MILTON — The memories the Shaffer family made while traveling across the country over the summer will last a lifetime. The lessons they learned could lead to solutions that will benefit the National Park Service.
Desmond Shaffer, a sixth-grade science teacher at the Milton Middle School, received a $5,000 grant from the Fund for Teachers to spend five weeks visiting 18 national parks. His wife Cheryl and sons Ean, 10, and Ivan, 6, accompanied him on the journey.
The Shaffer’s trip included visits to the following locations: Indiana Dunes National Lake Shore in South Dakota; Badlands National Park in South Dakota; Mount Rushmore in South Dakota; Crazy Horse Monument in Wyoming; Glacier National Park in Montana; Crater National Park in Oregon; Yosemite National Park in California; Sequoia National Park in California; King’s Canyon in California; Joshua Tree National Park in California; Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona; Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado; Great Sand Dunes National Park in Colorado; Mammoth Cave in North Dakota; and Gateway Arch National Park in St. Louis.
“The experience, in general, was truly life changing,” Desmond said. “You came back wiser, more educated, not just about the parks. You learned about culture… the history of our country.”
He and Cheryl particularly enjoyed speaking with a Native American outside of the Grand Canyon.
“We tried to talk to people as much as we could,” she said. “With the Native American culture, we could meet them where they are and got to hear about their culture.”
While Cheryl noted that the entire trip was memorable, each family member had their favorite locations.
She enjoyed visiting Sequoia National Park, while Ivan like sandboarding at Great Sand Dunes National Park.
Ivan described sandboarding as being “like surfing on snow, but it’s on sand.”
Ean is quick to list Glacier National Park as his favorite spot.
“We went on a 10-mile hike,” he said, with excitement.
“Desmond and Ean wanted to get as close as they could to a glacier,” Cheryl said. “There was too much snow to get to the glacier.”
Desmond described the hike as “one of the best hikes” the family participated in on their trip. He also enjoyed speaking with the rangers at the park.
“The whole glacier aspect was something we had not experienced before,” he said. “Some of the rangers said that with the global climate change, the majority of the glaciers will not be there in about 30 years.”
At nearly every location he visited, Desmond spoke with park rangers about problems facing the parks. The conversation with the rangers at Glacier National Park was particularly enlightening.
“The rangers talked about all the mistakes they made in the park,” he said, adding that the mistakes ranged from the way in which roads were built to mistakes in introducing certain invasive species.
Nearly every aspect of the trip applies to lessons Desmond will be instructing to his students this year. He expects to weave lessons he learned throughout the five weeks into topics he will be covering in the classroom.
Specifically, Desmond will be presenting some of the problems facing the various parks to his students. He will then challenge the students to create solutions to the problems.
While on the trip, Desmond collected contacts with numerous park rangers. He hopes to be able to send student suggestions to the rangers.
The Shaffer children have also been thinking about some of the problems they noticed while visiting the parks.
“People are getting way too close to the wild animals,” Ean said. “(We saw) some guy trying to chase a bear… We saw an elk with a big rack. A guy walked right up to it.”
The problem was not limited to just one of the parks the family visited.
“It seemed to happen everywhere we went,” Desmond said. “People would just walk up to the wildlife.”
Ean believes the public needs to be better educated about the dangers of approaching wildlife in the national parks.
Desmond and Cheryl both believe people need to have a greater respect for the parks.
“There needs to be a higher sense of value placed on them,” Desmond said. “As a culture, as a nation, maybe we are not putting enough value into them, to respect them properly.”
The husband and wife said they were proud of the enthusiasm their sons had for visiting so many different locations throughout their five-week road trip.
“We were feeling extremely blessed about how well they handled it,” Desmond said. “As a family… it cemented all of us closer together.”
At most of the parks, the boys participated in various interactive activities as part of a Junior Ranger program, earning badges signifying their accomplishments.
The family camped in tents at most of the parks. Other than the price of gas, Cheryl said by camping such a journey can be completed on a relatively minimal budget.
“It is something I wish everybody could experience,” she said. “I would do it again tomorrow. We are talking about what we could do next summer. We have been bitten by the bug.”