BARAGA - About two dozen kids, plus a few adults, trailed Explorer Guide Klaudia Ecker through Baraga State Park, studiously marking treasure maps. As part of Ecker's Pirates of Superior program, they followed clues to a treasure - a healthy snack - then donned eye patches and practiced their "aarghs."
The majority of Wednesday's group were pre-kindergarten through first grade students from Baraga/Houghton/Keweenaw Head Start's Baraga Great Explorations summer program, but there were also several out-of-town youth who were camping at the park. Like most Explorer programs, Pirates of Superior mixed fun with education - in this case history, numbers practice for the younger kids, and creative problem solving as students interpreted clues.
"I learned all my numbers," said Patricia Tappman, one of the Great Explorations students.
Baraga State Park Explorer Guide Klaudia Ecker helps Alyssa Holley with her treasure map during Ecker’s “Pirates of Superior” program Wednesday. (Houghton Daily Mining Gazette photo by Dan Roblee)
Both Baraga State Park and McLain State Park are hosting Explorer programs this summer. Each park has a seasonal Explorer guide who hosts about 10 programs per week. The majority of the programs focus on local animals and plants, though some turn to history or other topics, like Ecker's pirates program. On Friday nights, the guides turn attention over to guest speakers.
Groups such as Great Explorations can have programs specially scheduled, but campers or locals are always welcome to join in, said Baraga State Park's Kelly Somero.
"It's great for kids on summer vacation," Somero said. "It's fun and educational. ... And they can spend time in the park before and after, utilize the playground, picnic in the day use area, make a day of it."
All programs are free, she added, though cars need a Michigan Recreation Passport to get into the park. The programs will run though the end of the summer, and schedules can be found online at michigan.gov/dnr/0,4570,7-153-10369-84526-,00.html.
Ecker said she's enjoyed working as an Explorer guide, though it's actually making it more difficult for her to choose a career path.
"I don't know if I want to do something working with kids or working with nature," she said.
One of the biggest challenges, Ecker said, is coming up with fresh programming. She said she was surprised in training when she was told it took about two hours of planning for each half hour of programming, but she's since learned that's realistic.
"I spend the whole day Tuesday doing research and planning," she said.
Ecker has also learned which programs appeal to different age groups, like her bear program for older kids and adults, and craft-based programs for younger kids.
Melanie Gillespie, a Florida resident whose family was camped at the park, said they appreciated the variety of programs. The Pirates program was great for her younger kids, she said, while she, her 15-year-old and her husband were looking forward to today's Nocturnal Nature Hike.
"The campfire breakfast is good for our boys in scouting," she added.
McLain State Park Explorer Guide Kristin Brusso, a wildlife ecology student at Michigan Technological University, might be getting more out the experience than her guests. Out-of-towners tell her about unfamiliar ecosystems, and she's also learning plenty about communication.
"Honestly, I've never talked so much to people in my life," she said.
A few of the most popular programs at McLain include those on foxes and sturgeon - she has a frozen lake sturgeon that washed up on the beach - and a program on fire that discusses how to prevent forest fires, and teaches guests how to make one without matches or a lighter.
So, were there ever really pirates on Lake Superior?
Well, maybe not in the traditional sense, admits Ecker. But the lake has been used to smuggle alcohol into the U.S. during Prohibition, and guns on the return trip into Canada. There were also deer poachers, and "lumber pirates" who cut wood on others' property and moved it by boat.
At least once, she said, "the lumber guys destroyed a ship that was coming to catch them."