Last year my friend Katya (referred to before as "Big Katya"--in comparison to my "little" Katya--my buddy from college and graduate school... we were each other's maids-of-honor...) and her family went on a road trip that brought them to a few National Parks. While reading about their travels, I learned about how much they had enjoyed the Junior Ranger programs at Shenandoah and Acadia National Parks.
Based on her recommendation, I looked into the Junior Ranger programs available at parks within a drive from my in-laws' near Denver. That's how we ended up picking Rocky Mountain National Park, entering from the town of Estes Park.
We picked up the girls' Junior Ranger booklets (you have to attend at least one ranger-lead activity and do fifteen other activities on your own as you learn about the animals, plants and ecosystem of the park) the afternoon we arrived at the park.
Ranger John lead two talks that we went to: Lions and Bears and Big Horn Sheep. He was great!
I had wondered about all the homes on the edges of the park... Kind of puts the occasional bear sightings at my mom's home in Connecticut into perspective... If you want your dog to be able to be outside here, you need to have it in a strong cage with a roof--no matter how high the pen's walls! Mountain lions will jump from the ground onto the first floor roof of your home and then down into the pen! They can also jump right over the pen's walls! And if you're about to be attacked by one, this is what you'll hear:
That's right, NOTHING, as it leaps at you most likely from above and behind. Yeek. Really makes me not want to go running on my in-laws' mesa...
Other unwanted guests? Well, we never did see elk in the park.... but we passed six of them hanging out by a family's clothesline and patio furniture as we drove back into town one day...
Now onto sheep: the longhorn sheep is perhaps the most famous animal associated with the park. Those curving horns make for a great logo and their mating rituals are a big draw to the park in December. I can't really imagine the meadows filled with sheep head-butting each other to see who is the most dominant! And the ewes belting out their cry that they're "ready" to be courted...
Natalia ended up helping out during the talk. First she held an eight-year-old male's horn for everyone to see and examine. She took her "job" quite seriously! The horn was quite heavy, but she refused to put it down until told to do so.
The girls also got to handle ewe horns. They only grow a little--then the nutrients that make the horns are refocused on making the females fertile.
The ranger had a few boys act out ramming each other while the girls all stood to the side and watched. He then had a small boy, pretending to be a younger ram, compete for the females' attention by sneaking up on them and playfully kicking them. Natalia was chosen to then chase him--and she gladly complied. That's how younger male rams compete to reproduce--by distracting the ewes during the ramming ritual.
We learned that big horn sheep hit the ground three times with their hoof to say "come here" or "come back." The ranger had all the kids act it out so we would!
We then found a quiet area to finish up the girls' Junior Ranger booklets. While they worked, this guy jumped up right next to us and almost walked on the girls.
Natalia then got a chance to share some of what she'd learned with my dad the previous morning--at the ranger walk they had attended while Katya and I were back at the hotel. First of all, this little guy is not a chipmunk! If he were, the markings would continue onto his face. Turns out he's a ground squirrel. Then Natalia and my dad taught Katya and me about Ponderosa trees.
They told us to get close to the bark and really smell it-- and it was surprisingly sweet and fragrant, like vanilla! I never would have known...
My dad was pretty fascinated by the history of the park--how much of the land was acquired from people who had come to possess property there through the Homestead Act in the 1860's. To think that some of those meadows were once golf courses!
He had fun helping Katya with her answers. She was still pretty agitated our last day in the park and sitting with my dad or being held by him (on his lap, on his shoulders) calmed her down. I think he like it, too...
The last page of the Junior Ranger booklet asks kids to journal about being in the park; What did they think about the park? How did it make them feel to be there? Natalia was quite succinct: "Great! I love everything!"
We then went back to the meadow where Ranger John was and he went over the girls' booklets with them, asking them questions about what they had learned. They were so proud to be officially sworn in as Junior Rangers!