Before Maureen Welcker committed her family to a yearlong road trip to visit America’s national parks, she decided to do a trial run.
The Boise family used an annual trip to Iowa to hit five national parks, including Padre Island National Seashore in Texas. That left the Welckers a 33-hour drive home spread over three days.
At Padre Island, they watched the release of baby sea turtles on the beach.
“That driving was terrible,” the Welckers’ middle child, Oliver, said when he got home, “but seeing the baby sea turtles was totally worth it.”
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“I don’t know if Oliver realizes this,” his dad, Chris, said, “but he pretty much doomed the entire family to doing the trip because he was saying it was worth all the driving, all the hassle, because he got to see some awesome stuff along the way.”
The Welckers returned last week from an epic adventure that certainly will have the kids’ friends buzzing as they return to school Wednesday. James, 10, missed fourth grade and Oliver, 9, missed third grade at Washington Elementary to spend the year exploring the country with Maureen and their younger sister, 5-year-old Lily. Chris joined his family periodically as his vacation time allowed, seeing less than a quarter of the parks.
Maureen and the kids visited 107 National Park Service properties and put about 27,000 miles on their Toyota Sienna minivan. They took a couple breaks at home but the initial journey lasted from Aug. 28, 2015, until the middle of January. The trip resumed from March through mid-May and July through mid-August.
The last stop was Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado.
“We wanted to make it to at least over 100,” Oliver said, to the surprise of his mom.
Maureen got the idea for the trip from President Barack Obama’s “Every Kid in a Park” initiative that opened the national parks to all fourth-graders and their families for free and from a family friend who suggested the ultimate way to take advantage: Spend a year touring parks.
“I could tell by the look on her face she was taking it seriously,” Chris said. “I was like, ‘Oh, it’s actually going to happen.’ ”
That conversation with a friend was in spring 2015. By June, Maureen was serious enough to do the trial run. She spoke to the teachers and principal at Washington to vet the idea.
“They were all extremely encouraging and thought it was a great idea,” Maureen said.
The boys kept up with their reading and math in the car, and James studied Idaho (a staple of fourth grade) through books. All three kids filled out junior ranger workbooks at each park (one was 36 pages, Oliver pointed out) and sent postcards from every stop to the classrooms where they would have attended school if not for the trip.
“Oliver is bitter with me because he had two classes following him so every single park he had to send two postcards,” Maureen said. “They’d send it to specific students and the student would read it to the classroom. The teacher would take it from there. When we came back in January and visited the school, the third-grade classroom door was covered with all the postcards. In other cases, the kids took the postcards home.”
Chris followed much of the trip through his iPhone. He would FaceTime with his family, sometimes while they were at a park so they could show him what they were seeing. He also used the Find My iPhone app to see what they were doing — occasionally spotting a dot in the middle of a body of water. He’d then Google where they were and check it out online.
“We went on a kayaking trip over Lake Superior and then my dad texted and said: ‘I see you’re on the water. Have a great time,’ ” Oliver said.
Maureen tried to keep the schedule loose but one specific plan was for the family to hit the Boston area at Thanksgiving. Chris joined them, and the kids marched in a Plymouth parade. Chris’ family connects directly to the pilgrims and he marched in the same parade as a boy.
The family camped much of the trip — the first night was spent in the car because it was pouring rain at San Juan Islands National Monument — and spent nights with family and friends, too. They used hotels when necessary.
Among the unexpected highlights (for more, check the family’s blog at parkpilgrims.wordpress. com):
▪ At Great Smoky Mountains National Park in North Carolina and Tennessee, the throngs were there for fall colors and black bears. Oliver caught a ranger’s attention and got a 30-minute briefing on what he wanted to see: salamanders. “I made the kids do one hike and one drive to see a bear,” Maureen said, “and after that we just spent the whole time in the creek catching salamanders. ... It was exciting and fun to be able to see the parks from the kids’ eyes and also shocking to realize maybe what I expected to get from a park was not at all what they were excited about.”
▪ Lassen Volcanic National Park and Lava Beds National Monument in California were popular with the family. Other places that were memorable included the Ulysses S Grant National Historic Site in Missouri, Historic Jamestowne in Virginia and Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota.
▪ James wrote a letter to Obama about the family trip. He received a letter and some family photos in return. “There is so much learning to be done in our national parks, and it’s clear you and your family are no strangers to America’s historic treasures,” the letter signed by Obama said. “I encourage you to write down what you discover, and remember to take care of our public lands so future generations will have the same opportunities to connect with our nation’s wilderness and monuments. The memories you make this year will be sure to last you a lifetime.”
▪ In Georgia, Maureen read a news account about former President Jimmy Carter that indicated he still taught Sunday school. The family visited the Jimmy Carter National Historic Site and attended his Sunday school class at a church. “The less-scheduled we were, the better it was, because then you have more flexibility,” Maureen said. “... We met Jimmy Carter. That had not been on the agenda.”
Maureen and Chris wonder how the alternative year of schooling will affect James and Oliver as they return to school this week. They knew going in that they were taking some risk.
“Chris and I sort of decided that if I completely failed at this, because I never really thought that I would do home-schooling or necessarily would be good at it,” Maureen said, “we would make the effort this coming year and catch them up. I guess time will tell how everybody does.”
If nothing else, the kids will have more context to understand their history lessons. James has talked to Chris about the Louisiana Purchase and school desegregation. Desegregation came up at the Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site in Arkansas.
“They know a lot more about what’s out there than I ever did at their age,” Chris said of his children. “It will be interesting to see how they use it.”
We asked each member of the Welcker family to name a favorite National Park Service property:
Sequoia National Park, California: “I was just constantly in awe of the trees and how big they were and how old they were and feeling very dwarfed in their presence. We had a lot of fun exploring, running and playing in the trees. There was a really good hike to the waterfalls that had a lot of rocks and things to climb around and over and on.”
Dry Tortugas National Park, Florida: “It’s in the middle of the Gulf of Mexico, a three-hour boat ride past Key West. When all the float planes and the ferry all left in the afternoon, there were four or five families camped on the island and the Parks Service personnel. We went night snorkeling.”
Dry Tortugas and Channel Islands National Park, California: At Channel Islands, “there was this huge eucalyptus tree. The branches were as big as walkways. You could walk on the branches. The path ran under it. ... We also found a thunder egg. While I was snorkeling, a huge seal just came shooting by us. I thought it was a huge fish. And there were these tiny, chubby foxes that tried to raid our food supply.”
Channel Islands: “I liked it because I saw a lot of bat rays.”
Dry Tortugas and Redwood National Park: “Dry Tortugas, because we got to swim right by the moat (at the Civil War-era fort).”
Celebrating 100 years
The National Park Service will celebrate its 100th birthday Thursday. All 412 National Park Service properties have free entry Thursday through Sunday. Here are some Idaho activities:
▪ City of Rocks National Reserve will celebrate the birthday from 6 to 8 p.m. Thursday at the visitor center in Almo. Activities include live music, junior ranger programs and games. There will be cake, too.
▪ Hagerman Fossil Beds National Monument and community partners will plant a tree at the city park at noon Thursday (319 3rd Ave. North, Hagerman) to commemorate the centennial celebration.