Day -257 – Rocky Mountain National Park

rmnpA trip to Estes Park and Rocky Mountain National Park was on the agenda today – together with the Junior Ranger program.  Rocky Mountain National Park is located on the Continental Divide, the point in our country where the rivers split – they either travel east or west.  The Rocky Mountains in Colorado have some of the highest peaks, in fact, it is Never Summer all year on some of them.

As a Junior Ranger, the RMNP teaches you about the different ecosystems; the Montane at the lower elevations; the transition to the Sub-Alpine and the Alpine air.  Of course, this is because you are traveling up, up and up.  The Alpine Visitor’s Center is over 11,500 feet above sea-level.  For me, that is too much.

We saw lots of wildlife in the park, but my favorite part was visiting with the park ranger.  I love the experiences that they have and all they share with us.  It’s a great life experience.  Our park ranger has his Junior Ranger badge from 72 parks – personally, I’m jealous…I have a long way to go.

***Photo by Josh England at Rise Above Photo

Day -217 – National Parks, once again

IMAG0665New River Gorge National River is a National Park, who knew?  I found it by accident on my map as we looked for something to kill time with in West Virginia.  The bridge and the whitewater rafting is what attracts most to the area.

The bridge is impressive, built of steel in the late 1970’s, it is taller than the Eiffel Tower plus two Statues of Liberty.  Viewing it from the river side is particularly impressive.  The area played an important role in the industrial revolution, it hauled coal on the railways from the mines tunneled in to the mountain there.  People came from all over for the jobs that were available in the area.

The Park Service has taken ownership of 70,000 acres, but for once, they haven’t shrunk the value of the area.  I am not one to criticize the National Park Service, I love the properties they have preserved for the future.  What they have done differently with this one is to continue to allow use of the river for commercial purposes and there is even hunting on NPS land.  That makes great sense to me.

Josh and I got our Junior Ranger badges too, not sure how many that is now, but it sure is fun.  The last project in the JR handbook at New River Gorge was talking to a Park Ranger.  Ranger Billy was at the front desk of the Visitor Center, so he was our guinea pig today.  My first question…”what is the most asked question at this National Park?”  he smiled and said, “Where’s the bathroom?”  Apparently that is the most asked question at every National Park.  We had a great conversation, someday, maybe when I grow up, I will get to be a park ranger.

Day 46 – Speed Touring

mammothWe hit our third National Park this week – that’s like 15 in the last twelve months.  Mammoth Caves sits in the middle of Kentucky, a huge underground cave where over 400 miles of underground paths  have been mapped so far, more each year.  The cave itself is 54 degrees, it is large and ummm, how do I say this….boring.  There is no color, no cool draperies, no stalactites, no stalagmites, not much to see except a big hole in the ground.

We took the Historic Tour and learned a lot about the park and the caves, but with 120 people on the tour, it was like a speed walk through the place.  About two miles round trip and 440 steps, we descended to 350 feet below the cave surface.  We learned about the folks who have been touring the cave since before the war of 1812; the saltpeter mining that was done for the war effort to create gunpowder is still in evidence.  Years later, young Stephen Bishop, a slave, mapped as much of the cave as he could and gave tours to the upper class and scientists from around the world, this all happened before the Civil War.  The stories were fascinating, but the cave itself is stark.  Nothing like you would find at Carlsbad Caverns.  It just simply didn’t share the same beauty.  My understanding is that there are some other areas of the cave where there is more water and many cave elements exist, but not so much as you find elsewhere.

Of course, we had a blast, like we always do…I earned enough bat points to get my Junior Ranger and we laughed and laughed.  Our tour was interesting too, mostly because of the people on it.  There was one lady who left as soon as we got inside the cave, she had a panic attack.  After we got through “Fat Man’s Misery”, a narrow, twisty spot that we had to duck through, another lady left, she had a claustrophobia attack, and yet another one left when we got to “The Tower”, an eight story staircase that brought on the vertigo if you weren’t careful.  The extra ranger on the tour covered a lot of miles leading these folks out of the cave, it was kind of fun to watch.  Not that I take joy in other people’s misery, but sometimes, you know, especially when you are running through the caves on a speed tour.

 

Day 49 – The War is Won

donelsonNot the Civil War, that would take until 1865, but my battle to get my Junior Civil War Historian badge is finally complete.  We visited our third Civil War Battlefield today – technically, the sixth, but the third one with a Junior Ranger program.  My hats off to Susan, the ranger at the Fort Donelson Visitor Center, what a pleasure to talk to.  She even signed off on my Junior Ranger book and gave me my patches before I did the work.  She was worried that I wouldn’t be back in time since all the centers close now at 4:30.  So we picked up all my loot, and started our tour.

Fort Donelson is on the banks of the Cumberland, one of two rivers that parallel coming down from the Ohio, the Tennessee is the other.  Together they formed the Land Between the Rivers, what the Tennessee Valley Authority has now made the Land Between the Lakes, but that’s another story (we went there too).  In February, 1862, two smaller forts on the Tennessee were taken by the Union with the help of the Ironclads.  Boats specially designed for shallow water and then iron plated to try to protect them.  The first battles worked so well, they set their sights on Donelson on the Cumberland, steaming back to the Ohio, they took the southern route towards Dover, Tennessee.  The Confederates were better prepared, but the Union was able to secure Fort Donelson as well.

Ulysses S. Grant negotiated the surrender of 13,000 Confederate troops from General Buckner at a hotel called the Dover.  The Dover still stands today as part of the National Park.  This was the place U.S. Grant received the nickname “Unconditional Surrender” because that is what he demanded of the Confederates.  Fort Donelson was a major victory for the North, it gave them access to Nashville and the Confederate supply lines.  So often war comes down to how well you are provisioned.  It would take several more years for the war to come to an end, but the North was finally on their way.

Now I have to confess, I got my Junior Ranger badge and my Junior Civil War Historian, but I haven’t done the book yet.  I read it all while we were at the park, but I didn’t write a single thing down.  The guilt is bugging me, I’m going to have to go do the book now.  I hate getting something for nothing, it’s just now how I’m made.  I better get crackin’.

 

Day 101 – Lakeshores and Sand

dunes1Just a couple of weeks ago we went to the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve in Colorado, today we found ourselves on the shores of Lake Michigan, once again with sand dunes.  It is incredible to think of how Mother Nature forms herself.  In the west, the dunes are an anomaly, an area where the perfect conditions come together to create an object unexpected between two mountain ranges.  In the east, surrounded by so many bodies of water that make up the Great Lakes, it is totally expected.  The summer winds bring the sand in to shore, the winter storms erode the dunes, the ice holds them firm so that in the spring, the seeds can take hold and help to hold the dunes in place for upcoming generations.

I’ve always been a fan of Lake Michigan, my mother’s family is from a small town near the shores, Shelby, Michigan.  This is where I still have numerous aunts, uncles and cousins.  Whenever we were going “home”, as a kid, this is where we went.  My dad spent my first grade year in Vietnam, he moved us home first.  When we didn’t have housing at the start of the school year in sixth grade, we, again, went home.  Just one of those places that brings back some incredible memories.

I learned to swim at Stoney Lake, a little puddle of water where all by aunts had cabins.  Whenever we were going to the lake, they meant Stoney.  Every early summer morning, before the sun was really up, we donned swimsuits and met our instructors out by the dock.  I went back once as an adult, what seemed so huge to me as a six year old was tiny looked at with mature eyes.  One of the best parts about Stoney Lake was the channel that went to Lake Michigan.  Several times a season, our cousins would get together and float the channel.  We all gathered our tubes and floated through the small waterway that led to the big lake.  When we arrived, there was big water, waves and lots of sand to play in.  So much different than the little lake we were used to.

The dunes hold all kinds of secrets, from the tiny animals that have adapted to the history it has seen, spend time and explore your National Lakeshore…remember, this is one of America’s great treasures.

Day 154 – History Preserved

shilohShiloh, almost six square miles in Tennessee that once housed families and farms, a peach orchard, a couple of ponds, smiles and laughter, over 70 buildings of one sort or another..  One hundred and fifty years ago, the Blue and the Gray clashed in a bloody battle, over 111,000 men met in this small space; over 7,000 died, more than 30,000 others were wounded.  One of the first battles of the bloodiest war in the history of America in the War Between the States, took place in April 1862 at Shiloh.

It has become known as The Civil War, fought from 1861 to 1865, over 10,000 battles raged across the country – as far west as New Mexico, but concentrated in along the borders states between the Union and Confederate states.  There are many monuments to both throughout the country, this was our first all out tour of a military battlefield.  The Shiloh National Military Park is well put together, the museum holds artifacts from the time period, the movie is well worth every minute, but the battlefield is what will impress you most.

Each space is filled with markers that relate the troop movements, relate the battles won and lost, the sheer number of participants.  There is a nine mile loop that takes you through the various spaces to give you an idea of what it must have been like, but we were there with probably 100 other people, not 100,000.  I can’t even imagine the crush of people, all carrying weapons, the damages were staggering to both the North and the South.

This is definitely a place the Junior Ranger program came in handy, I learned so much more by answering the questions in the book than I would have had I just toured the grounds.  And, as an added bonus, because we are celebrating the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, I have an opportunity to earn my Junior Civil War Historian Badge, you can bet that I’m going to get that bad boy.

As a follow up to our tour of Shiloh, Brices Crossing and Tupelo, I read The Widow of the South, by Robert Hicks.  Set in Franklin, Tennessee toward the end of the war, it describes in incredible detail the lives of some of the combatants and the families living in the area.  Highly recommend, a very moving story based on a true one.  There are thousands of books on the Civil War, I used to ask my dad every time he was reading another one if the ending changed, he always just smiled and went back to reading.

Day 231 – Senior Ranger

rangerGuadalupe Mountain National Park.  The highest peak in Texas at 8,657 feet.  87,000 acres of hiking terrain, made famous by the first Nevada Barr, Anna Pigeon novel “The Track of the Cat”.  The first place we have ever found a Senior Ranger program to complement their Junior Ranger program.  I love National Parks.

Guadalupe Mountain is peaked by El Capitan, a pre-historic reef that juts out from the Chihuahuan Desert floor.  I always thought El Capitan was at Yosemite, but not true, it is very distinctive and forbidding here in west Texas too.  110 miles north east of El Paso along the 62/180 lies the reef known as the Guadalupe Mountains.  Few roads pass through this area, this is a true hiker’s park.

We stopped off at Frijole Ranch and Josh and I hiked the 2.3 miles (what seemed like all uphill) to the escarpment that housed Smith Springs, an oasis surrounded by broad leaf maples and firs.  A spring that bubbles up in to a small fifteen foot pond that is as crystal clear as you will ever find.  Six springs are found in a three mile square area within the National Park boundaries, an area that was fought for by many over the years since water is such a scarcity in this area.

A return stop at the Visitor’s Center to spend a little bit of time with Hector and Sarah, Josh was out of there with his third Junior Ranger badge and I had obtained my first Senior Ranger badge.  These are some of the best programs within the parks system, it’s all well and good to tour the parks and read the info, but if you really want to retain some information, do the programs.  It’s a chance to really learn about the place.  Not many of the parks have Senior Ranger programs, so I was happy to participate.  The book was a little tougher than the Junior Ranger book, but not that much, just a way to get to know the park a little better.  Try it, it’s fun.

 

Day 341 – Junior Rangers x2

Josh had so much fun yesterday I had to join him.  Zions National Park was today’s destination, the weather was beautiful all day.  Today was the last day of the shuttle running through the canyon so we hopped on the shuttle with our Junior Ranger books.  One for Josh and one for me.  The first stop after the Visitor’s Center was the Human History Museum, a good place for us to take stock of our JR requirements and watch the intro movie, there were no Ranger-led talks today.  Then we hopped the shuttle and drove through the majesty that is Zions.  It’s difficult to describe how high the ridges rise and tower above you in the narrow canyon carved by the Virgin River.  So many trails and stops available along the way.  The end of the shuttle is at Sinewava, where the canyon narrows, it is a great place to begin hiking and see the wonders that Zions offers.  I plan to do that on our next visit.

In addition to the cool canyon, there is a 1.1 mile long tunnel that was dug by the CCC back in the 30’s to allow travel to the other side of the Canyon.  The whole area is Navajo Sandstone, used to build many of the original buildings and rising hundreds of feet in the air.

As we neared the end of the day, we scrambled to complete our Junior Ranger badge requirements, our last stop was the Visitor’s Center that has been built eco-friendly.  We finished our last activity and went in to turn in our workbooks.  There had been sixteen different activities, our Ranger, Paul, reviewed our books and bestowed on us Zions Junior Ranger status, we were sworn in and given our patches.  As we were walking out, we realized that he had given us Desert Junior Ranger patches, not Zions ones, so we rushed back to the gift store and got the patches we earned.  Josh plans to put them on his fire suit someday.  I’m really proud of him, told him that when he gets 20 Junior Rangers, I’m going to get him a Super Junior Ranger badge.

For those of you that are thinking Junior Rangers is for kids, think again about how you visit a National Park.  It is far more interesting and educational when you have things to look for, challenges to meet.  It’s not just for kids, I’d recommend it for anyone.

In addition to the cool canyon, there is a 1.1 mile long tunnel that was dug by the CCC back in the 30’s to allow travel to the other side of the Canyon.  The whole area is Navajo Sandstone, used to build many of the original buildings and rising hundreds of feet in the air.

As we neared the end of the day, we scrambled to complete our Junior Ranger badge requirements, our last stop was the Visitor’s Center that has been built eco-friendly.  We finished our last activity and went in to turn in our workbooks.  There had been sixteen different activities, our Ranger, Paul, reviewed our books and bestowed on us Zions Junior Ranger status, we were sworn in and given our patches.  As we were walking out, we realized that he had given us Desert Junior Ranger patches, not Zions ones, so we rushed back to the gift store and got the patches we earned just as they closed up shop.  Josh plans to put them on his fire suit someday.  I’m really proud of him, told him that when he gets 20 Junior Rangers, I’m going to get him a Super Junior Ranger badge.

For those of you that are thinking Junior Rangers is for kids, think again about how you visit a National Park.  It is far more interesting and educational when you have things to look for, challenges to meet.  It’s not just for kids, I’d recommend it for anyone.  I’m counting this on my list of 50 new things to try.  I’m a Junior Ranger now.

Day 342 B – Junior Rangers to the rescue

Our afternoon found us at another National Park, this one was Bryce Canyon, a lesser know park than several around the area, but I think only because you have to travel a little farther to get there.  Bryce is beautiful.

 

Bryce Canyon

Last winter we visited Saguaro National Park, and on a whim, we asked for the Junior Ranger handbook for Josh to do while we went through the park.  He worked on it, we all learned a lot and messed around some.  When he turned in his book, the Ranger at the Park denied him his badge.  It was heartbreaking.  What had started out as just some fun, took a nasty turn.  It wasn’t just Josh that was denied his badge, a little 5 year old was also scolded, it just took the joy out of hanging at the park.  Since then we have visited several other parks, but it wasn’t until today that Josh wanted to try the Junior Ranger program again.

Now for those of you that don’t know him, Josh is awesome, he is 25, a big kid, he works for us in the rock crawling/racing business.  I love Josh, he has a big heart, he is strong and talented and can make anyone laugh.  Academics was never his thing, but he’s as smart as they come and can do anything.  A great photographer and an even better friend to all that know him well.  Our team doesn’t thrive without him.  Josh is not related to us by blood, but we tell people that I have three kids, Rich has two and together we have Josh.  Anyone would be proud to have his as a son, so we claim him when he is with us.

Back to Junior Rangers, Josh asked at the front desk for the Junior Ranger handbook, the Ranger there gave him specific instructions on what needed to be done to complete the program.  Attend a Ranger led talk, pick up 20 pieces of trash in the park and complete six of the activities in the book.

I helped him figure out which six activities in the book, this is the Academic part that he struggles with, but he was so intent on succeeding that he worked really hard on this part.  In fact, he was so focused on getting that part done and right that he forgot his camera when we were headed to meet up for the Ranger led talk.  At 5:22 p.m. all the requirements were finished, we headed back to the VisitorCenter to turn in his book.  Josh was really nervous, he was afraid he would be denied again.  I have never seen anyone so happy as when the Ranger asked him if he wanted to be sworn in as a Junior Ranger.  He was all about that, we even got him the hat!  Josh, we are proud of you, you worked hard and did your best and it paid off.  This is something no one can ever take away from you.

Proud moment!

Swearing in ceremony

 

The Junior Ranger program is an educational part of the National Parks system, it is designed to teach kids, no matter their age, how to care for and preserve natural resources.  It teaches about the local history and threats to the resources and presents a proud heritage to follow.  We learned today that you are never too old to be a Junior Ranger, I think I might try it next.