Excerpt: Geo Kids by Array

Wild Things

Chapter 8

According to CurrentResults.com, there are 2,972 different types of vertebrate animals in the United States. That includes mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, and fish. We haven’t come close to seeing all 2,972, but throughout our travels, we encountered all types of animals. Some were chance encounters, and others were part of adventures we had planned. Here’s some news you can use: If you enjoy animals, there are opportunities to experience wildlife in every state. We tried to take advantage of as many as we could.

Bison and Pioneers (and Bad Dad Incentives)

Hi, Jim speaking. Every year, we see viral videos of people getting too close to wild animals. We can tell you it’s important to let animals be where they are. There’s a reason that the national parks have signs that say, “Don’t get too close.” One of the things I remember is a viral video where parents and a child got too close to a bison in a national park, and the parents ran and left the child, and she was thrown by the bison way up in the air. We got a chance to see bison at Yellowstone and Custer State Park. We never got out of our cars around them, but even so, we saw them up close and personal.

Now, before we share more about this adventure, it is important to give some context why this is one of the boys' favorite memories. It all started years ago when they were in preschool. Since we drive a lot, we’re always spotting deer roaming around. To get the boys engaged and give them something to do on road trips, we started a deer spotting game. If they saw a deer, they got one dollar to add to our (mostly hypothetical) Florida Ice Cream Fund. It was a fun way to help them spend a year anticipating a treat on vacation.

So, back to the bison. At this point in our journey, we were driving through South Dakota to check out Mount Rushmore and the Badlands.

Well, the boys weren’t seeing many deer. So, I said, “That’s okay. Look for buffalo. If you see a buffalo on this trip, you’ll get a dollar.” By this time, we were ready to take a break from driving, so we pulled off the road at South Dakota’s Custer State Park. We were taking a break. We hadn’t been seeking out state parks. We wanted national parks. We wanted to stamp those passports. But, in addition to being perfect timing for a pit stop, people in the area kept telling us, “Custer is the coolest thing. ” We decided to take some extra time and see what all the fuss was about. The guides at the Visitor Center recommended we go on a jeep tour. We learned that an estimated 1,300 to 1,500 head of buffalo can migrate through the area.

Sawyer and Lawson here. During the Jeep tour, we reminded our parents, “Remember, if we see any buffalo, we get a dollar for each one we see.” Our tour guide was a man who’d been at Custer for at least seven or eight years, and he cracked up laughing. He said, “Mom and Dad, there’s one road in, and it’s the first time in all my years of driving here that all the herds are together right over this hill, so when we top off, boys, we’re going to see around 1,500 bison.”

Sure enough, we top a little hill, and as far as we can see in all directions, are bison. We started rapidly counting, “One, two, three, four, five,” and the guide said, “Guys, seriously, just stop. It's 1,500.” So yeah, let’s just say that we will enjoy ice cream for years to come! Though Custer State Park ended up being the most expensive park visit we had on our trip, it is also one of our all-time favorites.

From that trip on, we no longer considered state parks just convenient spots for lunches. If someone has designated it a park, it clearly has something to offer. Why not go experience it? Custer State Park is definitely a must-see. It was the best thing we did in South Dakota, and it changed our biased opinions of state parks forever.

Sawyer and Lawson again. When we were in Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota, we went on a hike through a forest, and when we came out of the woods, there were just bison all around us. We were on the hiking path where we were supposed to be, but the bison just were just everywhere, and we couldn’t get past them to get to our car. They were only grazing on grass, but it’s not safe to get near them. We had to wait until they moved so we could get back to the car. It was different than at Yellowstone, where there were so many people and cars. Here it was just us and the bison. It was like we were pioneers looking out at the prairie. And when we were there, we saw prairie dogs too. We went on a hike, and all around us were these holes in the ground. The prairie dogs would pop up, disappear, then 20 feet away, another one would pop up and down. It felt like we were walking through a Whack-A-Mole at a carnival. There were tons of them just randomly popping up and down, standing on their hind legs with their little front legs up in the air. They were chirping to talk to each other and talking underground too. As we walked through, they knew where we were, so they’d pop up to look at us as we went by.

Emily again. They were the cutest little guys, just energetic and curious, coming out to check us out and then going back down into their tunnels. That was really a highlight of that park for all of us.

Fast Facts

Theodore Roosevelt National Park

  • Located in North Dakota, where the Badlands meet the Great Plains
  • Named after Theodore Roosevelt (and the only park named after one person) because he owned ranches there and loved the area
  • A Prairie Dog habitat is situated on the Buckhorn Trail
  • Contains several scenic outlooks, including over the Badlands and the Painted Canyon
  • Features a 36-mile scenic loop drive that takes you by the outlooks as well as to short hikes
  • Camping is allowed, but there are no restaurants or hotels in the park. Visit the park by staying in nearby Medora or as part of a trip to the Badlands National Park in South Dakota

Bears and Bells

Lawson here. When we were in Alaska, we went to a fish hatchery that was on an island. The guide took us along a trail for a short hike, and there was a bear that was just off the side of the trail. The bear had two cubs, and they were all just eating fish. And as we were walking, the guide kept saying, “Heyyyyyy bear. Heyyyyyy bear.” And we were thinking, “Why is he doing that?” and “Are these bears going to eat us?” The bear just looked at us. Her two cubs were just passing right in front of us, and she saw us, and she just looked at us and went right back to eating the fish.

Emily again. I remember thinking that those bears looked just like kids do at the end of the night on Halloween after trick-or-treating. Like they’ve had so much candy (or fish in this case) that they can’t even move. That’s what the bears were like.

Hi, Sawyer speaking up here. The official guide at the fish hatchery told us they had never had a bear attack there. He said that bears only attack in two situations—when they’re hungry or when they’re startled. So, these bears were not hungry because they had all the fish they could eat. And because the guide was walking around saying, “Heyyyy bear,” they weren’t startled either. Every other place we had been where there could be bears, the hikers would wear bells, and they always carried bear spray. The bells would keep the bears from being startled, but if a bear was hungry, they could attack, and then hikers could use the spray. At the hatchery, the bears weren’t a big danger because they weren’t hungry or startled.

Tip: Generally speaking, you aren’t allowed to fly with bear spray. Research ahead of your trip to find where you can pick up some bear spray locally. Some good options will be your final arriving airport, your hotel, or you can order ahead and have it waiting for you at your final destination.

Man’s Best Friend

Lawson here. One of my favorite experiences with animals was in Denali National Park in Alaska. The park has kennels with sled dogs. They have huskies there because if someone gets lost or hurt on a trail, they can’t get an ambulance out to them in six feet of snow. They have to use dogsleds. So, the huskies are there to rescue people. But they are also there for visitors to see. I really love dogs, so this was great because we got to pet them. There was a presentation about them, and then we saw them running around a track pulling a dog sled. We saw a lot of wild animals at the national parks, but I never thought I would see dogs that were actually part of the park. It’s the only National Park that has dogs.

Fast Facts

Denali National Park

  • Six million acres of taiga forest, high alpine tundra, rivers, glaciers, and mountains with just one road running through it
  • Home to North America’s highest peak, Denali, at 20,320 feet
  • Denali Dog Sled Kennels offers demonstrations
  • Most of the park is accessible only on foot, bike, or bus, but once a year, there’s a lottery, and the winner can drive their own car around the entire road
  • Filled with Dall sheep, wolves, caribou, moose, and grizzly bears
  • Has more than 160 bird species and over 1,500 types of plants, but only one amphibian, the wood frog
  • 70-million-year-old fossils await in the Cantwell Formation
  • Activities include ziplining, glacier landing plane trips, Jeep and ATV tours, hiking, biking, camping, and rafting

Seeing Sea Creatures

Hi, it’s Sawyer. Another animal we got to see in surprising numbers were dolphins when we sailed the Channel Islands National Park. Our captain told us we would likely see some dolphins along the way. When we were sailing back to the mainland, we were surrounded by a super pod that our captain said was one of the biggest groupings he had ever seen. The dolphins were jumping and swimming on all four sides of us for as far as we could see. The best part was at the front of the boat. The dolphins were so close you could look them in the eye as they used the boat to help them swim easier.

Hey, it’s Lawson. Also, when we were in Hawaii, we went on a boat out into the ocean to snorkel with the sea turtles. It was scary and exciting because we were out in the open ocean, getting into the water. It was the first time we had been any place other than a swimming pool or the calm of the Gulf of Mexico. It was crystal clear, so it would look like you were seeing 10 feet deep when really it was 100. We were at the edge by the continental shelf, so you could see that big drop-off. The sea turtles were just there, swimming around and under us. It was so clear you could see everything.

Sawyer again. It was kind of scary because it was so deep, and it felt like a shark could just come up and get you. At the same time, we had our life jackets, we had pool noodles to hold on to, and our guides were great at teaching us what to expect.

Emily here. I think that was one of my most fun, memorable days because it was the first time the boys took on a big adventure outside their comfort zone. It was scary for me as a parent trying to look for sea turtles and also keep my eye on them, making sure they were safe. It was the first time I saw the kids overcome their fear to experience the world around them. I think it’s really important to have those moments where you feel scared, work through it, and keep doing something that’s meaningful to you.

Places to Visit

There are several places that have swimming with dolphins in captivity in Hawaii:

There are also outfitters who will take you out in the open ocean to swim or snorkel near wild dolphins.

Jim’s two cents:

I have to be honest and say a lot of people believe that keeping (and breeding) dolphins in captivity is unethical and that getting in a pool with them is unsafe and cruel. We strive to be ethical and sustainable in our travels, and this was a difficult thing for us to decide to do. We made the choice that was right for our family at the time when we did this several years ago. Everyone should make their own decisions for their family based on their views.

Manatee Moments

Hey, Lawson again. We also got to swim and snorkel with the manatees in the Crystal River in Florida with a tour company. The manatees were huge. They were as big as the boat. The law there is you aren’t allowed to touch the manatees, but if they touch you, then it’s OK as long as you don’t interact too much. The manatees are kind and gentle and curious. So, we got in the water and just did a dead man’s float as still and quietly as we could. The manatees would come over to us and swim under our hands. There was a baby calf I remember that was smaller, and it was really friendly. It just kept rubbing against me, like petting my hands with its body.

Places to Visit

Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge

  • Located in Western Florida, north of Tampa
  • Made up of 20 islands in Kings Bay
  • Home to Three Sisters Springs
  • Activities include kayaking, birding, snorkeling, boat tours, and swimming with manatees
  • Winter (Nov-Apr) home of the endangered West Indian Manatee. When Gulf of Mexico waters are below 70 degrees F, about 400 or more 3,000-pound manatees seek out the warm waters of the springs
  • A manatee refuge and manatee sanctuary under federal laws

Sawyer once more. They were super calm, so they weren’t scary at all and didn’t seem dangerous. They didn’t really move much. They would just eat the grass. And they, for sure, looked a whole lot bigger than just a little black or brown dot that you see swimming across the wave lines. It was weird to think that the people in Florida go out on the river with their boats and enjoy the surface of the water but really, underneath, it’s a whole habitat for these animals. We also got to dive down deep and see the natural springs at the bottom, which was cool.

Hello, Jim here. We made sure to follow the laws there about the amount of interaction with the manatees. It was remarkable to see the level of contact these animals initiated with us. The kids learned about habitats in science, and here they got to see the manatees’ habitat and understand the importance of maintaining seagrass and preventing water pollution in the midst of climate change. It becomes very real when you see what they need to do to eat. When they ate, it was a loud crunch. I grew up in the country, and we had cattle. In the summer, we’d have the windows open at night and hear the “chomp, chomp, chomp” of the cattle eating the grass. The manatees sounded just like that. So, they really are sea cows. It is sad to know they are endangered. We all must do what we can to protect these gentle giants. Here are a few resources if you are interested in doing more to learn about and protect manatees:

  • Save the Manatee Club is a national non-profit with a mission to protect manatees and their habitat.
  • The Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge is the only national wildlife refuge in the U.S. focused on protecting manatee habitats.
  • NationalGeographic.com has great online information about saving the manatees.

Predators on the Prowl

It’s Sawyer again. We saw other animals that weren’t so friendly. In the Everglades, we went out on an airboat and saw alligators. We saw them in Louisiana too, but there they were on private land and were fed, so it was kind of like the bears in Alaska. They weren’t hungry. But in the Everglades, they were just living there and weren’t being fed. So, they were dangerous. We felt respect for them and just stayed in the boat and looked.

We also saw another animal we didn’t expect in the Everglades. We were preparing to go on a hike when we pulled into one of the parking areas. Something seemed strange because all the cars were covered with tarps. We had never seen something like this before, and we wondered if a storm had damaged the vehicles or if something else was happening. We asked a ranger and learned the tarps actually help protect the cars from vultures who gather in the area. That made a lot of sense, especially when we saw one car that wasn’t under a tarp, and it was completely covered in vultures. It was like a vulture mobile. In case you do not know what vultures look like, they are not sweet little birds. You don’t want to play around with them. They are mean. They were like an evil bird in a Disney movie. We took a picture of that vulture car from afar.

Hello, Emily speaking. And we followed the directions on that sign which said to be sure to cover our vehicle before going out on a hike. Luckily, our vehicle was vulture-free when we returned. In the Everglades, there were signs that warned you about vultures, alligators, bears, and panthers, and we thought that was a random group of animals, especially since you might not think of bears in Florida. We took the signs seriously!

Fast Facts

Everglades National Park

  • Located in southern Florida and made up of 1.5 million acres of wetlands
  • The largest subtropical wilderness in the U.S. and the third-largest National Park
  • Three authorized companies offer airboat tours: Coopertown Airboats, Everglades Safari Park, and Gator Park
  • Home to 50 species of animals, including alligators, panthers, peacocks, eagles, black bears, pigs, foxes, and more. Invasive (not natural to the area) species, such as pythons, have recently become a problem
  • Receives over 60 inches of rain a year

Biodiversity on Display

We saw many different animals on our 50-state tour. We went snorkeling in Biscayne National Park in Florida, and there were so many types of fish swimming under the mangrove roots. We don’t know much about fish, so we couldn’t identify them. Then in the Indiana Dunes, we went to a working farm, and in Iowa, we saw a pioneer park. We saw chickens and cows there. In Key West, there were chickens and cats running around. In addition to the iconic bison in Yellowstone, there were elk that were just lying in grassy areas near the hotels. Along the Great Alaska Highway, when we were driving, we got to see the moose run. The only moose Jim and Emily had ever really seen was Bullwinkle in old cartoons. To actually see an animal like that run across the highway, so awkwardly graceful, was a cool memory we would all share. It was always a surprise what animals we saw. There were so many opportunities to see so many different kinds.

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