Neighborhood kids find lessons in the forests

(Submitted by Jennifer Fenwick, interpretation and education staff)

 Earlier this year, the state parks system launched a partnership with Neighborhood Ecology Corps (NEC), a non-profit, which equips urban middle school students to pay attention to the relationship between nature and community. Every Thursday after school, a group of 15 students gathered at Sanderford Road Community Center in Raleigh to learn about water, soil, air, and pollution and to consider how their neighborhoods compared to natural areas visited.

A hike into the Linville Gorge provides time for reflection.
A hike into the Linville Gorge yields a quiet moment.

On these visits, activities included examining aquatic macroinvertebrates at Eno River State Park, studying forestry at Raven Rock State Park, paddling at William B. Umstead State Park, fishing at Jordan Lake State Recreation Area, traveling to Hammock’s Beach, and a three-day camping trip to the mountains. The latter was the trip I attended and the one I wish to share a few highlights from:

On the first day, we rolled out on a biofuel bus to Grandfather Mountain. We explored the wildlife habitats for eagles, black bears, cougars, and river otter, then then headed up the mountain to meet naturalist Mickey Shortt. Through a guided tour on the trail, Mickey expanded our imaginations to view Grandfather not just as a mountain but also as an “island habitat in the sky.” Our hike continued on the mile-high swinging bridge where many of us conquered our fears and crossed the bridge despite the strong wind thrashing our faces and the uncomfortable squeaking of metal in our ears.

Later, we set up camp at Julian Price Park. For almost all of the kids, this was their first time camping, and to my surprise no one complained about pitching tents on wet and muddy ground. After a warm meal of tortellini donated by Friends of State Parks, we went on a night hike with Joy, a professor from Appalachian State University. At dusk we spotted deer prancing in the distance and about as soon as they left our sight, the light from the sky went out and so did our flashlights. In the dark with only Joy and the moon guiding us, no one seemed to mind the mud grasping our ankles, the humming of the bugs, or the darkened woods. We saw Venus in the sky, crayfish in the water, and on our silent hike back to camp, a magical firefly show.

We’d planned to wake at 7 a.m., forgetting that we were just guests in a forest; a host of birds had an earlier time in mind. So with not much choice, at 6 a.m. we crawled out of our tents. We met with Supt. Sue McBean of Grandfather Mountain State Park for a trail maintenance project. With tools in hand, we dug troughs, hammered rocks (a total hit with the middle school boys), and laid gravel and logs to manage trail erosion.

We then headed to Linville Gorge, the “Grand Canyon of the Southeast” and later to Black Mountain Campground. After welcome showers and a good meal, our night ended around the campfire where we made s’mores, listened to everyone’s favorite and least favorite moments, told stories, and sang songs. We slept well that night and awoke the next morning to the smell of pancakes and bacon. Breakfast was good, but what awaited us was even better. We piled into the bus and headed for the highest point east of the Mississippi at Mount Mitchell State Park.

The NEC group 'in the clouds' at Mount Mitchell State Park.
The NEC group ‘in the clouds’ at Mount Mitchell State Park.

The kids were surprised to find themselves in the midst of a cloud with temperatures in the 50s. In the warmth of an education building, Ranger Billy Drakeford, taught us the ecological similarities between Canada and Mount Mitchell, the environmental stresses on the park and tips on dealing with bears. As we hiked higher onto the observation deck, we got the sense that this was more than just reaching 6,684 feet. For the students, this was the accumulation of every field trip they had taken and everything they had learned. Standing there on the observation deck were more than just middle school students. These were young men and women who had been shaped by these experiences to become environmental stewards in their very own neighborhoods.

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