National Park Teen Ambassadors complete their successful first trip

After three fun-filled and learning-packed days of paddling and camping, the Voyageurs National Park Teen Ambassadors have returned from the first trip of their program. The program, conducted in partnership with Wilderness Inquiry and the National Park Service, aims to bring together teenagers from the Twin Cities and Northern Minnesota on outdoor trips to build a connection between the teens and the environment and to gather advice from the teens on how national parks can better connect to young visitors.

The teens travelled with Wilderness Inquiry staff and a Voyageurs National Park Ranger to the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area (MNRRA) near St. Paul on June 11. Upon their arrival, the teens set up camp and met with Mary Blitzer, a MNRRA Park Ranger who led the teens on a paddling trip to Coldwater Spring. At Coldwater Spring, the teens learned about native wildlife and pulled invasive plant species.

I was immediately impressed by how much teamwork the teens demonstrated despite only having met each other a couple hours earlier. Already, the teens were paddling and working together with teens from vastly different backgrounds. Later that night, the Northern Minnesotans and Twin Cities natives chatted and bonded over dinner while the Wilderness Inquiry trip leaders led brainteaser games and told stories.

Since the main goal of the program is to develop Teen Ambassadors who can share the national park experience with their peers in the fall, I had expected the teens’ interactions with nature to become the most important part of the trip. But, it became obvious on day one that the teens’ interactions with each other were just as significant, and throughout the trip I was delighted by how eager all of the teens were to interact with those who came from dissimilar backgrounds.

The next day, in the early morning, I awoke to find that several of the teens had gone fishing. The teens returned in time for a nice hot breakfast and then prepared to pack up camp for a paddle down to Grey Cloud Island. Unfortunately, an unexpected thunderstorm swooped in after breakfast and prevented us from following the original itinerary.

However, I was excited to see the teens come together and make the most of the situation. When the rain become too heavy for us to remain at the campsite, the Wilderness Inquiry trip leaders ushered the teens into an indoor shelter with a fire. For several hours, the teens huddled around the warm fire and played games, and I was amazed by how much the teens seemed to enjoy themselves despite the adverse weather.

When the rain died down a few short hours later, the teens embarked on a short, safer paddling trip around Pike Island. Though the current was stronger than it had been a day earlier, the teens worked together and made it around the island without too much hassle. The teens even pointed out some exciting wildlife along the way, as juvenile and adult bald eagles flew along the shore.

They then returned to their campsite for the evening, where Voyageurs National Park Ranger Anne Rozek and I discussed the national parks with the teens, who were eager to learn about working in the outdoors despite this being the first true camping experience for some of them.

On the final morning of the trip, the teens packed up their gear and learned about their research projects: they must select and research a national park and brainstorm ways that their specific national park could reach out to youth. After the teens each selected a national park, we all paddled down to St. Paul in beautiful, sunny weather. When an enormous barge passed us along the way, Wilderness Inquiry trip leader Adam Hoffman taught the teens about the environmental impact of barges, helping the teens understand the threat that mankind poses for the great outdoors.

Overall, the trip was a great success. The teens enjoyed the trip, and one remarked that the paddling “was so much fun!” Several of the teens were in agreement that the trip lived up to their expectations, and many expressed excitement for the next trip, a journey to Voyageurs National Park that will take place in late July and early August. If the teens demonstrate the same maturity and enthusiasm there that they did during the trip to MNRRA, I am certain that the trip to Voyageurs will be just as fun and fulfilling!