A group of 21 Minnesota high school students explored Voyageurs National Park for their first time through the award-winning National Park Teen Ambassador program, reports Voyageurs National Park Association.
Since 2012, the program has aimed to connect youth from all over Minnesota to their national park through an outdoor experiential learning adventure, VNPA said in a news release.
The goal is to connect a younger, more diverse audience, and empower them to share their Voyageurs National Park experiences with their communities and schools. For some students, this may be their only chance to experience Voyageurs because they may not have the resources to go camping in the park on their own.
Since it started, more than 160 students have completed the program, which focuses on teaching outdoor stewardship and enjoyment, leadership and team building, and environmental career pathways. This year, teen ambassadors from 15 different Minnesota high schools — ranging from the Twin Cities to Grand Marais and Virginia — came together for the experience after an application process.
During their five-day paddling and camping trip in the park, students participated in some classic camping experiences: Roasting marshmallows, swatting mosquitoes, sleeping in tents, and telling scary stories around a campfire.
In addition to building their comfort in the outdoors and having fun, the ambassadors learned about the many facets of a national park’s operations. They talked to park scientists about current research projects, were the first members of the public to see some recent footage of wolf pups in their den from the Voyageurs Wolf Project, learned to operate water sampling equipment, and got to question park law enforcement rangers who stopped by their campsite for a visit.
The students explored Kabetogama Lake by canoe, and caught a ride on the park’s tour boat to search out eagle nests and visit the Ellsworth Rock Garden. Each day, they spent time just enjoying being outside and reflecting on their experiences with campfire discussions.
For most Ambassadors, this experience was a first. But a teen a from Minneapolis, knows it won’t be her last: “One thing I’ll tell my family is how much I’ve learned from this trip, and what I’ve been missing out [on]. Definitely going to go on more camping [trips].”
A St. Paul teen ambassador wrote in her application for the program that being in nature gives her “a sense of peace and a sense of being.” At the end of the trip, she was excited to tell her parents about the place she had just experienced: “I will tell them that I got to experience a national park, which was my first time. It’s the only one in Minnesota so it’s really cool that I got to be here.”
Ambassadors took the Junior Ranger pledge and, as newly appointed park ambassadors, were asked to share their experience with their peers and communities through writing, photography and video. Later this summer, teen ambassadors will reunite for a day of paddling on the Mississippi River and participate in a civic voice workshop to learn about transforming their experiences into advocating to preserve special places like Voyageurs.
“If you can remember your first night camping under the stars or your first time swimming in one of Voyageurs National Park’s lakes, you know how important it is to give a new generation of kids access to these experiences,” said Christina Hausman Rhode, executive director of Voyageurs National Park Association. “We are grateful to our members and partners like Nature Valley who are helping us ignite a lifelong love of National Parks with a new generation.”
The Teen Ambassador program is managed by Voyageurs National Park Association, the National Park Service, and Wilderness Inquiry. Additional partners include the Voyageurs Wolf Project, National Parks Conservation Association, AmeriCorps VISTA, AVID, and College Possible. The program was free for participants in 2019 because of funding from Nature Valley, the National Park Foundation, and members of Voyageurs National Park Association.
“We had a great group of teen ambassadors this year,” says Lindsay Brandt, AmeriCorps VISTA Outreach Coordinator at VNPA. “Watching them make friends, learn about the park, and grow as people during their short trip was nothing short of amazing. We need new environmental leaders like them to ensure that places like Voyageurs are here forever.”