Discovering new worlds in my own backyard

Mary O’Brien, the leader of the Wildflower Wanders, teaches hikers about different ways to distinguish pines, firs, and spruces from one another – most notably by touching their needles.

This summer I had the opportunity to work with Yampatika, an environmental education organization, as an intern, assisting naturalists in weekly hikes throughout the summer. I was especially lucky to find an organization that aligned with my values in my hometown of Steamboat Springs, Colorado, which turned out to be amazing as the COVID-19 pandemic took over shortly after my internship was finalized in March. As an organization, Yampatika aims “to inspire environmental stewardship through education,” providing educational programs for citizens of northwest Colorado aged five to 85. Learning is a lifelong process that changes as we grow and mature, which Yampatika recognizes when organizing different programs for children, students, adults, and senior citizens. My GLI global theme is natural resources and sustainability, so finding the opportunity to work with a group of people with a similar mindset was a rewarding and impactful experience. Although we shared many particular views, my coworkers at Yampatika urged me to look at issues from other perspectives, which proved to be insightful in my understanding of environmental education. My GLI global challenge relates to bringing awareness to the preservation of ecosystems and biodiversity, as well as combating climate change as our societies continue to grow.

Two of our younger hikers learn more about one of the town’s 12 mineral springs, Black Sulphur Spring, which is known for its changing color, depending on its chemical composition. At this point in the year it is a beautiful bluish green.

On Mondays this summer I assisted Mary O’Brien, a medicinal herbalist, on her weekly Wildflower Wanders. During these morning hikes, participants had the opportunity to learn about more than 50 species of plants, from the most poisonous ones, such as western water hemlock, to essential plants, like yarrow, which can stop bleeding, help with coughs and colds, and aid in pain relief. It was amazing to watch people learn about and gain an appreciation for the medicinal uses of these plants, ones they had hiked, biked, or driven by without previously noticing. On Wednesdays I helped to lead a mineral springs tour around the town with a naturalist, where we educated hikers on the hydrothermal and geothermal processes taking place in the underground systems beneath us. The town of Steamboat Springs has over 12 different hot springs sprinkled throughout it and its surrounding mountains, with its namesake having been established after 19th century French fur trappers traveled to the town and believed that they heard the chugging of a steamboat just upstream, later realizing that it was a natural mineral spring, bubbling and gurgling with water instead. As an intern, I also designed a scavenger hunt activity for hikers on a heavily trafficked trail that I was supposed to be stationed at, called Fish Creek Falls, but was unable to do so because of COVID-19.

An important realization I came to this summer is that each individual has their own style of learning, which is oftentimes forgotten. In the case of my internship, we had an interactive based learning style, where we took participants on hikes where they could experience exactly what naturalists were describing: the stinky sulphur smell coming from one of the mineral springs or the sweet taste of a ripe serviceberry that some black bears had missed. Education and leadership are two critical things that I believe are linked together. Continual growth in these fields are important but can be intimidating, as they emphasize change, which, while natural, can be uncomfortable. Along with being a part of the GLI and minoring in art history, I am working towards applying to the Bachelor of Fine Arts (BFA) program in the University’s School of Art, with an emphasis on photography and sculpture. Upon graduating, my goal is to create art that draws awareness to the environment.

This is a serviceberry bush, which locals and wildlife alike love. Although it is spelled “service” there is a debate within the Yampa Valley as to whether or not it is pronounced “service” or “sarvice”. The plant tastes similar to common blueberries. We had been waiting for weeks for these plants to ripen and by the time we did, they had nearly been finished off by other creatures!

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