FARMINGTON — Times have changed since the days when summer vacation meant primarily running through sprinklers and eating ice cream cones on the curb.
Now, children in the Four Corners have a variety of options for how to fill the long, summer days. And many take advantage of programs intended to continue kids' education in the great outdoors.
Tour de Rez
If you have spent any time in the wilderness on the Navajo Nation, you have likely seen the work of the Tour de Rez Summer Program offered by the nonprofit organization NavajoYES.
Each summer for the past 24 years, the Tour de Rez has given middle and high school students a one-of-a-kind experience on the reservation. Kids can participate in any or all of the four stages, which have different themes and change each year.
"We learn about the Navajo culture and to have respect for the environment," said 17-year-old Aaron Beauford, who helped the program "improve spots where families enjoy time outside" for his second year this summer.
A hand-carved, painted wooden sign stands at Buffalo Pass in the Chuska Mountains, an area program participants have been improving since 2007. The sign states the names of the surrounding mountain ranges and towns — the LaPlata Mountains, the Sleeping Ute, Red Valley and Cove — in the Navajo language. Last summer during Tour de Rez, Beauford carved the sign using skills he learned while watching his father, a carpenter.
The activity that stands out in Beauford's mind the most, though, is the program's six-day mountain bike ride from Navajo Mountain to Window Rock, Ariz., around which the program was initiated. Beauford said he saw pictures of Navajo Mountain before the tour but likely never would have visited it had it not been for the annual ride.
"With activities, group circles, discussions and games throughout the day, we try to get kids engaged in the story," said NavajoYES director Tom Riggenbach about incorporating Navajo culture into the program, which is free to participants.
But other themes resonate, too. Through service projects, trail restoration work and multi-day backpacking trips through the Grand Canyon and to Rainbow Bridge, kids learn lessons on health and nutrition, wilderness first aid and how to deal with issues such as heat stroke in the desert.
Working alongside rangers and U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife workers, Riggenbach said participants "understand the concept that there are jobs in the outdoors. They see that there is the potential for eco-tourism growth on the Navajo Nation."
Kids Rock/Mountain Kids
The Rock Lounge, a climbing gym in Durango, Colo., is much more than an indoor climbing wall. Summer programs allow kids of all ages and abilities to learn how to rock climb safely outdoors.
Get wet in the stream table
In the stream table at the nature center, water runs over real river rock and sand to represent erosion. Or, if you prefer, you can just get your hands a little wet as you play.
Check out the Wentzscope microscope
Using this microscope, you can count the hairs on the leg of a fruit fly, pictured here, or check out prepared slides of algae, bloodworm larvae, butterfly wings and more.
Relax in the observation room
Rainy day or too hot outside? People often enjoy reading, knitting and simply observing nature outside from this glass-walled room.
Feed flocks of ducks
The nature center provides a seemingly endless supply of dried corn for people to feed the hungry ducks that live in Berg and Riverside parks and along the Animas River.
Read a book about nature
An assortment of nature-themed books focused on a variety of topics are available to both read and buy at the nature center. There are books available for readers of all ages.
Play in the state soil sandbox
You may not have seen New Mexico's state soil, Penistaja soil, because it does not exist in this part of the state. The soil in this sandbox traveled here from Grants.
Create your own animal tracks
Made in nature center workshops, these casts were created from animal prints found in and around Riverside Park. Tracks can be recreated in the sand with these casts.
"Our passion is to expose kids to climbing," said Tambri Garcia, who owns The Rock Lounge with husband, Marcus Garcia.
Kids Rock teaches children ages 5 and up the basics of climbing, such as tying in and belaying, at local outdoor climbing areas like X-Rock, Sailing Hawks and Turtle Lake. Some time is also spent indoors at The Rock Lounge, where kids learn how to ascend a rope.
Mountain Kids, for older kids ages 11 and up, teaches students the fundamentals of climbing and incorporates mountaineering skills, too. At the end of the week-long program, kids get the chance to climb a peak in the San Juan Mountains.
Tambri Garcia said many of the kids who take part in the programs have climbed indoors with their parents but have not been exposed to outdoor climbing.
"Outdoor climbing is very different from indoor. (You get to experience) the fun of climbing a route where you don't necessarily know what is at the top of it," she said.
Many kids pick up a new hobby after summer climbing with The Rock Lounge, and some take it even further. Maddie Sturm started climbing with The Rock Lounge's summer programs, and she is now ninth in the country for speed climbing in her age group, Tambri Garcia said.
Punch passes and half-day or full-day options make it possible for kids to get their climbing in, even if they have other commitments to work around.
For more information on The Rock Lounge's summer programs, go to www.rockloungedurango.com.
Here in Farmington, kids ages seven to 12 have been going to the Riverside Nature Center every Wednesday morning this month to learn about local wildlife. The first week, the group walked the nature trails acting as explorers.
"We watched swallows catching mosquitoes over Willett Ditch. They saw that it was birds catching their food," said Riverside Nature Center Museum Specialist Donna Thatcher.
Another item on the explorers' list was "an introduced plant." Along with finding an example of a Russian olive along the Animas River in Riverside Park, they learned the plants were introduced to this area during the Dust Bowl to block the wind. Since then, they easily spread because the fruits of the Russian olive are eaten by many different animals.
The following week, a local artist joined the group and taught the children how an artist might look at parts of nature for inspiration. At the end of the class, kids drews their own sketches.
Wildlife Wednesdays is offered every summer for the month of July, and interested parties must pre-register. For more information on this and other nature center programs, contact Donna Thatcher at 505-599-1422.
TOUR DE REZ
· Backpack to Rainbow Bridge on the Rainbow Bridge Trail. Go to 1.usa.gov/1kofkyi for more information and directions. Trail maintenance and hand-built benches are courtesy of Tour de Rez.
· Drive to and picnic at Buffalo Pass. South of Shiprock from U.S. Highway 491, take a right on Navajo Route 13. Drive through Red Valley into the Chuska Mountains. You will see the signs for Buffalo Pass when you arrive there. The picnic area overlooking the valleys and surrounding mountain ranges was made by Tour de Rez.
For more information on Tour de Rez go to navajoyes.org.