of the natural night sky from presenting itself. Still, you'll see a lot more when you tilt your head back on this hike than if you tried in Vegas, or any other city for that matter. I couldn't get a picture of the night sky because smart phone cameras are not designed for extreme low-light, but here is one that I took just before dark:

Sunset view from the Historic Railroad Trail, just after 7:30 p.m.

– Joel


Day 5: Bighorn Sheep!

By Joel Kavaras | May 15, 2015

Originally scheduled to attend a volunteer trash cleanup program on Lake Mead, I ended up working at the Visitor Center instead due to the volunteer program's cancelation (there was a possibility of thunderstorms). I helped Interp staff with a school group program at Boulder Beach in the morning and then went to Hemenway Park in the afternoon, where I got to see an entire herd of Bighorn Sheep up close!

The morning program was a short, interactive talk about water conservation –an issue facing the entire Southwest with Lake Mead at the epicenter. We had a group of about 70 fourth graders from the area to work with, who were well-behaved and genuinely interested in the activity. After splitting the kids into small groups, we gave each group six Post-it notes to "spend" anywhere on a list of about 20 items and activities that use water, e.g. a hamburger, watering your lawn, brushing your teeth, a loaf of bread, charging your phone –the list goes on (pretty much everything in our society is water-dependent). They had to choose which water-dependent facets of life were most important to them because they had a limited supply of water to use (represented by the Post-it notes) –something to think about for an uncertain future in the Southwest, where a 15-year drought is drying up Southern California, Nevada and Arizona. Lake Mead is a great place to discuss water-related issues too, as you can see by this photo I took at Boulder Beach, where the kids ate lunch:

The white line on the rocks in the background is a visual reminder that Lake Mead is 140-feet lower today than it was at its high-water mark in the 1980s

Later in the day, staff took me to Hemenway Park (which I failed to locate on my own yesterday), where a herd of Bighorn Sheep were grazing on the grassy field adjacent to the park's basketball court. If you want the best chance of seeing these sheep, stop by Hemenway, because I haven't seen them in the other areas I've visited (they are there, just difficult to spot and spread over large expanses of desert). The city park seems to attract them though, probably because it has a lot of grass and sprinklers.

The horns are a good way to tell the age of a sheep: the larger the horns, the older the sheep

That concludes my adventures for the day;tomorrow, I'll work the Visitor Center in the morning (and possibly check out Hoover Dam, if there's time), and then help with a night hike around the Historic Railroad Trail, where we'll look at the stars and constellations that are visible out here away from city light pollution.



Day 4: In and Around Boulder City

By Joel Kavaras | May 14, 2015

I was on my own today and had a chance to explore the Boulder City area and some of the trails accessible near the city. I began by walking around the historic district of Boulder City, which is filled with shops, artwork, restaurants and historic buildings. One of those buildings is the Boulder Dam Hotel, which, aside from doing what its name suggests, also houses a museum, restaurant and local art gallery. Later in the day, I took a roughly 10-mile hike on the River Mountains Loop Trail, which is accessible just outside Boulder City (I walked to the trailhead from my hotel in downtown BC).

If you're ever staying in town or just passing through on your way to Hoover Dam, the Boulder Dam Hotel's onsite museum is a must-see for anyone who wants background information about the Dam's construction and history. And with a $2 entrance fee, you really can't go wrong. I began my tour of the museum in the auditorium where an old (1950s-era) video documentary about the Dam's construction plays every half hour (the video is around 20 minutes in length). Aside from being informative about the Dam, the video itself is a piece of history, with its old-style narration and format that harkens back to a time when people celebrated "conquering" the Colorado River with little regard for the possible ecological consequences. After the video, I toured the interactive exhibits, which brought the history of Hoover Dam to life and (literally) put me in the workers' shoes (they let you try on a pair of the puddler boots used by workers). The exhibits were interesting and informative, allowing me to get a glimpse into the depression-era, frontier lifestyle of Boulder City during the Dam's construction. If you're in town, check it out before or after visiting Hoover Dam –it will make the experience more meaningful than simply looking at the concrete wall and snapping a few photos.

In the afternoon, I decided to take advantage of the cooler temperatures (high 70s) and go for a hike. Originally looking to visit Hemenway Park –a small city park known for attracting Big Horn Sheep –I ended up passing it by accident and stumbling upon the Pacifica trailhead of the River Mountains Loop Trail, a 30+ mile loop through the River Mountains north of Boulder City. The trail took me out of the populated areas and into the desert, and, enjoying the solitude and harsh beauty of the desert backdrop, I decided to continue hiking it instead of looking for Hemenway Park. The area that River Mountains Loop Trail cuts through has the perfect habitat for Gila Monsters –lots of washes, large burrows, low scrubs –so with that in mind, I kept an eye out for tracks and scat. I found some old scat that could have belonged to the Gila, but it could have also been the work of a tortoise. Too old and dried for me to be sure. (Though given the rarity of finding Gila Monsters in the area, I can safely assume it was from a tortoise…) Either way, it was a good adventure searching for the elusive creature, and along the way I managed to photograph a few of its relatives:

A Zebra-tailed Lizard

A Desert Iguana

Overall, it was a great hike that allowed me to step out of the suburban environment and into the Mojave, and it was only a couple of miles outside the center of town and only a mile or so from Boulder Beach. The other advantage to this hike is that you can set your own distance. Whether you want to go 4 miles out and 4 miles back or a half mile out and back is up to you and what you’re comfortable with. Just bring a lot of water. It is very dry and windy, and dehydration can set in rather quickly. I’ll leave you with a ~270◦ panoramic shot of the trail taken about 1.5 miles east of the Pacifica trailhead:



Day 3: River Adventure

By Joel Kavaras | May 13, 2015

As I mentioned in yesterday's post, today involved a rafting tour down the Colorado River followed by a tour of Willow Beach National Fish Hatchery –a facility operation by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The raft tour is operated by Black Canyon/Willow Beach River Adventures, a company that is authorized to work on park lands to provide these tours and runs through the Black Canyon (starting just below Hoover Dam and ending at Willow Beach). Both the rafting tour and the fish hatchery tour were great experiences, and, as promised, came with a lot of great photographs along the way.

The Black Canyon adventure is a roughly three-hour trip down the Colorado River on a large raft that holds up to 60 people (probably not what comes to mind when you think of the word "raft"). The boat is comfortable and the ride is very smooth, though if you sit near the front on a windy day you'll get splashed a bit (in the summer months this is a welcome relief from the heat). Our tour guide/boat operator was very knowledgeable, answering any questions we had and providing detailed background information on the sites we passed along the river. I could describe these sites and how cool they were, but the photos do a better job of capturing the beauty and history of Black Canyon:

The view of Hoover Dam from the beginning of the river tour. This area is restricted to other boaters because of its proximity to the Dam, so going on the tour is the best way to get these shots.

Heading down the river, you can see where "Black Canyon" gets its name. Our guide explained that the black tint on the canyon walls is from a thin coating of volcanic dust.

Hot springs emptying into the river are a common sight. Note the dark green ferns growing along the shaded part of the canyon wall.

A little oasis on the side of the canyon where even larger plants (the palm trees) are able to grow. Unfortunately, Tamarisk – an invasive species that is difficult to eradicate – also thrives here.

Another view of Black Canyon as we continued down the river.

Weeping Springs Cove, where another hot spring empties into the Colorado and carves its way through the canyon walls.

This precarious walkway was part of the daily commute to work for “The Gauger”, who was tasked with checking the water level of the river on a daily basis at a remote gauging station. The catwalk here has been abandoned for half a century, but is now on the Registry of Historic Places.

As if the catwalk wasn’t terrifying enough, here is one of the cable cars that The Gauger had to use to cross some of the slot canyons where building a trail would have been impossible (it would just get washed away).

A view off the front of our raft as the tour neared its end at Willow Beach.

After disembarking at Willow Beach, we drove over to the nearby fish hatchery, which keeps populations of native fish species alive (in the wild they are out-competed and wiped out by introduced game fish). Our guide was a longtime member of the FWS (Fish and Wildlife Service) with a lot of fascinating information about the hatchery and its importance. I learned that the Razorback Sucker – one of the fish native to this part of the Colorado – is now unable to complete its life cycle in the wild due to the introduction of large, predatory gamefish that eat all of the younger Suckers before they can reach maturity and mate. That’s where the hatchery comes in. Eggs are collected from the river and the fish are raised for 3-4 years until they are large enough to be released into the wild, where they will breed, lay eggs and continue the cycle. Without the efforts of the FWS, this species would go extinct, causing disastrous consequences for the river food web.

One of many tanks inside the hatchery filled with young Razorbacks.

These are heated to allow the fish to grow more quickly. These larger tanks make up the outdoor portion of the hatchery, where older Razorbacks finish growing before being released into the river.

The advanced facility and noble efforts of the FWS made a strong impression on me throughout our tour. Ultimately, it left me with a sad feeling: that all of this was necessary only because of human mistakes and recklessness, because we cared more about the sport fishing industry than about millions of years of evolution and the fragile ecology of the Colorado River. We do our best to control the damage we’ve caused, but we can’t really reverse it. The reality is that these fish would be extinct if left to carry out their life cycle in the wild, and that part is out of our control. Still, the Willow Beach Hatchery is doing all they can to keep an important native species from dying out, and the tour is a fascinating look into our relationship with the environment. This tour is open to the public, and the FWS staff were excellent and accommodating guides. If you’re in the area, be sure to take the tour. It only takes half an hour, and you’ll leave with a new understanding of local ecology and the impact humans have on the local environment. Just call ahead of time to let them know you’re coming. That concludes today’s adventures; if you want to learn more about the Black Canyon tour, check out, and if you’re interested in the fish hatchery, check out their FWS page at And finally, a big thanks to our wonderful tour guide from Black Canyon River Adventures and to the folks at the Willow Beach National Fish Hatchery!

– Joel


Day 2: Education and Operation

By Joel Kavaras | May 12, 2015

This morning I had the opportunity to attend a water safety education program operated by Lake Mead National Recreation Area staff, followed by an afternoon of learning about the day-to-day operation of the visitor center, including sitting in on a meeting concerning future programs.

The goal of the morning program was to educate local kids about basic water safety practices that can prevent drownings that, unfortunately, occur at Lake Mead several times a year. The importance of the program is clear to us, but the challenge is presenting it in such a way that it becomes important to elementary school students, too. Kids don’t consider or fully understand the dangers of swimming or boating without a life jacket, nor do they know how to properly wear life jackets. To tackle these issues in a way that won’t put a group of kindergarteners to sleep, park educators use some creative techniques – a life jacket fashion show, for example. This activity is simple: a few volunteers from the group of students put on life jackets in uniquely incorrect ways (such as wearing the vest backwards) and then the rest of the students have to identify why each would be an unsafe way to use a life jacket. It’s a great idea, working to both grab the kids’ attention and to demonstrate the correct vs. incorrect ways to wear a life jacket. Programs like this can prevent drownings and spread awareness of water safety, which benefits everyone who enjoys swimming, boating, fishing or any other activity on the lake.

The view of Lake Mead from a window at the Lake Mead Visitor Center

In the afternoon, I headed back to the visitor center to see some of the daily operations there and to sit in on a meeting where future programs are planned. This was a weekly meeting, but the amount of planning and new information that was discussed made it seem like a month’s worth of work. The scale of Lake Mead NRA’s management and operation became apparent, and I was impressed by the amount of work, care and planning that goes into providing programs and events to benefit the public across the 1.5 million-acre park. Managing such a large area of land is a totally different experience compared to a smaller park, especially in terms of logistics. It’s a huge area to travel across, whether by boat or car, and there are a lot of different things happening at various locations across the park – Hoover Dam, the Marina, Cottonwood Cove – the list goes on. It’s a lot to keep track of, but the staff here are hardworking and experienced in their fields. They have everything under control. Big park? No problem. Just more opportunities.

On that note, I’m going to conclude my summary of day two at Lake Mead. Tomorrow, I’ll head out on a raft down the Colorado River through Black Canyon and then visit a fish nursery at Willow Beach – both of which I’m very excited about. Expect photographs…

– Joel


Day 1: First Impressions

By Joel Kavaras | May 11, 2015

My first day at Lake Mead NRA left me with several 'first impressions,' which are, as it is said, of great importance in any meeting –in this case a meeting between me and a 1.5 million-acre chunk of the Mojave Desert plus a few of the people who work to conserve, study and interpret that chunk. Today's events consisted of meeting some of the staff members whom I will be working with over the next week, exploring the Alan Bible Visitor Center and surrounding area, and meeting with a museum specialist to look at the museum collection held by Lake Mead NRA.

I started out this morning by meeting some of the nice folks who are not only kind enough to put up with me for the next week, but also to offer various opportunities that will make this job shadowing experience richer and more meaningful for me as a student and as someone who may want to work for the National Park Service after college. So a big thank you to everyone who made this project possible!

After this brief meet-and-greet, I headed over to the Visitor Center, where I toured the inside of the building and then set out on a short hike up the Historic Railroad Trail, which follows an old railroad path that once saw endless train-loads of building supplies heading to Hoover Dam to feed its construction. I hiked roughly three miles (1.5 out and back), but even in that short distance there was plenty to see. Massive railroad tunnels, spectacular views of the lake, and the occasional side-blotched lizard scurrying across the path (which I failed to get a non-blurry photograph of). The trail really is historic, too, as you get a feel for the scale of the construction of the Hoover Dam through informative signposts along the path as well as from features of the path itself, such as the railroad tunnels and some of the cement "plugs" from the Dam's construction that were used as placeholders until the turbines could be installed. Overall, I found that the Visitor Center and surrounding area had a lot to offer, both ecologically and historically.

A railroad tunnel along the Historic Railroad Trail

Expanding on those two topics, I had a chance in the afternoon to visit the museum side of Lake Mead NRA, where Museum Specialist Erin Eichenberg showed me the collections of biological, geological, paleontological, and historical specimens and artifacts held and archived by Lake Mead NRA. It was a fascinating tour through the natural and cultural history of the area as we looked at drawers filled with everything from Native American pottery to late-1800s whiskey bottles to preserved insects. It was also apparent that preserving, maintaining and organizing such a large collection requires a lot of work and care. Archived records, both paper and digital, plus the artifacts and specimens themselves have to be organized, inventoried and properly cared for. I had never really considered that side of archeology before (you know, that it isn't just digging around looking for bones and arrowheads), but without keeping an organized, well-maintained collection for future reference, the "digging" part would be somewhat pointless, wouldn't it? In just a few hours, I gained a broader understanding of archaeology and museum work, plus I got to see a lot of cool artifacts and fossils preserved across time. It was a win-win.

Some of the preserved specimens kept in the museum collection

Well, that makes for a pretty thorough look at today's adventures, and I can safely say that Lake Mead NRA made a great first impression on me! I'm excited to continue exploring it tomorrow and the rest of the week!

– Joel

Last updated: May 27, 2015

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