By Katie Clark
There were 14 Newaygo county teens without electricity, phones, internet, or any other “connected” resources for six days this month.
How did they survive one might ask?
“They made new friends through face-to-face conversations. They found their entertainment in observing nature in action,” said Chelsea Clark, Mentoring Outreach Advocate for TrueNorth Community Services.
The teens did all those things with The Stewart L. Udall Parks in Focus (PIF) program. In Michigan and four other states, Park in Focus’ purpose is to connect middle school youth to nature through photography, environmental education, and creative expression.
Parks in Focus is offered to Newaygo County youth through a partnership between TrueNorth’s TrueMentors program and The Udall Foundation’s Parks in Focus program; and is funded by a grant from the Fremont Area Community Foundation.
This year's Parks in Focus participants hailed from Newaygo, Fremont, Hesperia, Grant, and White Cloud; and were from the ages of 11 to 14 years old. There were nine girls and five boys in the group.
Clark organizes two pre-trip training days in which students experience a full day out in the woods with provided cameras.
“Participants have an opportunity to earn their cameras after completing the program,” she said.
This year’s training days were spent at Newaygo State Park and Muskegon State Park. Students learned the The Seven Principles of Leave No Trace, practicing actions that minimize impacts while taking part in recreational activities.
Because they come from different communities, the teens don’t know each other initially. Clark works hard on getting them connected to one another and to set expectations for how they will treat one another. This year’s group became especially close.
Rachel, 11, shared: “I only knew one other person on the trip. I made a lot of good friends during our time together.”
The PIF participants along with Clark and four adult volunteers drove six hours to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula jam-packed in TrueNorth’s two 12-passenger vans.
Clark said: “We have six tents, 20 sleeping bags, 17 cameras, enough food for everyone to have for 15 prepared meals and snacks, 20 water bottles in 20 backpacks, and all the camp cookware and dishes needed for meals. Plus, each student brought their own personal items in one small duffle bag. Let’s just say we don’t have any leftover space.”
The first night, the PIF group arrived at their campsites at Hurricane River Campground just before the thunderstorms were to hit. While this could have led to chaos, with the guidance of the adult chaperones, the campers put up their own tents (two girl tents, with four or five sharing the space; and one for the boys) and set up camp.
Clark shared a tent on the girls’ site with Dawn, an environmental engineering professor at Michigan State University. Just across the road was the boys’ camp with Ross, a salesperson at Bedroom Center, in his tent next to the five boys’ tent. The campsite also housed the shelter tent, which was used as the main kitchen as well as the shared campfire. The kids named the other two volunteers (my husband and me) as Abuelo and Abuela. We camped two sites down with our own tent.
Everyone hunkered down in their tents for about an hour waiting for the storm to pass. The first night’s dinner was a hit. You can’t go wrong with spaghetti. Clark did a survey of food preferences and needs with the teens before planning the meals and snacks. Park Ranger Kelly visited the camp afterward to introduce himself and remind the campers of the seven tenets of respecting nature.
After a good night’s sleep (many stated that they were surprised by how hard they slept), the group was off on their first adventure. They packed back into the vans and headed 30 minutes to Seney National Wildlife Refuge. Two park rangers led the explorers in a class of pond study. Kids explored the large pond with nets, capturing creatures such as lizards, tadpoles, waterbugs to observe under microscopes (all released back into the pond after the class). Lunch of peanut butter and jelly, Go-Gurts, GORP, apples, and water was devoured under the park’s pavilion. Then, Clark presented the photography lesson and assignment.
“I learned about macro photography. We got zoomed-in shots of things like flowers, leaves, bark that really makes the photo interesting,” explained Rachel.
Students then went on a two-mile hike around the pond and through the woods applying the lesson. After dinner back at the campsite, the young photographers took sunset photos and “light painted” with glow sticks once the sun was fully set for amazing visual effects.
“I had them set their cameras to long exposure, which captured the light as it moved into one image,” Clark described. “Drawing a shape like say a heart or even writing out a short word backward would show up in the photo as one movement.”
Each day was filled with adventures in nature while using the camera lens to express their awe and wonder. On Wednesday, they hiked six miles to Chapel Rock. They were given the service job assignment of taking photos of human misuse of natural resources. The Park Ranger Station will be using the photos to help others understand the impact on the park and encourage the Seven Principles of Leave No Trace.
Thursday was an exciting day. In the morning, we went to Beaver Lake and were met by two park rangers who guided the kids in canoeing across the pristine lake. Many had never paddled a canoe, so much there was laughing while learning. After the hour and a half canoe paddle, they pulled up their boats to shore and took the half-mile trail leading to the Beaver Creek outlet to Lake Superior. After lunch, the canoeists headed back to the vans to head over to Munising. That night was the big climax.
The entire group would go on the Pictured Rocks sightseeing boats for a sunset cruise, specifically to capture the majesty of the cliffs from the water point of view. While in Munising they had a bit of time to kill, so they hung out at the Sand Point beach to swim in the heart-pumping cold waters of Lake Superior. Dinner was at the marina. Clark brought all the necessary ingredients and cook stove for chicken quesadillas, which were a big hit with the teens. In order to get the best views, the anxious group of photographers headed to get on the ship a bit early. The waves had reached up and tossed the boat a bit too much for the captain’s liking. The trip was cut short, but not before some great photos and memories were created.
The last full day had the hikers exploring the Log Slide, viewing and photographing the wonderful sand dunes against the aqua blues of Lake Superior. It was breathtaking. Later that evening, the group was led again by Ranger Kelly, who guided them through the sands to the Au Sable Light Station. The campers were able to climb to the top of the lighthouse, taking amazing photos on the way. On their return, it was evident by the blue-stained mouths that they had come across a wild blueberry patch of epic proportions as everyone had plenty to eat.
Leaving camp for home the next morning was sad. After packing up, the kids got scraps of paper from the art/games box and traded phone numbers and email addresses with one another. Everyone was looking forward to a hot shower, but would miss the wonderful friends and the exciting adventures they had shared together.
“One main purpose of this program comes from the book The Last Child in the Woods, by Richard Louv. We want to get kids out into nature, which research has proven to strengthen kids’ physical and emotional health — many of whom are so reliant on technology and not often outside,” Clark said. “Through the camera’s viewfinder, each of our new photographers takes in nature’s detail and beauty.”
To see their inspired photography, Parks in Focus is hosting a photo exhibit, slide show, and reception at 3 p.m. Sunday, August 25 at the TrueNorth Service Center, 6308 S. Warner Avenue in Fremont. The event is open to the community; and admission is free.
If you are interested in volunteering to chaperone for next summer’s Parks In Focus Program through TrueNorth, contact Lisa Daniell at firstname.lastname@example.org.