Just Another Muddy Monday

We were foraging for sticks – good ones that were both sturdy and sized correctly.

“How’s this one? And look at the pine needles I found for the brush part!”

I couldn’t help but smile, relishing the contentment I felt at spending time outside with a league of children. Our current project: creating paintbrushes using natural items we uncovered in a nearby wooded area. My young charges were very intentional in their scavenge, and eagerly helped each other construct their art tools.

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Paintbrushes my students created using natural objects

The best part? This was just another Muddy Monday at my new place of employment: Lorien Wood School.

During the latter part of my 47 Parks trip, I began the onerous task of finding a new job. I vacillated between curriculum writing careers, outdoor education positions, and returning to elementary education. I was ecstatic when I stumbled upon an opening at an occupation that combined all three.

Lorien Wood is a private school located in Northern Virginia. The curriculum is integral, arranged in thematic units that incorporate multiple subjects, among which is outdoor studies. After spending so much time outside during my travels, I was pleased to be offered a position at a school that encourages joyful discovery of natural spaces and wild places.

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Autumn mural using our handmade nature brushes

Every Monday is a designated Muddy Monday. Small groups of students rotate through various stations designed to promote a spirit of discovery as children interact with the outdoors. As the designated STEAM* director, I get to design engineering and art projects for the students to undertake. I am looking forward to building forts, making miniature rafts, and exploring solar energy over the course of the year.

I look back over my national parks tour fondly, but relish in my new job that combines my passion for nature with my love of all things teaching/learning.

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Students design and construct representations of the 4 seasons.

Rain, snow, or sleet, I treasure the opportunity I have to share this passion with my students.

Mondays just couldn’t get any better.

 

* STEAM = Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Math

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And the Award Goes To… (Part II)

Every park that I’ve been to is special in it’s own way. The diversity found within the natural areas of our country is truly astounding.

That being said, some parks piqued my interest a little more than others.

Introducing my favorites…

(1) Best Hiking: Redwood Forest

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Tall trees, lush greenery, coastal views peeking through the trees… can’t get much better than this.

(2) Best Desert Park: Joshua Tree

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Everything about this place captivated me. The rocks were unique, the sky was gorgeous, and the wildflowers were in full bloom.

(3) Best Lil’ Town: Bar Harbor (outside of Acadia National Park)

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An overlook in Acadia with Bar Harbor nestled neatly off in the distance. This town boasted excellent lobster, fun shops, and an overall non-touristy feel.

(4) Best Exploration: Channel Islands

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This piece of paradise was chock-full of fun places to discover. There were rocky coasts, sea caves, and historical ranches.

(5) Best Views: Glacier

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Those mountains. That sky. *sigh*

(6) Most Isolated: Isle Royale

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In the middle of Lake Superior. I commuted 3-hours via ferry to experience this wonderful wilderness.

(7) Best Waterfalls: Yosemite

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One of the many waterfalls in the Valley. The heavy winter snow resulted in a tremendous amount of falling water.

(8) Best Forests: Sequoia

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I enjoyed walking through forests full of these giants. The crisp spring air and snow-clad floor made the atmosphere peaceful and fresh.

(9) Best Pure Fun: Lassen Volcanic

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Snowshoeing and looking at geothermals was a grand ol’ time.

(10) Best Overall: Olympic

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Beaches, forests, mountains, and more!

Making Lemonade, Small Planes, and Iron Ladders

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Silly selfie

When life hands you lemons, make lemonade.

Or in my case: When life throws a deer in front of your car, fly to Acadia National Park.

It just didn’t make sense to hang out in Wisconsin for a week while I waited for my car to get fixed. Hotels were pretty pricey, and I knew that I would be going stir-crazy lingering in a city.

I crunched some numbers. When I calculated the cost of gas, lodging during the drive, and tolls, taking a last-minute flight to Maine didn’t seem like such a bad decision.

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A small plane

So I spent a glorious 2 days on Mt. Desert Island, the largest and most popular part of Acadia.

I drove my sweet rental car, a Jeep Cherokee, along the coast, marveling at the rugged rock meeting the Atlantic Ocean. I laced up my hiking boots and explored the mountains and unique ecosystems, the sound of the crashing sea in the distance.

On one occasion, I decided to do a quick 0.4 mile hike to a lookout point. I soon realized that the majority of the hike was iron ladders, and that the “trail” was really more of a nontechnical rock climb.

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Up, up, and away…

It was fun.

Even though flying is a pain, I’m happy that my impromptu decision will save me hours in the car in the long run.

Now, my trip is officially back on track. One more park to go!

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Cavern Travel

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Entering the Lower Cave

Complete darkness. My eyes fought to find something to focus on; my ears something to target. Thankfully the lady next to me inhaled deeply, leaving me grateful for the brief respite from the disorienting sensory paralysis.

I sat in an alcove with twelve other strangers, united by our collective experience of this outright blackout. After a couple of minutes, our guide began to talk about the delicate balance of preserving the cave while at the same time allowing visitors access to this underground wonder.

Before arriving at Carlsbad Caverns, I expected it to be like the other three caves I had visited thus far on my trip. Of course there would be eye-catching stalactites and stalagmites, and perhaps a couple of other cave features that would draw my attention. I wasn’t prepared for the sheer magnitude of this subterranean space, nor was I ready to be captivated by the diversity of speleothems (a fancy word for cave decorations).

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This decoration is aptly named “Lion’s Tail”

The guided Lower Cave tour that I signed up for took me even further into a frontier that is just beginning to be understood. Though not as rigorous as my Wild Cave Tour in Mammoth Caves, I got my share of exercise descending/ascending ladders and traipsing across uneven ground.

In one underground pool, hundreds of feet below the surface, I witnessed a parasitic worm preparing to lay its eggs. The young larvae will use cave crickets as a host, eventually busting out of the gut like something from a sci-fi film. Gruesome? Yes, but fascinating all the same. You can watch a video here, but not before eating.

I also walking through history, witnessing the place where Amelia Earhart stood on her VIP tour years ago. I reveled in the fact that Carlsbad Caverns has been around for such a long time. I also said a silent prayer that humans will get their act together and work on preserving such marvelous masterpieces.

At the top, the bright sunlight made me squint and miss the soft light from my headlamp that highlighted cavern features. I’ll never be an underground dweller, but visiting every now and again is a pretty special treat.

Wild and Scenic

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Sky, rope, and rock – a recipe for happiness.

The thunderstorm the night before was disheartening. I was planning on kicking off part II of my journey with some epic climbing at a world class crag in Tennessee. I lay awake in bed picturing rain-soaked sandstone that would hinder upwards movement. Nevertheless, there was some promise of sunshine the following morning, so my brother and I loaded up our gear and headed on our merry way.

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The Dean siblings getting ready to hit the trailhead

Though not an official national park, the Obed is considered a national wild and scenic river, falling under the same jurisdiction as my beloved park services. After minutes of hiking along the upper ridge, I began to settle into a familiar rhythm. Outside air, river sounds, soggy leaves underfoot… Home.

The climbing was good, but the day was even better. Sitting on a rock, chatting with strangers, and munching on trail mix brought me into a relaxing sense of freedom. My brother did most of the hard work, leading routes while I belayed at the bottom, watching the birds of prey circle overhead.

And then I thought, “This is only day 2 of part II – there is much more to come. This world is so big and longs to be explored.”

I let out a sigh of contentment before I scarfed down a Clif bar.

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Spending time with this adorable lil’ girl (my niece) was the perfect way to end the day.

And the Award Goes To…

Many people have asked me what my favorite park is. Answering that question is difficult; I’ve felt connected to most of the national parks I’ve visited and struggle choosing simply one that takes the cake.

Ask any parent who their preferred child is and (hopefully), they’ll respond “all of them”. After all, each child has his/her own merits and unique attributes. While there have definitely been some parks I haven’t enjoyed as well as others, I have decided to give awards to some of my most-liked places.

(1) Best Hiking: Smokies

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This park has an infinite number of hiking opportunities, including the famous Appalachian Trail. There are summit hikes, waterfall loops, and simple walks in the woods.

(2) Best Exploration: Badlands

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Most parks have a very strict code regarding staying on the designated trails. The Badlands let’s you go anywhere, meaning you can explore to your heart’s content.

(3) Best History: Mesa Verde

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This is a “full-immersion” historical park where visitors get to check out ancient dwellings. You can still find broken pieces of pottery left behind over 800 years ago.

(4) Best “Pure Fun”: Great Sand Dunes

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Sand boarding was insanely fun. Even full-grown adults prance around like little kids out here on The Dunes.

(5) Best Canyon: Black Canyon of the Gunnison

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Though not as big as the Grand Canyon, Black Canyon holds its own with its sheer walls, gorgeous river, and dark-colored rock.

(6) Most Isolated: Great Basin

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Not only is this park in the middle of nowhere, it has very few visitors and multiple opportunities to truly get away from it all.

(7) Best Lil Town: Estes Park (outside of Rocky Mountain)

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This pic was taken right outside of Estes Park. This town boasts some pretty awesome eateries, eclectic shops, and amazing views.

(8) Best Desert Park: Zion

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Although not all of Zion is within a desert ecosystem, a large portion of this park is an arid environment.

(9) Best Wildlife Park: Yellowstone

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A handsome-looking bison at the side of the road. Yellowstone has a ridiculous amount of wildlife, housed at various places around the 2.2 million acre park.

(10) Best Overall: Grand Tetons

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This park has it all: mountains, lakes, and forests. There’s enough beauty, adventure, and history to make every visitor happy.

One Big Canyon

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“I hope you’re not scared of heights, cuz I’m going to assign you one of our tallest mules.”

“That’s fine. Will I be riding that one over there?”

“No, yours is in a separate corral. She needs to be isolated from the other mules.”

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Me on Cher, the “troublesome” mule

And that’s how my mule riding adventure at the Grand Canyon began (not the most comforting thought to be told you’ll be placing your life in the hands of an ornery animal who has social issues). Yet mule riding and the Grand Canyon go together like peanut butter and jelly, milk and cookies, and other food-related famous duos. How could I not ride on the back of one of these stubborn, sure-footed creatures overlooking one of the most famous canyons in the world?

My ride was fabulous. Cher ended up being a little bit of a handful, but didn’t launch me off the edge, so I was happy. Each turn along the trail brought another view of the canyon’s sheer expansiveness.

The Grand Canyon sure is big!