Ranger Trails: ‘Tween Extreme’ campers thrive in 10-week program

Park Ranger Briana Board with kids on Devils Kitchen trail.

“The best remedy for those who are afraid, lonely or unhappy is to go outside, somewhere where they can be quiet, alone with the heavens, nature and God.” — Diary of Anne Frank

As young Anne realized when her freedom to go outdoors was tragically lost, the human spirit thrives on experiences in the natural world.

However, simply telling a kid to go play outside often falls on deaf ears.

Especially during summer when it’s warm enough to fry a proverbial egg on a manhole cover, grown-ups meet resistance from youngsters who much prefer hanging out indoors.

To their credit, the inspired folks who run the city of Grand Junction’s 10-week summer camp program, Tween Extreme, managed to convince dozens of kids that actually being outdoors is, like, cool. They worked with park rangers at Colorado National Monument to enrich the experiences of so-called “tweens,” youngsters entering grades six to eight next fall.

“The purpose of this camp is to provide tweens a safe place to hang out instead of staying at home being bored,” says Heather Schroeder, who oversees the campers.

These lucky “tweens” proved to themselves it’s possible to survive for several hours under a blazing sun without turning into a fried egg. In other words, they soon learned that indoors has significant limitations.

You can’t, for instance, go for a four-mile hike in search of wild animals or desert flowers or skyscraping rocks until you leave the comfort of your air-conditioned house. Neither can you make a movie of your hike from inside your house. 

Tween Extreme campers accomplished both missions this summer. Under the supervision of Briana Board, a park ranger who teaches youngsters how remarkable nature can be if you only pay attention to it, they gained confidence in their own abilities to explore places where others fear to tread.

Within the 20,000-acre classroom that is Colorado National Monument, campers not only learned cool stuff about wild animals and plants, they recorded their discoveries with digital cameras.

One July morning, 20 campers hiked a meandering trail to Devils Kitchen, taking pictures of a cactus here, and a juniper there, mostly rocks everywhere. Survival was important, of course.

“The only thing you need is your camera and water,” Board announced. “You absolutely need water!”

Two friends, Kylee and Savannah, happily shuffled down the trail with cameras and water bottles handy. Having met each other last summer in camp, they enjoyed each other’s company while earnestly photographing biological soil crust bordering the trail.

They bent over the black mossy desert carpet that helps other plants survive, and clicked shutter buttons in the heat of late morning. Their “still” photographs were intended to help them recognize soil crust and avoid stepping on it, which kills it.

Campers already had learned to shoot and edit video images of their outdoor explorations, some of which were posted on the monument’s website, http://www.nps.gov/colm.

After scrambling up a slick-rock slope to Devils Kitchen, campers began acting like they lived there under the wide-open spaces. Some took pictures through holes in a sandstone wall. Others followed Board, the park ranger, up, up, and up between imposing monoliths for a bird’s-eye view of the world. A few simply relaxed in the shade of the rocks, sipping from water bottles and goofing around.

It was almost like they were back home. That’s the idea, according to Michelle Wheatley, who oversees the park’s interpretive division.

“It’s incredible what they know about the monument after coming here,” Wheatley says. “They are taking ownership of this place.”

Sandstrom is a park ranger at Colorado National Monument and teaches at Colorado Mesa University. If you have an interesting story to share with readers, he can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).


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