Danville Express

Living - April 6, 2007

Where the wild things are

Junior Ranger program makes Mount Diablo come alive

by Dolores Fox Ciardelli

Want to see a tarantula up close and personal?

The Junior Ranger Program might be for you.

"There were a lot of interesting things, like a dead fox with arrows through it," said Maddalena Farinati, 8, who attended the program in the fall when she was 7.

"It was really gross," she explained with enthusiasm. "Indians used to live up there and I think they needed it for food."

"She likes to go out and trek around and look for animals," said her father Davide Farinati, who attended with her. "I think she liked the geology part, too."

Mt. Diablo State Park is taking registration for the spring session, which beings April 28 and runs for five Saturday afternoons for children ages 7 to 12 with an accompanying adult.

Each participant receives a Junior Ranger Logbook designed by the California State Parks system for children to follow self-guided activities each time they visit a park.

"The Junior Ranger Program is generally offered as a campfire program," said Danville resident Steve Elliott, a volunteer docent who runs the program. "The difference is that at Mount Diablo, we significantly enhanced it."

Elliott came up with the idea to make a shorter, more intense program so the children could get more out of it.

Due to budget cuts, it was great when Elliott put this program together, said Ranger Jack Duggan.

"We have six rangers and each of us does one of the Saturday sessions with Steve," Duggan said. "In some ways, the rangers are a prop."

"What I've found amazing is the kids who've been in the program are serious about it and tell me about stuff," he added. "They bring a lot to the program."

The program can only accept 15 children; those on the waiting list from last spring filled up another session in the fall.

In the spring they made molds of animal footprints. In the fall, they dissected owl pellets, which are the indigestible particles owls spit up when they are eating, such as tiny bones.

"And there is an archeological kit to learn how to do an archeological dig," Elliott said.

"The minimum age is 7 so they can write," he explained. "They have to take notes, and make a presentation and a display board."

The Junior Ranger participants choose a field of study - such as weather, water or astronomy - and explore the topic on their own.

"If they select water, they go to a body of water, a creek or a lake, and come back and tell about the plants and animals they found," Elliott said.

He said the program is rigorous, but "age-rigorous."

"It's not about getting the right answer, it's about exploring nature," he said.

"What we've discovered is people are really anxious for the opportunity to do something substantive like this," he added. "It's a chance to engage in as much depth as they'd like."

All six members of the Rudolph family attended the program in the fall - mom Karleen, dad Steve, and children Stevie, 12; Madison, 11; Charlie, 8; and Jake, 7. The children were being home-schooled until recently, and Karleen Rudolph said the family has visited many parks across the nation but found this program one of the best.

"The nice thing about it was it has some lecturing, then we would walk around and have an adventure," she said. "It was very hands-on. Then we'd come back and have a craft or make something to reinforce what we'd learned that day."

The family lives by Mount Diablo and rides its horses in the foothills but this program brought them a new love for the mountain and made it come alive for them, Rudolph said.

"The history of the mountain - my kids really absorbed that," she said. "They can tell you how it was formed and who lived there."

Each session began at a different spot, she noted, opening new worlds on the mountain to them.

"My husband and I were looking forward to it as much as the kids," she said.

The visitor's center is a wealth of information, she said, and her family was impressed to see a chart that tracks the growth of Mount Diablo and learn that it expands each year by half an inch.

"It was fascinating stuff," she said. "There was not one ounce of boredom for that many children at that range of ages. It was a wealth of knowledge they'll never forget."

She recommends that people not sign up unless they are free to attend each of the five sessions.

"It's not vital that you know it, but it's a privilege," she said. "Steve was really awesome."

She said attending as a family made it "all the more magical," plus they met a lot of great people.

In Steve Elliott's pile of thank you notes is one from a girl named Waverly that says: "Thank you for everything you did. I will never look at nature the same."

Davide Farinati agreed.

"It was very well done," he said. "The whole group of kids were very happy."

And about those tarantulas. When they were eating lunch one day, Elliott brought one in that he had found on the road while driving up to the park.

"He said, 'Poor guy, he'll get smooshed,' and put it in a box," Maddalena recalled. "He let it go and it was scary."

Spiders and all, it was a blast.

"We learned so much," Maddalena said. "I'd love to do it again."

Did you know?

Caterpillars have 4,000 muscles in their bodies. Humans have only 639.

Source: California State Parks Junior Ranger Logbook

Join the Junior Rangers

What: An outdoor education program with sessions on wildlife, geology, plants, Native Americans, ecology, and more

Who: Mt. Diablo State Park ranger and a volunteer docent

When: 1-4 p.m., five Saturdays, April 28-June 9

Eligible: Children ages 7-12 with an accompanying adult

To register: Call Ranger Jack Duggan at 837-6129 or e-mail jduggan@parks.ca.gov

Cost: Free but park entrance fee is $6


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