One of the great aspects about being a youngster in the national parks is becoming a Junior Ranger. Watching my granddaughter, Hannah, become a Junior Ranger in GreatSmoky Mountains National Park was as much a treat for me as it was for her!
The Junior Ranger program, available in many national parks, encourages children to explore a park in a structured way, fill out a booklet, and discuss their experience with a ranger.
I had bought the booklet for 7- and 8 year-olds a week before and studied it to see how Hannah could accomplish this in a day. As a volunteer in the Smokies, I know the park well. I was using inside knowledge to plan the excursion and wondered if that was fair.
It's difficult to do all the activities properly in a day. Each park designs its own booklet. Some sell them ($2.50 in the Smokies), others give them away. The Smokies, the most-visited park in the country, puts out three different booklets for different age groups. Children need to do eight out of 11 activities, pick up a bag of trash, and go to a ranger program. When there's no ranger program, another activity can be substituted.
The first two activities are about the regulations (a tough word for a 7-year old). Adults might be put off with "thou shall not," but children feel comfortable with rules.
The first activity starts with "Hey! We have rules around here... leave everything as you found it, don't feed the wildlife, and don't carve your name on a historic cabin." She probably never thought about doing these things in the first place but she dutifully fills out the multiple choice questions anyway.
A sample question:
You're walking down the trail and see a snake. You should
a. teach it to tap dance
b. kill it
c. walk around it
Lenny, my husband, and I head with Hannah for the Mountain Farm Museum just outside Oconaluftee Visitor Center. The museum is part of an effort to preserve farm buildings from many parts of the park. We walk in the farmhouse, look in the spring house, try to tell the difference between corn and sorghum, and peer into the corn crib. But the farm animals are the best part. Hannah is really taken by the pig and the rooster. We hear the rooster and walk around the barn several times until we see it on the upper loft. It's 10 a.m.; isn't it awfully late for a rooster to still be crowing?
Before we move on, we stop at a bench so Hannah can make notes and fill in an activity. She had come prepared with pencils, a sharpener, eraser, and crayons.
Question: How was food prepared?
Answer: In a pot over a fire
We walk part of the Oconaluftee River Trail and look for trees - a leaf hunt including tulip tree, hickory, maple, sassafras, and dogwood. From the sketches in the booklet, we're able to find almost all the trees. We also see lots of poison ivy on the ground. Now wouldn't that be a useful thing to be able to identify?
We drive to Clingmans Dome, the highest point in the park (6,643 feet) to find high-elevation trees such as Frazer fir, red spruce, yellow birch and American beech. Beech is a little tricky since its leaves are not very distinct. The walk to the top of the Clingmans Dome tower might not have been the best place to identify these trees because it's hard to get off the paved path but we manage to find examples of all the trees.
Hannah is supposed to smell the air and answer the question, "How is it different from your neighborhood and school?" Cold and foggy - that's how. All this time, we're on the lookout for trash. The park is so clean that it's not easy to fill a supermarket-size bag in a day. We pick up a few stray pieces of cellophane and add our lunch trash.
At the end of the booklet, Clingmans Dome is compared with other sites. A big stretch for 7- and 8-year olds - Eiffel Tower at 985 feet, Big Ben at 316 feet. The only height she really understands is a two-story house (20 feet).
I didn't feel she was exposed to enough history, my main interest, so we stop at Mingus Mill, a working corn mill dating back to the 1880s. A miller grinds corn, though the corn meal they sell here is from local vendors because the operation at the mill can't meet modern health regulations. This historic grist mill uses a water-powered turbine instead of a water wheel, considered high-tech for those days. We follow the water flowing down a mill race to the mill.
By now, it's 3 p.m. and the predictable mid-afternoon summer storm has started. It's pouring but we ignore the rain and continue. We scramble up to a slave cemetery just before Mingus Creek Trail to see several mounted graves with a stone on either end of the graves to signify the length of the body. It's a solemn moment as Lenny and I explain who is buried here, the significance of the mounds (a rural Southern custom), and that the park maintains the cemetery.
The old adage that says that going someplace familiar with a child allows us to see it with new eyes might be a cliché but it's true. Lenny and I are 900 milers - we've hiked all the trails in the park - but I can't remember if I've ever looked at the Mountain Farm museum buildings so carefully. On my own, I certainly would not have stopped to watch a caterpillar cross the pavement and try to save it from hikers' feet. Now I can recognize a hickory tree with confidence - seven leaves, three pairs on either side and a leaf on top.
Finally the ceremony.
We traipse into Oconaluftee Visitor Center, soaked but protecting the booklet, and get the attention of Ranger Florie Takaki. Florie is in charge of volunteers on the North Carolina side of the Smokies so we know each other well. It's clear that "Ranger" is the correct courtesy title, hence Ranger Florie - somewhere between Mrs. Takaki and Florie in formality.
Ranger Florie asks Hannah where she lives and what grade she's going into. Then she announces in a loud voice, meant to get the attention of everyone in the Visitor Center.
"We have a special girl about to be sworn in as a Junior Ranger." Hannah is mortified at the attention but Ranger Florie puts her arm around her. She asks Hannah to raise her right hand and read the Junior Ranger promise:
As a Junior Ranger, I promise to help protect the plants and animals of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and keep the air, water and land clean. I will continue to learn more about the park so I can help protect it for all the years to come.
Florie helps Hannah with a couple of difficult words. Then she offers Hannah the choice of a pin or badge - a badge of course, which is unique to the park. Ranger Florie fills out and signs the certificate with a flourish.
I take a picture of Hannah in a flat hat - a ranger's hat. Maybe one day, Hannah will earn a real hat and badge.