Standing proud: the next generation of National Park visitors, supporters, and advocates!

Our centennial goal is to connect with and create the next generation of National Park visitors, supporters, and advocates. I got to do just that as youth from Maryville, Tennessee’s Boys & Girls Club joined us for a series of day camps this past week. Even though their town is a mere hour from Great Smoky Mountains National Park, most of the kids had never set foot in the Smokies before!

GRSM’s Resource Education (Interpretation) division hosts a different Boys & Girls Club each week for two months during the summer season. The experience runs from Monday through Thursday, 10:00 – 3:30, with each day having a different theme. The kids can attend all four days or pick and choose based on their schedules and interests. Attendance ranged from three to eight last week, plus a club leader.

The first day is dedicated to exploring nature in the park. Activities include going to Clingmans Dome, the highest point in the Smokies, to learn about high-elevation forests and hike on the Appalachian Trail. There is also a black bear program and a stream ecology program. Unfortunately, I was unable to participate at all due to a cold! I did hear that the kids came across a Red-cheeked Salamander, though! That species can only be found here!

Day two is all about cultural history. Ranger Jared, the NPS program leader for the week, and I met the group at Metcalf Bottoms Picnic Area. From there we hiked to the Walker Homestead where Jared told us about the daily lives of early settlers and entertained us with songs on his dulcimer (a stringed instrument originating from the Appalachian region). We then attended a volunteer-led program at Little Greenbrier Schoolhouse and learned how drastically different education was “back in the day.” Lunch was followed by an archaeology program and a test pit dig led by the park’s archaeology intern to search for artifacts. We actually found a flint shard!

The Walker Homestead


The focus of day three is enjoying our National Parks and promoting future park stewards. It’s also the last day the kids get to spend in the Smokies as day four is about exploring another NPS site -Cumberland Gap National Historical Park. As such, a mixed content of natural and cultural resources was broached. Jared and I were joined today by Ranger Misty, an Education Technician, who assisted with the activities. The morning was all about developing team building skills. The kids were presented with three tasks that could only be accomplished if they worked together.

I got to join in the fun for the first challenge. We divided into two teams and each team was given a rubber band with multiple strings attached to it. While only holding onto the tips of the strings, we had to use the rubber band to stack six cups into a pyramid. My team quickly learned that communication was key and emerged as the victors!

20160720_104402 (1)
Easy does it! Learning the importance of communication! 

Challenge number two proved to be most difficult for the group. A rope was suspended between two trees about three feet above the ground. Without touching the rope, and only reaching over it, they had to get everyone from one side to the other. Deciding who had to get over first and last, and how to accomplish it, was a conundrum that was only solved after several attempts and added help from Rangers Jared and Misty!

Flying high with a little Ranger help!

Armed with the knowledge gained during the previous task, the final challenge was slightly less frustrating. Once again, the team had to all start on one side of the rope. But now, the rope was turned into a web. Only one person could pass through each “window” in the web with the exception that two people could be passed over it. As each window was a different size and shape, thinking caps had to be engaged on high to determine who should take what route and how to get them through without touching the rope.

20160720_110951 (1)
Trying not to get caught in the web!

After lunch, we took a hike up Porters Creek Trail where we encountered an old cemetery and remnants of old homesteads. We learned about different trees and local legends along the way. As a special treat, we took a refreshing dip in the creek on our way back! Before the kids left for the day we had a discussion about who the park belongs to and who is responsible for its care. All of them! All of us!

While I had been to Cumberland Gap many times before, the last day with the Maryville Boys & Girls Club was a new and exciting adventure! After watching the park introductory film, we were taken on a Ranger-led tour of Gap Cave. For some, this was their first ever cave experience! And for me, it was my first time in this particular cave. What makes it so unique is that there’s no artificial lighting; the only light in the cave is provided by flashlights carried in. Spooky! Of course, we weren’t alone in there either! We got to see cave salamanders, crickets, and bats!

Cumberland Gap’s underground treasure!

After the tour came the culminating moment of the week – everyone being sworn in as Junior Rangers! Oh, how I covet those shiny gold plastic badges! I am truly thankful that I was able to join in on this experience. To me, this is what being a Centennial Volunteer Ambassador is all about!

Being sworn in as Junior Rangers of both Great Smoky Mountains and Cumberland Gap!