“Check it out!” An excited voice echoes up the trail, mixing with the fluttering whisper of aspen leaves and the raucous call of a distant raven. “You’ll never believe the cool mushroom I just found!”
Hikers, momentarily paused by the commotion, start collecting by the excited teenager. Hiking boots all lined up along the wooden trail edge, shutters start snapping. The initial excitement of finding a mushroom encircling a stalk of club moss spreads to the rest of the group. Grandparents check LCD screens with their grandchildren, and middle-schoolers share prime trail real estate with toddlers, helping them steady cameras and center the mushroom in their viewfinders.
We are on a fall digital photo safari and our hunt for tiny worlds on the Refuge trail is exceeding expectations. Just 10 minutes into our ¼-mile walk, the memory cards of participants’ cameras are filling fast with images of spiders on webs, mushroom gills and ripe rosehips. Today’s safari continues the program’s goal to “Look Closer” at the world around us each season. This walk’s added challenge is to take all the photos using the camera’s macro setting, one that brings the tiny into focus, and dissuades self-portraits and 100 snapshots of young photographer’s shoes.
The Kenai National Wildlife Refuge has a set of sixteen digital cameras that we use for this and other interpretive and educational programs year-round. Seasonal photo safaris start with a brief lesson in camera operation, a conversation about the particular season and its highlights, and the introduction of a hike theme. Participants are encouraged to consider the overarching theme and build it into the photos they take. They could be asked to find something special that others may overlook, take photos from an insect’s perspective or capture different textures, colors or shapes through the lens.
Like any guided nature walk, there are some trail rules, like stay on the trail to protect the plants, walk so that running feet don’t scare away wildlife, and respect other hikers as they pass by. However, one of my favorite rules has helped make every photo safari unique and led to the exciting scene this article opened with: Don’t ever let the group pass by something cool that you see!
Beyond encouraging participation, this trail rule inspires hike participants to own the hike, be present, be aware of more than what I show them as their guide. It shares the responsibility of keen eyes with everyone. (Don’t you love that our nature trail is called the Keen-Eye Trail?!) The little details that a preschooler’s eyes pick up, the grand vista that an adult sees, they all combine to reveal the richness of the natural world. Because every participant is armed with a camera, cool finds like the club moss-hugging mushroom get captured from every angle.
Today’s technology can help us connect to our world in ways our grandparents never dreamed. My smartphone buzzed in my pocket today, sharing a photo of my young daughter’s huge smile as she played at daycare, and made my day a little brighter. My other daughter hears the world through cochlear implants, making digital technology pretty important in her book. If used creatively, technology can also connect our youth to the outdoors in meaningful ways. The excitement of a too-cool-for-this pre-teen when he happened across that mushroom was unlocked because we were using digital technology as a gateway to the forest scene. Before we started walking, it was clear from his distant expression that he was along for the walk only because his mother and sister were there.
Awakening a connectedness to nature in digital natives, those youth who find technology intuitive and ubiquitous, may be done best through integrating technology and nature instead of ignoring the screens, tablets and other electronic devices that most of us have with us every day. Educators are aware that technology can be an effective tool to reach today’s youth in the classroom. The same is true outdoors, where technology doesn’t have to mask the scene. In the case of our photo safaris, it brings everything into focus and helps the memory last forever.
I leave you with this challenge: Look closer, delve into nature, feel its textures, listen to all its sounds, and explore the beauty in the natural world we can overlook in our daily rush. To explore the Keen-Eye Trail through the seasons, as captured by past photo safari participants, visit the Kenai Refuge’s Facebook page albums here: https://www.facebook.com/kenainationalwildliferefuge/photos_albums.
The next digital photo safari on October 5 will explore autumn and study symbiotic relationships in the forest — how species work together to survive and thrive year-round. The hike will begin in the Refuge Visitor Center at 1 p.m. Space is limited. Call 907-260-2811 to pre-register or for more information.
Leah Eskelin is a Visitor Services Park Ranger at the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. You can find more information about the Refuge at http://kenai.fws.gov or http://www.facebook.com/kenainationalwildliferefuge.