appalachian trail

Home Among the Hills

By Karissa Elser, Education Intern
Hawk Mountain Sanctuary

Karissa at South Lookout as a child.

Karissa at South Lookout as a child.

Hiking up to North Lookout on my first day, as a summer education intern, wasn’t the first time I made that journey. It probably wasn’t even the 10th time. I have been able to make the journey countless times because I am lucky enough to call Hawk Mountain Sanctuary my backyard. Since I live in the small town of New Ringgold that you can see from North Lookout, Hawk Mountain is no stranger to me.

Yet, this summer, I got to make the drive up Hawk Mountain Road everyday to experience this place from a whole new perspective. Being the “local” intern this summer, I was already aware of the River of Rocks bolder fields and the incredible views from the lookouts. However, I wasn’t aware of the world-class research that goes on at Hawk Mountain Sanctuary. From the Farmland Raptor Project to working globally with other scientists to butterfly migration to educating kids, this special place that I have grown up going to my whole life is the leader in all the techniques and practices I have been studying while at West Virginia University.

Karissa holding a recently tagged American kestrel chick.

Karissa holding a recently tagged American kestrel chick.

Even though I was technically an education intern, I was always being invited to help tag black vultures or band American kestrels with the conservation scientist and trainees. There are some things that can’t be taught in a classroom, and getting to work along biologists at Hawk Mountain, such as J.F. Therrien, Laurie Goodrich, and David Barber, were some of those experiences. Since all the biologists and researchers at the Sanctuary have expertise in different fields of study, I felt lucky to have been able to have conversations with each of them about what they are accomplishing.

Karissa assisting a young visitor during a Wee One’s program.

Karissa assisting a young visitor during a Wee One’s program.

As an education intern, I spent most of my time working on the top of the mountain, leading excursions with groups of all ages and from all different backgrounds. Being able to share your knowledge and passion for conservation with children and adults, who may live in cities or might not know about the power of preservation of raptors, other wildlife, and ecosystems found in the Appalachian area, is the greatest feeling. You can learn a lot from mistakes you make. Watching the way that educators Erin Brown, Rachel Taras, Andrea Ambrose, and Jamie Dawson work with kids and through kids taught me about how I aspire to be as an educator.

Hawk Mountain has taught me how to work with a community of scientists and educators from various backgrounds. This notable place has provided me with an immense amount of hands-on research and fieldwork, and it reminds me every day why I study and strive to be a better scientist and educator. I have been so fortunate to work at a place that my 10-year-old self would visit on those fall days to watch the migrating birds with my school group. I never would have anticipated that I would have a chance to work at a place that I have always considered my home among the hills.

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The Circumference of Home

By Maren Cole, Conservation Corps Member
Hawk Mountain Sanctuary

Forty-five miles, ninety-five degrees, twenty-five to forty lbs. packs on our backs. Can we do it? Can we brave the heat and circumnavigate the place we call home?

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The ten member HMCC team (six teenagers and four adults) left the Education Building on Hawk Mountain at 5:00 AM Saturday morning and began the four-mile hike to the Little Schuylkill River. The hike was wet, due to the dew that still held on to the blades of grass, but aside from that, it was relatively pleasant. The sun hadn’t risen yet, so the air was still fresh and cool.

We reached the river in an hour and a half and inflated our packrafts, tied down our packs, and by 6:45 AM we were afloat and on our way to the train station in Port Clinton. The paddle was peaceful. Other than a few fawns and a bald eagle, we had the river all to ourselves. We then finished our three miles on the Little Schuylkill, packed our rafts back up, and headed to the train station.

The train rolled into the station at 9:30 AM, and we were there with time to spare. A highlight for all the members was seeing the shocked faces of the train crew as they saw us—wet clothes, muddy legs, and big packs. The train ride to Jim Thorpe was relaxing, and many of us tried to nap, knowing that we had a full day of boating and hiking ahead of us.

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After the train ride, the team grabbed a bite at the Subway. The heat was definitely overpowering! Everyone could not wait to get onto the Lehigh river, where there would be an opportunity to cool off.

We walked down to the river, and our team leader Todd Bauman went 75 yards ahead to set up a drone for overhead footage. Once that was ready, we set off, ready to conquer the eleven miles of rafting ahead of us. A little over three hours later our team got off the river, exhausted from the paddle.

After the river we all relaxed, made dinner, and recuperated for the next few hours, trying to avoid the intense heat.

When dark arrived, we got ready to set out again, hoping to make it up the mountain and onto the Appalachian Trail before setting up camp. The hike was steep and rocky, and we got increasingly tired as the hours went by—our steps began to slow, and our breaths quickened. We made it onto the trail and up about a mile and a half, but due to blistered feet and fast-fading energy, we finally decided to turn in for the night at the nearest available space around 1 AM.

That night we all fell asleep after a twenty-one hour long day, exhausted, but content with our day’s progress.

The next morning we set off again, and continued to hike all morning until we reached Bake Oven Knob, and had lunch brought to us. We then were shuttled to the Blue Mountain Summit Restaurant, where we all slept the afternoon away before eating dinner, bandaging blisters, and setting off rested and ready for that night's miles. We traveled eight more miles that held a variety of breathless singing of “Country Road” (with adapted lyrics that fit our trip), and speed walking before pitching camp.

Our last morning, we woke up early and prepared to head out for our final stretch. We hiked a few miles before reaching the Hawk Mountain Skyline trail. After getting more drone footage as we hiked up to North Lookout, we finished our hike looking out over where we had traveled, a satisfied feeling knowing that we were almost finished. Although, the trip really finished with a bang when Todd went bounding from rock to rock to catch the drone that had snagged a tree but thankfully came tumbling down to his arms unharmed. A loud cheer went up from the team when he caught it!

Forty-five miles, ninety-five degrees, twenty-five to forty lbs. packs on our backs. Can we do it? Can we brave the heat and circumnavigate the place we call home?

Yes. Yes we can.