Category: Impact

April 16–24: Visit for free!

Throughout National Park Week in 2016, every national park will give you free admission


At last count I have visited 23 of the U.S. National Parks which may sound like a lot, but when you realize that there are currently 58 total, I’m not even half way there! Life goals should be big though, right? So that’s mine, visit all the National Parks during my lifetime.


My love for the parks started when I was in high school and was accepted to take a summer science class that traveled from Ohio to the Pacific Northwest and back again stopping at National Parks along the way. We stopped spent time at Theodore Roosevelt NP, Glacier NP, Mt. Rainer NP, Olympic NP and Crater Lake NP, it was a whirlwind! Those three weeks were a very impactful experience for me in my teen years, not only because I was so far from home, but there was so much to see and learn about our natural world and why protecting it all is so important. We did a lot of hiking and guided tours with the park rangers and we also learned the basics of camping and outdoor cooking (which turned out to be a very important skill set that I have needed in my chosen profession.) The next summer I was lucky enough to do it all again but this time in Alaska!

Grand Tetons 2009
Grand Tetons 2009

The summer after I graduated from high school, I hopped on a plane to Wyoming where I became a member of a trail crew in Grand Tetons NP. Our team of six high schoolers and two adult team leaders were stationed in Death Valley, contradictory to what it’s name may lead you to think of it, the valley was beautiful and full of life. There was a glacier fed stream that ran through and the occasional moose who would stop by for dinner from time to time. We worked hard maintaining the trails, fixing the roofing on a cabin and replacing a 3-stringer bridge, but we also got time to pack a lunch and explore our surroundings. The freedom and trust that I was given by my leaders to make good choices was somewhat new and awesome! I climbed up under a small glacier, got caught between a mother moose and her baby, battled my way up a skree field and chased a pack of young weasels down the trail. We learned how to take care of ourselves in the backcountry including the frequent need for wilderness first aid skills. It shouldn’t be that surprising, we were a bunch of teens wielding axes, saws and pribars, of course we all managed our fair share of blood loss and bruises that summer. Looking back, my summer as a trail crew member was really the perfect lesson in taking responsibility for my needs and other that helped to prepare me for college life.


In 2009, I packed my car and started driving west. A little out of character for me, I didn’t have much of a plan, just a National Geographic road atlas themed around the national parks. Some big changes were happening for me both personally and professionally and the best way I could think to work through that was to go see some new parks. I focused mainly on the southwest including Canyonlands NP, Arches NP, Zion NP and Bryce NP. I was also able to collect a few California parks, Yosemite NP and Redwoods NP. And on a total whim, I went back to the Grand Tetons to revisit good old Death Valley. Again the sites, sounds, smells and interactions that I had over those two months transformed me so much that when I returned to “real life” I felt stronger, more confident and ready for the new challenges ahead.


I went to college with the intention of becoming a park ranger, but it didn’t work out that way. Instead I found Hemlock Overlook Regional Park. Now I know it’s not a “National” park, but I very much care for this land and the history here and I know I am not the only one. One of our core values is “celebrate place, tradition and memories”, to me that has so much to do this beautiful chunk of eastern forest and the river that runs alongside of it. These protected spaces have positive effects on countless of lives every year, especially mine.






rachel doodyRachel Doody | National Park Explorer

residential camp tie dye shirts

A few days ago, while interviewing two of our “perpetual” residential campers for a camp video, I heard something that caught me by surprise. When asked what their favorite part about residential camp was, both girls answered simultaneously, “Talking to the other girls at the end of the night.” In a camp where a typical day consists of crawling around a cave 50 feet underground or tip-toeing up a rock climbing route 50 feet above the ground, their favorite part was building relationships with their fellow campers.


Almost every week of residential camp begins the same way. Campers are dropped off, signed in and then thrust into a new-ish world with at least 20 smiling-yet-apprehensive faces they have never seen before. From the time that their parents leave all the way until their parents arrive at the end of the week, campers have each other and their instructors. We do not have a hidden cave of televisions and video games in the middle of the woods or WiFi accessible to our campers.

We do not have a hidden cave of televisions and video games in the middle of the woods


All of our campers sign up for Adventure Links camp for the same reason, the activities. There is no doubt that spending your day kayaking or rock climbing is more fun than a day doing math problems. What campers don’t realize until they leave is that the one piece of Adventure Links that will stay with them forever is the community. By attending residential camp, campers have the opportunity to do all of those cool activities listed in our brochure, but they also have the opportunity to share these experiences with each other. Campers sing together next to the campfire, dine together in the lodge, paddle together at the river, sleep together in the bunks, challenge themselves together and, by the end of the week, transform themselves together.ao1

What campers don’t realize until they leave is that the one piece of Adventure Links that will stay with them forever is the community.


By the end of each week of residential camp, those smiling-yet-apprehensive faces are all familiar and just smiling, without apprehension. Some campers are usually sad to say goodbye to their new friends and bunkhouses, but the majority have already come up with ways to stay in touch and made plans for residential camp next year.


The community that has begun to form around our residential camps is caused by the campfire songs, the post-lights-out conversations, the daily challenges, and most importantly, the shared experiences. The relationships that are developed at camp are one-of a-kind. Each year it is our goal to provide an environment that creates those relationships organically.



eric newmanEric Newman | Program Coordinator

Ryan and Eric Cleaning Bull Run
Ryan and Eric Cleaning Bull Run

We get busy sometimes, busy planning summer camps, busy planning team building programs, busy training our staff, busy getting our fleet ready for camp… The point is sometimes the things we care about get pushed to the back burner. While our daily goal is to get people outside and to interact with the environment our direct environmental stewardship often gets pushed to another day.

So when a few months ago two of our senior staff members approached the leadership team with an idea for a Bull Run Cleanup event we fell in love with the idea and encouraged them to run with it. Our awesome staff members Ryan and Eric planned and executed a terrific day of river cleanup on The Bull Run and partnered with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation to make it happen. They also wanted the day to be educational and brought out Earnie Porta the Former Mayor of Occoquan, to speak about the history and importance of local rivers that feed the Chesapeake Bay.

In total the volunteers last Saturday removed over 1500 pounds of trash! That included a dozen tires, countless bottles and styrofoam, a boogie-board, and a tricycle. We went back down to the river the following day, and while you wouldn’t have previously thought about all the trash along the water it was evident how much cleaner the shoreline now was.

Thank you to our “tree hugging” staff Ryan and Eric and the wonderful volunteers that came out to help keep Hemlock Overlook and Bull Run a local treasure. You definitely carried your weight last weekend.



adam-headshot-Adam Trautenberg | Marketing / IT Manager

DSC02161My education philosophy perpetually changes the more I learn and experience. One of my core foundations that has remained throughout my entire professional career is that every child should have the opportunity to engage in meaningful play outside. In general, this can only be achieved if you are not afraid to get a little dirty.

I once had an art teacher that prior to making her first brush stroke would rub paint all over her hands and shirt. She claimed that in the past she was cautious about getting paint on herself while working which proved to be a creative distraction. She reasoned that if she was covered in paint before she started she could devote 100% of herself to her work.  This idea has resonated with me since and I apply the same rationale to working outside.

Throughout the years I have noticed more and more youth I work with are a bit timid and apprehensive when first exposed to an outdoor classroom. I believe some of this apprehension is due to that fact that getting dirty outside is sadly becoming less acceptable in the urbanized world.

To nip it in the bud, I like to ask the groups I work with to pick up a bunch of dirt and rub in into 20140807_123922their hands. This request is usually followed by nervous giggling and darting eyes; checking to see if mom or dad is around the corner.  I always tell my students, and my adult chaperones, that today it is okay to get dirty and if they overcome the anxiety of getting a grass stain on their knee they will be able to take full advantage of the day, learn a valuable lesson or two, and maybe just maybe have a little fun while doing it.

I find that once they are comfortable with the fact that it is acceptable to get dirty, at least for the day, they truly start to relax, are more open to learning, and engage in meaningful play with one another and their surroundings. I believe kids need to be kids and we should be encouraging them to get outside and play. Parents and guardians be warned, if you send your child to Adventure Links they may just come home a little dirty, a bit tired, and a little bit more excited to interact with the natural world.

Read more about how getting dirty outdoors benefits kids

kyle halstead

-Kyle Halstead | Program Coordinator

4In addition to the amazing seasonal staff members I work with every year at Adventure Links, I also have the pleasure to work with an incredibly talented team of year-round administrative staff that often go overlooked as they work behind the scenes. Each of them is far too modest to boast about all of their accomplishments in our brief biographies or on our Facebook page, so let me take a moment to tell you just how awesome they all are.

Ashley Suntheimer is our Group Program Manager, and works with school, community, and corporate  groups to arrange their programs. For three years Ashley was an outstanding Instructor with Adventure Links, and it has truly been fascinating to see her grow from a recent college graduate to a seasoned professional. No one brings more enthusiasm and optimism to work every day than Ashley.

Adam Trautenberg was also an outstanding Instructor with Adventure Links before becoming our Marketing Director. In just a few short years, Adam has changed the entire look of Adventure Links. The website, our vehicles, all of our brochures and pamphlets look better than ever. On top of that, Adam still finds time to lead Sailing activities for our campers!

Kyle Halstead is our Program Coordinator and was also a fantastic Instructor for Adventure Links in 2012. When Kyle finished his first Instructor training and took our Instructor Skills Test, it was so flawless I used it as the answer key for all the other tests. By the end of 2012 we knew that we wanted Kyle to be a part of our year-round team because of his natural leadership, love of working with participants, and superior technical knowledge. After just one year as Program Coordinator Kyle has had an enormous impact on Adventure Links.

Danny Stevens is our Facilities and Fleet Director, and all around handy-man. When I met Danny I knew he was a jack of all trades, but I never really knew just how skilled he was until he and Kyle constructed our new paddling shed over the winter. In a matter of days, this new shed just appeared where before there was nothing. Some people will talk about a project for weeks or months, but Danny just gets the job done. Danny is a big reason why our site at Hemlock Overlook is looking better than ever.

Rachel Doody is one of the most dedicated outdoor education professionals I have ever met in my 12 years in the field, and I am so proud to be her Co-Director. After 18 years of running programs at Hemlock Overlook and over 5 years with Adventure Links, Rachel is still innovating, learning, and growing. I don’t have to ask what keeps her motivated after all this time, it is clear that her unwavering mission is to share her love for the natural environment with as many people as she possibly can.

Our owners, Anna and Austin Birch, provide the best possible situation for our team to succeed. I have always appreciated the way they provide mentoring and guidance to our team, but also allow for freedom and autonomy to make decisions and move the company forward. This entrepreneurial spirit empowers our leadership team to be creative, take chances, and make Adventure Links the best it can be.


mark-headshot-Mark Diedering | Summer Camp Director

The little things in life! So often I hear about the importance of the “little things”. Yet, the “busy”ness  of business promptly ushers me away reminding me of a meeting, a proposal, a capital purchase, a new hire. You know..the “Big” things!  That’s what it’s about right?  Hitting your goals. Expanding market share. Increasing Profit.  But how do you get there?

I don’t really have an answer, but I do have an idea: it’s in the little things.  I was recently presented with a “junked” chainsaw by an employee. The dealership explained it would cost more to repair than the saw was worth.  How can this be, it’s only a few years old? Frustrated at the proposal of buying yet another $500 saw…wait they don’t make that anymore.  I’ll have to get the new model for $625. Ugh! I took a deep breath and started counting to $625…..1,2,3,…..   Before I made it to 50, my scowl turned into a grin…I’d just uncovered an opportunity. That’s right, I was going to learn how to rebuild a chainsaw.

I dug right in asking questions. Starting with parts: The dealership wanted $350, I found them for $125. I sort of knew there was some “special” stuff you needed to do with 2-cycle engines, so off to Youtube I went. A tachometer, a vacuum leak tester, a homemade crank case splitter and 30 Youtube videos later, I was ready!

I won’t bore you with the details and challenges I faced in the process. Just suffice it to say that it took waaaaylonger than I expected AND it was absolutely worth it! The fact that the saw works is testament to one of two things. 1) I was freakishly lucky or 2) I now understand what it takes to completely rebuild a 2-cycle engine from the ground up.   Since I’m the one writing this, I’ll choose #2!

Okay, great. The saw works…good for me. Whoo hooo!  So what? The difference for me was redirecting the energy that could have been wasted on being frustrated with the situation. Instead, the energy was excitedly focused on not just a solution to this singular broken saw, but to a body of information that allows me to tackle and teach others how to diagnose and repair this key tool of our business operations.

Like most things in life, it was about slowing down, being present and paying attention to the little things. So much can be avoided if one does that. In comparison to time lost and replacement costs, maintenance costs little when you take the time to truly understand the function of each piece of the whole. But I guess if the 3 loose exhaust nuts had been seen, I wouldn’t have had this opportunity. My life is richer for it.


austin-Austin Birch CFO/CIO

Just the other day, we had the sad occasion of one of our leadership team members unexpectedly losing a childhood friend. The Facebook post/tribute he wrote to this friend was vivid, beautifully written and it read as if the memories were as fresh as yesterday. However, he hadn’t seen this friend since their childhood.

I realized in that moment that there were some of my own childhood memories more crisp, vivid and alive than things that occurred just yesterday. There’s just something about the mind of a child that holds images, feelings, words, wonderful friendships, and even scents!

In the midst of this nostalgia, I was out for my daily run on our property. Upon reaching our mailbox a mile away, I opened it to find my very own treasured piece of childhood. There it was, the smallest trigger flooded my eyes with tears and took over my face with a smile, I KNEW that handwriting! You see, back then (the 70’s and 80’s), we girls wrote notes to each other and LOTS of them! The boys? Not so much. Their notes went something like this:


Dee Dee's letter
Dee Dee’s letter

“Do you like me? Circle yes   or no. Don’t show anyone.”

But I had shoeboxes full of notes from my dearest, most cherished friend Dee Dee and I would recognize a note from her anywhere, anytime. We hadn’t corresponded in nearly 10 years and there it was… my very own note from her in my mailbox. The memories flooded back and I smiled and actually teared up even before opening her letter. I credit that ‘little girl’ and those wonderful notes for getting me through a tough childhood. I navigated the confusing ups, downs, and sideways of a dad battling bipolar.

Little did I know that years later a talented keynote, psychologist, and writer would explain what all of this meant to me. Michael Thompson wrote ‘Best Friends, Worst Enemies’ where he explores the crucial and hidden role that friendships play in the lives of children. I was sitting in a keynote session he delivered at the National Cathedral in 1996. Michael described the research that demonstrated that a key indicator to a child’s resilience was the existence of one, at least one, BEST friend. He began to list all sorts of qualifiers that determined BEST friend but frankly, it was all I could do to not leap out of my chair and scream “THAT’S IT! I GET IT NOW!! I had a best friend! We believed we could get each other through anything!”

I stayed in my seat that night but quite soon after that keynote session, I left my many years as a teacher and decided it was my time to create and pursue something, something bigger than me. I knew I could build a place for best friendships and personal journeys and a place where children could uncover their own courage. And now the exciting part is that it is now something much bigger than me and I WILL let my best friend Dee Dee know that she played an integral role in creating the magic behind this company.

That something is Adventure Links.

Childhood camp t-shirt of one of our leadership team members.


Anna Birch-Anna Birch | CEO


Have you seen the photo on the internet with the picture of a trail that say’s “there is no Wi-Fi in the forest, but I promise you will find a better connection”?


I love this quote, because everything we do here is to get people to work together and want to be outside. Creating positive experiences outside is what we love to do. And five or ten years ago you would have spent the day out here, or your camper would have spent a week or two with us and then once home you would have developed the pictures off your camera and told your friends and family all about your experience.

But today’s world is different. Our friends don’t always rave about a great new restaurant to us anymore, instead they post about it, they review it, and they share pictures all online. This is the dilemma we are faced with here. We want our participants and staff to concentrate on the experience they are having in the moment, but we also want them to share their experience. We would like them to be able to look back at their newsfeeds and timelines and relive the moments they had with us and remember what a great time they had outside with their friends.

We want the involvement and the memories to last without crossing that line of bringing the technology with all of it’s distractions into the outdoors, so we are left with the dilemma: to #hashtag or not.


adam-headshot-Adam Trautenberg | Marketing & IT Manager

Back in 2004 I was lucky enough to be in a position to be invited to attend a three day training workshop with my co-workers lead by Tom Leahy, president of Leahy & Associates out of Boulder, Colorado. The workshop was titled the Innovative Team and focused on facilitation of team building and teaching tools for group problem solving. I gleaned a lot of new information and techniques from Tom, I was impressed by his facilitation style as one that would allow for the group to take charge of how we were going about completing the task but he also knew when to step in and re direct us. He also taught us some tools that helped to move the process forward while still allowing everyone to have their say in decisions and be heard when needed.

At the time of the training, I was still young and had recently been promoted into a leadership position focused on staff management. I had been working on developing my own leadership style and especially how to manage employees who were older than me; many of which were also in this training. It was a struggle to work with them sometimes, either because of the age difference or maybe it was just a difference in personality types, whatever it was my frustration level was pushed to a breaking point during the workshop. We got trapped in “Analysis Paralysis” over and over again; talking, questioning, re-questioning, and afraid to try anything, then questioning our fears and why we couldn’t move forward. Ugh!

I found myself holding back in the beginning because I felt unsure of my role in the group which was a combination of administration and corporate facilitators and I was one of the youngest in the room. I guess I must have been muttering to myself about how I thought we should solve the problem and Tom overheard, because at the end of the second day he encouraged me to speak up more. So on the last day of our training I stood up and made my voice heard and it went great. I feel like in some ways that day was a turning point for my relationship with many of the corporate facilitators. With Tom’s help I was able to show them why I had earned my new position in the company and I felt a new level of respect from them from then on. At the end of the workshop Tom pulled me aside to congratulate me on stepping up and told me to keep it up because this team needed a good leader. That meant so much coming from him and has stayed with me all these years since.

ACCT conference in beautiful Palm Springs, CA.
ACCT conference in beautiful Palm Springs, CA.

At the beginning of this month I had the opportunity to travel to sunny California for the 25th annual International Association of Challenge Course Technology conference. So many crazy outdoor educators all in one place! The conference is jam packed with workshops about every aspect of our profession from facilitation to operations and management of challenge courses and zip line tours. I was so happy to see that Tom Leahy was leading multiple workshops over the next couple of days because of the experience that I had with him ten years ago, but with all the workshops to choose from I questioned if his would be the most beneficial for me since I had already been though one of his trainings. Luckily as I was debating which workshops to attend I ran into Tom and asked him what he would suggest. His answer was simple, after ten years there is a lot that he has continued to learn and improve about his facilitation and trainings. And he was right; the two workshops of his that I attended were both very informative and inspirational. It reminded me of the importance of not becoming complacent with how I have always done things, but to constantly seek out new perspectives. Also I have been very appreciative of the reflection that this experience has lead me to about where I have come from, where I am now as a leader/trainer and the growth that I still have in front of me.

Giant domino activity in a corperate leadership workshop.
Giant domino activity in a corperate leadership workshop.
Debriefing activity using random objects and toys.
Debriefing activity using random objects and toys.


Rachel Doody-Rachel Doody | Program Director

I always smile when one of our participants mistakenly calls it “Experimental Education”, because in a way Experiential Education is about experimenting and trying new things. However, the principles of Experiential Education have evolved since at least the late 19th century, and are well past the stage of being considered a far out “experimental” form of education.

Team building

Experiential Education is rooted in the actual experience of an individual or a group. The more remarkable the experience is, the more opportunities exist for profound learning and growth. Educational philosopher John Dewey (the same John Dewey that invented the Dewey Decimal System) observed in the early 1900’s that if students learned the skill of critical thinking, they would teach themselves far more over the course of their lifetime than they could ever learn by memorizing historical dates or mathematical formulas.

Mr. Dewey also believed in the concept of “serious play”, that people can strengthen their critical thinking skills by reflecting on experiences that challenge them to look at the world in a new way. Experiential Education allows participants to form opinions and plans, test out their hypothesis, see the results, and think about what just happened and what to try next; much like the scientific method of experimentation.

So whenever I hear someone say Experimental Education, I usually don’t correct them. After all, some healthy experimenting is a big part of the learning experience!

To learn more about John Dewey’s educational philosophy, check out one of his most well-known books, Experience in Education.


mark-headshot-Mark Diedering | Summer Camp Director