How to Create a Water Discovery Kit for Your Tour

Creeks and rivers are amazing storytellers — they can teach, captivate, and inspire curious minds.

I always try to include creeks and rivers into the larger interpretive theme of a tour, especially when these waterways can provoke people into broadening their horizons.

It’s always fun to open up an itenary so trip participants can look under rocks, get their feet wet, observe critters in the water — to touch, hear, smell, see, and learn more about the story of a place.

To help with bringing this story to life I bring along a simple “Water Discovery Kit.” The kit can be made at home, packs well, and weighs just a few pounds. It includes:

  • 1 Gallon-sized Plastic Bucket with Handle
  • 1 10x Microscope
  • 2 Dip Nets
  • 1 Big Pipette (medium-sized turkey baster)
  • 1 Thermometer
  • 3 Magnification Loops
  • 1 Set of Laminated Instructions
  • 1 Plankton Net with ziplock
  • 6 Small Pipettes
  • 3 Round clear observation dishes
  • 3 Rectangular clear observation dishes
  • 3 Rectangular observations plates
  • 1 Funnel
  • 1 Gallon-sized ziplock
  • 1 Secchi dish (8-inch)

Everything on the list fits inside the bucket, except for the Secchi disk which I carry separately.  The kit can be used by elementary kids on up, though it works best when various generations (grandparents and grandchildren) are involved.

Seven Tour Director Survival Tips for Dealing with “Vegan Issues”

Shown: Two vegan “small plate” dishes enjoyed at an Indian restaurant while on tour; Gobi Manchurian – fried cauliflower tossed in a sweet and sour sauce, and Samosa Chaat – two savory bean and pea pastries topped with a garbanzo bean curry and house chutneys.

As a trip leader, I love creating meaningful experiences for participants — especially through food. I’m also a vegan who loves to travel and engage new places through local tastes. For me, tour directing and eating vegan are complimentary flavors.

That’s why I’m surprised when fellow tour directors express derision towards vegans. These sentiments were summed up at a recent guide training when a group presented their hot topics titled, VEGAN ISSUES.  The frustration was perplexing because to be blunt, vegans aren’t problems on tour. As with any interpretive travel what is required is a better knowledge of the audience. Here’s seven survival tips for tour directors dealing with “vegan issues.”

1. Why are vegans, vegan? And, what is plant-based?
Vegans eat the same food as everyone else, except it’s not made from animals. Vegans value compassion. They seek to eliminate, as much as practical and possible, the use of and exploitation of animals in their everyday lives.  They understand the most immediate way to enact compassion is to control what they put on their plate. Another group to know about are travelers who are plant-based; they eat plants solely for dietary or health benefits. Veganism takes plant-based a step further and includes the ethical component.

2. Why are vegans quiet?
Vegans are often stereotyped as being quiet. Some can be. Many vegans tend to be reserved when traveling because they don’t want to be derided. Here are some actual comments by professional-level tour directors about vegans:

Why don’t they eat like normal people?
If they can’t eat normal food on a tour, they should be made to eat what the rest eat!”
“They seem smart, too bad they can’t figure out what they’re going to eat this week.

Is it any wonder a traveler might be quiet when a tour director’s personal biases (yes, biases) are seeping into other communications? Trip leaders need to understand that everyone on their tour want to eat good-tasting, wholesome food. Vegans just want food without the animal or the hidden animal products.

3. Why are they vegan at home, but not while traveling?
I often hear trip leaders say, “Why are they vegan at home, but not while traveling?” At home, all of us can control ingredients, quantity, salt, oils, etc., but this can be very difficult for anyone during a week-long tour. Vegans have learned to be pros when it comes to ordering food selectively at restaurants to avoid hidden animal products, substituting side dishes, or supplementing their travel meals by visiting the store.  However, on tour, most of the pre-selected restaurants on an itinerary are solidly meat-centric.  When confronted with zero choices many vegan travelers just won’t eat at all, others might order various side dishes to create something of a meal. Others might make a “what causes the least harm” decision. A few might substitute fish, though these are usually travelers who need to eat something (anything) at each meal to regulate blood sugar or taking medicine with food.

4. Why don’t they eat the special vegan meal?
The biggest frustration I’ve heard from tour directors is that the specially prepared vegan meal rarely gets eaten. I can say without hesitation – 95% of the specially prepared
vegan meals on tours are notoriously bad. These vegan meals might be made by well-intentioned kitchens, but staff often have no clue what vegans eat and the results can range from lackluster to frightful. If someone on tour is skipping meals, their basic needs are not being met.

5. What about vegans eating alternative meat on tours?
The target audience for alternative meat products aren’t plant-eaters, the target audience are meat-eaters who want to reduce the amount of meat they are eating. To many vegans, alternative meat is junk food and should be eaten sparingly.

6. What do vegans eat?
Vegan food can be as diverse as a fresh salad or pizza. I like food that is unrefined or minimally refined and excludes or minimizes meat, dairy products, and eggs.  Vegan food can include apples, bananas, blueberries, oranges, strawberries, broccoli, carrots, cauliflower, kale, lettuce, potatoes, corn, green peas, winter squash, barley, millet, oats, quinoa, wheat berries, brown rice, black beans, chickpeas, lentils, pinto beans, walnuts, pumpkin seeds, tahini, almond butter, or even rice, soy, oat, almond, and cashew milk. The entire vegetable and fruit aisle at the store is vegan. A good part of the grain aisle and some of the bread aisle is vegan. Additionally, there are plant-based mayonnaise, cheeses and other sandwich condiments that taste like traditional products and are cost-effective. On the more recreation and social side, most french fries and beer are vegan. There’s no shortage of plant-based foods or creative ways to eat vegan while on tour, here’s a few:

Shown: Some of the vegan meals, desserts, and snacks served on the tours and trips I’ve led.

7. How should I talk with a vegan on my tour?
Have a conversation with them as you would with anyone on your trip. Remember, vegans want to eat delicious food too, if they have a question about food it’s originating from a place of compassion. Use compassion as a starting point in your own conversation with trip travelers. I try to set this tone in my pre-trip welcome letter, I explain that while our trip has made efforts to eat at places that offer a variety of foods some of the menus can be limited. I add that we will have an opportunity to stop by a local grocery store so all participants can supplement food, and grab something fresh and healthy if needed. At times when travelers explore a town on their own, I always find a local restaurant that offers a selection of vegan options and invite others to join me. I also communicate with the office about locating restaurants that are generally healthier. During the tour, I speak with the kitchen to see about suggestions if something can be substituted.

On a tour, everyone can experience new places through local tastes. It does requires some up-front communication with travelers about what to expect on a trip. It also requires some greater knowledge of your audience.

Note: The list of foods on #6 comes from Forks Over Knives

When Travel Experiences Are Not in Context, Guests Don’t Remember

In recent years, adventure learning companies have focused on quantity versus quality in regards to their programs. As a trip leader, I’ve seen it too often.

In a rush to increase destination offerings, for a wider audience, many of the experiences are often not in context with the purpose of the trip. The result is that after a week-long program the guest remembers they participated in some fun things, but are not exactly sure how they grew as a person. If they cannot successfully answer this, then how is your company unique? And, why should they return?

An easy way to help guests grow, and nurture them for joining future trips, is to keep all of the travel program’s experiences in context with a big idea. In short, what is the big idea you want your guests/participants to remember? Think of a big idea as a unifying theme for the trip. All of the site visits, excursions, and explorations on the trip should gravitate around this big idea.

It is very easy to build a program around generic information, which is what most tourism companies do (see photo below). It is more challenging to design an adventure learning travel program around a unifying message where all of the experiences (walks, food, guest speakers, site visits, etc) are in context with a big idea. When travel experiences are in context, guests remember they had fun, but also their discoveries.

The Essential Ingredient for Designing a Tour is Understanding Its Theme

All program managers at learning/adventure travel companies wrestle with how best to design quality programs. The most common approach is to think of a subject or a destination (as fire, central Oregon, or Crater Lake) and build the program around it. This seems simple enough, yet themes are a continuous source of frustration, ambiguity, and pain. I’ve seen friends and co-workers, who are solid program managers, struggle with themes that never effectively come together into a cohesive whole.

The problem arises because themes are thought of as nouns. While they do include destinations and things, the essential ingredient for designing a theme is to think of it as a verb.

Some examples:
A multi-day program built around a topic of “fire” now becomes the theme, “Discover how fire helps forge every aspect of our life (sub-themes include: homes/communities, food preparation, entertainment, arts, places we play, and our survival).”

A week-long bus/hiking/rafting program with a topic of the “Seven Wonders of Oregon” transforms into a theme of, “Exploring Oregon’s dynamic geology allows for first-hand discovery and connection to one of the most fundamental forces of nature – in both its creative and destructive roles.”

An active hiking program with a topic of “Exploring Crater Lake” evolves into the theme, “Crater Lake’s breathtaking beauty, seasonal weather extremes, and distinguishing natural and cultural features, combined with a variety of recreational opportunities, provide visitors with abundant chances for discovery, reflection, and inspiration.”

Another way of thinking about a theme is to answer, “What is the big idea I want participants to remember?” Creating a theme in this light focus all of the activities and interactions around a single idea; it helps the program designer and the trip leaders focus on what is relevant while bringing the program to life.

Exploring & Hiking on Oregon’s Central Coast

Our group was fortunate with sunny weather this week as our program was bookended by storms. Our local study leaders, who were well-versed in the area’s natural history, really brought the program to life – thank you for their expertise! This was a great trip to discover how the natural history of the central coast has changed, especially over the past 150 years. I’m happy to have helped with bringing my own experiences and knowledge to help such a wonderful program.

Trip Report:
Group Leader: Mark Hougardy | Organization: Road Scholar | Date: September 2019 | Duration: 6 days | Participants: 20+ | Type: hiking

A pleasant walk on the last day.
A dune ride to see how the dunes looked prior to the introduction of European Beach Grass.
Walking across the dunes.
Left alone, everything grows big here.
A wonderful walk in the woods.
An out-of-shoe experience on the beach.
A lovely sunset seen during a quiet beach walk after dinner.
Experiencing the lush temperate rain forest.
Enjoying a walk on the beach

Hiking & Rafting in Central Oregon – An Active Education Tour

Helping people experience and learn about the rich natural history of central Oregon is always a treat. My energetic group of 14 adults hiked, rafted, and explored the amazing volcanic landscape.

Trip Report:
Group Leader: Mark Hougardy | Organization: Road Scholar | Date: August 2019 | Duration: 8 days | Participants: 14 | Type: hiking, rafting, tour

A Double Rainbow Over Crater Lake!
Rafting on the Deschutes River
A Day Hike in Smith Rock State Park, Oregon
A day hike across a magnificent lava field.
Entering the Massive Lava Tube Cave
Crater Lake National Park – The Watchman – Overlooking Wizard Island
Hiking in the lush Cascades
Enjoying the 100-feet cascade of Diamond Creek Falls, Willamette Pass, Oregon.
We just finished up a rafting trip on the Santiam River.
Enjoying an evening walk to explore Eugene’s colorful murals and micro-art.

Tips for Tour Directors Who Lead Natural History Walks

Recently, I was asked to share ideas with a tour director who was new to leading natural history walks. Here are some simple tips:

When introducing folks to a natural area I like to include in my welcome, “Are there things on this walk that you’d like to know more about?” People almost always want to know about poison ivy/oak and if they will be encountering any. Answering this takes some of the uncertainty people might have about an area off the table and helps them better enjoy the walk.

You’re not there to be an encyclopedia.

Do know the “big idea” of your walk. A big idea is what you want them to take when they leave.

If you know of any good stories about the area, place names, or local colorful characters, share them.

Think of things where people can engage their senses: look, listen, and feel.

When you visit a neat spot (beaver pond, an interesting grove of trees, etc), ask, “What do you think you know about this?” Get them to respond and share information. Everything has a story; people of first nations or settlers could have used even an unassuming plant as an important resource.

If there is an area where people can be comfortable have them sit in silence for several minutes (3 is ok). Afterward, ask them what did they see, hear, smell, and feel.

Point our any temperature shifts, like when you enter a shaded or lighted area.

Compare the feel of different tree barks. Why might they be different?

People tend to look at big things, have them find a small area and just observe for a few minutes. Ask them what they saw. A lot is happening on a small scale and it is just as important as the big things.

You need to know where north is for this. Well into your walk ask them to point to the north. The results are often surprising and entertaining even when the sun is out. Bring a compass and have a young person confirm the direction.

At the end of the walk ask people to share what they saw, heard, and smelled, etc.

By Playing with Fire We Appreciate How It Forges Every Aspect of Life

I’m happy to have been the leader on another great Road Scholar trip. This program introduced grandparents and grandkids to how fire helps forge every aspect of our life (homes/communities, food preparation, entertainment, arts, places we play, and our survival).

Trip Report:
Leader: Mark Hougardy | Organization: Road Scholar | Date: June 2018 | Duration: 6 days | Participants: 28 | Type: Field Trips & Motorcoach

“Erupting volcanoes. Blacksmithing. Outdoor cooking. Glassblowing. A fire has countless uses, incarnations, and has been paramount to our way of life since the beginning of our time. You and your grandchild will spark your desire to safely learn more about fire through interactive experiences with professional firefighters, survivalists, welders and fire dancers. Discover how fire can create a delicate piece of artwork, as well as destroy entire forests and cities. Learn how to survive in the remote wilderness, and discover the inner workings of a city’s fire engine. Together with your grandchild, finally have the chance to play with fire as you discover why nothing can hold a candle to this learning adventure.”

“Animal House” Movie Walk

Trip Report:
Volunteer Leader: Mark Hougardy | Organization: Eugene-based Hiking Club | Dates: January 2018 | Participants: 7 | Type: Urban Walking Tour

In 1978 a low-budget movie about a misfit fraternity who challenged authority was released. The movie “Animal House” prominently featured locations around the University of Oregon. Much to the chagrin of university officials, the movie brought unwelcome attention to the UO; to others, it is one of the greatest comedy films of all time. Forty years later, this small group of Animal House fans visited fifteen sites around campus featured in the movie. We enjoyed a pleasant walk in the light rain. Some areas on campus were similar while other locations, like a refurbished room 110 Fenton Hall where the courtroom scene was filmed, are unrecognizable. We ended our walk the former site of the Delta Tau Chi fraternity house, the Animal House. The dilapidated structure has since been demolished and replaced with an office building. Only a small plaque remains about its history from the 1800s and uses in the movie. Thank you to everyone in the group for sharing their stories about the movie’s production.

Unearthing Waldo

Note: Originally published in September 2017, this trip report was updated in March 2019 by the author to read more like a travel article.

Trip Report:
Volunteer Leader: Mark Hougardy | Organization: Eugene-based Hiking Club | Dates: September 10, 2017, | Participants: 7 | Type: Day hike and wayfinding

In Oregon’s Cascade Range an old tree stood guard over a forgotten story. The memory was about an explorer named Judge John Breckenridge Waldo and his intrepid spirit was that of John Muir and Henry David Thoreau. Waldo is the unsung grandfather of Oregon’s protected lands. It is because of his perseverance that six national forests, Crater Lake National Park, and over a dozen wilderness areas exist today. Yet, few remember Waldo’s name or celebrate his achievements.

A photo of Camp Edith (circa 1890) taken at Waldo Lake, Oregon. I saw this while researching the journals and letters of conservationist Judge John Breckenridge Waldo at the University of Oregon archives. I’ve hiked all over Waldo Lake and never encountered this camp. Where was it? I’ve spent the past year reading, inquiring, and trying to find out where this camp might be, but with little luck. Some fieldwork was needed. I decided to lead a trip with other curious folks to find this historic location using this photo as one of our only clues.

The tall perpendicular woods and glassy mountain lake made seeing this old tree even more intoxicating. A year earlier while researching Waldo I spied a grainy black and white photo. The picture was snapped in 1890; it revealed a couple of trees and a canoe by a lake with the handwritten text, “Camp Edith, Waldo Lake.” An interesting yet unremarkable image, except that Camp Edith wasn’t referenced on any map. After a year of research, my fellow explorers and I stood before those words carved into the tree’s hardwood — it was Waldo’s “lost” campsite.

Thank you, John B. Waldo, for helping us to enjoy such beautiful places! A photo of a meadow and Mount Ray, Waldo Lake area.

Our morning started with sunlight enriching the blue and turquoise waters of Waldo Lake. The radiant vista poured 5-miles into the distance and an additional 2 miles at breadth. As the sun rose further into the sky it revealed depths of 60 feet or more in the crystalline-like liquid.

The beautiful Waldo Lake in Oregon’s Cascade Range. Waldo Lake is 10 square miles in area. The lake is a gas-free zone, only human-powered boats are allowed.

From 1877 to 1907 Waldo extensively explored and chronicled the “untrammeled nature” of Oregon’s Cascades. He believed that modern life had “narrowing tendencies” on a person and that wilderness allowed difficulties to “be perceived and corrected, and the spirit enlarged and strengthened.” Waldo was a reflective man who did not seek publicity. Rather, he quietly and diligently advanced his vision: a 300-mile long protected swath along Oregon’s mountainous crest from the Columbia Gorge to the California border. Upon returning from his expeditions he spent countless hours increasing public awareness through letter writing and using his resources as a State Legislator and Chief Justice of Oregon’s Supreme Court to advocate for preservation.

Part of the marshy shore of Waldo Lake.

After Waldo’s death in 1907, his writings went missing only to be rediscovered in the 1980s. The papers now reside in the archives at the University of Oregon. This is where I first saw the old photo of Camp Edith. When I inquired with seasoned hikers, campers, and old-timers, they had not heard of the camp. Finally, I met an aged flower child that loved to backpack. Surprisingly, he knew about Camp Edith but only revealed, “When you find ‘the tree,’ you’ll be there.”

The following winter I jumped into reading a rare 500-page copy of Waldo’s transcribed diary. During his treks, he traveled for months at a time to nourish his insatiable wanderlust and love of the Cascades. But like many travelers, he was often homesick. To lessen the loneliness he christened a favorite camping site in honor of his daughter, Edith. A colleague blazed the camp’s name into a tree trunk.

The snow had melted in the mountains and some ground reconnaissance was needed. I enlisted several members from a local hiking group to join me at Waldo Lake. We walked into the forest to find “the tree” provisioned with a photo from 1890, a few telling diary entries, and the mystifying advice of an old hippie.

Progress was slow as we bushwhacked through the woodlands, crossed marshy fields, and scrambled over downed logs. We were close to calling it a day when a member of our team let out a joyous shout. Thirteen decades of bark growth had covered the blaze’s perimeter, but the inscription was legible: “Camp Edith, Waldo Lake.”

We had unearthed a sumptuous moment of discovery.

A close-up of the Camp Edith tree, part of the “Camp Edith, Waldo Lake” inscription is still visible.

An excerpt from one of Waldo’s 1890 letters was appropriate to read-

“The lake stretches away up to the North; crags and peaks tower above us. It is a splendid scene – this source of rivers and cities, hid away, like pure trains of thought from vulgar observation – in the deep bosom of the wilderness buried. Camp Edith sends you greeting – greeting to Edith from ‘Papa’s Lake.’”

We departed Camp Edith carrying Waldo’s story with us — our spirits nourished and renewed.

Standing in front of the Camp Edith tree. This group of curious folks enjoys a good mystery.

A side-by-side comparison of the heart-shaped blaze seen in 2017 and 1890. You can still see the original heart outline in the bark of the newer photo.

Fostering an Intergenerational Respect for Animals

Trip Report:
Leader: Mark Hougardy | Company: Road Scholar | Dates: Three trips, July-August, 2017 | Participants: 15-25 per group | Type: 6-days of field outings and motorcoach travel in western Oregon

I enjoyed leading this Road Scholar trip for grandparents and grandchildren. It was a fun and educational opportunity for different generations to share time together exploring the world of animals. For my programs, I wanted to create a mentoring environment where, at the end of the program, everyone who is young at heart would think of themselves as a beginning zoologist. A zoologist is a curious person (a scientist) who loves to learn about animals and everything they can teach us.

An enrichment activity I created. A key skill in tracking is understanding of how animals move. We did this by measuring the stride and placement of tracks by various animals. This activity reinforced the story of OR-7 “Journey” Oregon’s most famous wolf who has traversed 4,000 miles during his lifetime (so far).

A Story on the Ground – Getting to Know Track Patterns

Understanding how animals move is a basic feature of tracking. When you start to see “the story” written upon the ground you see patterns, infer distances, visualize speed, and even what type of animal made the tracks. Recognizing the gait – the animal’s manner of walking– is key to knowing the story. Here is a simple PDF I developed called, “Getting to Know Track Patterns” to use in the field. I use when I’m interacting with kids (and adults too). It helps to have someone demonstrate these gaits on all fours to visualize the gait. Then try to walk that way for yourself.