From the President: Tom Haxby

Bears, Salamanders and Snakes – Oh My!

NANPA High School Scholarship Program participants at Spruce Flats Falls. Photo by Tom Haxby.
NANPA High School Scholarship Program participants at Spruce Flats Falls. Photo by Tom Haxby.

“We do not inherit the earth from our ancestors; we borrow it from our children.”  I thought about that proverb a lot during the NANPA High School Scholarship Program in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, where I was one of the instructors. A month ago, ten high school students from around the country spent a week learning about photography, conservation, ethics, biodiversity and a whole lot more through this annual program, made possible by your donations to the NANPA Foundation.

It was a fantastic week thanks to fellow instructors Karen Schuenemann (our fearless leader), JP Lawrence (still don’t know what JP stands for), Alena Ebeling-Schuld (our bear expert from the Great Bear Rainforest), guest speakers Todd Pierson and Todd Amacker and those who provided administrative support (Teresa Ransdell, Susan Day and others).  Thanks, too, to the staff at the Tremont Institute, where we were based.  They were outstanding.

Naturally, all of the students wanted to see a bear during their week in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. As luck would have it, we found a mom and three cubs up in a distant tree in Cades Cove. Mom and one cub were sleeping while the other two engaged in a bit of sibling rivalry out on a limb.  We encountered a yearling cub walking beside the trail as we returned from a day at Spruce Flats Falls.  Fortunately, we’d just heard Alena’s talk on being ethical, conscientious and safe around bears–lessons we immediately employed.

Students photographing Red Cheeked Salamander. Photo by Tom Haxby.
Students photographing Red Cheeked Salamander. Photo by Tom Haxby.

There are snakes and salamanders galore in the Smokies. With the expert guidance of herpetologist JP Lawrence, students were able to safely capture stunning photos of copperheads.  The Todds, as we called them, amazed everyone with what they taught us about freshwater invertebrates and vertebrates.  We used the “Meet Your Neighbour[1]” method to capture splendid photos of salamanders, insects and more. We were taught how to carefully handle our subjects (salamanders, for instance, were periodically hydrated and returned, unharmed, to where they were found).  We even learned to disinfect our footwear before entering streams to avoid spreading organisms that could be toxic to aquatic life.  

We spent one night photographing the Milky Way.  On another evening, we took a trip to Clingman’s Dome, where we photographed the red cheeked salamander, found only at the highest elevations of the park, and a classic Smokies sunset. There was even a fun evening around a campfire with S’mores.

Suffice it to say there was little time to sleep.  Well, except for a few students who didn’t mind napping, stretched out on the floor of the classroom.

Our students came from across the country and bonded with each other during the week. Several were already expert birders.  One preferred black and white photography.  One student captured images of the hemlock woolly adelgid (an invasive insect that is decimating hemlocks in the park). They amazed our instructors with their enthusiasm and energy.  Each of the students captured remarkable photos and gave wonderful presentations on their chosen topics at the end of the week. 

Thanks to long-time NANPA supporters Canon for their incredible support, providing all of the cameras, lenses and flashes and to Cognisys for allowing us to try their camera trapping equipment.  A big thanks also to Hunt’s Photo & Video for their financial support and to the f-Stop Foundation for their generous grant. Most of all, thanks to all who have contributed to the NANPA Foundation.  Your donations make this, as well as the NANPA Summit College Scholarship Program, possible.

Watch for a slide show of the student’s images, which is currently in production, and information about applying for the 2020 program coming later this fall on the NANPA Summit College Scholarship Program webpage.  And, please consider making a donation to the NANPA Foundation and helping to recruit students for next year’s high school program.

Looking back on our week in the Smokies, and the impact it had on those ten students, makes me really appreciate NANPA’s High School Scholarship Program.  It touches on every part of NANPA’s mission and what a wonderful way of helping the next generation to appreciate and care for our natural world!  May they do the same for their children.


[1] Founded in 2009, Meet Your Neighbours™ is a worldwide photographic initiative created by Niall Benvie and Clay Bolt. The project is dedicated to reconnecting people with the wildlife on their own doorsteps – and enriching their lives in the process.