A Great Summer’s End – ELK’s Weekend Camping Trip to Rocky Mountain National Park

The impending school year was fast approaching, as ELK youth and staff ventured north from Denver into the magnificence of Rocky Mountain National Park.  ELK would be spending 3 days in the park (August 6, 7 and 8th) to complete the Junior Ranger Program, learn the “Stories of the Stars” from Ranger Interns Holly and Nicole, view  the far reaches of our galaxy with elaborate telescopes, complete a service learning project for the park, explore the banks of the Big Thompson River, and complete the challenges of a night hike.  

 We arrived in Moraine Campground around 4:30 August 6th with close to 40 youth to help set up the tents and canopies.  Everyone worked diligently to have the camp site ready for Ranger Interns Holly and Nicole, who were scheduled to arrive at 8:00pm to begin the evening program.  ELK enjoyed the delicious enchilada melt dinner in the shade of ponderosa pines as several mule deer grazed on the vegetation beside the camp.  Warm summer days quickly give way to cool evenings in the Rockies, and the chilly breeze signaled that evening was among us.  We finished dinner just in time for Holly and Nicole who arrived promptly on time to discuss, how the National Park Service manages our natural resources, careers within the National Park Service, and  present the “Stories of the Night Sky” program to our youth.

Ranger Interns Nicole and Holly presented "Stories of the Stars" to ELK Youth

Eight days in the deserts of Arizona, under crystal clear night skies, instilled a fascination of astronomy within everyone at ELK.  As we sat around the picnic tables listening to the Rangers share stories of how ancient people viewed the night sky, each and every youth had a chance to make their very own star chart, and create  short stories and poems about fictional constellations.  After sharing their creativity with each other and the staff, ELK youth loaded into the vans and headed for Moraine Visitor Center to meet up with NPS volunteer astronomers to view the night sky through powerful telescopes, and learn about star clusters, nebulas and meteorites.

 Early Saturday morning, while most of the ELK contingent remained sound asleep within their tents,  a few ELK youth rose and wandered down to explore the meadows of Moraine Park.  Accompanied by Scott Gilmore, always the early riser, the youth admired the portrait of mountains and grass all around them before heading back to camp for a hot breakfast. 

ELK Youth Samantha Gilmore was up bright and early, just as the sun was illuminating the Peaks overlooking Moraine Park

Moraine Park Meadow Flower

The sizzling of frying bacon and  popping of deep-frying potatoes drew the remaining youth from their tents, and scent of cinnamon coffee percolating over the camp stove kept the staff alert while preparing a hot breakfast.  Everyone would need their energy for the day’s service learning project up in Glacier Basin Campground.  After breakfast and some camp chores, we loaded into the vans and drove up the valley into Glacier Basin to meet with our Project Supervisor for the day, Kathleen Kelly.  Kathleen explained that an invasive thistle species had been growing in the campground and that ELK was needed to help remove it.  We would also be filling in some very shallow sink holes around the newly constructed facilities within the campground, picking up litter, and cleaning out some fire pits.  We efficiently divided our crew to tackle the list of chores and in no time our youth and staff were hard at work, everyone working tirelessly to see the job done. 

Who needs a steam roller with 40 ELK Youth? Education Coordinator Kim Glatz leading the ELK crew in compacting the newly built path.

 We completed our project around 2:00pm as our youth received praise and thanks from park staff.

ELK Youth and staff removed tremendous amounts of invasive thistle from the campground

ELK Youth Vince Gilmore Jr. did a great job on litter patrol

Upon arriving back in camp a mule deer buck lay bedded in the boulder fields merely 100 yards from our tents.  After taking several minutes to observe the buck and snap a few pictures, we heading into the camp to catch our breath before enjoying the rest of our day. 

Mule Deer frequented ELK's campsite throughout the weekend

 It wasn’t long before the youth attained their second wind, and they were anxious to take a hike, climb on the boulders beside the camp, and play friendly card games at the picnic tables.  As many of the youth were content to remain within sight of camp, several others wished to further explore Moraine Park and the stream that runs through it. 

ELK Youth Mason Moore, Vince Gilmore Jr. and Morgan Moore had a great time swimming in the Big Thompson

ELK Youth Maurice Hernandez gliding down the stream

The fire crackled into the evening as everyone prepared for the much anticipated night hike.  Night hikes are challenging for the most experienced of outdoors men and women, and a majority of our youth have never experienced hiking with only moonlight illuminating the way.  We ventured up a nearby mountain in darkness until we reached a ridge where everyone could catch a glimpse of the night sky.  When we function successfully outside of our comfort zone learning will occur, and our youth undoubtedly learned from the experience.  We returned safely to camp to sit around the fire and reflect upon the day.  Tomorrow would mark our last day at Rocky Mountain National Park, and our last camping trip of the summer.  The energy in camp reflected that although staff will be in very close touch with everyone, the youth would surely miss each others’ frequent company.

After breakfast Sunday morning everyone worked hard to clean, organize and pack all the gear.  We finished up our chores just in time for Ranger Interns Holly and Nicole to arrive at the site to complete the weekend program. They each helped the youth create a mural of their experience that is currently hanging on the office wall at ELK headquarters.  The final task of the weekend was to be officially sworn in as Rocky Mountain National Park Junior Rangers.  Typically Holly and Nicole conduct the ceremony themselves, however today we had 2 very special presenters.  Acknowledging his invitation and keeping true to his promise, RMNP Superintendent Vaughn Baker arrived in camp to meet ELK youth, discuss his career path and present them with their Junior Ranger badges.  Vaughn was accompanied by RMNP’s Chief of Interpretation and Education, Larry Frederick. 

ELK Youth with Vaughn Baker and Larry Frederick

Vaughn and Larry were both a pleasure to speak with, and everyone truly appreciates the time that they took to visit with ELK. It’s always beneficial when our ELK youth have the opportunity to hear from those who have truly had successful careers within the natural resource community. 

ELK was honored to have RMNP Superintendant Vaughn Baker present us with our Junior Ranger Badges

After saying goodbye to Vaughn, Larry, Holly and Nicole, ELK youth, staff and volunteers stood in a circle to reflect upon the summer and state their goals for the upcoming year.  Each person took the opportunity to speak and it was obvious that the ambitions of our youth will serve them well this academic year.  In turn, ELK staff promised to continue our support of our youth,  reminding them that we are all here, 24 hours a day 7 days a week, to help them in any way we can.  Around 12:00 pm, we loaded into the vans and finally said goodbye to Rocky Mountain National Park.  We cannot imagine a better way to end an ELK summer, and as our youth head off to school we at ELK are back at our desks to ensure our programs are here to stay.

We will be returning to the park September 25th for the annual Elk Bugling Program, then again in late winter for our annual RMNP Snowshoeing Day. For updates on all ELK events, fundraisers and programs be sure to become fans of ELK on facebook.   http://www.facebook.com/#!/pages/Environmental-Learning-for-Kids/68750529725?ref=ts