In June, the National Park Teen Ambassadors program kicked off, sending a total of eighteen high school students from International Falls and the Twin Cities on their first trip – VNPA’s wilderness leadership experience that brought together two NPS Rangers and four Wilderness Inquiry trip leaders. I was so thrilled to finally put faces to the voices of ambassadors I had been calling to distribute information for the trip.
From the very first evening, the ambassadors came together and mingled with each other so rapidly that you’d have thought they were all cousins of some incredibly diverse family. On the first evening, the group learned some basic camping skills like how to pitch a tent, how to clean dishes in the wilderness, how to make a campfire, and, of course, how to make s’mores. During the next two days, thanks to Wilderness Inquiry trip leaders, the ambassadors worked on their communication and leadership skills as they played games, canoed, traded scary stories, and swam. A few of them even took up whittling! Two ambassadors had never been in a boat before, while another one, who had earlier been very nervous about canoeing, in retrospect found it was her favorite activity. It was a joy to watch ambassadors who were familiar with camping support and teach the ambassadors who were less acquainted.
Equally important as this bonding was that the ambassadors learned about stewardship and the importance of wildlife at the hands of National Park Service rangers Jon Novacek and David Wiggins. While hovering over a campfire, paddling on Cleary Lake, and looking at a fallen bald eagle’s nest, they discovered that even the small actions we take have potentially huge impacts on the environment. Ranger David also prepped them for their trip to Voyageurs by simulating a fur trade and teaching them the Voyageurs’ favorite paddling songs.
As for me, I was able to hear where most of these kids are coming from: their big families, career plans, and why exactly they were doing this program. I learned that if you give teenagers a concrete assignment and hold them to high expectations, they not only complete it but also take pride in their accomplishments. Over the next few weeks, they will be deciding how to advise Voyageurs on better appealing to teenagers through research and group meetings with me. Based on their unique backgrounds and hard work, I can’t wait to hear what they’ll find.
What the Teen Ambassadors had to say about their first trip:
“I think that National Parks are important because they preserve places in nature so that generations to come can still be in touch with their ancestors and the world’s history. They tell stories that otherwise would be bulldozed over or forgotten.”
“It means a lot when you realize the value of nature -even if it is jut a rock, I have learned that anything and/or everything is important.”
“I personally respect a lot all those amazing natural things around me. I am very thankful to be part of this team because from last night to this moment, I am thinking more about how I can help to keep this amazing forest clean…”
“Nature offers endless points of view that we’ll never get to see. National Parks are important because [they take] all things you never get to see and make them accessible, put them in one place”
What the staff had to say:
“The NPS rangers were amazing with the kids! They talked about why they are involved with the parks and what they do in them and where they work. …They brought up history, conservation, wilderness ethics and much more.” – Adam Schiff, Wilderness Inquiry Trip Leader
“I was blown away with [Wilderness Inquiry’s] immediate interaction with the kids. The staff we had did such an excellent job of relating to the kids and making the experience something they will never forget.” – Jon Novacek, National Park Service
“Jon didn’t underestimate [the ambassadors’] ability to think deeply about the value of parks and connections to nature, and he showed a real skill and helping them get to a good understanding of the core values and mission of the National Park Service.” – David Wiggins, National Park Service
Thank you to the National Park Foundation, Wilderness Inquiry, and VNPA members for supporting the National Park Teen Ambassador program.