Lake Whitney State Park: A Year in Review

Just a short drive from the hustle of city life in Waco, Lake Whitney State Park provides visitors with plenty to do outdoors. Enjoy fishing, boating, and swimming during those hot Texas summers. Get away for the weekend in the spring and fall for camping fun with the family. Take to the trails for wildlife viewing and exercise during the winter after those holiday parties.

In May of 2015, most of Texas was hit hard with intense storms and severe flooding. Some areas recovered quickly and others, like Lake Whitney, took much longer to return to normal. My first visit to Lake Whitney was the middle of May, when there had already been a few storms, some trails were muddy, but the whole park was still open. A week later, the park was closed due to flooding and the fact that staff could only survey the status of the park by boat. They received over 12 inches of rain in May, causing 14 shelters, 2 bathrooms, and all but one camping loop was in water. July was when cleanup and restoration began. It was a long process, but with the help of the community and local organiztions, Lake Whitney State Park was opened to the public just in time for fall camping season on October 5, 2015.

Lake Whitney may seem like your typical park, but I have come to learn how truly great this place and staff is. The resilience displayed by Lake Whitney is inspiring, and the love from the nearby communities warms my heart. I am so thankful to have gotten to spend my last months as a Texas State Park Ambassador at such a beautiful place.

Below is a video I made of the astounding floods and the amazing transformation of the park just a short 4 months later.

Bucket List

Today, July 23, 2015, I turn 25 years old. Yes, a quarter of a century. I have so much more life ahead of me, yet so much behind me. It is kind of scary being 25 now; i feel as if I should be further along in my career than I am, that I should have been on more adventures and traveled more than I have. However, I can’t change the past, I can only live in the present and plan for the future. My bucket list is my reminder to keep moving forward, keep growing and keep living life to the fullest.

  1. Hike the Pacific Crest Trail
  2. Skydive
  3. Hot Air Balloon Ride
  4. Get Master’s Degree
  5. Travel through Europe
  6. Visit Australia
  7. Run a marathon
  8. Visit the Grand Canyon
  9. Swim with dolphins
  10. Visit every Texas State Park
  11. Go Zip lining
  12. Learn to rock climb
  13. Go on an African Safari
  14. Learn to surf
  15. Go white water rafting
  16. Hike the Appalachian Trail
  17. Visit New York City
  18. Camp at Yellowstone National Park
  19. Write a book
  20. Open a no-kill shelter
  21. Snorkel the Great Barrier Reef
  22. Visit the Amazon Rain Forest
  23. Celebrate Oktoberfest in Germany
  24. Save a life

Invent something

Ten Essentials of Outdoor Survival

What do you need to survive the outdoors? Well, just flipping through an REI catalog or an Academy ad, can be overwhelming with the amount of camping gear there is. In reality, there are ten essential items you need to survive in the wild. Would you believe that the essentials to survival as a Buffalo Soldier are the same 10 essentials we need in today’s world? In May, I volunteered with the Texas Buffalo Soldiers at Lake Brownwood State Park for their Open House.


The Buffalo Soldiers played an important role in our nation’s history. They fought in battles, built roads and some even became park rangers. In an effort to preserve part of our Texas history and cultural resources, the Buffalo Soldiers program through Texas Parks and Wildlife, bring history to life with storytelling, animal tracking techniques, traditional games, cooking and teaching the ten essentials of outdoor survival. We can learn a lot from our country’s history, like what we can do to improve our lives. While teaching the ten essentials to school kids, I realized that not much has changed from 1866 to now, in regards to survival. We can learn how to live a more simplistic, adventurous life, without all the fancy gear and extra equipment.


These 10 items are absolutely essential to outdoor survival, both in 1866 and now. Everything else is just extra and if you can carry it comfortably, then go ahead, but the more you pack the heavier it gets and the more exhausted you become.

  1. Sun Protection:

Then: Buffalo Soldiers used a hat with a brim all the way around to keep the sunlight off their heads and out of their eyes.

Now: Bucket hat, or any hat that can protect our face and neck. Sunglasses aren’t necessary, as long as we have a hat that will provide protection from the sun.

  1. Hydration:

Then: They used a canteen and would fill it all the way up, every chance they could.

Now: We have all types of water bottles and hydration packs, but we still fill all the way up and whenever we can.

  1. Navigation:

Then: A compass.

Now: A compass. Or a GPS, but let’s be real, those aren’t the most reliable; batteries die, satellites connections are lost in the backcountry. Knowing how to use a compass and follow a map can save your life.

  1. Insulation

Then: They had an extra shirt, blanket, socks, and a gun blanket to keep themselves warm.

Now: We bring extra socks and clothing and have a convenient emergency blanket that is light weight and portable.

  1. Illumination:

Then: They used these tin boxes that opened up with a candle holder so the flame would reflect off the back and produce a brighter light.

Now: Now we use headlamps, lanterns and battery powered lanterns.

  1. Nutrition

Then: Hard Tack= a cracker like food that wouldn’t spoil and was easily carried. Just soak in water or broth when ready to eat.

Now: MRE’s and other dehydrated meals that are small and won’t spoil.

  1. Shelter:

Then: Each soldier would carry half of a tube tent and at the end of the day would pair up with a buddy and put their pieces together so that they didn’t have to carry extra weight.

Now: There are all kinds of tents to choose from, but tube tents are still functional.

  1. Tool

Then:  A multi tool, typically with a knife and some sort of utensils to eat with.

Now: A multi tool. There are numerous different combinations of tools in one.

  1. Fire:

Then: Matches, the kind that came in a little cardboard box.

Now: Matches, now they come in a handy watertight container and the matches are even waterproof now.

  1. Medical Supplies:

Then: Scraps of fabric.

Now: First aid kits that are waterproof with everything from Band-Aids to burn cream to pain relievers.


As you can see, most things have not changed from the 1860’s to now. Sure, our gear has been updated, but for the most part the concepts are the same. I love teaching this program because it goes to show that we don’t need all the fancy gear to survive. The essentials the Buffalo Soldiers used can still ensure our survival now.


Texas Outdoor Family: Lake Mineral Wells State Park

Being brave means doing what you need to do even when you are scared. This is what one parent said to her daughter after climbing up a cliff at Lake Mineral Wells State Park. I had the pleasure of being surrounded by brave young souls while volunteering with Texas Outdoor Family. These kids and their parents never cease to amaze me with their bravery and enthusiasm for learning about the great outdoors and park recreation. It was an adventure filled weekend with happy kids and proud parents at one of my favorite Texas parks.

This was my first full weekend volunteering with Texas Outdoor Family. Unloading gear, getting camp set up and teaching the families how to pitch a tent and use the camp stove are fairly simple. The confusion came from a few families wanting to switch campsites; Ranger Cassie handled it well and got everything sorted out. As soon as it got dark we knew it was about time for bed; that the next day would be a bit chaotic and long with four different activities planned.

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The sky was clear and no chance of rain in the weekend forecast meant sleeping with the rainflys off and feeling the cool breeze flowing through the tents. It was so peaceful and relaxing to look up at the stars while I quickly drifting off into dreamland. No rainflys also means that you wake with the sun, which with this trip is exactly what we needed. The only activity that required being on time was rock climbing due to having professional teachers come in and instruct our group. We call it being on camp time, when we don’t have a set schedule.


Rock climbing was truly amazing to witness and be a part of. I had wanted to climb since rappelling for the first time at this same park two months prior. The bravery, motivation and enthusiasm the kids exuded, gave me the push to reach the top. We were all beginners but everyone who tried, did well. It was more than just learning to rock climb and try something new outdoors, it brought families together. Parents encouraged their kids to try even though they were scared; kids applauded their parents for trying with them. There were cheers, chants, laughs and cries, but everyone survived. Texas Outdoor Family doesn’t just teach families to camp; it brings them back together in nature without all the worldly distractions that typically distance them.

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With such a large group, they were split in two so that everyone would have a chance to rock climb. One group would rock climb while the other would geocache then they switched. By the time everyone was finished, it was lunch time and we all needed to refuel. It was a chaotic, adventure filled day, so lunch was really just a quick snack for the rangers and volunteers. Next on the agenda was kayaking and fishing and luckily that short lunch break allowed the families to refuel and regroup. I was expecting a calm, relaxing time out on the water, keeping an eye on our group, making sure they didn’t go too far. Well, it started off without a hitch; however there was one “Kayak Over!” Ranger Lisa paddled to shore with the uncle and his nephew holding onto the back, and I was left to bring in the kayak. I tried several methods and each one failed, then I got smart and clipped the padded seat onto my kayak and paddled away.  In this field, you have to think on your feet, and get creative. Not everything runs smoothly, but sometimes the best adventures and memories come from the times where things went wrong. The guys were troopers and even got back on to try again. It was their first time to camp and kayak and they didn’t let the tip over in the lake ruin their feelings of the weekend.

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After such a long day, it was wonderful to wind down, cool off and eat some delicious camp food. A big thanks to the girl scouts who brought us volunteers and rangers some desserts and camp classics. As tired as I was, my night was not over yet. I had the privilege of doing a ride along with one of the park police officers. I have always had an interest in law enforcement and at this point I was still seriously considering a career as a park police officer. It was great to pick Mr. Kern’s brain and see just a glimpse into what the position entails. Let’s just say, it probably isn’t something I will continue to pursue but I am so grateful for the experience. I feel I could handle the work, but during this ride, I realized that my calling was to educate others on natural and cultural resources rather than enforce the laws of the park.

It is easy to let doubt and failure dictate our lives, but I learned from these kids at this workshop to keep trying no matter what, to put on your brave face even if you scared. Children can be wise beyond their years, they haven’t been exposed to all the negativity us adults have experienced, and because of that they can teach us to be relentless and carefree. This workshop at Lake Mineral Wells State Park was good for my mind, body and soul. Anytime I can sleep in a tent, get active outside, talk to park rangers, and share my love of nature with others, my heart fills with joy. The weather was beautiful, the company was great, and the memories made will last forever.


Texas Outdoor Family: Cedar Hill State Park

For many of us, camping is a staple of summer, but for some, camping is foreign territory and scary. In an effort to bring families to the great outdoors, Texas Parks and Wildlife founded a program that teaches the inexperienced how to be safe and have fun while camping in our state parks. Texas Outdoor Family has brought more than 4000 families to the outdoors since 2008. It has been an absolute joy volunteering with this program and watching families learn new things and enjoy the outdoors and having some of my own memorable adventures along the way.


Due to my enrollment in the Citizen’s Park Ranger Academy, I had to miss the first night and half of the second day of camping at Cedar Hill State Park. It sure was an adventure when I got there Saturday afternoon. The sun was out, only a few clouds in the sky and the lake was perfect for kayaking. The kids loved learning to kayak, and the parents had a blast as well. Some of the families knew how to paddle, but there were some newbies in the group. Watching them paddle back to shore after some time on the water with the biggest smiles on their faces was heartwarming. Kayaking is one of my favorite outdoor activities, so it brought me such joy being able to witness the young kids enjoying themselves on the water. Since I got in late, the day’s activities were nearing an end, but the adventure was just starting.

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Loading kayaks is always a difficult task, especially when you are vertically challenged like me. But three of us got the job done. Driving the trailer full of kayaks and me following behind back to the campsite took a while due to a race going on in the park. It was tough going 2 miles an hour and having to stop several times so as not to hit the runners. I decided to just keep m windows down and turn up the Taylor Swift jams; hope it was motivation the runners. Once at camp I had a little time to pitch my tent and get settled in. As we prepared dinner, that is when the craziness began. The sky became darker, the wind picked up and the thunder was as loud as could be. We hurried to take our foil packets off the fire, and secure the rest of our things. As it got later, the weather just got worse. It started to pour and quickly after the Park Police drove by telling us to gather up the families and seek shelter, as the storm was heading our way.


I had never camped in storming weather before, but instead of being scared, my mind went straight to alerting the families and assuring them it would all be okay. I was more excited in this moment. Luckily there was a restroom nearby that we all filed into. The real fun began in there. I am all for no cell service and wifi in the parks, but with circumstances such as major storms, it was a relief being able to connect to a weather radar and track the storm, as well as text my momma and let her know I was okay. When dealing with families new to the outdoors, we wanted to make light of the situation and keep them calm and worry free. We cracked jokes, took funny pictures and laughed until the rain had passed. We survived!


No damage was done, just some rain. Well I take that back, the only damage seemed to be my tent; it got flooded. My rain fly decide it would fly to the side of my tent and let the rain wash out the dirt and soak my backpack with all my gear. Thankfully my sleeping bag was still in my pack in a water resistant bag. We talked, laughed and ate the rest of our cold foil packets then went to bed, knowing the next day would be long trying to dry out everything before packing up.

Sunday was not the day of rest for the rangers and volunteers. We had our work cut out for us taking down tents, laying them on concrete to dry, and then packing them away. Typically the families are in charge of packing up the gear we provide them but since it stormed and many left early, we had to do it all ourselves. It turned out to be a beautiful day and the sun came out to play and help us out.


That was such an interesting trip volunteering with Texas Outdoor Family. Though I took the Master Outdoor Leadership Training class and knew about this program and what they do, I did not know how the weekend would run. My first time volunteering with them wasn’t the smoothest experience but it was an adventure. If you have learned anything about me from my previous blogs or posts, you would know that the crazier the adventure the better it is for me. I was ready for the next camping excursion with these rangers and new families.

Citizen’s Park Ranger Academy: Day 4

Well the end has come; the final day of the Citizen’s Park Ranger Academy. The last day concluded with graduation, history of the park, cleaning of dinosaur tracks, archeology in Texas, and a search for artifacts.  All aspects of a ranger are important, but for me, the interpretive training we got on the last day was especially significant. With my future plans of leading guided hikes and planning outdoor education programs, I was excited to learn more and see an interpretive ranger in action. This class has been a learning experience and a great time. Not only did I get a brief view into what it takes to be a park ranger, but I met some amazing people along the way. Words can’t express how grateful I am for this class.

We started out the day with graduation and pictures, because we were about to get really dirty cleaning out the tracks. Part of the reason I enjoyed the class so much was my fellow classmates; they were encouraging, funny and good people. A huge reason the course was so great was the learning environment we were provided by the excellent park staff. Robert, Jeff, Dawn and Tracey were phenomenal and incredibly helpful. Not only did they walk us through the stations, encouraging us along the way, but they were there to answer any questions about the tasks and this career field. Oh, and we also got a nice certificate and cool t-shirt for completing the class. I sure do love free shirts, but it really was just a plus to the class.


Every park has a history, but Dinosaur Valley’s is especially cool. Just an hour south of Fort Worth, TX you can walk the same path the dinosaurs roamed 113 million years ago. The tracks are well preserved and still very prominent in the Paluxy River. However, back in the prehistoric ages, there was no Paluxy River; this area of central Texas was actually the shores of a shallow sea. There are 5 main track sites in the park which contain sauropod and theropod tracks. We had the opportunity to clean out the tracks, which was quite a bit of work because it had rained recently and the river was full. It was a full team effort draining the water, shoveling the mud out, and then rinsing the tracks.

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Dinosaurs weren’t the only ones that once occupied this area. There was a school house within what is now Dinosaur Valley State Park. Lantham Community schoolhouse occupied an area in this park in the late 1800s. It was very interesting to stand where the school once stood, and where the children played in the courtyard. There are two trees in what used to be the courtyard that had a rock and a metal pipe in the middle where the teachers would sit and keep an eye out for the students on their breaks. It is easy to see the beauty in nature and wildlife when visiting state parks, but often times we forget about the history of the area. The interpreters and archeologists do an amazing job of telling the history of the area and sharing stories of the early days of the park. We need nature to survive, but knowing the past connects us to this land and makes us want to preserve what we see.


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Continuing on with the history of the park, an archeologist with Texas Parks and Wildlife, informed us of the different types of artifacts to be found, what to do with them and how each one tells a story. It is important to leave artifacts in their spots, untouched. The way it lays gives us insight as to what happened in that area; if it is moved the story will have changed or won’t be able to be pieced together. After an interesting talk, we went out and searched for any type of artifacts. Mostly, we found neat looking rocks and trash, but a few of my classmates found what is called a primary flake. A rock is struck with a tool and the pressure and force of the blow will chip away at the core producing flakes of rock. There were a few secondary and tertiary flakes in the park as well. Primary flakes are covered in cortex (outer rind of the rock), secondary contain some cortex and tertiary contain no cortex.

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The class came and went in a flash. The course was beyond helpful and gave me new insight and perspectives into the life of a park ranger. I gained knowledge of the field, new friends and made connections with wonderful park staff. Often times, when camping or just visiting a park for the day, we don’t realize what goes into keeping these places safe, accessible and fun for everyone. A park ranger does more than just tell the public about park rules, they keep up trail maintenance, protect natural and cultural resources, plan interpretive programs, and inspire others to live an active outdoor life. This class gave us a peak into what it takes, and my only critique would to have the class last longer so that I could learn more. The Citizen’s Park Ranger Academy not only gave me insight but gave me motivation to keep going.


Citizen’s Park Ranger Academy: Day 3

There is a lot of negative press surrounding our men and women in law enforcement, lately. It is very heart breaking for me to read the terribly mean things people say about those that protect our communities, natural resources and wildlife. I grew up as a police officer’s daughter; I saw the good that my dad and his fellow officers did for my hometown. I understand that there are bad officers out there, but I truly believe there are far more good guys than bad. It is easy for us to sit back and judge based on a one-sided story, but until we go through the training and put ourselves in those circumstances we cannot possibly understand the choices that are made in the face of danger. Our law enforcement officers, whether they are police, state troopers, game wardens or state park police, are humans too; they have families they want to go home to at night. They take an oath to protect and serve and I commend them for all that they do. I was very excited for day three of CPRA because I enjoy learning about the life of an officer and have considered this as a career path. Though we only dabbled in the basics of a state park police officer and search and rescue, I can say that I have gained a greater respect for these brave men and women.

The first station my group was at, we learned about field sobriety testing. Drunk driving and impaired driving cause many deaths each year. I have had friends in terrible, near life threatening accidents that were caused by drunk drivers, so I am beyond thankful for the work they do to prevent these tragedies from happening. Those in law enforcement are trained in depth of how to spot a drunk driver or someone under the use of drugs. The methods they use to determine if the person is intoxicated are based on science. The field sobriety tests have been extensively tested in numerous scientific studies and are accepted by the courts as legitimate methods. The first test is called a horizontal gaze nystagmus, this is a natural, involuntary jerking of the eye, however it is hardly noticeable when sober, but under the influence, this jerking occurs more frequently and at less strenuous angles. To test HGN, an officer will have the suspect follow a pen or light from side to side and up and down. The one-leg stand and walk and turn tests, check the ability of the suspect to listen, follow directions, and keep their balance. During a one-leg stand test the subject is to stand on one foot and hold their other leg 6 inches off the ground and count out loud for approximately 30 seconds. The walk and turn test is where the suspect is to walk heel-to-toe in a straight line for nine steps, turn around on one foot and walk the same way back. Of course the most accurate form of determining if a person is under the influence is to do a blood test, but this is not administered roadside. Though these tests may not be 100% accurate, they have helped put away those who decide to put others’ lives in jeopardy.


Next station of the day was a slide show presentation about state park rules, policies and the most common offences in the park. The state park police enforce state park rules, Texas state laws, hunting and fishing laws and county ordinances. They have statewide jurisdiction. The number one violation in the state parks is the consumption of alcoholic beverages. It is illegal to display and consume alcohol in a Texas State Park. The second most common violation is parking. Bigger parks will have campsites that can hold a few extra cars but to protect our natural resources, parking must be on paved surfaces. People come to the parks for the sounds of nature, but during the busy seasons, where many people are camping at the same time, noise becomes an issue. There are quiet hours and the officers make sure to enforce this as best they can. Another common offence in the park is unpaid user fees. Texas Parks and Wildlife is on a tight budget and those user fees help maintain the facilities and trails. Though these seem like minor offences, it is important to follow the rules in the parks for the safety and enjoyment of everyone.

We moved onto the next station where we got to check out a park police vehicle and all their gear. Most drive the trucks, but it is equipped much like a city police car. They have the light on top, radio inside and sirens. Officers carry a handgun, handcuffs, mace, and are beginning to wear body cameras along with a bullet proof vest. It’s a lot to wear and carry on a daily basis, which makes me appreciate them even more. I can’t imagine packing on so much extra weight each day. Also found in the truck is a clipboard and ticket book. It’s not all about verbal warnings and arrests, there is a lot of paperwork involved and it is crucial to document everything.

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Lastly, we did a search and rescue activity. Each group was given a scenario that really happened at Cleburne State Park. Using common sense and critical thinking, my team was able to locate our lost victim. Unfortunately not all of the scenarios ended well. Knowing the point of last seen and point of last known of the lost victim, help the search and rescue (SAR) team exponentially. We learned that an area is not truly searched until a trained professional has searched the area. Nearly 73% of the time hikers, bikers and visitors are found on the trails and about 4% are found in hazardous areas. Generally, lost adults and children are found within a mile radius from the point of last seen/known but kids will have walked nearly 4 miles whereas adults will have typically only traveled 3.5 miles trying to find their way. Hunters, on average will be 1.5 miles from point of last seen and have traveled nearly 8 miles. When backpacking, hiking, biking, or adventuring in nature, let a family member know your plans, carry a phone or GPS, be observant of your surroundings and landmarks, and stay on the trails if you are inexperienced. The officers and rangers are trained in search and rescue but there are several ways to keep yourself safe.

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I must say this class was probably my favorite.  My only critique would be for the class to be longer, because there is so much more to this field to be informed on. I see the direction the world is going and my heart goes out to those that step up and protect our communities and parks. It is not an easy job by any means, but it’s a rewarding one. They don’t limit themselves to just protecting the park, they help in the local communities, conduct search and rescue, and are there as first responders during natural disasters. They are brave, kind hearted and heroes in my eyes.  I enjoyed the opportunity to learn about the life of a park police officer and the training they have been through. I must say a huge thanks to Robert, Jeff and Dawn for enlightening everyone on this career path.