Hidden Gems with Gene: Kids in the Woods

As a volunteer at Cuyahoga Valley National Park for 10+ years, Gene Stepanik knows a thing or two about life in and around the valley. As a wildlife watcher, hike assistant, scenic railroad volunteer, speaker’s bureau presenter and Elf at the North Pole for the Polar Express – people often turn to Gene with questions about where to go and what to do. In this ongoing series, Gene shares some of his favorite spots within the park.

Visiting near Boston Mill Visitor Center? Gene just might be nearby. As a frequent wildlife watcher near the center, he often welcomes visitors with a smile, a wave, and answers to any questions, including one of the most common: what should we see and do?

“You meet a lot of visitors who come to the park from other states and really from all around the world. I had an experience a few years ago where I met people from eight different countries in one afternoon. That was an extraordinary day.”

As the unofficial greeter, Gene helps his visitors create their own extraordinary days with tips and advice on where to go. When those visitors have kids with them, he’s especially excited to give advice.

“I love seeing kids in the park. There’s a book I read by Richard Louv called Last Child in the Woods, and it talks about the idea of Nature Deficit Disorder: that children today don’t have the opportunity to experience nature and wildlife like they once did. When kids come to Cuyahoga Valley, it’s a great opportunity for them to take in some Vitamin N and soak in nature.”

Gene recommends families with children visit a few key areas, especially Beaver Marsh or the Boston Run Trail for a great beginner experience. “You want to give kids a short introduction to the park, so they want to experience more. I’ve seen kids dragging on trails, and that’s no fun for anyone. But if you give kids a quick hit and expose them to the natural wonders, they want more.” Other great beginner trails he recommends are The Pine Grove Trail or part of the Ledges Trail from the Octagon shelter.

Gene also suggests picking up a guide in the Visitor’s Center with information on Junior Ranger programs. Many of these are offered through the Cuyahoga Valley Environmental Education Center – another hidden gem within the park. The Education Center is the home base for educational experiences within the park. Programs occur on its 500-acre campus and throughout the park, including programs for Scout troops, school-sponsored field trips and the open-to-all Junior Ranger Programs. The Conservancy raises funds for scholarships so that all children may attend programs at Education Center.

“National Parks are incredible classrooms. I’ve seen kids really connect with the stories we tell – about wildlife today and about the Native people who lived here long ago. I will never forget how one child I talked with was visiting from Spain. He showed me his Junior Ranger badges from National Parks all over the country. He was only 7 or 8 years old. It was inspiring. Our parks, and our programs, are a great way to combat Nature Deficit Disorder. He was proof.”

For more information about the Environmental Education Center, including current Junior Ranger programs, visit: http://www.cvnpedu.org/event-landing-page/