I had intended to document our Park Quest experiences, but alas, thanks to my blog hiatus I’m seven parks behind. Since I last posted, we’ve completed Quests all across Maryland, from the western border to the headwaters of the Chesapeake Bay: state parks at Deep Creek Lake, Herrington Manor, New Germany, Dan’s Mountain, Rocks, Elk Neck, and Patapsco Valley.
Along the way, we’ve done quite a bit of hiking; seen a six-foot black rat snake stretched across our path; gotten lost on a trail and taken a much tougher route than required; visited a tiny backwoods coal mine; canoed around a mountain lake counting bat boxes and osprey platforms; learned to identify quite a few trees; navigated by compass; built an emergency shelter that showed off our knot-tying skills; mastered “leave no trace” principles; worked our way around and over massive piles of fallen trees strewn across our trails by the derecho; and learned a little about how the Susquehannock Indians lived.
All of us have become more fit, learned new things, and developed new outdoor skills. But that’s only the beginning of why I value Park Quest. I’ve been most impressed with the emotional skills Alex and Colin have been developing: persistence, teamwork, positive attitude, coping with uncertainties and fears, recovering from mistakes. I’ve been amazed at how much the level of bickering and sibling conflict decreases whenever they’re wearing their Questing Sand Crabs shirts.
I think the key factor here is that the challenges we face on Park Quests are real. They aren’t artificial situations we’ve set up to build character, or tests in which we’re secure of the right answers and sitting back to see how the kids do. If we can’t find the clue, we legitimately don’t know where to go next. We can’t just give up and “check the answers in the back of the book.” If we’re two miles out in the woods and we get tired, there’s no way to get out except by hiking. Even Colin seems to understand that.
When we were out in a little-traveled patch of woods with two little kids and saw two snakes as long as I am tall within twenty yards of each other, well, there we were. No matter how scared the kids were – and they were scared – the only way back to the car was through snake country. They had to master their fears, listen to our safety rules, and come to an understanding about snakes and their place in the ecosystem, because there simply wasn’t another option.
The kids and I hit one trail by ourselves, just a couple of weeks after a massive storm called a “derecho” devastated the area. The trail was blocked in many places by clusters of fallen trees. Each time we came to a blockage, we had to find a way over, around, or through. Each time, I was acutely aware that this wasn’t a “safe” challenge course set up by park rangers, with precautions against injury. The challenge was real, and I was alone in the woods with little kids. If one of us got hurt, there we were.
It’s great to see Alex and Colin rise to these occasions. Michael and I are doing a lot to guide and support them; I’m proud of us too. But they are unquestionably growing in character and emotional skills, and when they finish each Quest, their pride in themselves is real and well deserved. This is one awesome program. I’m grateful to the Maryland Department of Natural Resources for giving us the experience.