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Family Nature Summits Heading To Rocky Mountain National Park Next Year

ROMO - 2004

 Family Nature Summit in Rocky Mountain National Park in 2004. Picture from Summit archives. Jessica Chang on ropes course in 2011. Photo by Danny Bernstein

"If you know the natural world, you'll protect it."

That's one of basic principles of Family Nature Summit, a non-profit nature and adventure camp that's been attracting outdoor people of all ages since 1970.

Every year, a group of summiteers gathers at a different spot in the United States for a week to hike, swim, raft, bird, learn about flowers and butterflies, and even read about nature. The emphasis is on staying in comfortable places with outstanding beauty. Their anchors over the years seem to have been YMCA of the Rockies just outside Rocky Mountain National Park and Blue Ridge Assembly, a YMCA close to the Blue Ridge Parkway about 20 minutes from Asheville, North Carolina.

But Summits have been held all over the country; they've been staged at Sequoia, North Cascades, Yellowstone, Pictured Rocks, and even Hawai'i Volcanoes national parks. The locations alternate between west of the Mississippi and east of the Mississippi. Volunteers spend the whole year planning a full range of activities.

Chris Blank, a lawyer from California, is president of Family Summits' board of directors. He started attending Summits in 1994 when his boys were seven and nine years old.

"It's rare that older children would want to go on vacation with their parents," Mr. Blank says. "But here they don't hang around with their parents. My boys had a wonderful time and made lifelong friendships. They have become environmental stewards at the Summits."

Now in college, his sons are in the young adult group, hiking, adventure racing, and geocaching. As they put it, "we're doing stuff you never get to do the rest of the year."

When I thought about taking my granddaughter, Hannah, to a nature experience, I looked at the various intergenerational offerings but realized that we would be both doing the same activities all day. She's eight years old now and I'm an active hiker. That meant that if she hiked four miles, I would only hike four miles for the day -- that is, if the group even walked that far.

But at Family Summits, the whole family doesn't do the same thing. That's what made it so appealing to me. Like traditional summer camp, everybody goes with their own age group.

This is how it works:

After breakfast, I dropped Hannah with her Junior Naturalist group, this year with children from Kindergarten to second grade. Her counselors were elementary school science educators. This past year at the YMCA of the Ozarks, they hiked, swam, canoed, and built a birdhouse. One day, they visited Onondoga Cave and learned about trout in the stream. The third to sixth grade group also did orienteering.

While Hannah was with her age group, I was with my "age group." I hiked, went caving, and geocached with a GPS. At 3:30 pm, the formal programs end and children are picked up. We might then swim or explore a section of the extensive grounds. One afternoon Hannah wanted to finish her nature art project or she just played with a friend while I blogged. If I couldn't get back to camp in time, she went to daycare where the fun continued. 

After dinner, we joined the evening program: square dancing, a program by a bird rescue group or a slide show on flowers of the area. One evening, area crafters were invited to display their woodworkings, weavings, and handmade jewelry. The last night is always skit night. All the groups from the preschoolers to college students put on a short program -- this is camp, after all. 

Steve Houser a teacher of gifted children in elementary school, near Charlotte, North Carolina, is director of the Junior Naturalist program. He provides the continuity in the program; this past summer was his 26th Summit.

"I hope that the Summits pass on environmental education to the next generation," he explains. "It's an opportunity to spend a week with those who care about the environment. The children support each other in something as simple as recycling. Here they're being exposed to high-caliber people in the natural world and renew acquaintances as well."

This is a real intergenerational group. This past summer, the oldest person, over 85 years old, went on flower walks and learned how to use a GPS. There are always families with babies in arms. The group stays at "Y" facilities and sometimes at resorts. You're not roughing it or camping. Meals are good and you room with your family. And if it rains, as it often does, that's part of the adventure.

Family Summits might be a bit of a misnomer. You can come as part of an extended family and many are part of three generations. Or you can come just by yourself; you don't need to have a family to enjoy the Summits. Active adults and singles have a wonderful time and are not by themselves when they get here.

Dave Linthincum, who lives outside of Washington, D.C., is a geographer at the U.S. State Department who works on international boundaries. He was hired to do map and compass work and now teaches orienteering and GPS as well. He's been coming back since the 1980s. Dave met his partner at Family Summits where she's the leader for the young adult group. They're one of several Summit romances.

"The summits have a unique format. It segregates one week out of the 52 weeks of the year," Mr. Linthincum says. "Kind of inside the beltway from outside the beltway. By the first day, everyone is relaxed and ready to dig into the subject matter. For active adults, there's kayaking, crawling through caves, rafting, walking upstream like Shut-in Creek in the Ozarks, and meeting mental and physical challenges. Even in a butterfly class, you're expected to walk two miles. That's the Summit norm."

Family Summits works well for single parents, especially single women; they feel comfortable here and meet a variety of people. Jessica Chang, an orthodontist from New York City and single mother, has been coming for the past nine years. Now she almost never sees her daughter Ariel during the week, who at age 12, is in the young teen program.

"I never thought I'd come to the Ozarks. They make it OK and safe. They have organized events and bring in local experts. These people are my surrogate family. I would come even without my daughter," Ms. Chang said before she took off for a ropes course

Some come back year after year just to bird. They depend on the leadership of Brete Griffin, a science teacher from Toronto, who's an award-winning birder. "Summits are about meeting old friends all over the country. We go to different places each year and find new birds in new places and everything that goes with them - butterflies, reptiles, and wildflowers."
With all this emphasis on making lifelong friends, you'd think it would be difficult to break in as a newbie. But every Summiteer wears a bandana that lets others know many years you've been coming. Your first year, you get a yellow bandana. More experienced Summiteers go out of their way to greet you, show you the ropes, and invite you to join their table at mealtime. If this is your second through four years, you get a green bandana, and so on through the color spectrum.   

This one-week camp manages to live under the radar of better known commercial and other nonprofit activities. Most summiteers learn about it by word of mouth. The Summits were started by National Wildlife Federation in 1970 but in 2006, the organization decided to pull out because it didn't fit their mission anymore. The Federation wanted to reach millions of people, while most Summits attract about 350 people. Instead of letting the yearly Summit die, Chris and his boys discussed what this one week a year meant to them. Chris mobilized others and created the nonprofit organization.

The Summits are a bit of a fantasyland, with more activities than you could do in a month, great people, and comfortable surroundings.

Want To Join Us In 2012?

The next Family Summit will be at the YMCA of the Rockies, just outside of Rocky Mountain National Park - July 7 to 13, 2012. Check out all the details.

Next year we can look forward to:

* A chance to bag more than one 14,000 footer peak

* Alpine naturalist, alpine meadow ecology

* Orienteering

* Rock climbing on rocks, not just a climbing wall

* Whitewater rafting

* Sit and smell the air and enjoy it.

As Mr. Blank says, "Whether you're a family or by yourself, come - you won't regret it."

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I've attended over 27 summits both as participant and staff. I still have friends that I met at my first summit in 1980 and it's like a family reunion when we meet. YMCA of the Rockies is one of my very favorite summits.

I've been coming to summits since I was eleven. I'm now twenty seven and haven't missed a year. I wouldn't describe this as a camp but as a well organized well run nature based family vacation that educates as well as retains people of all ages and abilities. I love my summit family and can't wait to see everyone in estes park! Join us!

Great description of the Family Summits.  I've attended 19 since the early 80s, some with family, some with friends, some on my own, and never had a problems meeting people.  I heard about the first one from a friend of my mother - both my mother and her friend attended a number of the summits with me, and though we often "did our own thing" as far as activities were concerned, we all enjoyed each other's experiences through talking about them at meals or with other people.  When they stopped coming with me, I introduced friends to the program, and most of them have attended multiple summits by now,  and keep coming back.
I especially appreciate how many different levels of activities there are, not only by age, but by interest and energy level.  Though I'm one of the committed birders, I always manage to fit in a few other classes and activities, and always try to learn a new craft or skill.  I've learned a lot over the years, and had fun doing it with all the new friends I've made. 

I have had the privelage of attending the past 2 Summits, Tahoe and the Ozarks.  I did not have the opportunity to experience many nature outings with my family... and now I have a new family that I get to enjoy the outdoors with!  I have made some wonderful friends who I look forward to seeing every year!  We learn about interesting topics about the natural surroundings in the particular region of the country we are in and get out and do things unique to that area that exposes me to the natural wonders that even the locals of that area don't get out to see!  The Summit offerings showcase what they are all about which is to "foster thoughtful stewardship of the Earth".  From sun up, to sun down there is so much to learn, explore and connect with in the natural world!  Veteran faculty and local guest presenters make this a well rounded experience for people of all ages!  It is wonderful how each individual family member has their own unique program designed for them... and then everyone comes together in the afternoon and evenings to share their experiences and attend the evening programs designed as a time to bond.  It's a great organization to be a part of and I am looking forward to the Colorado Summit in 2012!

Danny Bernstein has done a masterful job describing the nature of the Summits.  It's been my honor to have taught photography at 32 Summits, giving me the opportunity to share this experience with my kids throughout their lives.  Now 25 and 28, they grew up coming to Summits, fostering in them a strong environmental ethic.   As an environmental educator, to see children come through the Summit program starting as toddlers and then choose an environmentally-based career - a fairly regular phenomenon - has been one of the more gratifying aspects of Summits for me. This is what it's all about, and the Summit organization continues to exemplify its mission year after year.  If this description sounds even remotely interesting, I urge all readers, whether single, a pair, or larger group, to click into the Family Nature Summits website and sign up for the 2012 Summit at Estes Park in the Rocky Mountains, one of the Summit's quintessential sites.  You'll be eternally glad you did!

Run; don't walk to sign up for the Summit. I have attended 14 and won't miss the opportunity to do such a vast variety of activities. The only hard part is choosing from so many terrific and diversified classes, hikes and field trips led by experts both local and national. This past Summit a new participant said to me, "This is like one big happy family. Everyone is warm and friendly." The kids get to learn from fantastic, experienced nature educators and get out into nature to see and feel the beauty of this planet and the necessity of taking care of it. Once you come you will be hooked and want to bring others with you. My sister, her husband and her grandchildren and my best friend meet there every year. We each select our own activities and then we meet at meals and for the evening program. The selection of nature crafts is amazing. I have taken pine-needle basketry, weaving, nature drawing, watercolor, jewelry making, and done of other neat projects including making arrowheads. Please take a look at the Website, sign up and start a new adventure for yourself and/or your family.

I look forward to the Summit all year long for the extreme outdoor adventures; boating out to Roger's Rock in the Adirondacks, swimming into the base of the 700 foot cliff face, and rock climbing up to a height where you can veiw the whole of the 23 mile lake and its beautiful surroundings, or hiking 10 miles up into the snow to see the Lake Tahoe Basin at 10,000ft...some of the coolest things I've ever seen! I am excited to hike the tundra and the peaks in the Rockies this summer with the Young Adults!

The summit is a treasured shared experience with people that feel like they are part of your family. The summit gave our kids an appreciation of nature that is priceless. We have all maintained friendships and enjoy the family feeling that is so much a part of the summit. It is especially fun to see and hear the positive reactions from new summiteers. It's a special place with special peole.

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