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Amazon

“…And even the sky was crying”

July 18th

This morning we awoke to the sounds of a rainstorm after what seemed like 2 minutes of sleep. The weather was a representation of our emotions about leaving this amazing place and these generous people, to whom we have given our hearts. We had an emotional reflection session before breakfast where we shared failures and successes, laughter and tears, our hopes for the future, and our deep connections to places here and at home. By the time we had finished sharing our thoughts and feelings, the sun seemed to recognize our joy and started to make its presence known, appearing to wish us “buena suerte” (good luck) on our long journey home.

Sunset over the Amazon from the canopy walkway

Amazon

“More fun than a barrel-full of monkeys”

July 17th

The great Ceiba tree (also known as a Kapok)

A wooly monkey snacks on leaves

Today was our final full day in Peru since tomorrow we go to the airport.

We started our day early at 5:15AM so that we could head up to the canopy and search again for the elusive sunrise. Even though there was too much cloud cover (clouds- 2, teachers – 0), we still were able to see a multitude of birds and insects species. Rebecca noted that the clouds were a reminder that the forest is a living organism, breathing (or transpiring) like us.

Next, we had breakfast and then headed to Ceiba Tops for our final night of lodging in the Amazon. There we took a short hike to see the tree of the same name – the ceiba. It was awe-inspiring to stand at the base of such a gigantic 200-year-old tree. The entire tree was an ecosystem unto itself with bromeliads, frogs and insects, birds, and vines living within and on it. It struck each of us how much more majestic our forests would be – con árboles gigantes – if we protected them as carefully as the Amazonians do.

After lunch we headed to the famous Isla de Los Monos (monkey island) by boat. It is a refuge for monkeys that have been abandoned or injured or rescued from the pet or meat trade. We don’t know who had more fun – us or the monkeys!

In the Amazon, everyone is family!

Just as the skies let loose again with a downpour, we settled in for an amazing presentation by Alberto about CONAPAC and the incredible work they are doing in local communities. This organization partners with communities of native people to provide agricultural, educational, and sanitation (water and sewer) services. All of the Peruvian teachers that have been with us all week are working with CONAPAC currently. One of them shared with us how excited the students are when they receive their yearly school supplies.

Finally, after dinner, we wrapped up our evening with a cultural dance presentation (and later some singing and dancing of our own!).

Amazon

“Senses”

July 16 Tuesday

Birds singing loudly in the distance. Soft mud squishing below.

Fresh and juicy watermelon and pineapple. Salty remnants of sweat and sunscreen.

Sturdy rope. Damp clothes. Rough bark.

These are the sounds, smells, tastes, feelings, and sights of our only full day at ACTS (Amazon Conservatory of Tropical Studies). We jumped right into the middle of the jungle action at 5:30 in the morning for a sunrise walk in the canopy. The scattered clouds prevented us from getting a clear view of the sunrise, but we did have an incredible view of the rainforest filled with mystical mist and mysterious fog. Many of us found that we were less afraid than we had been the night before, which allowed for more confident observation of the surroundings.

After making it back to the lodge for breakfast (of eggs, potatoes, chorizo, vegetables, bread with various spread, and fresh fruit) we prepared ourselves for another walk through the canopy- this time with a set task. We were to work with our groups to identify, discuss, and draw epiphytes from one of the many platforms, but only after we took time individually to reflect on the five senses of the forest. Many of us found this reflective time to be peaceful and a moment of connecting with the world around us. All the while, eyes were everywhere on the lookout for creatures both big and small.

At lunch, we enjoyed rice and beans, chicken, Peruvian french fries, salad, a medley of cooked vegetables, and pineapple for dessert. Many requested the recipe for the chicken because it was that tasty! Following lunch was a small break. Some took the time to catch up in their journals, while others were lulled to sleep in hammocks by the sound of a passing rain storm. Some worked on their group assignments for the day, while others chatted with each other casually about ourselves and how we can apply these experiences in our own classrooms.

We all reconvened to discuss our findings from the morning before heading out on another trail. We took our time noticing the larger-than-life lush plants around us, and we were totally obsessed with the animals we saw (including but not limited to a tarantula, a Peruvian fire stick (a walking stick insect), and a five-foot span of sprawling army ants). The trail met up with another trail, and from there we split into two groups. Some of us walked the canopy again while others went back to the lodge for some much needed rest and relaxation.

For dinner we ate beef, rice, mashed potatoes, vegetables, and bananas with cream for dessert. After some partner discussion, we once again divided into two groups. Those who wanted to experience the bioluminescent fungus on the leaves of one particular tree- the Bucinaria- headed out on the tails, and those who needed some more rest and relaxation stayed back at the lodge. Despite the 100% humidity, our only full day at ACTS was one our five senses will not soon forget.

As we close our eyes, images and memories of moments from today blur together, and we leave you with a sampling of our reflective writing about our enlightening experiences:

Enlightenment

Walking through the jungle forest, the sound of rain pitter-patters to the ground, hitting leaves along the way. Each step is taken carefully as the fallen dead leaves become slick, and the dirt forest floor turns to mud. In preparation to walk down the trail’s wooden steps, a hand rail was put in place. Despite much care taken, the foot slips off the first step with great speed. Surprisingly, it does not land on the next step. Instead the foot lands on top of a gently swaying hammock with a jolt as the lush jungle trail is transformed into the mosquito laced confines of the lodge’s dining hall. The consistent rainfall heard from the vision can still be heard, but all of the other surroundings have been replaced. It takes a moment for the senses to adjust and realize what happened was a dream. The only logical explanation is that while resting, the mesmerizing sounds of the passing storm must have created vivid visions of what was seen and experienced earlier in the day. At this moment the truth has been revealed: the lines between fantasy and reality are bridged by the enchanting power of the Amazon rain.

Amazon

“Ripples”

Riddles on the river

Monday July 15

The morning started with rain. As the rain slowly fell onto the thatched roof at ExplorNapo we began to assemble in the dining hall. Passing along the bridge that connects the guest rooms with the dining hall, Rebecca stopped to watch the rain fall on the river. As drops slowly fell into the murky brown water, the impact caused ripples that spread across the surface. As more rain fell, the ripples began to overlap. The ripples on the water became our metaphor for the day.

After breakfast, an entomologist and researcher from the University of Oregon, Ryan Garrett, gave us an overview of leaf cutter ants, including an incredible inside look at their everyday lives. We learned that their colonies, which are easily identifiable above ground, are actually the entry point to an expansive underground farming network. The ants work meticulously, cleaning and then breaking down, the leaves that they harvest to grow the fungus that gives the colony life. The queen, who initiates the founding of a new colony, actually takes a piece of fungus from a preexisting colony. A piece of the old community becomes part of the new one – ripples of population expansion.

We later visited an indigenous community, the Maijuna. After four centuries of exploitation by outsiders, they were given title to a portion of their historic lands. Now, they welcome outsiders into their village in hopes that by sharing their story, they will gain allies and friends – more ripples. By sharing their story with visitors, their reach extends far beyond their beautiful community.

In the afternoon, we moved to our next lodging— ACTS (the Amazon Conservatory of Tropical Studies) to experience the rainforest canopy from a walkway of suspension bridges strung between the tops of 14 of the tallest trees. Many of us had anticipated this moment, and the excitement as we approached the access tower was palpable. However, with the highest platform reaching 118 feet above the forest floor, there was also some anxiety. Here, the ripples we experienced were ripples within our community. We encouraged one another and applauded one another every step of the way.

As we near the end of our Amazon adventure we are feeling humbled, inspired, connected, and thankful. We are now a part of this place, and this place is a part of us. As we return to our everyday lives there is no doubt that our ripples will extend far beyond ourselves.

“Ant-man” aka Ryan Garrett explains the amazing underground architecture of leaf cutter ant nests

Don Sebastian, leader of the Maijuna community, and Willy Flores, one of our guides, explain the traditional hunting and fishing practices of the Maijuna

Linda loved taking pictures from the canopy walkway platforms (and we thought that she looked radiant in this photo- unlike the rest of us, who were dripping with sweat and mud)

Amazon

“Everything is weird here (and beautiful)…”

This morning, we set off in boats from ExplorNapo to go birding in the early morning light. We spotted flocks of oropendola, a stunning plum-throated cotinga, cocoi herons (they look like white versions of our great blue herons), oriole black birds, and so much more. Additionally, we went deep into Lorenzo Lake where we searched for rare Hoatzins, a large bird (about four feet tall) famous for its prehistoric claws on its wings and brilliant, Einstein-esque crest of feathers on their head. The Horned Screamer (another very large bird) and the three-toed sloth also made an appearance! On our journey by various waterways to see these creatures, we were greeted by waves and friendly faces of local community members; one family even showed us the fish they caught that morning in their nets, and many others stopped to share a few words. We also saw the community and school of Juan Pablo, one of our Peruvian educators. He was so proud of his school and for us to see his home.

Birding by boat in the early morning light

Juan Pablo waves at his community, Isla Tamanco, as we drive by

The afternoon was filled with opportunities to see the pink Amazon River Dolphin, more birds and to fish for the infamous Piranha. Not only did some of us see the pink river dolphins and catch piranha, some of us even have the wildest stories from our day. One of us broke a fishing pole on the last cast of the day while pulling in their catch. Another had an exciting, first-hand experience with “los dientes” of the piranha… you’ll have to ask us each for more details and pictures once we get home!

The piranha that we caught were prepared for dinner and we all got to taste them! Afterwards, we talked first-hand with Dr. Marie Trone, who is staying here for the summer, to work on her research about the pink river dolphins! She was able to answer all sorts of questions and help us learn fun new facts about the river dolphin! In spite of the difficulties of her research (murky waters, remoteness of location, technical challenges with equipment, etc.) she continues to have hope that more knowledge will lead to a brighter future for these endangered animals.

To quote Dr. Trone, “Everything is weird here.” And beautiful, strange, and unique and we are in love with all of it!

A bit dangerous, but ultimately delicious!

Amazon

“El misterio de las plantas amazonias”

The mystery of Amazonian plants

The theme of this day is best explained with this quote from Robert Crawshaw: “Travel has a way of stretching the mind. The stretch comes not from travel’s immediate rewards…but with experiencing firsthand how others do differently what we believed to be the right and only way”

We started this morning with a 6AM hike through the jungle, and had a little bit of “pre-breakfast protein” in the form of termites fresh from the mound. They taste like a cross between mint and lemon, but we quickly discovered that it was not enough to sustain us until breakfast.

A termite nest!

Kathy with a giant land snail shell- in Spanish, we call this animal churo

After breakfast, we continued exploring the forest. While walking, we saw scarlet macaws, various insects, and also found enormous land snail shells! Abelardo, our guide, told us that the indigenous people believe that putting a circle of these shells around the tree will result in a higher fruit yield. Why? The shells provide the tree with extra calcium!

We then moved to our next destination – ExplorNapo Lodge. To get there, we traveled downstream on the Yanamono river, downstream on the Amazon to the Napo river, upstream on the Napo River, and finally we took the Sacusari river upstream to our destination. At this point we haven’t traveled in, or even seen, a car in five days. River transportation is everything in the Amazon!

Once we were settled in, we went to visit the shaman- a traditional medicine man from one of the local indigenous tribes. It was a privilege to learn about, through smell, touch, and taste, local plants with medicinal qualities. He then performed a relaxing and healing ceremony for all of our group members. We left enlightened and smelling of rosewood.

After dinner, we had a night boat tour of the Sacusari River. We instantly saw a two-toed sloth (different from the 3-toed sloths we saw the day before, and the same kind that lives in the Living Conservatory at the Museum!), many frogs, sleeping butterflies, and an incredible mating pair of white throated toucans!

It’s been a long day. Off to bed to sleep under mosquito nets with 2 species of bats overhead!

Receiving a blessing from the shaman

We were ecstatic to find a pair of white-throated toucans tonight! Only one is pictured here, and a few of us have better photos, but we weren’t able to access them yet.

Amazon

“Full hearts”

And we are all connected to each other in a circle in a hoop that never ends – Pocahontas

As we sit down this evening to write our blog, we are so overwhelmed with so many areas with which we can expand. Morning began as each morning has here at Explorama Lodge. That means a breakfast (desayuno) with some of the most delicious food we have all had the opportunity to taste. After a hardy breakfast we set out on our day to visit one of the local schools, the local library, and the only local clinic.

After a short boat ride we arrived with one of the warmest welcomes we have ever experienced in our lives. The welcoming group consisted of students, the 4 teachers, and most of the community to welcome us and to work with us. We were greeted with smiles and waves, hand-written posters, and so much excitement, we knew immediately today would be a very special day. We went from the dock into the modest schoolhouse and we were welcomed with introductions, short welcome speeches, and beautiful singing from the kindergarten class. We were gifted some of the most thoughtful and articulate gifts from the community consisting of hand woven fans from local materials, cards with poetry for us, and hand carved keychains also with local materials. The love and excitement in the room was overwhelming for all of us. As educators we know everyone is a lifelong learner and that each day brings a new opportunity to learn, grow, share, teach, and love. This trip to Pucallpa only reiterates the lesson we all already knew, but fueled an inner desire for us all to take back to our classrooms, families, and communities. We were welcomed and worked along side of friends despite the language barrier for most. We all had a common goal and desire to improve their school. One group painted the outside of the kindergarten building, one group planted a row of coconut palms and orange trees around and behind the school, and the final group painted all the chairs and desks of the 1-5th graders. The love and appreciation was overwhelming as we painted, planted and participated in a local cultural celebration. We danced to festive Peruvian music around a ceremonial palm tree piñata after eating a traditional Peruvian meal of Juanes.

A few of the young girls made signs welcoming us to their community of Pucallpa

Planting coconut trees with some of the community members

A “Juanes” (chicken, hard-boiled egg, and olive with rice wrapped up with a leaf to look like the decapitated head of John the Baptist)

Our next destination was the local library Sustainability and Education Center. The center is the only of its kind in the area. Not only is the raised structure beautiful, it is well maintained and cherished by all who use the center. The center’s director Fernando Saavedra does a wonderful job at directing volunteers and students to make the absolute most of all of the opportunities the center has to offer. He explained how the center was founded by a visiting American with a love of books and a love equally for Peru. Students and anyone with a love of books may come visit throughout the week. Most have to travel by boat or walk. The center offers not only the opportunity to read various books but the students have access to musical instruments, crafts, computers, and games. We were able to observe multiple students during our time- some students were reading, several were playing beautiful music, and several working with the 3 computers that were available. It was so refreshing to see students going out of their way to expand their knowledge. The love they have for this facility is evident in the care they all take in working within the center. We donated many new books to add to the center’s collection that were collected by students in our own classrooms. We left the center with a desire to continue to give globally, to expand on children’s knowledge by the use of books, and most importantly to remember to enhance the love of learning.

Reading some of the books we brought to donate to the library

Our third and final destination today was to the local community clinic, la Clinica Yanamono. The clinic was founded and is run by doctor Dr. Linnea Smith. She came to the area in 1996 and as many of, she fell in love with Peru and the local area. She has worked hard to maintain accurate records of community members and has seen an improvement in the overall health- a decrease in common illnesses and increase in life expectancy of local community members. She spoke of the evolution of the clinic and future goals. We were introduced some of the staff of 4 and were shown around the clinical rooms. Many of us worked with our students before we left to gather resources to donate to the clinic and at the end of the introduction we presented these to Dr. Smith. We all were very interested in how we could help to facilitate the growth of the clinic and Dr. Linnea gave us the information and website for anyone wishing to donate to support the clinic.

We arrived back at the lodge absolutely covered in mud with sun-touched faces and very full hearts. Today was full of love, appreciation for all of our global neighbors, and an increased awareness/desire to instill within our students the importance of becoming globally aware and friendly. We want to inspire our students not only to succeed academically, but also have the desire to travel and learn about other cultures. By sharing our experiences we hope to create the curiosity of travel and unknown places.

What a day!

Amazon

“The music of the Amazon”

The goal of life is to make your heartbeat match the beat of the universe, to match your nature with Nature.” -Joseph Campbell

The rhythm and harmony of life on, and near, the river was the theme of our experiences today. We began just after dawn with bird watching, turning our heads to the calls and drawing our binoculars to our eyes to follow the rapid movement from tree to tree. Following breakfast, we took two boats to Lake Caceres, where we saw three-toed sloths, giant water lilies, and jacanas (nick-named Jesus Christ birds because they can seemingly walk on water!). Our guides knew each bend in the river, and shared stories of where they would fish or climb trees. We were astounded at how a slight shadow, sixty-feet in the air, could be so adeptly identified as a three-toed, female sloth – but our guides were in tune with life on and around the river.

In the afternoon, we participated in the cultural and artisanal fair with the Yagua people. We were to treated a sampling of Peruvian music by the band Los Mosandaros. Styles ranged from Cumbia – heard in many parts of Latin America – to Pan Deja (with a pan flute) – a style of music enjoyed in Amazon communities during their Carnival celebrations. We also enjoyed local cuisine derived from sugar cane, yucca, and peanuts, and learned the proper way to eat Miel de Cana on sugar cane (sugar cane molasses). Using the natural materials around them, artisans fashioned pots, thatched roofs, rope, and baskets. Dyes were created from various plants, and we swatched our cheeks, arms, and journals with the green dye made from young pijuayo palm leaves and indigo blue from the mishki panga (ginger fruit) husk. The paint made us look especially fierce as we shot darts from the blow gun.

A completed thatch panel we made for the roof- such skill is involved in this process!

In the evening, we floated back out onto the Yanamono river and at first heard, then spotted, a number of frogs, including an incredibly large and exceedingly loud Smoky Jungle frog – they can grow to be as long as 7 inches (not including the legs)! As our boats floated into the grass we turned off all lights and were silent – revealing the symphony of frogs that seemed to be coming from every direction. As we made our way out to the mighty Amazon, fish jumped around our boats, and the clouds parted, revealing the night sky. We identified several constellations, including the “teapot” constellation, which inspired us to sing two renditions of the song “I’m a Little Teapot” in both English and Spanish – and yes, we did the motions.

The heartbeat of the Amazon is strong and steady, and we are incredibly privileged to be a small part of its music during this trip.

Ps. ALL of us got our bags back! It’s a miracle!!! Many thanks to the tireless efforts of the Explorama staff for making that possible!!!

Our luggage has arrived and we are so excited!

Amazon

“Bienvenidos a la selva Amazonica!”

Welcome to the Amazon Jungle!

After close to 30 hours of travel, including three planes, two buses, and a boat, we finally made it to Explorama Lodge! This eco-tourism lodge is about an hour and a half boat-ride from the city of Iquitos, the largest city in the world accessible only by boat or airplane.Our journey started with a delayed flight to Lima at 1:55 in the morning and several lost bags at baggage claim. Leaving Lima to fly to Iquitos, we saw the vast expanse of the Andes and later “Miss Ana,” a nickname for the Amazon River which comes from how it snakes around like an anaconda.After being picked up in Iquitos, we drove through the Belen Market. Roaming Peruvian Hairless Dogs and Black Vultures perched on rooftops were a common sight in the market. We also saw medicinal plants, spices, fresh and grilled meats – it was an experience to see and smell.From there, we met up with our group of Peruvian educators and had lunch on the boat as we cruised down three rivers; the Rio de Itaya , Rio de Amazon, and Yanamono River. Along the way, we spotted countless rainbows, birds and small communities along the river. Upon arriving, it took no longer than a minute for the resident squirrel monkeys to captivate our team as they jumped from tree to tree.We are sharing a meal together before embarking on our first real Amazon adventure tonight: a night-time boat ride to find creatures and see new stars. Buenas noches y hasta manana!

Amazon

“At long last we have arrived”

Boarding the plane to Iquitos

We are sleep deprived, and only half the group has our checked luggage, but we have arrived safely to Lima, Peru! Now we fly to Iquitos and the rainforest!

Amazon

“A Good Journey is Never Linear”

“We are ready! This is the cleanest we will be all trip.”

Today is the day we leave for Peru, and it is also the day we discovered that travel is often a non-linear event. Instead of flying to Miami at 11:50am, we are *hoping* to fly at 6pm due to technical difficulties. But we take it as a good omen, because at least we are not on a malfunctioning plane!

The cleanest and least sweaty we will be all trip is right now, in the airport!

Although we don’t know each other yet and don’t know what the next hours will bring, we are all talking and laughing and sharing creative ideas with each other. We haven’t missed our phones! We have had conversations with a group from Colombia, and practiced sighting the native bird species of RDU.

Practicing our binocular skills at gate C11, to identify the house sparrows that are stuck inside the airport terminal

At some point the airline even brought out the snack cart. Not just dry snacks, but the cart with the special “Refuel and Refresh” box of snacks with 8 lucious choices.

To keep our spirits up, we all joined in to sing “Los Pollitos Dicen”, a Spanish children’s song. The silly chicks say, “pío, pío, pío” to get their worms. Maybe if we sing their song we will get what we want too and make our flight! Wish us “buena suerte” (good luck) for the next leg of our journey and what will probably be a long next 48 hours.

Michelle is very excited for snacks!

1:15am update- we have all successfully boarded a flight from Miami to Lima. Hopefully we will still make our morning flight to Iquitos as scheduled and be back on track for the rest of our journey!

Amazon

“¡Estamos listos! We are ready!”

For weeks now, we have been slowly adding to our piles of things to pack. For our families and pets, this big trip and our preparations can be difficult to come to terms with. For Andromeda’s dog, Luna, “Every time I add something to my bag she thinks I’m about to leave, so she’s been very involved in the process! Today I finished gathering the last few items so I’m double checking my list to make sure I have it all (and it all fits in my bag).”

Andromeda’s dog, Luna, is anxious for her to leave for such a long time. She knows something is coming, as she has been watching items accumulate in the pile of things to be packed. Lining our bag or backpack with a big trash bag and packing in ziploc bags are great methods of waterproofing our clothes in case of downpours on the way to the lodge.

 

For Michelle, packing for an immersive experience in the remote Amazon rain forest has meant a shift in how she usually approaches travel. “Typically when I pack, I consider my credit card to be that one essential item. If I have forgotten anything, I am sure that I can just get what I need. However, packing for remote locations in Peru means my credit card will not be my safety net (there aren’t stores to buy things where we’re going- the big city will be several hours away!). Reviewing the itinerary and combing through the packing list is what will help me prepare. Additionally, my recent amazon.com purchases have included a rain poncho, collapsible backpack, desiccant packs (to keep important things like batteries and paper items dry), and anti-monkey butt powder (for the hot, humid weather in the tropics). I also have been looking for Spanish language books to donate to the local Peruvian library. ”

Michelle’s pile of things to pack includes some Spanish language books to donate to the local library, as well as gauze and wound care items to donate to the Yanamono medical clinic we will visit.

Rebecca’s organized pile of things to pack, including lots of non-cotton, sweat-wicking materials.

We’ve also been diligently practicing our Spanish phrases so we can communicate with our local Peruvian teachers that will join our group upon arrival to Iquitos. We are excited to meet our new friends, Tula, Roxana, Jackeline, and Juan Pablo. Each of them comes from a different local community that partners with CONAPAC, one of the local non-profits we will be working with on our visit. We’ll even have the chance to help the community plant citrus and coconut trees, and refurbish the gardens around Roxana’s school in Pucallpa. After so many preparations, we are finally ready for our new adventure to the Peruvian Amazon! ¡Estamos listos!

 

Yellowstone

“Inspired, Rejuvenated, and Amazed”

June 24, 2019

Today is the day that we fly back to North Carolina, and it was an 8 o’clock wake up call. After our full stomachs and sleepy eyes last night, waking up a little later felt good. We ate breakfast and headed to the airport. It was quieter this morning in the vans, many of us in disbelief of how fast this trip went by. Early mornings were difficult when we started, but as we continued on our journey, they allowed us to make so many more memories.

Walking the Upper Geyser Basin boardwalk in the early morning

These memories include the natural wonders of Yellowstone, but also the fast friendships formed over the miles and adventures. There were so many passionate teachers who brought unique gifts on the trip. There was always someone ready to lend a hand. Even as we loaded our bags to head home, many opened their bags for others whose bags were now overweight with souvenirs.

Mandie, Kristen, and Michele take a selfie

As we enter back into our own worlds, we are so thankful that these quotes ring true:

“Friends are the people who make you smile brighter, laugh louder, and live better.” – unknown

“Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into the trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop away from you like the leaves of Autumn.”

⁃ John Muir

Flowers bloom in front of the Grand Tetons

Inspired, rejuvenated and amazed. These are three of the countless words that accurately describe our adventure into the mesmerizing Yellowstone National Park. As we sit in the airport and wait to board our flight, we all sit in awe of the “firsts” we have each experienced this week. With three amazing leaders, lots of coffee, and the desire to take in every second of every day, we all come back better, more enriched individuals and educators. It’s going to be great to see our families and hold them tight, but being able to relive and share the experiences of Yellowstone with them and others is going to be a bright spot within us for the rest of our lives. For that, we are forever thankful.

With lots of love we sign off for the last time,

Emily, Mandie, and Kristen

The 2019 Educators of Excellence Yellowstone Institute participants

Yellowstone

“Grand Geysers, Phenomenal Paint Pots, and Thumping Thermal Features”

June 23, 2019

Today was a mixture of excitement and sadness as we headed into our last real day in Yellowstone. We started off the morning with a walk through Upper Geyser Basin, just outside the Old Faithful Inn. We were dazzled by the array of different hot spring formations—pools of bubbling blue water, billows of fluffy white steam, rings of red thermophiles, and fountains of water spewing from deep within the earth. A few of our favorite features included the Beehive Geyser (with a cone shaped like—you guessed it—a beehive), Spasmodic Geyser (with water spewing every which way), and the Grand Geyser. The Grand Geyser was particularly spectacular—it erupted high into the sky, up to 180 ft. Water gushed into the sky for about 8 minutes, and just when we thought it was over, it erupted a second time with an even higher column of super-heated water. Afterwards, Ranger Rebecca led us on a tour through Upper Geyser Basin. She explained the various mechanisms of how geysers work, pointed out the bobby sock trees (long dead after absorbing silica), and shared her urgency / passion for environmental conservation.

Ranger Rebecca shares her deep knowledge of the thermal features of the Upper Geyser Basin

From there, we started our long trek back to Bozeman, which included several stops along the way. First, we stopped at Black Sand Pool, locally known as “Thumper.” Megan told us to lay down in the dirt around the pool. Although it sounded like a strange request, we complied and laid in a ring around the bubbling pool. We waited…and waited. At first, nothing. And then, without warning, a thump came from deep within the earth. It felt like a giant was trapped beneath the surface and was knocking to escape. We could feel the thud against our backs and hear the hollow sound reverberate against the rock. Megan explained that these thumps were caused by explosions of super-heated water underground. So cool!!

Lying on the ground, experiencing the thumping of Black Sand Pool

We also stopped at the Fountain Paint Pots. There were several geothermal formations there as well, including geysers, steam vents, and mud pots. The mud pots were an unusual sight—a cesspool of bubbling mud swirled with pinks and yellows. Bacteria and acid play a key role in these formations. Bacteria in the ground produces sulfuric acid, which in turn breaks down the surrounding rocks, producing a mud pool. It was interesting to compare the mud pots to the geysers we saw earlier in the day.

Besides sight-seeing, we also had some final group-bonding moments. A few days ago, we decorated our vans. Amidst all of our excursions across Yellowstone, both of our white vans have accumulated a thick layer of mud and dust. Of course we could have figured out a way to wash it off, but instead we decided to write a tally of all the wildlife we’d seen. Our vans were a hit with the tourists! We caught several groups today pointing at our vans and taking pictures, gawking at the collection of wildlife we’d seen.

Our wildlife talley on one of the vans

At lunch, we played a competitive (and hilarious) Yellowstone-themed game of charades. We rolled with laughter as various teammates acted out “badger hunting uinta,” “pika,” “Grand Prismatic,” “Megan,” and “rock snot.” We ended the day with our final team meeting, where we shared out highlights and appreciations from the trip. Needless to say, we ended the day with heavy hearts that our adventure is coming to a close. However, at the same time, we could not say enough to express the joy, appreciation, and inspiration we’ve experienced on this trip. It has been truly remarkable and awe-inspiring—a trip we will never forget!!

Johnny performing during charades

Yellowstone

“A grand day in Grand Teton National Park”

June 22, 2019

Another early morning in Yellowstone- we departed Old Faithful Inn at 5:00 am and headed into adjacent Grand Teton National Park. The two hour van ride was quiet as most of us slept in the early hours of the morning. Once we reached the majestic peaks of the Tetons, we were all rejuvenated with sights of jagged snow-topped mountain peaks cutting into the bluebird skies. After a quick breakfast surrounded by jaw-dropping views, we visited the Laurance Rockefeller Preserve near Phelps Lake. We used our time at the preserve to take in the sights and sounds and reflect on our surroundings.

Early morning yoga at the entrance to the Laurance S. Rockefellar Preserve

After some impromptu yoga at the trailhead we visited the Laurance S. Rockefeller Visitor Center to get our bearings and plan our hikes for the day. The center has a soundscape room which many of us used to sit quietly and contemplate our connection to the natural world.

Once we were limbered up, we set off on a 3 mile hike to and from Phelps Lake. Along the way we observed and identified numerous birds and wildflowers including silver lupine, arnica, sticky geranium, and fairy slipper.

The group at Phelps Lake

Later, we stopped at a pond near Murie Ranch to enjoy a picnic lunch, where we were entertained by a raw example of predation: an osprey stalking a duckling. While we never saw him catch his lunch, we did get to see a great blue heron and it joined our growing list of birds seen thus far.

After lunch, we went on a four mile loop hike to Taggart Lake. We were treated to magnificent views of all three Tetons and Disappointment Peak, named because explorers thought they were on Teton but were disappointed to find they were not. We were all happy that the sun was shining and the temperature was much warmer. We have experienced two seasons in one week!

We stopped at Leek Marina for pizza dinner and then, exhausted, headed back to Old Faithful Inn, forever on the lookout for the last wildlife spotting of the day. After a quick rainstorm, a remarkably vivid rainbow was cast across the sky as we departed from the Tetons. The perfect end to the perfect day.

Yellowstone

“Snow on the Summer Solstice”

June 21, 2019

Greetings from Wyoming, where it’s the first day of summer and there’s snow on the ground. That means the first job of the day is scraping off windshields.

A snowy morning in the Lake cabins

After a nice warm breakfast we set off in search of white pelicans along the trail of Pelican Creek. Unfortunately the trail was closed due to road construction, but we did spot a pair sitting on the edge of the water as we drove past the creek. Good eyes to those who spotted white birds along a snowy bank!! But we were able to make a quick stop at the Fishing Bridge Visitor Center where we observed replicas of the pelicans along with other birds and waterfowl living in the park. We were given a wonderful quick lesson on white pelicans, including how their wing span is 9 feet and how their populations and nesting success have decreased over the past twenty years, coinciding with the decline in cutthroat trout (pictured in an earlier post) numbers that have been caused by the invasive lake trout. We also took the time to hear about river otters, black bears, and the top dog…… THE grizzly. Thank you to Michele, Kristen, and Angie for doing a great job with their expert topics.

It was time to move on, so we loaded up the vans and headed towards the West Thumb Geyser Basin. It is easy to locate where West Thumb is on Yellowstone Lake: just look for what you may think is a fire! The steam was intense coming off the lake. West thumb gave us many stories and data to take back to NC. Ranger Nick Robertson talked briefly about the life of a seasonal ranger at Yellowstone. Mandie kept fascinating us by using the infrared thermometer gun to take temperatures of the hot springs. They ranged from 53 to 168 degrees! The biggest surprise was that only a few feet away the lake temperature dropped to a chilly 35 degrees. West Thumb was a beautiful example of the diverse geological landscape this wild country offers.

Mandie uses the thermometer to measure the temperature of a hot spring in the West Thumb area

We continued moving higher in elevation as we headed to Isa Lake to look for tiger salamanders. We were able to spot 6 of them and some leeches, but the wildest of animals seen at the lake was Megan running around the lake, eventually dashing into knee deep water to try to capture one. The wind, cold temperatures, and falling snow couldn’t stop Megan from taking off her shoes and socks, rolling up her thermals, and slipping on her Crocs. We were greatly appreciative of the entertainment.

Megan searches for tiger salamanders in Isa Lake on the continental divide

As Megan was drying out, Kali took the opportunity to present her expert topic on the reptiles and amphibians of Yellowstone. We learned that North Carolina and Yellowstone have vast differences in this area. Kali shared that there are only 6 varieties of reptiles and the prairie rattlesnake is the only venomous snake in the park. In Yellowstone, it’s the mammals that rule!

The last bit of our day saw us arriving at the STUNNING Old Faithful Inn. We quickly unloaded our gear and headed out to see the Grand Prismatic hot spring. We were not disappointed with the beautiful colors seen from the overlook. It made for an even grander experience when the thunder snow rolled in. But the final touch of the evening was watching and listening to Old Faithful erupt after dinner. If you didn’t know any better you’d think “it was as big as a geyser” (a quote made by a small child standing near us).

View from the overlook trail at Grand Prismatic hot spring

Moving to a new section of the park has been nothing short of “majestic”!

Till next time… Sapsucker team signing off

Happy Summer!

Casey, Kali, Michele

Old Faithful erupts in the late afternoon light

Yellowstone

“Traveling south”

June 20, 2019

We’ve become accustomed to early mornings but today was special: we were allowed to decide between sleeping in or wildlife watching at 5 o’clock. While many of us gained some well deserved sleep, a few elected to end our northern Yellowstone adventure with a wildlife watch. Kali, Emily, Angie, Casey, Caroline and our fearless leaders, Christy, Chris and Megan, set off on the final watching excursion.

It was cold, far colder than it had been in the days before. The wind whipped and our fingers felt like ice. We were off before the sunrise and we stopped to see the grizzly mom and cubs. They were in the meadow where we left them the night before, snuggled in the sagebrush. One of the cubs tried many times to get up but, much like us, mom patted her baby and snuggled until he went back to sleep. We noted a few wandering black bears as we drove along, but what we were really after was a glimpse of the apex predators within the park. We traveled further into the valley and pulled off on the road to see the sunrise. We had our field breakfast and watched. Pronghorn. Bison. No grizzly, no wolves, no luck. We decided to move to the next pull-off in hopes of making our last day in Lamar Valley extra special. As we rounded the corner, cars were lined up on the side of the road. This was a good sign.

We ended our morning watching two grizzlies and four wolves in all their glory. We witnessed the full power of a grizzly sprinting downhill. Toward what, we’re not sure but we definitely wouldn’t want to be on the end of that charge. We saw the Junction Butte wolf pack devouring an early morning meal and interacting with each other. Despite the amazing views, we reluctantly left the valley and returned to load our bags and crew. The full group headed south.

We traveled through the park up and down winding mountain roads, and pulled off to see the valley we left behind. While viewing a great horned owl’s nest, a curious and determined coyote came into view. He hadn’t shed all of this winter’s coat and he was colored a very fluffy, dirty blonde. He quickly drew the attention of many park patrons and we all watched him slink near the road. He quickly crossed, ears up, then down, bouncing up to a rotting log. That’s when we saw it: he had been hunting his next meal, a Uinta ground squirrel. The hunt was short and effective, and witnessing this was nothing short of amazing. We continued on.

A young coyote eats a morning snack of a Uinta ground squirrel

Next, we ventured to the edge of the caldera of Yellowstone and observed the aftermath of a volcanic eruption that occurred approximately 640,000 years ago. We started off on a trail covered in snow with the wind whistling past our frigid cheeks. Looking out at the caldera, we took part in a group activity creating a timeline of sedimentary, igneous and metamorphic rocks and the 3 caldera-forming volcanic eruptions, and learned several facts about Yellowstone’s geology. It’s indescribable to be looking out into millions of years of history. It’s even more amazing to experience it with like-minded educators who desire to take in this adventure and go back and relive this experience with their students. Adventure, stepping out of comfort zones, and newly formed friendships – what better real-world lessons could we bring into our classrooms to begin inspiring our future leaders?

We caught glimpses of the beauty of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, but nothing prepared us for Artist’s Point. Casey did a great presentation on Thomas Moran, a painter who traveled with a geological survey in 1871. His work was very influential in convincing the federal government for the need for a national park and advocating for resources to protect this beautiful land. Spellbound, we took some time to channel Moran’s spirit and sketched the spectacular turquoise waterfall that helped to carve out the canyon. Inspired by the scenery, Angie wrote, “The sun casts iridescent sparkles upon the falls of Yellowstone. The power and majesty of the sheer image and beauty of the falls brings tears to the soul.”

Katie and Caroline channel their inner Thomas Moran at Artist point

Reflections from Artist Point

As we drove on from the falls, we entered our first area of active thermal activity. The Mud Volcano was just what we imagined… and more. The smell greeted us first: imagine sulfur steam wafting out of the bubbling ground. It looked to be boiling, but the team tasked with testing measurements recorded temperatures at only 73 degrees. The bubbles were hydrogen sulfide gas making its way through the muddy water. Dragon’s Mouth, a cave with steam billowing from the opening, and the sound of crashing waves in its pool, measured 128 degrees. We thought about what we might have thought of this area had we been the early explorers. As we were admiring the mud volcano, graupel (a type of snow that forms when water freezes very quickly) started to fall! What a strange way to end our day, at features so hot with weather so cool!

We continued to Lake Hotel and cabins and to our surprise we entered a lodge in a winter wonderland. The wind blowing off the lake was white with snow and we huddled around the fire after dinner for a meeting recapping our adventures. We are eager to continue our journey and see the iconic Old Faithful tomorrow.

Always,

Mandie, Kristen, and Emily

Yellowstone

“Our Last Full Day in Lamar Valley Does Not Disappoint”

June 19, 2019

“All stories are about wolves. All worth repeating, that is.”~ Margaret Atwood, The Blind Assassin

There is nothing like early morning in Lamar Valley… bison grazing quietly in the valley or sauntering across the road causing a traffic jam, pronghorn quietly munching on green grass, birds frolicking in the river and, if you are lucky, wolves. Today, we were lucky. Not only did we see three black wolves playing and traveling across the emerald grassy slopes along the base of Speciman’s Ridge, but just a short while later while stopped to use the toilets at Hitching Post, we saw three more gray wolves scouting a herd of bison for breakfast. The bison had several calves, “red dawgs”, and the adults circled around the calves to protect them from the wolves. The wolves eventually headed across the ridge empty-handed and disappeared from view once more. All before 9am!

Casey spots a wolf in Lamar Valley!

On the day our group first met in April, we were given a copy of American Wolf by Nate Blakeslee, which follows the life of Yellowstone’s most famous wolf, O-Six. Blakeslee used notes by the grandfather of wolf watchers, Rick McIntyre, to flesh out details of O-Six’s life. After a lovely brunch at Log Cabin Cafe (and checking out their “stress free zone” meditation room) our group visited the general store across the road. When finished, most of the group was lounging around on the picnic tables like marmots in the sun, before heading out to our next adventure when our leader, Megan, ran into none other than Rick McIntyre! Meeting Rick, talking to him, and getting him to sign our American Wolf books was definitely an unexpected highlight of our day!

The bull moose

Our blog would be incomplete without mentioning our morning hike to Trout Lake. We were greeted by a magnificent bull moose crossing the crest of the hill. While enjoying the breathtaking sight of the lake nestled into the mountainside, we observed spawning Yellowstone Cutthroat Trout and spent some time on a wildflower observation and identification activity with our groups. The proud moose bade farewell to us right before our departure.

Beautiful Trout Lake in the morning light

Look at all those cutthroat Trout in the stream!

As the day went on, other sightings made this a day we will never forget. We had our second “Octo-Ungulate” day, which included a pronghorn mom with her baby (it was nursing!). We also saw our first Yellowstone red fox, an osprey nesting 2 chicks, and multiple black bears—2 of them with cubs! One cub was climbing a fallen tree. We laughed with joy when he looked right up at us (from a safe distance). Hoping for a grizzly to complete “Ursula Day” or a coyote to finish up “Three Dog Day,” we “glassed” Lamar Valley near Fisherman’s Beach. All was quiet until we heard Casey say he saw a black wolf! We tracked the lone wolf—which we identified as #1109, a female of the Junction Butte pack—as she swam across the river, paused briefly to shake the water from her fur, and then literally sprinted across the valley. To our delight, she ran parallel to the road (keeping pace with us driving 35mph!), ultimately crossing the pavement right in front of our van! She was so beautiful and powerful!! What an awesome way to end our time in Lamar Valley!

The wolf, running across the street in front of our car!

The #1109 female sprints across the road in front of us!

BUT WAIT THERE’S MORE !!!!!!

We wrapped up our day with a group meeting. Everyone circled up in an empty field and shared the day’s highlights. Although we had many “highs” to share, you couldn’t help but notice what was left unsaid—everyone had really hoped for an Ursula day or a three-dog day.** We especially wanted to see a grizzly. All day, everyone (especially Kali & Casey) furiously scanned the hilltops for a grizzly, but with no luck. Kali had even bought a grizzly charm for good luck. After our group meeting, as we loaded into the vans to head back to the cabins, Kali passed around the bear charm and we all took turns rubbing it to summon some we’re-desperate-to-see-a-grizzly-PLEASE-let-us-see-a-grizzly juju. All fell quiet in the van. Suddenly, Casey said, “My ‘spide-y’ senses are tingling. Something’s about to happen.” We turn the next corner to see lines of cars along the road. THERE WAS A GRIZZLY !! And not only a grizzly, but a MOTHER WITH TWO CUBS !!! We couldn’t believe it! We marveled at the size of mom’s massive neck (who we named Juju) and laughed as her cubs jumped on the rocks. And just when we thought we couldn’t get any luckier, we suddenly heard coyotes yapping in the distance! We hit the trifecta—an octo ungulate / Ursula / 3 dog day—something that even our trip leaders had never experienced before!! From this point forward, you best believe that we’ll start every wildlife trek by rubbing the juju bear charm.

Grizzly mama, sleeping with her two cubs

**A “three-dog day” means we saw all 3 Yellowstone dog species—a wolf, a coyote, and a fox. An “Ursula day” means we saw both bear species—a black bear and a grizzly. The genus name for bears is “Ursus,” and we thought “Ursula day” was more fun than “Ursus day.”

Yellowstone

“Hoot there it is”

June 18, 2019

At first light we left the warm comfort of our cozy cabins. Our anticipated 5:00 start was delayed about 15 minutes as we were all tired from the previous days’ adventures. However, everything happens for a reason as we were greeted by a black bear walking across the driveway of the Roosevelt Lodge, a sight we surely would have missed had we left any earlier. Not five minutes later we spotted another black bear who casually walked out of the woods, onto the road behind our vans, and lumbered across the bridge to the other side of the Yellowstone River. For those of us who wanted to see bears on this trip we have not been disappointed. We have seen all the different flavors of bear: black bear, cinnamon black bear, and a grizzly.

Our second black bear sighting of the morning was crossing the Yellowstone River bridge

After a field breakfast at Slough Creek we drove west to meet professional wildlife photographer and naturalist Dan Hartman to search for great grey owl nests off the beaten path. We didn’t have any luck with the nest but we did spot our largest owl in North America, the great grey, and we watched it hunting for pocket gophers in the meadow. The Hartmans then welcomed us into their home, which also houses a gallery, for a screening of a short documentary filmed and produced by Dan about life in the aspen trees. Along with being extremely knowledgeable about the wildlife in and around the park Dan was also a terrific story teller. He regaled us with several spine-tingling stories of close calls with grizzlies. (We were glad that Dan saved his grizzly bear stories until after we were out of deep woods.)

Dan Hartman meets the group and explains a little bit about his philosophy on wildlife observations

After warming up hiking through sunny meadows we headed to up the Beartooth Mountains to cool down. A short drive and a few thousand vertical feet later we were transported into a “winter wonderland” complete with snow, ice, and even skiers! We spent half an hour taking in the incredible views that being above the tree line has to offer. Being from North Carolina the novelty of snow in June begged us to throw snowballs and make snow angels.

Casey and Kali take weather measurements in the Beartooth mountains

The group (minus Denise and Kali, who were traveling with Dan to check on the status of a secret nest location) excited to see some snow!

We ended our time with Dan by watching a great horned owl on her nest with chicks. These owls (which we also have in NC) are named for the tufts of feathers on their heads that look like “horns”. After retreating to lower elevations we capped off the day in the best way possible…with pizza in Lamar Valley! Tomorrow will be our last day in Lamar Valley before we move on to the southern part of the park. In our reflections we agreed that the best way to spend our final day in this beautiful part of the park was to soak in every moment and be completely focused on the present.

Yellowstone

“Badgers, Bison, and Beers”

June 17, 2019

“Between every 2 pines there is a doorway to a new world” ~John Muir

Our ”new world” started with a hearty breakfast at the Log Cabin Cafe. The coffee was flowing and the eggs were frying to finish our stay at the Grizzly Lodge. We left for Lamar Valley to try our luck at sighting more wolves, but to no avail.

Today’s creature of the day is the Pika (not a Pikachu)- a small animal kin to rabbits. Ranger Matt and Ranger Michael talked to us about a citizen science project that helps collect data to study the impact of climate change on pika presence and absence in various parts of the park. Pika are a great indicator species for monitoring climate change— the pika’s normal body temperature is about 104° F but if they are exposed to temps above 80° for more than 2 hours it will raise their body temperature into a deadly range. Pika live on talus slopes, which are rocky slopes often formed by eroding old lava flows. When it gets too hot, they hide under the rocks to find cooler temperatures. Our job involved helping the rangers collect data by searching for pika sightings, looking for scat (poop) and “haystacks” (their caches of food) under the rocks, and taking temperature readings around the rocks to monitor the environmental conditions under which they can be found. During our survey we successfully saw pika, scat, and haystacks! Our hike to the pika survey site ended with two unique firsts: the Y-e-l-l-o-w-s-t-o-n-e picture and Kali’s discovery of a set of elk antler sheds.

Group surveying for pika

The group surveying for pika

Group spelling out YellowstoneOur group, spelling out Yellowstone

Early in the afternoon we took the Howard Eaton Trail to view the upper Mammoth Terrace Hot Springs. Although it was mostly uphill (and we were breathing heavily) it was well worth the journey to view the Upper Terrace. The rain held off long enough for us to make it through the boardwalk and view the different colors of the hot springs. Emily gave a great presentation of her expert topic on bioprospecting. We learned that the presence of archaea – “thermophiles”- is what causes the different colors in thermal areas. After the Terrace hike, we had some down time to eat and walk around the Mammoth Hot Springs area.

Mammoth Terraces

On our drive to the “Hitching Post” (hoping for more wolf sightings), we stopped at a pond to observe ducks enjoying the sunshine. There were ringnecks, ruddy ducks and the good ole American coot enjoying an afternoon swim. We were thrilled when Casey spotted a badger scurrying along the pond. Badgers are known for being quite vicious and will fight predators such as bears and wolves. While we did not observe an encounter with a predator, we did see the badger enjoying his supper, a tasty Uinta ground squirrel. Luckily, everyone was able to see it!

Badger with a uninta ground squirrel it caught

Badger with the Uinta ground squirrel it ate.

A double bear sighting was a good way to finish up our day of wildlife observations. We saw what folks out here call a “cinnamon bear” (a brown colored black bear) VERY close to the road and a black bear hiking up the side of the Yellowstone River were seen within 5 minutes of each other!

With luck on our side, we get to finish up the night early at the Roosevelt Rough Rider cabins. This day has been nothing short of badgers, bears, and beers.

Till next time,

Kali, Casey, Michele

P.S

Poo-pourri makes a great air freshener for the car!

Yellowstone

“A Lesson in Safe Selfies”

June 16, 2019

“For the strength of the wolf is the pack, and the strength of the pack is the wolf.”

Today was incredible. Our first full day of adventure began at 5am this morning. Our first sighting was a young, but large bull moose who hadn’t yet started regrowing his freshly shed antlers. While mesmerized in our “moose moment” we heard someone say, ‘Bear!’ and after quickly turning around we saw a black bear rounding up its morning breakfast. As some of us watched the bear, and the moose, we also simultaneously saw mountain goats grazing on the side of steep cliffs above us! Needless to say, the first 30 minutes of the day was full of exciting, extraordinary nature. Many of us believed that our trip couldn’t possibly get better than this.

Boy, were we wrong.

As we’ve continued on our travels, we have become increasingly good at identifying contrasting colors on the landscape through our wildlife watching. This is a skill perfected by the professionals and one admired by many. Because, let’s be honest, when you’re as excited as we are, traveling in the park looking for critters- everything (rocks, bushes, shadows) looks like something. But, good news! As the sun rose over the mountainside, we peered into the breathtaking Lamar Valley. We observed playful “red dogs”, as the baby bison are called out here, their stocky parents, sandhill cranes and pronghorn. The beauty here is breathtaking, and each landscape is different, making you forget that you began your day this morning at 4am.

Late morning, we sighted a wolf den and also saw a grizzly feverishly digging for grubs after his long hibernation. Around 8 o’clock we met with Kira Cassidy, a wolf biologist at the park. She holds an important and somewhat envious position in Yellowstone, researching the behavioral aspects and overall influences of the various wolf packs on the park. With Kira, we hiked down to a cluster of wolf collar points to see if we could determine why these canines spent time in the area. Unfortunately with the recent rainfall, the water level in the creek nearby was too high, and we weren’t able to reach what was likely the remains of an elk carcass. But Kira entertained us with wolf stories – including the tale of wolves that were helping to care for pups but if they couldn’t find any food to bring back to the den, would instead find and bring back humorous souvenirs such as sticks to chew on, lost tourists hats and even a traffic cone for the new pups to play with! How funny!

Kira told us an interesting story about two female wolves who keep trading roles as alpha female in the Junction Butte pack. Both wolves denned at the same time and the beta wolf, the alpha’s sister, and other subordinates attacked the alpha and her pups. Kira states that this is only the 10th or 11th time this has occurred over the last 24 years. However, the alpha then went on to raise the beta’s pups, as if nothing had ever happened! The politics of the wolf hierarchy far surpass anything originally thought.

Wetland walk

Walking through the beautiful Slough Creek drainage with wolf biologist, Kira Cassidy

After our big wolf excursion, we continued observing wildlife and went round-trip to Mammoth where we saw some amazing and disturbing things. And here we’d like to take a moment to discuss taking ‘safe-selfies’ as a much needed (based on today’s observations) public service announcement….When you next vacation to Yellowstone, or anywhere you might see wildlife, especially the wildlife that is faster and larger than you (i.e. wolves, elk, bison, bears, large birds of prey, etc.) do not get within 75 to 100 feet. Be aware of how fast things can change when these animals become stressed. They do not not want you there, the selfie isn’t worth it. Please get out and experience nature, conserve and educate others about it. But, be safe doing it.

Person standing too close to an elk.

What NOT to do.

To end our day, we drove to the Lamar Valley hitching post pull-off for our evening group meeting. As we unloaded for our short walk to a better view, a car of five unloaded and began jogging very quickly towards us. We stopped to look around, ‘They’re here, right there, right there!’ in hushed but forceful tones. We looked at each other. What is there? Where?

Wolves.

Binoculars snapped upwards, some ran to the van to pull out the spotting scopes. We quickly scanned the ridges ahead of us and helplessly tried to see what we had been waiting for. ‘Look between the conifers, on a game trail, they’re walking,’ they said. And they were. Two very large black wolves and off to the right, a grey wolf. Suddenly barking, loud yelps, brown masses began to emerge on the ridge much smaller than those already in our eyesight. Their cries echoed between the hills. These coyotes, another, smaller species of the dog family, were not happy with the proximity of the wolves to what was likely their den. Pronghorn turned up to face the action, flight animals, ready to run. For what seemed like forever, the coyotes barked and we traced the ridges following the pack, watching them weave between tree clusters. Satisfied with their work, the wolves strolled over the ridge, unaffected by the uproar they caused. Frantically, we asked others if they could see them, we moved locations to find the pack but they were gone. Silence.

Without a doubt, today is a day we will never forget. We had an octo-ungulate morning, seeing all eight hoofed animals in Yellowstone National Park, all before 10:30 am. That alone has to be a record. Finally, after hearing all that Kira had to say about the infamous park wolves, our encounter was that much more meaningful. We wake up each morning to a beautiful sunrise, each day a new journey. Everywhere you look you see God’s creation thriving in an incredible piece of history. We sleep tonight knowing that more adventure awaits tomorrow.

Group in front of a waterfall

A very wet spring meant that Wraith Falls was very powerful!

Fun facts:

⁃ Black bears are generally smaller here than ours in eastern North Carolina.

⁃ Bison will sometimes run towards their predator which acts as an intimidating trait.

⁃ The ungulates in Yellowstone are: bison, pronghorn, moose, mountain goat, big horn sheep, mule deer, white-tailed deer, and elk.

Warmly,

Mandie, Kristen and Emily

Yellowstone

“Entering Wonderland”

June 15, 2019

Our day has consisted of a 5am start, a 2 hr time zone change, and an excursion through Walmart followed by the Yellowstone wilderness. Here are some highlight of today’s events:

– We survived the hour-long TSA security line that almost spanned all the way out the door of the airport

– Bayleigh and Kristen got their “wings!” It was their first time on a plane!

– We completed an ultra-efficient, lightning-speed “Supermarket Sweep” at Walmart. We left with 3 carts filled to the brim.

Full grocery carts

The results of the great “supermarket sweep”- enough food for field breakfast and lunches for 10 days!

– As soon as we entered the park, we were accosted by wildlife. Just beyond the Roosevelt arch, we saw elk and pronghorn. By the end of the day, we added bighorn sheep, bison, moose, magpie, osprey and eagles to the list (no bears YET).

– We literally touched history as we walked through the majestic stone entryway arch dedicated by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1903.

The grand north entrance to Yellowstone National Park- the Roosevelt Arch

– We heard ground squirrels squealing their high-pitched warning calls to the rest of their family group.

– We heard the word “ungulate” uttered more times today than ever before in our lives.

– Everyone sang “happy birthday” to Bayleigh at the Mammoth Terrace Grill.

In all, Megan summed up our experience on Day 1 well when she described Yellowstone as “a journey through Wonderland.” We are already in awe of this place. Our souls were touched by the vastness of the magnificence of God’s creation surrounding us, Yellowstone National Park. We are excited for more adventures in the days ahead! Signing off for tonight, the Hot Springs group.

Yellowstone

“A time of transition”

Pile of clothes and gear

The pile of gear needed for a 10-day adventure in Yellowstone can be quite overwhelming, especially for a small dog…

This week has been a time of transition for many of us. Some of us have been out of school for weeks, some of us were still teaching students yesterday, and all of us are excited to be traveling to Yellowstone today!

Tropical Ecology

“The last full day”

July 31

Our last full day in Belize!

Woke up after last night’s tropical rain to a cool, refreshing breeze. The sunrise was beautiful as evident in the pictures taken by the early morning kayak crew. After breakfast we discussed the sadness of having to return to the real world and the absence of a cook/chef, wait staff, and Nathan to guide us through the day.

We visited Carrie Bow Caye Smithsonian Research Station to get an up-close view of the work being done on corals along Belize’s barrier reef. We learned that the researchers are anxiously awaiting the annual coral spawn and are hoping it will occur tonight (the 31st). The coral spawn is being used to study the effects of ocean acidification on coral polyps. Zach, the station manager, showed us two nesting sites for Hawksbill Sea Turtles that were made last night! Babies should hatch in 60 days.

Originally we had planned to snorkel in the Mangroves, but last night’s rainstorm stirred up too much sediment. Not wanting to miss our 5th snorkel opportunity, we traveled to another patch reef to see what we could see. Despite some serious chop, everyone was excited about the diversity of corals, as well as seeing a large stingray, barracuda, many spiny sea urchins and a Nurse Shark.

Our last night began with hilarious group “presentations.” Each team reflected on our experience in a creative skit. The skits began with the leaders’ brief presentation and ended with “The Beast,” a tradition since 1987.

 

Tropical Ecology

“Night snorkel”

night snorkel

Thank you Tony Rath photography!

We had a fabulous night snorkel and are grateful to Tony Rath photography for capturing our group under the Milky Way!

Tropical Ecology

“Paradise”

We awoke on the island at South Water Caye with the breeze drifting in through the open door and palm trees. A handful of us adventured out early before our full day to enjoy a quiet morning kayaking to enjoy the sunrise. We spotted cormorants feeding and a rainbow to greet us as we started our day.

After a breakfast of creole bread (similar to sourdough), eggs, breakfast sausage, and fried beans, we took a short walk around the island. All of our educators were assigned expert topics before we arrived in Belize, and we were able to hear about conch shells, pumice, mangrove trees, coconuts and the Magnificent Frigate birds found on the island. Nathan demonstrated how to remove the tough husk from a coconut by impaling it on a stake and then using a machete to get to the coconut meat on the inside. Only the brave of heart tried to do the same!

We headed out for our first of three snorkels of the day to the Aquarium Reef, a pristine part of the Belize Barrier Reef. The Belize Barrier Reef is the second largest reef in the world, and the the largest living reef. It is estimated that close to 90% of the reef is healthy, as evidenced by the vibrant colors of the coral and biodiversity we witnessed. On the reef, we saw stingrays, schools of fish and a few of us even spotted a Hawksbill Sea Turtle swimming! We saw squid, and held conchs and touched a sea cucumber.

After lunch, we snorkeled closer to the island and paired up, trying to observe a particular fish’s activity. We came back together in the evening where we shared about our first day on the island and then mentally prepared ourselves for a night snorkel. We broke into small groups with dive flashlights and glow sticks and slowly snorkeled, looking for octopuses, lobsters and sleeping fish. The reef is just as breathtaking at night.

A friend on the island took a picture of our group where the Milky Way and stars were bright in the background. The sight of the countless stars and sounds of the storm rolling in lulled us all to a restful sleep and another beautiful memory of Belize.

Tropical Ecology

“Last Day in the Jungle”

During our last night in the Jaguar Preserve we took a short walk to find Jason’s Favorite Bug — the Dragon Head Bug. It is only found on one species of tree, and spends the day in the canopy before coming down the trunk at night. Sure enough, we found it on the tree where Jason had spotted it last year!

A morning boardwalk to the South Stann Creek started our day. We were really excited to see Keel-billed Toucans. While they were a little distance away they were easy to see with binoculars and a spotting scope. Plus they have a really distinctive silhouette that looks like a “crow pushing a banana.”

After a delicious breakfast that included johnny cakes, we set off for the Ben’s Bluff Waterfall. We enjoyed hiking through the jungle, marveling at the buttress roots, huge philodendron, and beautiful tropical heliconias. The waterfall was beautiful. We were able to swim back to the little grotto created by the force of the water. Back there we found a small bird nest with two eggs. We think it is a Cave Swallow nest. We then took turns posing under the cascade, with Nathan kicking it off posing like a weightlifter!

Our hike back down was fast because we were looking forward to heading to the coast, but we slowed to a stop when Nathan spotted a Coral Snake. This was the first snake in the wild we have seen. Nathan made sure everyone got a chance to see it.

We headed back down the road to Maya Center where we stocked up on chocolate products at Che’il. We were all excited to buy the products we had learned how to make after our chocolate tour the day before — YUM YUM YUM!

At Pelican Beach Hotel in Dangriga we enjoyed a beautiful view of the Caribbean as we relaxed over lunch. Our luggage filled the bow of the boat, and we sat towards the back for our ride to Pelican’s Pouch at Southwater Caye. We were shocked when we had an hour of free time to get ready for our first snorkel.

We met on the beach to try out our snorkel gear. After making sure that everyone’s  masks fit, we swam over the Turtlegrass to our first reef. We saw lots of fish including Stoplight Parrotfish, Fairy Basslet, and a Nurse Shark! We stayed with our buddies and spent nearly an hour “oohing and aahing” into our snorkels before it was time to get back.

Our evening meeting was with a view of the sunset, and after dinner we spent a little time stargazing and identifying constellations. We saw at least three shooting stars, too!

We are enjoying this transition from jungle to sea.

Tropical Ecology

“From the Zoo to the Reef”

Our last day at DuPlooy’s started off with breakfast burrito and a huge THANK YOU to the staff who took such wonderful care of us during our stay. It was hard to leave, but the Belize Zoo and our hero, Sharon Matola, awaited us and we did not want to be late! Only two hours separated us from some of the most amazing animals that we would ever see. Can we go on permanent vacation in Belize? 

We pulled up to the zoo, parked and made our way inside to be greeted by Queen Green, the resident boa constrictor. Each of our group members was able to take a once in a lifetime photo of themselves with the boa. Even those of us who were scared of snakes could not resist the Queen. She had just shed her skin and her light blue shimmer was eye-catching, to say the least. As we made our way through the zoo, we were in awe of everything from the hand-painted signs to the opportunity to go behind a “Staff Only” fence and give a crocodile a foot massage. 

We loved seeing Chiquibui, the Jaguar, who was a surprise to the zoo after her mom joined the family, carrying a little surprise stowaway with her! Our favorite visit was with Indy and Sparks, the tapirs. Tapirs are the national animal of Belize, but were once plagued by myths regarding their supposedly aggressive behavior, although you could have fooled us! Indy and Sparks were friendly, playful and kind. We even were able to feed Indy his favorite snack of carrots and scratch his back, which he loved. 

The most incredible part of the Belize Zoo, however, was being able to meet the heart and soul of the zoo: Sharon Matola. She is a hero to many of our group members and, likewise, people around the world. What she has done for the people and animals of Belize is nothing short of a lifetime achievement.  She left us with the idea that “no animal is unteachable” and we could not help but agreeing and will carry that sentiment with us into our classrooms.  

From the zoo, we visited the market in Belmopan to grab some unusual fruits for an exotic tasting. Have you heard of craboo or soursop? We hadn’t either! 

The next stop was the Blue Hole, a crystal clear pool of blue water tucked into a rocky cliff. There was even a cave only accessible by swimming and you know we had to check that out. It was as solid as the rock we stood on to take a group picture. A quick dip was all we needed to recharge before we headed to the Jaguar Reserve and the Mayan Center. We arrived just in time to head out in search of tarantulas and scorpions, which we found immediately. 

After an early morning bird walk on Saturday, we headed off to the remote village of Monkey River to meet the people and interact with the students. Our teachers planned engaging activities to challenge the minds of these young learners while getting to know them and their culture better. A delicious lunch prepared by former students of Monkey River school hit the spot and we hopped on the fishing boat to cross back over to the mainland, but not before catching sight of a gar fish! 

On the way home we stopped at the Mayan Center to get a personal chocolate making lesson from Julio, whose family has been living on that land for over 100 years. We were able to make chocolate from cacao seeds and it was the best chocolate we have ever tasted. Julio even gave us a lesson on the history of Mayan culture and how the Jaguar Reserve has affected the Mayan people. Ecotourism is the livelihood of the village and the community is thriving. 

We are in love with Belize; so much. Now, on to the sea turtles. 

Tropical Ecology

“From the top of the temple down to the river”

One of the many amazing things about Belize is how awake and ready we are to hit the ground running when that 5:30am alarm goes off!

We began our day with a walk through the Belize Botanical Gardens, where we saw Jackfruit, Ginger, Tamale leaves, Angel’s Trumpets and the Lodge’s Solar Panels! After breakfast we were lucky enough to see Collared Aracari Toucans by the deck!

Xunantunich - El Castillo.

Xunantunich – El Castillo.

We then traveled to Xunantunich where we hiked on and up Mayan ruins. It was breathtaking! We explored the residential areas for nobility — El Castillo (“the castle,” in Spanish) is 130 feet above the plaza floor. It is the second-tallest building in Belize. The Mayans were at their peak around 500 or 600 A.D. Approximately 7–10,000 people lived at Xunantunich, with around one million inhabiting the country.

After an awesome morning, the day just got better!

After lunch we grabbed life jackets and paddles and met at the beach on the Macal River. We jumped in canoes and spent several hours floating and paddling (about seven miles). The wildlife was plentiful and we were surrounded by bird noises, iguanas, rapids, bats and teachers talking.

When we got off the river we were treated to visit to a local ice cream joint! So delicious! We had all kinds of flavors new to us — sour sop, sweet corn, and crab. Also flavors we knew such as coconut, pineapple, chocolate, etc.

We headed back to DuPlooys to learn about figs and get ready for dinner!

Tree frog

Tropical Ecology

“Oh what a Day!”

Tuesday, July 24 and Wednesday July 25, 2018

Tuesday — The day begins at “0-dark 30.” Even thought most of us were up before 4am, everyone seemed to be awake and cheery. Liz saved the day on our first flight by responding to a medical emergency. GO LIZ! Happy to report the passenger who fainted is fine.

We landed in Belize, met Nathan (our guide), Bruce (our bus driver) and Nora and Armin (our Belizean educators). Our first stop was to meet former participant Ryan Elijio!

The group with Ryan.

The group with Ryan.

On to the Community Baboon Sanctuary, where we saw a mom and baby Howler Monkey. They came to say “Hi.” Mom came first and we were amazed that she came close enough to touch, BUT THEN the baby followed in her exact same path, and we were so close we felt as if it saw our souls! We learned the names of many plants and tasted cashew fruit. We also learned they make wine from it!

We went on to duPlooy’s Jungle Lodge where we enjoyed a delicious dinner and a night walk where we found a sleeping Basilisk Lizard down by the Macal River.

Peanut-headed Bug.

Peanut-headed Bug.

Wednesday — We took a bird walk where we spent much of time looking at plants and insects. We tasted Velvet Apples (Diospyros discolor) and had fry jacks for breakfast. We then drove to the Mountain Pine Ridge where we hiked to the Domingo Ruiz Cave. We found a Peanut-headed bug on a tree and got to see its beautiful eye spots.

The eye spots of the Peanut-headed Bug.

The eye spots of the Peanut-headed Bug.

Jason was  “done for the day” with that find!

Group in Domingo Ruiz Cave.

Group in Domingo Ruiz Cave.

Later in the cave we saw a baby bat snuggled next to its mom and we could hear their wings when we sat in the pitch dark. We later sang in the dark because it sounds so good in the cave!

Rio Frio Cave.

Rio Frio Cave.

The Rio Frio Cave was an amazing experience and contrast to Domingo Ruiz Cave. Rather than being deep and subterranean, it was huge and open to a river on both ends! And we watched in amazement as a katydid ATE a cicada!

Katydid eating a cicada!

Katydid eating a cicada!

We finished out the day playing in the waterfalls at the Rio On Pools, and returned to duPlooy’s in time for quick showers and a meeting before dinner. Then, off to a night walk topped off by looking at insects attracted to a sheet and bright light that Jason set up.

And RACHEL wanted to send a BIG birthday greeting to her mom!

Happy Birthday Mom!

Happy Birthday Mom!

 

Tropical Ecology

“Airport July 24, 2018”

The group heading to Belize!

The group heading to Belize!

We have made it to Fort Lauderdale and are eagerly awaiting our next flight. The teams are currently researching birds and plants we will see from the bus. Lots of great laughter already!

Shannon working on her journal.

Shannon working on her journal.

Tropical Ecology

“Getting Ready”

The countdown is on.

Twelve teachers from across the state are packing their bags with everything they need for the upcoming Tropical Ecology Institute. Convertible quick dry pants, umbrella, camera, binoculars, water bottle, rain gear, sunscreen, snorkel gear … and the list goes on and on. It is at this point that we all begin to wonder “Will all of this fit into my duffel?” And yet every year, somehow it does.

Thirty-one years ago the first Tropical Ecology Institute for educators took place. While today’s trip takes advantage of advances in technology, improved roads, and access to new locations in Belize, at its heart, is it the same experience. It is designed to give educators a first-hand experience in tropical ecology, which will improve their ability to teach students across North Carolina. It is not a vacation in the tropics, it is an immersion in the tropics.  While participants gain new factual knowledge, they also develop a deep appreciation for Belize and her people, and learn new skills to take back to their classrooms. Teachers return refreshed, inspired and more committed to improving science education across the state.

We cannot wait for it to begin.

New England

“The end. The beginning.”

Today is the end — the end of our time together in Maine and New Hampshire. The end of our time experiencing these wild landscapes. The end of sharing our daily experiences with each other. The end of achy feet and sore muscles and smelly clothes. The end of our Educators of Excellence Institute to New England. But, as the saying goes, every end is a new beginning. The beginning of our memories. The beginning of our planning and collaborations. The beginning of our lifelong friendships. The beginning of sharing our stories and pictures and inspirations with our students and friends and families. We are excited for what lies ahead.

Grateful to be enjoying our big breakfast together as the rain pours down outside.

As the rain poured down outside (and we all expressed deep gratitude that we made it off the trail before this weather system moved into the area!), we gathered for a well-deserved, hearty breakfast at the AMC Highland Center. We didn’t have to rush our eating in order to have time to stuff everything in our packs and lace up our boots for another long hike. This morning was different. This morning as we gathered together we could take our time — time to reflect on what we will take away from this trip and how we will use these experiences in our classrooms. It was inspiring to be able to brainstorm and share our knowledge with one another, and to see creative sparks fly among so many passionate educators all in one room. How bittersweet it was, knowing that this would be the last time (until our reunion in November) that our “trail family” would all sit in a circle, sharing time together.

On our way to the airport, we shared our last meal at the Gypsy Cafe where we talked about our regrets and our appreciations. It’s important to verbalize the things we may have regrets about, to acknowledge them so we can leave them behind and move forward in positivity — maybe we wished we looked at our watches or phones a little bit less, or journaled a little bit more. Our few regrets were drowned out by waves of appreciations for each other — lots of stories of kind words, smiles, and the ready laughter that were so abundant on our trip. We feel proud of ourselves for taking risks to try new things, for being brave in difficult situations, and for the commitment we make to translate these experiences and places into opportunities for our students (and colleagues) at home. We also shared how we feel connected to this land, and invigorated by time spent in wild places. It is our hope that we can continue our adventures back home in NC and be the guides for the next generation of environmentally literate citizens, helping them to feel connected to, and compassion for, the natural world.

Our task regarding creativity is to help children climb their own mountains, as high as possible. No one can do more.

~Loris Malaguzzi

Remember that time we all piled in one car to sit on the side of the road watching a moose and her baby?

The fabulous educators of the New England Institute- view from Celia Thaxter’s garden on Appledore Island, ME.

New England

“On the Road Again…”

Each AMC hut prides themselves on the daily chalkboard interpretations of place, croo names, and (not pictured) the menu for the day.

We awoke this morning at Mizpah Spring Hut at an elevation of 3,777 feet. After filling our bellies with croo-made pancakes, we had a relatively easy 2.7 mile hike down to The Highlands Center Lodge at 1,900 feet. On the way, we heard many songbirds, saw some red squirrels and a chipmunk, and transitioned into the hardwood forest. In the forest, we saw several tiny American toads; they were so cute, and camouflaged perfectly with the leaf litter on the trail!

As we descended from the Presidential Range, the terrain began to feel much more familiar to us. We traded the gray, rocky landscape above tree line for various shades of green below. We were surprised to find lots of water along our path in the forms of small springs and creeks. This culminated into the highlight of our hike: a stop at Gibbs Falls. It was a lovely respite. Our team stopped and sat quietly, listening to the peaceful sounds of the rushing, cold water. The cool air surrounding the clear pool beneath the falls refreshed us as we bolstered ourselves for the final half mile of our hike.

Quiet contemplation at Gibbs Falls

Before long, we began to once again hear the telltale signs of civilization. Our time on the trail ended with a sign marking the Crawford Path, the oldest continuously used mountain trail in America. As we emerged from the forest and onto asphalt, the feeling was bittersweet.

Our hike retraced historical footsteps along the Crawford Path.

The final steps from the trailhead to the Appalachian Mountain Club Highland Center – a tasty lunch and hot showers await! (Photo: Josh Reed)

We checked into the AMC Highland Center, ate our lunch of salads, soups, and sandwiches, and then all of us made a mad dash towards our first hot shower in several days. After a bit of time to relax and reflect on the last leg of the trip, we took a stroll around Ammonoosuc Lake, a small, spring-fed body of water that is just down from the main building. Along the trail around the lake, we saw lots of wildflowers (including lupine and two different colors of lady slippers (a spring ephemeral wildflower), tadpoles, evidence of spotted salamanders, and an owl pellet.

Beautiful lupine along the Ammonoosuc Lake trail (Photo: Josh Reed).

As we finished our stroll, we took the opportunity to dub one another with creative trail names. This is a common practice for through-hikers along the Appalachian trail, but a person cannot create his/her own trail name, so this turned out to be a great demonstration of our camaraderie and admiration for one another gained throughout our adventure.

As we wrapped up our final evening group meeting, we watched as the clouds turned dark, indicating a storm on the horizon. The looming dark skies contrasted with the beautiful weather our group has been thankful for throughout our many adventures this week.

New England

“5 Miles on the Appalachian Trail”

We began our early morning with a fun-filled, Harry Potter-themed breakfast hosted by the Appalachian Mountain Club “Croo” (crew) at Lakes of the Clouds Hut at the base of Mt. Washington. Immediately after breakfast we began our strenuous nine-hour hike up mountains, down rocky slopes, and across alpine meadows.

The beginning of the steep hike up from Lakes of the Clouds to Mt. Monroe (you can see the Mt. Washington Observatory behind us in the distance).

We hiked across (or around) the summits of Mt. Monroe, Mt. Franklin, Mt. Eisenhower, and Mt. Pierce, and ended our trek at Mizpah Spring Hut. We worked tirelessly as a team all day — supporting each other with gear, shoulders to lean on, and words of encouragement.

Frances shares her passion for plants with us when we discover a patch of “bog cotton” along the trail. Now it is one of our favorite plants from this new environment!

Our group ended the day with a delicious meal and tired feet. Dinner was filled with laughs and a great sense of accomplishment. As we fall asleep tonight (which won’t take long!), we can reflect back on all the different habitat types we hiked through — from the treeless alpine zone, to krummholz (trees stunted in their growth due to extreme weather conditions), to the boreal forest. Tomorrow is a new (and shorter!) day and we will hike down into the northern hardwood forest.

Look how far we’ve come! Five miles (9.5 hours) later, we arrive at our destination- Mizpah Spring hut.

New England

“The toughest mile…(so far)”

Today was a day of surprises. We ascended Mount Washington this morning, and were scheduled for a visit to the Alpine Garden. This was not your ordinary garden.

Almost to the Alpine Garden.

The Alpine Garden (almost): not many readily visible flowers unless you look very closely! Renee holds a Snickers bar with a wrapper that says “cray cray” which pretty much epitomized the weather conditions we experienced today.

Instead of 85 degrees and sunshine, this garden thrives in 45 degrees and lots of wind. Instead of a lush meadow full of flowers, we found rocks. Lots of rocks. But if we looked closer, we could see some tiny, tenacious, treasures — miniature alpine flowers like cranberry (which we sampled, and we can verify that they tasted like craisins), sandwort and Diapensia (a relative of our pixie moss). Mostly it was very cold, very windy and very unexpected.

The summit of Mount Washington – site of the highest human-recorded land wind speed — 231 mph.

The summit of Mount Washington – site of the highest human-recorded land wind speed — 231 mph.

Looking down from the inside of the Observatory tower.

Looking down from the inside of the Observatory tower.

Once at the top, we got treated to a behind-the-scenes tour of the Mount Washington Observatory. It was so neat to see how all of our data that appears at the click of a mouse is painstakingly collected by lots of instruments and dedicated souls.

We also met the observatory cat named Marty!

On our way down, with the help of AMC Air Quality Scientist Georgia Murray and her intern Lauren, we learned about some of the citizen science monitoring that is happening with the alpine flowers. We will be able to help collect observations the next few days. Documenting the phenology (timing of plant stages) helps keep a record of changes in timing as the climate warms.

Learning about monitoring phenology of alpine wildflowers. In the distance you can see the white roof of our destination hut, Lakes of the Clouds.

AMC Air Quality Scientist Georgia Murray (with her back to the camera in a red backpack) teaches us about monitoring phenology of alpine wildflowers. In the distance you can see the white roof of our destination hut, Lakes of the Clouds.

Though it wasn’t far, the rocky, downhill trail was a challenge for many of us, but we helped each other along the way and made it to Lakes of the Clouds Hut safely in time for dinner!

Tomorrow we have our longest-mileage day ahead of us, and we don’t anticipate having cell signal to post the blog until Wednesday.

We will fall asleep tonight after a spectacular sunset with the fading glow on the horizon.

Sunset from Lakes of the Clouds hut.

Sunset from Lakes of the Clouds hut.

New England

“Lobster Rolls and Momma Moose make our day”

The morning was cool and cloudy but warmed up nicely to reveal blue skies. It is our final day on Appledore island. Nature can be calming and nature can be cruel. I think some of us are leaving with the sense that we are glad not to have been born a seagull. The nesting colony of gulls here face numerous hardships, but also enjoy unlimited beauty. Blair witnessed a vicious gull attack where one herring gull attacked another, presumably to dine on its one and only chick. A battle ensued and gulls were tossing and flopping about, with locked beaks and making perilous sounds. The battle ended in successful defense by the parent of the one chick. Whew!

The wind turbine that helps generate some electricity for the island. Not pictured are the many (gull poop covered) solar panel arrays that generate the bulk of the power for the island.

We finished our time on the island with two tours. Our first one highlighted the sustainability features of toilets, electricity generation, water usage, and hot water generation. Over the years, Shoals Marine Lab has been installing solar panels, a wind turbine, rain water catchment systems, and composting toilets to conserve valuable resources in a remote location. The rain water can currently only be used for watering Celia Thaxter’s historic garden because the rooftops are covered in gull droppings. Celia Thaxter was the daughter of the owner of the once-grand Appledore hotel, and she hosted many different artists in her home, including Childe Hassam. Shoals Marine Lab keeps the garden up to preserve a part of the island’s hotel-era history (which ended abruptly in 1914 with a devastating fire). Though people can’t drink the rainwater captured from the rooftops, Celia’s garden has benefited from these additional nutrients and the flowers were spectacular.

“The earth laughs in flowers.” ~Ralph Waldo Emerson

Frances channeling the spirit of Celia Thaxter in her garden. Photo: Renee Pagoota-Wight.

Once on land (and back in New Hampshire), we quickly descended upon Sanders Fish Market for quintessential lobster rolls. Everyone ate with vigor and we continued our journey north to Joe Dodge Lodge (at AMC Pinkham Notch Visitor Center). Sadly the only wildlife we spotted along the drive were two roadkill porcupines, and one (fortunately) live red fox. We cannot wait for “luxurious” rooms and showers (which were limited on the island to conserve water).

And then, as we were closing our day on a quiet wetland boardwalk near the lodge, our meeting was interrupted in the best possible way — when a momma moose and her yearling calf decided to join us at the pond! (OMG!!!!!!) Our unexpected visitors left us thrilled and excited to see what other surprises these new terrestrial and alpine environments hold for us over the next few days!

*Note: We may not be able to post blogs again until we get off the trail again on Wednesday.

New England

“An Unexpected ‘Tern’ of Events”

This morning we went hiking around the northern coast of the island. We traveled with Lab Coordinator Bonnie Clarke and External Relations Coordinator Alexa Hilmer as they guided us on a two-hour tour. Bonnie focused specifically on the geology of the island, highlighting the fact that the island is mostly granite with portions of other strikingly visible igneous and metamorphic features (e.g. dikes).

Standing in the same spot as Childe Hassam, overlooking Broad Cove. You might notice that the tide during our visit today was higher than in the painting.

In part two of the hike, Alexa continued our discussion of the American impressionist painter Childe Hassam. She brought prints of some of his paintings from Appledore and we had fun trying to find the specific location and the exact vantage points (lines of sight) where he sat to create his masterpieces. Even today, almost a hundred years later, we continue to be inspired by the same, ever-changing views of light on rocks and water.

One of our animal observations from the hike was that the gulls on the northern cliffs definitely seemed more anxious of humans than those nesting around the dorms and labs. We got to witness two gulls locking beaks in a heated battle for territory and dominance. It was neat to see up close some of the behaviors we had learned about the day before!

When hiking through the gull colony it is best to heed President Theodore Roosevelt’s policy — “speak softly and carry a big stick."

When hiking through the gull colony it is best to heed President Theodore Roosevelt’s policy — “speak softly and carry a big stick.”

As the morning continued, we hiked south towards Smith’s Cove. This southernmost tip of the island contained some phenomenal evidence of both glacial movement as well as metamorphism within the granite. And (perhaps most importantly?), since the southern end of the island is not a nesting area for gulls, our team got to enjoy a momentary respite from the attack birds as we examined and discussed the rock formations.

A peaceful image of our group on the rocky southern coast of Appledore Island.

The group captures our best interpretation of “attack gulls.”

After our great morning walk, we had the opportunity to hear from the REU (Research Experience for Undergraduate) student interns. In addition to two-week course offerings, undergraduate students also have the opportunity to apply for research intern positions that allow them to research for 10 weeks on the island. Some of the topics the 2018 interns are researching include: sea animals eating plastics; parasites that possibly influence green crab behavior; the effects of sound vibrations on hermit crabs; and seal populations and entanglements. We hope our students back home will have such amazing opportunities for themselves in the future!

After lunch and a seal identification crash course from Alexa, we were able to put our skills in identification to the test with a boat tour of neighboring Duck Island. Staying a safe (and federally-mandated) distance away we were able to practice distinguishing the different characteristics of the Harbor Seal and Gray Seal as we viewed them “hauled out” on the rocks and bobbing in the water near our boat!

The highlight of the day was our attempted visit to the tern colony on White Island. Last night, Dr. Liz Craig taught us about the Common, Roseate, and Arctic Terns; These three tern species are the subjects of conservation and restoration programs on the Isles of Shoals. We were prepared to visit the island via small inflatable rafts that required a water landing (our feet would get wet) and then we were going to explore what promised to be a loud and messy tern colony. Some of us were dressed better for this adventure than others.

Compactor bags make great ponchos, protecting against not only rain but also lots of bird poop from angry terns.

Compactor bags make great ponchos, protecting against not only rain but also lots of bird poop from angry terns.

Alas, It was not meant to be. We learned first hand what Eisenhower knew when he said: “Plans are worthless, but planning is everything.” The weather was not cooperating, so we did what teachers do best and improvised our plans. Liz (who is now everyone’s rockstar role model) captured a few baby terns and brought them to us on the boat, which was securely moored just off shore!* Can you imagine?! We got to participate in taking measurements and banding baby terns aboard the boat. We learned the importance of banding to help scientists follow bird flight patterns and better understand their nesting behaviors. Everyone had a “tern” to hold a baby chick and we all hope to “retern” again someday!

Josh holds a newly hatched Common Tern chick in his hands.

Josh holds a newly hatched Common Tern chick in his hands. If you look closely you can still see the tiny white “egg tooth” on the end of its bill. This helps the chick peck a hole into its eggshell from the inside so it can hatch!

*Please note — no chicks were harmed during this quick, educational adventure. After being measured and banded, they were safely transported back to their nests on land.

New England

“A Sunrise to Remember & a Whale of a Day!”

We all gathered at Broad Cove this morning to view a beautiful Appledore sunrise at 5:01am. It was a peaceful morning to pause and also channel our inner impressionist and use watercolors to create seaside postcards. We learned that Childe Hassam, an influential American impressionist, spent 30 years using Appledore Island, Maine as the inspiration for his art. Impressionist artists focus on light and colors and Hassam often went straight to nature for his inspiration.

Sunrise at Broad Cove. Photo: Renee Pagoota-Wight.

Sunrise at Broad Cove. Photo: Renee Pagoota-Wight.

Later this morning, the group prepared for our whale watch experience by learning about the two types of cetaceans. We were most impressed with the beautiful baleen samples we were able to examine and touch.

Dr. Hal Weeks demonstrating the filter feeding powers of baleen.

Dr. Hal Weeks demonstrating the filter feeding powers of baleen. Photo by Renee Pagoota-Wight.

We departed Appledore Island shortly thereafter on the University of New Hampshire marine and ocean research ship, the Challenger R/V. Our group paired with a class of undergraduate students, growing the number of passengers onboard to 38 people.

Is that a whale over there?

Is that a whale over there?

Good weather and calm seas were expected for the journey and we eagerly anticipated observing a variety of whales and sea life. We were not disappointed! We saw several Fin and Minke whales, White-sided dolphins, and even spotted an enormous Basking Shark lurking right below the surface.

Poets in action.

Poets in action.

Once back onshore, Naila Moreira, a poet and faculty member from Smith College, met us on the Laighton building porch overlooking the dock and beautiful ocean cove. We interpreted environmental poetry, and even tested our creative writing skills by writing marine-focused poems. Naila then joined us on a walking tour of the gull colony with Dr. Liz Craig, academic coordinator from Seavey and White Islands, where she serves as the caretaker and researcher during the summer for the tern conservation colony. She was able to help us understand the behaviors of the Great Black-Backed and Herring Gulls.

Approaching the gull colony, defense sticks at the ready to prevent a possible attack.

Approaching the gull colony, defense sticks at the ready to prevent a possible attack.

After our visit to the full colony, we returned for a delicious dinner. One of the most outstanding parts of our trip has been the meals served to us on the island. Each meal consists of a variety of healthy, nutrient-rich options, all of which are filled with fresh vegetables and fruits. In addition, the chefs have done an amazing job creating vegan, gluten-free, and dairy free options. Tonight we even had flourless chocolate cake for dessert!

With full bellies and happy hearts we will fall asleep to the sound of gulls guarding their nests as we reflect on a quote Renee shared with us:

“The lasting pleasures of contact with the natural world are not reserved for scientists but are available for anyone who will place themselves under the influence of earth, sea, and sky and their amazing life.”
~ Rachel Carson

Sunset across Babb’s Cove. Photo: Renee Pagoota-Wight.

Sunset across Babb’s Cove. Photo: Renee Pagoota-Wight.

New England

“Below the surface…”

We had an extra early morning today for our first island sunrise from Broad Cove. We watched the colors spread across the sky in the company of gulls sitting, flying and calling from the surrounding rocks. We returned to the observatory deck of the central Commons building to pause and re-adjust our senses: shifting from a mainland mentality to an island one. We are still coming to terms with a new place that can seem both big and small at the same time.

After a delicious breakfast, we left dry land to fish for mackerel.

Fishing for mackerel.

Fishing for mackerel.

On the way to our fishing spot, the ocean was still and flat on the surface, but there was wildlife everywhere! We passed a grey seal along with plenty of cormorants, gulls and terns. The boat captain anchored us near an area of upwelling, where warm water currents bring nutrients from below up towards the surface. Within 15 minutes, fishing lines were reeled in with 4-5 mackerel per pole (some even had 6 fish at a time!), faster than we could get them off the hooks!

Cheryl hauls in a big catch — five at a time!

Cheryl hauls in a big catch — five at a time!

We motored back to the island to squeeze in our next exploration of the area’s tide pools. Intertidal zones are a harsh environment with drastic changes in temperatures and water levels, and we had an opportunity to find and observe the organisms that are adapted to survive in these conditions. Our wading was paused by the excited discoveries of hermit crabs, a Gunnell fish (it looked like a small eel), periwinkles, barnacles, small sea urchins, and a variety of algae (what we might call “seaweed” in the South). There is great joy to be found in taking the time to search for life that is often hidden just beyond our sight.

The intertidal zone.

The intertidal zone.

“Signals for Survival” was our after dinner movie treat. We learned about the behaviors of the herring and Great Black-backed gulls that we have observed while staying on the island. Effective communication between gulls is essential for their survival, and we reflected how true this is for humans too.

Dissecting dogfish to learn about fish anatomy.

Dissecting dogfish to learn about fish anatomy.

New England

“First Impressions”

Hurry up and wait. That seems to be the theme for today. New England Institute Day One: it was an early start, with everyone arriving at the airport at 4:15am, or thereabouts. Though bleary-eyed and caffeine-deprived there is excitement in the air. We are all anxious to smell the salty air and catch our first glimpse of the island. The learning-about-each-other process begins as we share stories and talk about the things we are most excited to see. We talk about the families we leave behind, the school year we just completed, the travels we have taken or want to take. As the miles pass under us, we start to feel more and more like a cohesive group. We are in this together. To learn from each other and from the lands we are about to explore.

By mid-morning we landed in Manchester, New Hampshire and drove east to Portsmouth. Then we lunched at the Portsmouth brewery. Some enjoyed chowder or sweet potato soup while others dined on fish sandwiches and fries. With our bellies full we headed to the dock and the ferry to our destination — Appledore Island, Maine. We shared the bay with cormorants and black-backed gulls and motored (in the heat of day) towards Shoals Marine Laboratory.

We weren’t on just any old ferry, we arrived today with the weekly food shipment. Once we docked, a human conveyor belt of more than 50 people formed to make the unloading process work smoothly. It was quite a sight to see the wide assortment of cargo make its way up and over the rocky shore — boxes of kale or eggs; mattresses and luggage — all passed from hand to hand. All this took place in the midst of multiple pairs of very large and alert nesting gulls.

After a gourmet dinner on the patio, we learned about the geologic and human history of the Isles of Shoals (specifically Appledore Island and Shoals Marine Lab), presented by Drs. Hal Weeks and Jim Coyer.

As the sun set in this postcard-like setting, which we are actually a part of, we observed a few moments of silence to take it all in. The raucous calls of great black-backed and herring gulls descended upon our ears. Words cannot describe the beauty of this island!!

The sun sets on Shoals Marine Laboratory.

The sun sets on Shoals Marine Laboratory.

New England

“Today was good. Today was fun. Tomorrow is another one.”

“Today was good. Today was fun. Tomorrow is another one.”

—Excerpt from “One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish,” by Dr. Seuss

These wise words by Dr. Seuss seem fitting on this last day of school for many of our NC educators. Today was good. Today was fun … and for our Educators of Excellence, tomorrow is another (fun) one!

Tomorrow the summer officially starts and preparations for our New England Institute can begin in earnest! With their classroom doors closed, our phenomenal group of teachers can begin to shift gears — away from grading papers and staff meetings to dipping their toes in the chilly waters of the Gulf of Maine and being “blown away” by the winds on Mount Washington, NH.

Our next week and a half will be full of wrapping up last minute tasks and packing, but then we will leave North Carolina to begin a grand adventure to New England! We can’t wait! There’s so much to do and see and learn!

Preparations are under way- a pile of gear and resources is almost ready to be packed, Photo: M. Davis

Yellowstone

“Junior Curators in Yellowstone”

This summer, the Museum’s Junior Curators, high school students who volunteer weekly to help take care of the Museum’s animal ambassadors, are taking a trip to Yellowstone!

From June 14-21, thirteen students will travel with Museum staff to visit Yellowstone National Park. We’ll take time to learn about the Park’s amazing wildlife, observe the geothermal energy released in hot springs and geysers, and take some hikes into Yellowstone’s backcountry.

The students will be posting blogs during the trip to the Museum’s Education blog site. We hope you’ll follow along!

Bison Silhouette