‘Ultimate Junior Ranger’ Rides on Final Trails & Rails Trip


Since May 18 2013, National Park Service Trails & Rails volunteers have rode the 298 miles between Chicago  and La Plata on Amtrak’s Southwest Chief line through Illinois, Iowa, and Missouri. While the main focus of the program has been on providing adult passengers an interpretive program in the upper level Sightseer observation car to explain the history of the area, a special aspect of Trails & Rails has also been its unique “rolling” Junior Ranger program. In order to participate, kids (of really any age) pick up a 16-page booklet from a volunteer on board the train and fill out the pages. How many activities one has to complete depends on their age.  For example, a six-year-old would have to complete six pages of the booklet in order to be successful and earn a prize.



Assistant Chicago Coordinator Kandace Tabern (left) poses with the first Junior Ranger of the Southwest Chief Trails & Rails program between Chicago and La Plata, MO, on the program’s debut run — May 18, 2013.


The booklet that has been in use since May 2015 on the route was designed by Trails & Rails Assistant Chicago Coordinator Kandace Tabern; it replaced an earlier version that was designed by interns at Texas A&M University. Kandace’s goal was to design a new booklet that focused more on the Midwestern part of the trip, instead of the generic Texas A&M version which covered the entire route between Chicago and Los Angeles; most people were found not to be riding the whole distance. One activity in the new Southwest Chief Junior Ranger booklet includes a “traveling bingo game”, where passengers try and win by crossing off things they see outside their window of the train, such as a river, bald eagle, man-made canal, or coal mine slag hill. Another activity is a “match game” where passengers learn about the U.S. Presidents who came from the Midwest by matching their names with facts about them. Did you know that President James K. Polk actually got trapped for a few hours on a sandbar in the middle of the Mississippi River near present-day Dallas City, Illinois (located around Milespost #220 on the Southwest Chief line) when his steamboat ran aground there?  As a result, the sandbar was named Polk Island, while the closest city on the Illinois side of the river was named in “honor” of Vice-President Dallas, who was also along on the mishap! The train also passes by Knox College in Galesburg, site of one of the famous Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858.



Trails & Rails volunteer Bob Burkhart (right) works on an activity book with a Junior Ranger candidate; this photo was taken during the first season of our program in 2013.


Once a passenger completes the required activities in the Junior Ranger booklet, they turn it back in to the Trails & Rails volunteer, who checks it over for a reasonable degree of accuracy. If successful, that young passenger is awarded a  certificate which reads they are now an official National Park Service Junior Ranger aboard the Southwest Chief from Chicago to La Plata, MO. The passenger also gets to choose if they want a Junior Ranger patch, Junior Ranger sticker, or a gold-colored official National Park Service collectable pin that says Southwest Chief on it. While the Junior Ranger program on the train is a fun experience, it’s also something anyone can participate in, regardless of where they live. In fact, there are over 400 Junior Ranger programs in place at National Park Service units across the country, and in every state from California to Maine, including Alaska and Hawaii. Passengers traveling beyond La Plata on Amtrak can also earn a second Junior Ranger badge when Colorado-based Trails & Rails volunteers present a program aboard the Southwest Chief between La Junta, Colorado and Albuquerque, New Mexico.



Trails & Rails volunteer Robert Neil (left) swears in two new Junior Rangers during the Summer 2014 season.


To celebrate La Plata’s 2015 Amtrak Train Days event on Saturday, July 18th, the organizers of the American Passenger Rail Heritage Foundation (APRHF)-sponsored Trails & Rails program on the Southwest Chief between Chicago and La Plata, in cooperation with Amtrak marketing officials in Chicago, extended an invitation to  the “ultimate” Junior Ranger in the National Park Service, Aida Frey. This weekend she and her parents got to ride the route and earn her first “rolling” Junior Ranger badge from the Trails & Rails program.

This 14-year-old girl from the northwest suburbs of Chicago has truly gained national attention in the last few years for her efforts to promote the Junior Ranger program and the National Park Service to kids and teenagers. She has become the “face” of the National Park Service for the next generation of travelers. Pretty much every minute of her summer, and school breaks, is spent traveling the country to maintain her amazing record of visiting more National Park Service units than any other Junior Ranger. Prior to her La Plata visit this weekend, she and her parents had just returned home from a trip to Northern Wisconsin and Northern Minnesota, where Aida obtained badges at Voyagers National Park and Apostle Islands National Seashore.



Junior Ranger Aida poses for a picture in the Great Hall of Chicago Union Station on May 9, 2015.


So where did the Junior Ranger passion begin? During a visit to Effigy Mounds National Monument in far northeast Iowa about five years ago, Aida, and her parents Shaun and Norma, discovered how much fun participating in a Junior Ranger program could be. From there, there was really no looking back!

To date, the Freys have visited more than 200 units of the National Park Service, completing various Junior Ranger program booklets and earning certificates, patches, pins, stickers, and other collectables. Various newspaper articles and television reports have chronicled her travels along the way. Aida and her family return their gratitude to the National Park Service by appearing at various events around the country to promote the Junior Ranger program.



Junior Ranger Aida talks to the media about her experiences with the National Park Service.


Trails & Rails Chicago Coordinator Robert Tabern, who also works a a full-time travel agent when he’s not on the train, first learned about Aida and her accomplishments in early 2015 when he was stopped off at Padre Island National Seashore in Texas during a business trip. There was a huge display honoring Aida in the beach-side visitor center located in the park. Robert’s second time hearing about Aida came just a few later, when he and Kandace stopped off to visit rangers at the new Pullman National Monument on the south side of Chicago. They mentioned that Aida was just about to earn her 200th badge at that point. When the Taberns found out that she lived near Chicago, the starting point for their Southwest Chief Trails & Rails program, they knew Aida would be perfect to make an appearance at the upcoming Amtrak Train Days event at Chicago Union Station on May 9th, and share her passion with the various children’s and teens who would be in attendance that day. The Freys were surprised thousands of people turned out that day to meet Aida.



Chicago Assistant Coordinator Kandace Tabern (left) and Junior Ranger Aida (right) at Chicago Union Station.


Aida and her family had a great time at Amtrak Train Days event in Chicago; she especially connected with another teen at the event, who co-authored a children’s fictional book about train travel. While there, the Taberns introduced Aida to Bryan Mattox, who works as the Senior Marketing Office for Amtrak. In the coming days, a deal was worked out with Bryan and railroad officials to allow Aida and her family to ride to the upcoming Train Days event in La Plata on July 18th and promote the Junior Ranger program — both aboard the train during her ride and at the station in La Plata. Since Aida had never been aboard a long-distance train before, nor participated in a Trails & Rails program, she also worked to earn her newest badge – on Amtrak’s Southwest Chief.



Junior Ranger Aida (left) poses with another teen who is a fictional author at Amtrak Train Days in Chicago.


Things kicked off around 3:00 p.m. on Saturday, July 18th, with Aida and her parents meeting the Taberns at Chicago Union Station. After an introduction to the conductors, Aida and her parents were walked out to the train, where they got to pre-board and set up a small display in the Sightseer Lounge that they created about the Junior Ranger program. Between 3:00 p.m. and around 8:00 p.m., Aida traveled the nearly 300 miles on the train to La Plata, working on her own Junior Ranger booklet, and also mingling with passengers to promote the Junior Ranger program. She was quite busy, as there was a large group of teens aboard headed to the Boy Scout Ranch in New Mexico; a usual summer occurrence on the Southwest Chief.



Junior Ranger Aida poses for a picture with Gerald, one of our favorite conductors on the Southwest Chief


Junior Ranger Aida talks to passengers about her favorite National Park Service locations


Junior Ranger Aida swears in a new Trails & Rails Junior Ranger on July 18, 2015


Upon arrival in La Plata, a little after 8:00 p.m. that evening, Aida was greeted by dozens of well-wishers on the platform, who turned out to meet her and hear about her accomplishments. The crowd was part of the Amtrak Train Days Event in La Plata, that was organized by Amtrak and the APRHF.  Aida and he parents went inside the station, where she got to spend some time with everyone. The highlight of the evening took place when Kandace swore in Aida as an official Trails & Rails Junior Ranger on the Southwest Chief in front of everyone and presented her with a special certificate and the much-desired gold badge that had the name of the train on it.



Junior Ranger Aida arrives in La Plata to a crowd gathered on the platform on July 18, 2015


Junior Ranger Aida poses with a sleeping car attendant in La Plata, MO


Assistant Coordinator Kandace Tabern (left) officially swears in Junior Ranger Aida (right) for Badge #209


Junior Ranger Aida cuts a cake, provided by the APRHF, for earning NPS Junior Ranger Badge #209


After spending a restful night at the Depot Inn & Suites in La Plata, Aida and her family were up early on the morning of Sunday, July 19th, to catch the eastbound train back to Chicago. They spent the morning and early afternoon hours speaking with passengers about their accomplishments and once again, promoting the Junior Ranger program. Aida, with her new Junior Ranger badge in hand, got off the train in Chicago later that afternoon and headed home. The Freys are planning to write a book about Aida’s experiences, and her dad Shaun tells us that they definitely plan to include Aida’s first badge earned aboard Amtrak as a highlight!



Junior Ranger Aida returns to Chicago on Train #4 on Sunday, July 19, 2015


Sadly, Aida will also have the distinction of earning one of the last National Park Service Junior Ranger badges on the Southwest Chief between Chicago and La Plata, Missouri. In early June, Trails & Rails National Coordinator, Jim Miculka, advised Chicago Coordinator Robert Tabern that the Department of the Interior Solicitor’s Office supposedly determined having the APRHF as a co-sponsor of Trails & Rails was a “conflict of interest”.  This is despite the fact Trails & Rails volunteers on the route had reached out more than 50,000 passengers since May 2013; volunteers also generated the #1 spot in the country for volunteer hours for  non-daily Trails & Rails programs for the 2013 and 2014 fiscal years.  The agreement that was worked out in late 2012 for the formation of the program called on the APRHF to cover the bulk of the expenses of the Trails & Rails program between Chicago and La Plata, MO, including covering the costs for the lodging of volunteers and the wireless speaker system that was loaned out to volunteers by the non-profit when doing interpretive programs. After numerous appeals to Jim and other officials with the National Park Service and Texas A&M University for a deal to be reached, and no response received, the APRHF was forced to ends its affiliation with Trails & Rails following the conclusion of the Aida trip, on July 19th.



Trails & Rails volunteer Ruth Maxwell (right) swears in two new Junior Rangers on the Southwest Chief.


APRHF President and La Plata Trails & Rails Coordinator Bob Cox says, “It’s really, really sad what happened. The APRHF was hoping to continue to sponsor the Trails & Rails program on the Southwest Chief for many years to come. We invested a lot of our resources into the program, and never wanted or expected it to last for just two-and-a-half short seasons. We wished the National Park Service would have seen that we donated more than $32,000 worth of materials and value to Trails & Rails, while we asked for nothing in return.”



Chicago Coordinator Robert Tabern (left) and his wife, Assistant Chicago Coordinator Kandace Tabern (right) celebrate the arrival of the first Trails & Rails program to arrive in La Plata, MO on May 18, 2013.


Chicago Coordinator Robert Tabern expresses the same sentiment saying, “The real losers in this whole situation are the Amtrak passengers – who almost always give our volunteers a rousing round of applause at the end of our programs – and our volunteers themselves who have so much passion and enthusiasm for what they are doing. Mr. Miculka’s decision to question the value of the APRHF’s sponsorship of Trails & Rails totally caught us off guard. We thought everyone and all of the organizations involved to make this program work so well the past few years would want this partnership and agreement to continue. I guess not. We will move on though and we look forward to whatever the next chapter will bring. I just wish the National Park Service and Mr. Miculka valued our program more than they did.”



APRHF President and Trails & Rails La Plata Coordinator Bob Cox was one of the key managers of the Trails & Rails program on the Southwest Chief between Chicago and La Plata from December 2012 through its end on July 19, 2015.


The future of the Trails & Rails program on the Southwest Chief between Chicago and La Plata is still to be determined, however without the APRHF’s sponsorship now, the National Park Service will have to provide their own hotel rooms and equipment for volunteers. Programs for the remainder of this summer have been indefinitely suspended and Chicago is once again without a Trails & Rails program on any Amtrak long-distance train.  Robert & Kandace Tabern and Bob & Amy Cox have resigned as Coordinators, along with several of their long-time volunteers. The APRHF will continue with its mission of supporting on-board educational programs that highlight the history of the Midwest; a new program is set to be announced later this week that will replace its sponsorship with Trails & Rails – stay tuned to APRHF.org for details. A new Junior Ranger-type program, done by the APRHF, is also already in the works and is expected to be released by the end of the year.




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