Virgin Islands National Park 2016

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Another great trip for the books! Sticking with tradition, our group of students took a sunrise hike to Ram Head Cliffs on St. John to welcome in the new year: 2016. We encouraged our students to enjoy the silence, peace, and tranquility that one can find in nature, and to reflect on their year to come. This was the last bit of tranquility for several days, though, as the next week was jam-packed with snorkeling, hiking, researching, and enjoying all St. John has to offer.


Above: Our happy students (and chaperones!) on Ram Head, ringing in the New Year.

Much of what our students learned in the fall semester had to do with the wildlife and ecosystem of Virgin Islands; thus, we spent a lot of time snorkeling to see what types of sea creatures we could identify. Some of our best snorkeling came when we stuck close to shore, in and amongst the mangrove roots, in very shallow water. We had to be careful not to kick around with our fins too much, though, for fear of stirring up the sediment on the ocean floor and obscuring our vision of the delicate life below. We spotted several giant sea turtles; they even let us swim above them and observe them. We even saw some stealthy barracuda in the warm waters!

Twice, we got to experience night snorkels. We each looped a Glo-Stick around our mask and snorkel and operated by a strict buddy system. We were treated to a peek of giant 6-foot long tarpon glimmering and glinting below us as they swam up to eat the fish that were attracted to our underwater flashlights.


Above: Sea life like this turtle made our snorkeling experiences unforgettable.

Besides snorkeling, we explored much of the tiny island of St. John. We hiked past Salt Pond Bay and Blue Cobblestone Beach; we also spent a full day exploring the plantations and sugar mill ruins littering the island. Annaberg and Catherineberg are significant places on the island, reminding our students of the island’s troubled past: slavery is an indelible part of the island’s history. We learned about the failed slave insurrection on the island and about the harsh, hot working conditions at the sugar mills for the enslaved people on the islands.

We also took a trip to see the petroglyphs, rock engravings in a gorgeous corner of the island done by native islanders over one thousand years ago. No one knows their meaning or their significance, but we certainly appreciated the myths and legends surrounding the historical carvings!


Above: Old plantation ruins overlooking at St. John sunset.

Each evening at VIERS, the Virgin Islands Environmental Resource station where we were staying, we got together to recap the day and to give the students a moment to work on their fish identification packets and other class projects. Because NPE is a curriculum-based experience for our students, we encourage and expect them to apply their knowledge by creating final projects for the National Parks Class. One cool project a student was doing was taking pictures and cataloging different lizards he found on the island; the goal was to create a book of pictures and descriptions of the little creatures and leave it with the National Parks Class for future students to build on when they go to St. John.

Another goal of the NPE Class is for our students to make new friends and strengthen the bonds with their old friends on the trip. Throughout the whole semester, the small group of students got to experience the company of one another within the classroom, but friendships are certainly tested when you are bug-bitten and sunburned! Our students did an amazing job bonding with one another and forming strong relationships that carried into the rest of the school year and the rest of their high school experience in general. It was really wonderful to witness a group of students with such varying interests and personalities be able to come together and complete final projects, strenuous hikes, and challenging snorkels together, with respect and accord. We’re already looking forward to next year…!

The Grand Canyon National Park 2015

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The spring semester brought in a new cast of characters and shifted the focus from aquatic/tropical ecosystems to the Colorado Plateau and the Grand Canyon. This year marked the National Parks Experience’s 5th trip to the Grand Canyon. This was one of the most remarkable of all the trips. The canyon was in full bloom. Everywhere we looked, we saw blossoms of brilliant colors. Many of the students had prepared themselves to see a landscape dominated by rust and brown colored rock. For them to see the slopes of the canyon alive with red, purple, yellow and white flowers was an unexpected treat. Another unexpected treat was the site of Pueblo Indian ruins that the National Parks Service had recently opened for hikers to view. These large and well preserved ruins reminded us that we were just few in a very long list of travelers passing though this remarkable place. Students were also treated to the joy of a swim in the Colorado River. As a result of the water temperature, it was more of a splash than a swim.

Grand Canyon National Park

Above: Hiking along Clear Creek Trail.

Thanks to our guide, Jack Pennington, from the Grand Canyon Field Institute, the canyon became our classroom. And with each lesson learned, the canyon became more remarkable and alive. We were also provided with an opportunity to give something back to the canyon and help the people that work to protect this treasure. The students spent an afternoon removing an invasive species of plant, horehound, which is spreading through some of the campgrounds and damaging the fragile ecosystem. Our group removed over 150 horehound plants from Indian Garden Campground. Service projects like this provide the students will a sense of pride because they feel they have made a difference and helped preserve and protect a place with which they have developed a deeper connection.

Grand Canyon National Park

Above: Descending into the Canyon via the South Kaibab Trail.

Once again the canyon provided the students with opportunities to learn, connect with nature, develop friendships, and challenge themselves. The students that reached the top of Bright Angel Trail were not the same as those that started down the South Kaibab four days earlier. They have been forever inspired and touched by the spirit of the Grand Canyon.

Virgin Islands National Park 2015

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Ringing in the New Year in the Caribbean. The National Parks Experience fall semester students enjoyed the first days of 2015 in Virgin Island National Park on the island of St. John. We arrived on the island on December 30 after a long day of traveling. New Years Eve was spent snorkeling Salt Pond Bay and Blue Cobblestone Beach. We ushered in the New Year by hiking up to Ram Head cliffs before sunrise. The first light of a new year shone on our faces as we looked out over the Caribbean Sea.


Above: New Year’s Day 2015 on Ram Head Cliffs

The following days were spent snorkeling locations such as Water Lemon Cay, Hanson Bay and the Princess Bay mangroves. Students also explored the sugar mill ruins of Annaburg, Cathrineburg, Reef Bay and Cinnamon Bay. No trip to St. John could be complete without a hike to view the petroglyphs. These petroglyphs were carved by the native people of St. John over a thousand years ago. The true meaning of the images can only be theorized as the people and culture that created them have been erased.


Above: Snorkeling in Princess Bay Mangroves

The night snorkels brought shrieks of excitement and fear, especially when several members of the group were fortunate enough to have a nurse shark swim by and check them out. The list of wildlife that we had the opportunity to observe is much too long to list. Highlights would include: spotted eagle ray, hawksbill sea turtles, nurse sharks, reef shark, octopus, squid, and over 100 different species of fish and invertebrates that call the coral reef home. Cap off the week with an evening of singing and dancing with Ital, and you have created memories and friendships that will last a lifetime.