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.


“A Good Journey is Never Linear”

“We are ready! This is the cleanest we will be all trip.”

Today is the day we leave for Peru, and it is also the day we discovered that travel is often a non-linear event. Instead of flying to Miami at 11:50am, we are *hoping* to fly at 6pm due to technical difficulties. But we take it as a good omen, because at least we are not on a malfunctioning plane!

The cleanest and least sweaty we will be all trip is right now, in the airport!

Although we don’t know each other yet and don’t know what the next hours will bring, we are all talking and laughing and sharing creative ideas with each other. We haven’t missed our phones! We have had conversations with a group from Colombia, and practiced sighting the native bird species of RDU.

Practicing our binocular skills at gate C11, to identify the house sparrows that are stuck inside the airport terminal

At some point the airline even brought out the snack cart. Not just dry snacks, but the cart with the special “Refuel and Refresh” box of snacks with 8 lucious choices.

To keep our spirits up, we all joined in to sing “Los Pollitos Dicen”, a Spanish children’s song. The silly chicks say, “pío, pío, pío” to get their worms. Maybe if we sing their song we will get what we want too and make our flight! Wish us “buena suerte” (good luck) for the next leg of our journey and what will probably be a long next 48 hours.

Michelle is very excited for snacks!

1:15am update- we have all successfully boarded a flight from Miami to Lima. Hopefully we will still make our morning flight to Iquitos as scheduled and be back on track for the rest of our journey!


“¡Estamos listos! We are ready!”

For weeks now, we have been slowly adding to our piles of things to pack. For our families and pets, this big trip and our preparations can be difficult to come to terms with. For Andromeda’s dog, Luna, “Every time I add something to my bag she thinks I’m about to leave, so she’s been very involved in the process! Today I finished gathering the last few items so I’m double checking my list to make sure I have it all (and it all fits in my bag).”

Andromeda’s dog, Luna, is anxious for her to leave for such a long time. She knows something is coming, as she has been watching items accumulate in the pile of things to be packed. Lining our bag or backpack with a big trash bag and packing in ziploc bags are great methods of waterproofing our clothes in case of downpours on the way to the lodge.


For Michelle, packing for an immersive experience in the remote Amazon rain forest has meant a shift in how she usually approaches travel. “Typically when I pack, I consider my credit card to be that one essential item. If I have forgotten anything, I am sure that I can just get what I need. However, packing for remote locations in Peru means my credit card will not be my safety net (there aren’t stores to buy things where we’re going- the big city will be several hours away!). Reviewing the itinerary and combing through the packing list is what will help me prepare. Additionally, my recent purchases have included a rain poncho, collapsible backpack, desiccant packs (to keep important things like batteries and paper items dry), and anti-monkey butt powder (for the hot, humid weather in the tropics). I also have been looking for Spanish language books to donate to the local Peruvian library. ”

Michelle’s pile of things to pack includes some Spanish language books to donate to the local library, as well as gauze and wound care items to donate to the Yanamono medical clinic we will visit.

Rebecca’s organized pile of things to pack, including lots of non-cotton, sweat-wicking materials.

We’ve also been diligently practicing our Spanish phrases so we can communicate with our local Peruvian teachers that will join our group upon arrival to Iquitos. We are excited to meet our new friends, Tula, Roxana, Jackeline, and Juan Pablo. Each of them comes from a different local community that partners with CONAPAC, one of the local non-profits we will be working with on our visit. We’ll even have the chance to help the community plant citrus and coconut trees, and refurbish the gardens around Roxana’s school in Pucallpa. After so many preparations, we are finally ready for our new adventure to the Peruvian Amazon! ¡Estamos listos!