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Blue Ridge

“Birds in the Mist (Net)”

“Thank God I have seen an orange sky with purple clouds. How easy it is to forget that we have the privilege of living in God’s art gallery.”—Erica Goros

We crawled out of our tents before the sun had risen and the owls were still hooting. Why did we get up so early? To see a beautiful sunrise along the Blue Ridge Parkway and to get an early start on our birding adventure.

Sunrise view from the Blue Ridge Parkway near Mount Mitchell

Sunrise view from the Blue Ridge Parkway near Mount Mitchell

After a beautiful sunrise (that we had to be dragged away from), we made our way to an elevation of 5,100 ft on the Big Butt trailhead to start banding birds. Ornithologist John Gerwin taught us about his research on the Hermit Thrush and then we pulled out the nets to actually catch and band some. We used recorded bird calls and a wooden decoy to draw in a male bird, and it was only a matter of minutes before we had one caught in our spiderweb-like net. Once we had him in hand we confirmed his sex, took his weight, aged him by looking at his tail feathers, and added two different types of bands to his legs. After a morning of calling and netting birds we had tallied a Hermit Thrush, Dark-eyed Junco, and Golden-crowned Kinglet.

Sarah with a Golden-crowned Kinglet that we caught in the mist net.

Sarah with a Chestnut-sided Warbler that we caught in the mist net.

Although bird banding was amazing, the draw of going to the summit of the highest mountain east of the Black Hills of South Dakota led us to our next destination, Mount Mitchell. Once we arrived at the summit, we learned about the history of Mount Mitchell and the establishment of North Carolina State Parks. We were joined by Amy Tomcho, local birder and Audubon representative.  We then took a hike along the summit nature trail where we learned about salamanders, owls, and the spruce-fir forest.

The group at Mount Mitchell

The group at Mount Mitchell.

One of many salamanders we caught!

One of many salamanders we caught — a pygmy salamander!

We ended our day with nature journaling, hunting for salamanders, exploring the South Toe River, and an amazing group dinner at the campground.

Blue Ridge

“The Journey Continues: A New Road for a New Deal”

As tents were packed, the Educators of Excellence caravan headed to our next adventure at the base of Mount Mitchell. Driving along the Blue Ridge Parkway, the group explored the scenic view while making a stop at the historic Linn Cove Viaduct. The team enjoyed “pie in the park” while having lunch (and pie for dessert!) and learning the historical connection between Linville Falls and the American Revolution from Ranger Jonathan Bennett.

The group at Wiseman's View overlooking the Linville Gorge

The group at Wiseman’s View overlooking the Linville Gorge.

The team arrived at our next destination at Briar Bottom Group Campground just in time to set up camp before experiencing the soothing downpour of rain and the rumbling of mountain skies. We prepared for bird banding in the morning under the picnic shelter.

Learning about bird banding with Museum ornithologist, John Gerwin.

Learning about bird banding with Museum ornithologist, John Gerwin.

There were a couple of quotes of the day that we’d like to share to give you a sense of our experience.

“Don’t let me forget to get the dead weasel out of the van.”
—Melissa (After collecting a road-killed weasel for the group to observe, which was later returned to the forest.)

“When you’re a lifelong learner, you are always able to be surprised by nature when you open yourself up to the world around you.”
—Nikki (While reflecting on how we’ve been impacted by the natural world around us.)

Blue Ridge

“Inquiry Fever”

Inquiry Fever:  The fervent desire to explore, observe, and learn.

We all have “Inquiry Fever”!  The excitement is contagious.  We spent the day in Stone Mountain State Park, starting with a hike up to the summit for a geology lesson on how the region was formed.  Along the way, we encountered a pair of Pileated Woodpeckers, a Red-spotted Newt, a deceased Eastern Red Bat, fence lizards, a goldfinch, and so much more!!

Next, we went to Roaring Fork River and met representatives from the NC Wildlife Commission. We put on waders and wetsuits and went seining and snorkeling in the river in order to identify a variety of fish, including a Brook Trout, Smallmouth Bass, and a Redlip Shiner.  We were also able to identify three different kinds of crayfish. It was a cool experience — literally — the water was quite cold! To cap off the afternoon, we hiked to Stone Mountain Falls and splashed in the water there.

We are all learning from each other and especially from our leader scientists.  It is awesome to be among like-minded educators who are willing to stop and explore!  For example, we spent a significant amount of time observing and inquiring about two Broad-necked Root-borer Beetles laying eggs.

We are now gathered together at camp working on our projects and smelling delicious burritos cooking.  Can’t wait for tomorrow’s adventures!

Blue Ridge

“Salamanders Team in the Stream”

Group of teachers in the forest.

Cohort #1: Educators of Excellence

The day started off rainy and dreary but as we packed the vans and headed towards North Carolina’s Stone Mountain State Park the skies cleared. During our trip we listened to a podcast “Ologies — Cervidology.” “Cervid” means neck and is the study of deer. We learned some crazy things like the fact that deer will sometimes prey upon baby birds.

Upon arriving we quickly unpacked the tents and set them up; some of us for the first time ever! We spent the early evening getting to know each other through poetry and self-introduction. We also covered the schedule for our trip and norms.

We spent time getting in tune with our senses and observing the natural wonder all around us. After some exploration, we found a Leaf-footed Bug, a Broad-necked Root Borer Beetle and a raven, and one group found an Eastern Box Turtle. Nature is all around us!

Broad-necked Root Borer Beetle.

Broad-necked Root Borer Beetle — check out those mandibles!


We enjoyed a camp prepared dinner and took a quick journey to the falls to swim in the brisk water before tucking in for the night.

Melissa and two Sarahs from Team Salamander appreciating Widow Creek Falls.

Melissa and two Sarahs from Team Salamander appreciating Widow Creek Falls.

Blue Ridge

“The Mountains are Waiting”

woman backpacker surveys a distant mountain range

The Educators of Excellence are all looking forward to our upcoming Blue Ridge Institute July 8-16, 2021. Here, Wendy Hall surveys the mountainous landscape.

“As classrooms were packed and cleaned an elite group of teachers were doing other things.  The school year had come to a close but select teachers from North Carolina were preparing for the next adventure, exploring the Blue Ridge Mountains. These educators are a part of the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences’ Educators of Excellence Program and will be spending over a week together in the North Carolina Mountains. Along with closing down their classrooms the notable nine— Wendy Hall, Stephanie Ingram, Amy Jordan, Sarah Laws, Lindsay Smith, Sarah Trinidad, Bill Wade, Nikki Walker, and myself– began preparations to explore the great outdoors. Sarah Laws used her creativity to create a flyer to promote the trip. The flyer contained information so that her students and others could follow her journey.  Others collected camping gear, trekked along hiking trails, researched habitats, explored wildlife manuals, made lists, and tried to avoid reading all the articles about recent bear shenanigans.

Somehow the pending trip had me looking at nature in a new way. My morning walks became more of an outside classroom where the breeze felt different, the sounds of chirping birds became louder and various vegetation left me with a sense of wonder. Somehow just the thought of being in nature for an extended period of time, had initiated a greater appreciation of nature and the vibrant world around us. I can only imagine how much more this curiosity and delight will be heightened as we hike through the Blue Ridge Mountains. This sense of awe and wonder is what I desire to encapsulate and then share with my students, colleagues, and friends along the journey and into the upcoming school year.  I am sure that I speak for the team when I say that we would love to have you travel with us via our blog and be a part of all the wonderful adventures yet to come. The Mountains are waiting.

~Talicia Smith, Science Teacher, Douglas Byrd Middle School, Cumberland County

 

“I am so looking forward to my time this summer as a part of the Blue Ridge Institute. I was talking and dreaming about it all through Spring Break when I backpacked on the Appalachian Trail for 4 days! Two of my friends and I hiked about ten miles a day and camped each night. It was fantastic to walk from Winding Stair Gap to the Nantahala Rec Center. While I did, I talked about all the natural aspects surrounding us that I would hopefully better understand after experiencing the Educators of Excellence program and learning from the experts. In addition, during this trip, I got my trail name. I was named, “Charmed” and it’s a fun story that you should feel free to ask me about sometime!

In addition, my foster child was moving with relatives at the end of the school year and his last request was for us to “hike a really big mountain.” So one weekend in May, we did the six miles to the top of Mount Mitchell for his final hike with our family! That’s the highest peak East of the Mississippi (6684 feet), so we were glad to fulfill his request together!

It will be great to connect with other teachers and learn about our amazing state of North Carolina over the course of nine days together immersed in nature.

~Wendy Hall, First Grade Teacher, Fairview Elementary School, Union County”

woman inside a green tent

Wendy practices camping during her spring break along the Appalachian Trail. Teachers on our Blue Ridge Institute will also camp outdoors in tents during our trip.

 

While we won’t be backpacking to get from point A to point B as we travel the length of the Blue Ridge Parkway in North Carolina, teacher participants in our Institutes can expect numerous hikes, as well as camping in tents, and daily educational adventures as we meet researchers and experts in each location.

 

woman with backpack in front of sign post for Appalachian Trail

Wendy poses with the Appalachian Trail sign.

Yellowstone in Winter

“Not Goodbye, Just See You Later”

It has been a bittersweet day, to say the least. While we watched for wildlife in Lamar Valley before dawn, the magnitude of the moment sat heavy with us. This would be our last trip to the valley. Luckily, the wildlife did not disappoint. We were able to see many moose, big horn sheep, bison, foxes, coyotes, and even a golden eagle! A raven put on quite the show for us as we watched for wolves at Tower Junction, the first place the Wapiti Pack graced us with their presence.

Raven on snow

A raven checks out the team as we scan the horizon for wolves. Ravens are bigger than our crows, and have deeper croaking calls.

This afternoon we were joined by Ranger Mike as we walked through the Mammoth Terraces. This is such a unique, ever-changing geologic feature. As calcium carbonate precipitates out of the hot water, new rocks are formed here daily, creating stair step features that accumulate rapidly (sometimes more than six feet a year)! It really looked like something from another planet. Ranger Mike was very knowledgeable about the park, and gave us a great demonstration of how geysers work. His humor and quick wit made learning about the terraces even more fun!

A group of people overlooking mammoth terraces

Surveying the seemingly alien landscape of Mammoth Terraces.

As our time in Yellowstone drew to a close, a somber mood fell over the group. We approached the archway of the northeast entrance, and many a tear began to flow. Katherine read us one final quote in the park.

“Thousands of tired, nerve shaken, overcivilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home: That wildness is a necessity; that mountain parks are reservations useful not only as foundations of timber and irrigating rivers, but as fountains of life.”

– John Muir

With Yellowstone in the rear view mirror, and with very heavy hearts, we said goodbye to this magical, transformative place.

Mammoth Terraces

Mammoth Terraces

Many tears and heartfelt reflections were shared at our final group meeting. It is very clear that we have forged powerful, lasting bonds with our teammates. We have supported and uplifted each other, validated each other in our individual journeys on this trip, and built a truly unique safe space where our vulnerabilities made us a stronger team. Going our separate ways is going to be tough, but we will stay connected and always be in each other’s hearts.

To both our team and Yellowstone ….. this isn’t goodbye, just see you later.

Yellowstone in Winter

“Sunrise, Sunset in the Geyser Basins”

Old Faithful geyser erupts

Old Faithful erupts in the morning light

Our morning began with a breath-taking hike through the Upper Geyser Basin, home to the renowned Old Faithful. As the sunrise gilded the skies, our anticipation began to build, much like the pressure under the thermal features located within the park. Although the Upper Geyser Basin is a meager two square miles in area, it is home to the largest concentration of geysers in the world!

Gathering on the boardwalk, we waited for Old Faithful to mesmerize us. As plumes of steam bloomed and drifted in the light breeze, we began to feel and hear a deep rumbling beneath our boots. Patiently waiting allowed us to reflect on the nature of time and the order of wilderness. Old Faithful did not disappoint, as we watched the geyser perform a spectacular show.

Icy branches from the landscape

Sparkling rime ice coats everything the steam touches and makes the entire landscape magical.

As we made our way in the snow coach to Grand Prismatic hot spring, a collared matriarch bison (#03) and her family group blocked the road. While we watched, four bison crossed the road and jumped a four foot fence! Initially, the tall fence separated a yearling bison that seemed hesitant and unwilling or unable to jump it. It ran frantically back and forth along the fence several times trying to get to the rest of its family before finally making a giant leap and clearing the fence. Unbeknownst to the young bison we cheered and applauded for it from within our snow coach.

Black Sand Pool provide another memorable experience. We were encouraged to “nap” on the obsidian sand beside the geothermal feature. As we laid down we began to feel mysterious thumps beneath us- not unlike what we imagine the footsteps of the giant from Jack in the Beanstalk to sound like. After several rumblings, we heard bubbles erupt from the surface of the pool. Living up to it’s nickname, Thumper, the Black Sand Pool provided us the opportunity to see, hear, and feel the power of the forces beneath us.

The group lays on the ground around Black Sand Pool

Thumper, also known as Black Sand Pool, reveals its hidden power beneath the surface.

When we arrived at the Lower Geyser Basin, we ran quickly to view the spectacular and very large Fountain Geyser. Its surface waters were churning and spewing forth showers of mineral-rich water. The tall and joyous eruption of Fountain seemed to encourage the neighboring Jet Geyser to begin to bubble, boil, and spray at the same time! Our eyes were not wide enough to see the magnificence that was occurring before us. Moving along the boardwalk we admired Red Spouter, the Leather Pool, Fountain Paint Pots, and the Celestine Pool. As the sun began to set in the distance, we bubbled with our own enthusiasm as we relayed how awesome these experiences had been.

Fountain geyser sends showers of water down on us.

The group watches Fountain geyser erupt.

Seeing Fountain geyser erupt was such an awe-inspiring surprise.

Yellowstone in Winter

“A Ride Through Winter Wonderland”

Today was a bit different for us.

This morning, we checked out of the Mammoth Hotel and boarded a monster truck-like snow coach headed to Old Faithful. Chelsea, our coach guide, was incredibly informative throughout the day. Because we were on a commercial snow vehicle, we were able to take roads that are closed to all others.

Today, we traveled back in time – geologic time. We had the opportunity to immerse ourselves in the fire and ice that has sculpted what is now Yellowstone National Park over millions of years.

In addition to understanding the geologic processes that shaped the landscape of the park, we also got to walk around and witness present day geologic activity through hydrothermal features. Our first feature of the day was called Dragon’s Mouth, and it was a fitting name. As we walked across the boardwalk, a deeply felt growl was audible to our ears and our souls. This phenomenon is caused by steam and other gasses exploding through the water causing it to crash against the walls of hidden caverns, resulting in a fearful rumble that can be heard from many yards away. Chelsea shared a origin story from the Kiowa people that is tied to this thermal feature in which a young boy conquered his fear to gain access to a new landscape.

Dragons mouth spring

Dragon’s Mouth Spring

Another highlight from today was the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. Randy gave us an amazing lesson on art by Thomas Moran that was inspired by Yellowstone landscapes. It was an incredible view that most all of us considered “indescribable.” Chelsea also gave us an inside look at how subnivean (under snow) micro habitats are affected by climate change.

Canyon

Lower Falls in the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone

A cross section of a snow drift

Our snow coach guide Chelsea explains the different layers in the snow pack and where different types of creatures can be found.

Once we finally made it to the lodge, we had a very emotional reflection on our day. We are so appreciative for this opportunity and the people we have shared it with. As we prepare for the last leg of our trip, we are going to bed with full hearts (and bellies) and gratitude for this amazing experience.

Yellowstone in Winter

“The Scientists’ Day Out”

We spent an amazing morning with Kira Cassidy, a wolf biologist who works for the park. She showed us her office, which included an incredible amount of binders full of data on the park wolves, going all the way back to the reintroduction in 1995, and some pelts from wolves who have died over the years. She is a wealth of knowledge and answered our many questions about wolves. As educators, we wanted to know what information she would want us to share with our students. She said that the biggest takeaway from the wolf reintroduction project would be the lessons we have learned from the removal of the wolves from the park. Their removal was celebrated at the time as a good thing for the ecosystem. Years later, we realized how important apex predators are to the ecosystem, and began making efforts to correct our mistake. The wolf reintroduction is an amazing example of the power of habitat restoration and management.

So many years of data from so many wolf interactions was humbling to see in the Wolf Project offices.

Once we started driving, we encountered a crowd at the same place where we saw the Wapiti wolf pack yesterday, so we made a brief stop but only saw one and it was pretty far away. We continued on to Lamar Valley to look for a carcass that Kira suspected was there based on GPS data from the Junction Butte pack from about a week ago. We split up into 3 groups to cover more ground, and were able to find it—- SCORE! A bison carcass! Not much was left, but Kira gave us a glimpse of the scientific process the researchers use by letting us help to collect data on the carcass as they attempt to determine cause of death. We sawed the femur in half to collect a bone marrow sample, and then we extracted a tooth to take back to the lab for processing.

Jessica got to saw the femur in half to collect the marrow sample!

Everyone say “cheese”….so we can take a tooth sample!

On the drive back to Mammoth we saw one more wolf, a black likely from the Junction Butte pack. We also heard it give one low howl, which was amazing to experience. Today was also a great day for coyote, we saw close to 10 in various places.

After lunch we had a choice in our activities. Some of us went cross-country skiing, it was the first time for Vin and he got the hang of it pretty quickly! Melissa was in her element, we decided she was the alpha skier.

Randy shows off his cross-country skiing skills.

Another group went to the ‘Boiling River’ (actually the Gardner river, but this is the local name for the particular spot where hot water from a thermal feature runs into the cold river water). After a most scenic walk, we quickly disrobed in the snow and began the descent to the crystal clear water. Temperature reading from the infrared thermometer ranged from 127 degrees to 20 degrees.

Blaire uses the infrared thermometer to measure the temperature of the water we are about to enter.

Slipping and sliding on the algae covered stones we waded in to find just the right temperature. With frozen eyelashes, we reveled in the rich mineral waters as we reflected on our phenomenal experiences. Navigating the hot springs and the flow of the icy river waters we successfully exited for a quick return to the car. American Dipper songbirds greeted and congratulated our daring spirits as we made a quick run for the suburban. Driving back to Mammoth Springs for a quick rinse in the shower, we spotted numerous bighorn sheep.

There is nothing like soaking in the ‘Boiling River’!

Today has been full of adventure and new experiences. More importantly, we have continued to build strong bonds with our teammates. We are so excited to continue this journey together!

Yellowstone in Winter

“All creatures great and small”

We woke up to a beautiful blanket of white covering the ground. With snow falling, we loaded up in anticipation for all the animals we hoped to see throughout the day. Within minutes of leaving the hotel, the adventure for the day started!

Giddy with excitement, we eagerly spotted a large group of animal enthusiasts and photographers at Tower Junction. We knew we were in for an amazing treat! On the rolling ridge, bison grazed on grasses. Upon closer inspection of the herd, we captured our first views of the infamous Yellowstone wolves. Our childlike enthusiasm bubbled as we quickly set up our scopes, pulled out our binoculars and prepped our cameras for the wolves. We counted sixteen wolves ranging in color from black, light grey, to the white alpha female. The pack was actively moving across the ridge to the delight of all the watchers lined up. Three of the wolves were in a constant game of chase and tackle. You could feel the joy and companionship of the pack. As the alpha moved the pack would run and reposition. As they reached the top of the ridge it was as if they knew they were being photographed because the pack lined up across the top and begin walking. These magnificent views and interactions continued on the other side of the ridge so we quickly moved. From our new position we had an even closer view and we laughed and ohh and awed as they ran and frolicked down the hill. It was an amazing and awe inspiring experience.

Wolf pack

Wapiti Lake wolf pack

Second only to the wolves themselves we met Rick McIntyre, retired Yellowstone Wolf Project employee, wolf watcher, and writer, and Doug Smith, Senior Wildlife Biologist and Wolf Project Manager for Yellowstone National Park. We had the opportunity to hear them tell stories about the wolves and answer our questions. We totally “fan girled” and asked for autographs and selfies.

Group pic

The group selfie with Rick McItyre

In addition to the Wapiti Lake Pack we saw two coyotes, two pairs of bald eagles, ravens, magpies, a moose, lots of bison, and five Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep. To not be out done by the wolves two of the bighorn sheep decided to head-butt each other right in front of us. And this folks was all before 11:30am.

Bighorn sheep ramming each other

It’s not the mating season, which is usually November, but these two bighorn sheep exhibited their territoriality by rearing up and butting heads with a loud crash.

After a delicious lunch at Buns and Beds we headed to meet Cindy and Dan Hartman, leading wildlife photographers and naturalists, at their home on the edge of the park. He started our education by taking us on a snowshoe hike through his backyard. He enthralled us with stories of owls, voles, and moose. Then from the cold he took us into his home to get down to the heart of the matter. All animals deserve our respect and protection. He showed us his astounding photography of all the animals large and small but drew our attention to the smaller species that are the first impacted by human interactions like the pika that we must hold in the same esteem as the wolves.

The group on a snowy hillside

Snowshoeing with Dan Hartman

Our final moment in the Lamar Valley was to soak in a sunset in silence.

Sunset

Sunset in Lamar Valley

I felt my lungs inflate with the onrush of scenery- air, mountains, trees, people. I thought, ‘This is what it is to be happy.’ ~Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar, 1963