Katherine Golden Shares First-Hand “Nature Explorer” Experiences With Local Teachers

Katherine Golden with a giant tortoise.

By Don Corrigan  (Webster-Kirkwood Times)

IMAX Theatre presentations at the Saint Louis Science Center used to inspire Katherine Golden when she was younger to imagine herself as an explorer. Thanks to a National Geographic program for teachers, she no longer has to imagine.

Golden has returned from a trip to the Galápagos Islands, where she explored the islands’ marvels, courtesy of Linblad Expedition ships, including the National Geographic Explorer, National Geographic Endeavour II and the National Geographic Sea Lion.

She saw the incredible tortoises and the vast diversity of plant and animal species, many found nowhere else in the world. She saw the creatures Charles Darwin discovered in 1835, which played a role in his formulations for the scientific theory of evolution.

“The trip taught me so much about seeing things as an explorer would, about the importance of place, and about the power of storytelling,” Golden said.

“Now I want to share my stories with other teachers, which is part of the responsibility for educators chosen for the National Geographic Grosvenor Teacher fellowships,” she explained.

Golden has worked with teachers in Webster Groves, Affton and Kirkwood as the sustainability education manager at the EarthWays Center of Missouri Botanical Garden; and, as a graduate student in Webster University’s Education for Global Sustainability program. That work helped her qualify for the travel fellowship.

Before exploring the islands, Golden and other National Geographic fellows traveled to Quito, Ecuador, and then to the Mashpi Jungle Lodge. The Mashpi Reserve is part of a bio-region that stretches along the Pacific slope of the Andes from Panama to Peru.

The forests of the reserve are home to a profusion of plants and animals, and its rich ecosystem is recognized as a world hot spot for biodiversity.

“I am terrified of heights, but at Mashpi we had to travel to the top of the forest canopy on sky trams and sky bikes,” said Golden. “At Mashpi, we learned to do nature photography under the direction of photographer Jay Dickman of National Geographic.

“This was to get us ready for doing photo work on the islands,” explained Golden. “The fellowship trip was, in part, designed to be a photo expedition.”

The islands straddle the equator and are considered a province of Ecuador. They are about 560 miles west of the coast of South America and Ecuador.

At Galápagos Islands

Golden took photos on such islands as San Cristobal, Espanola, Floreana, Genovesa, Santiago and more. On the islands, the National Geographic fellows were instructed on how to have “zero impact” on every animal. That meant animals always have the right-of-way.

“It was magical to observe the giant tortoises on their migratory routes in their lush habitat on Santa Cruz,” Golden said. “We learned of their mistreatment in the past and possible extinction.”

Whalers once hunted and killed thousands of the tortoises to extract their fat. The tortoises also could be kept on board ships to provide fresh protein, because the animals could last months on board without food or water. The hunting reduced tortoise numbers, and eliminated certain species.

“Off the island of Sombrero Chino, we snorkeled to see the penguins,” said Golden. “While snorkeling, a Frigatebird dropped another bird it was attacking right on my head. There was a lot of loud noise, feathers flying and commotion.

“The Frigatebird was engaging in kleptoparasitism, which involves bullying other birds to give up food they just caught or stored for digesting,” said Golden. “It was something to be in the water and in the middle of that battle.”

After almost a week of island hopping, the last full day at Galápagos was on Genovesa Island. The tour boat anchored in Darwin’s Bay, a submerged caldera of a dormant volcano which resonated with unlimited bird calls.

“On Genovesa, we had amazing walks among all kinds of birds,” said Golden. “I had a lovely encounter with a mockingbird that started following me all over the nature trail. The whole group was laughing at how it latched onto me and seemed to be curious about my water bottle.”

The Galápagos is an enchanted and incomparable region of the planet, and Golden said protecting it forever has become one of her passions. She is preparing programs about sustainability and ecology on the islands to share with area teachers and students.

She hopes to share her experiences at this June’s Sustainability Institute at Mary Institute and Saint Louis Country Day School. Sponsors of the Institute include Webster University and more information about the event can be found at:

Thinking Like An Explorer

Golden said her time in Galápagos helped her refine her “mindset as an explorer.” She offered these ideas for those intent on being nature explorers:

• Be prepared. When you are ready for an outdoor excursion, make sure you have the right tools – and the shoes – to be comfortable and to be low impact.

• Be open. When exploring a new area, don’t feel you have to have all the answers about the location beforehand. Be open to a transformative experience.

• Focus on the Present. Golden said one of the “most liberating” aspects of her trip was no internet connection. Turn off the smartphones, shut down the internet, when you go exploring.

• Use Multiple Lenses. When you are observing nature, try to see the whole context of how a place exists. What makes an ecosystem sustainable?

• Make A Difference. When you see environmental problems or degradation, be positive. Find ways that you can make a difference as you later take stock of what you have observed.

“We certainly have environmental problems, but I am hopeful from seeing young people tackle sustainability issues at schools like Gotsch Elementary in Affton and Westchester Elementary in Kirkwood,” Golden said.

“And you don’t have to feel you’ve got to go to the Galápagos Islands to be an explorer,” added Golden. “We have a lot to explore right here in St. Louis and Missouri with our own great parks. A lot of people don’t realize what gems they have here in their own backyard with the Botanical Garden and Forest Park.”

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