Friends of VINP hike

A Christmas day Ram Head hike led by Friends President Todd Sampsell. The organization has been offering an adapted version of their annual seminar series to help visitors and residents explore the National Park.

One of the Friends of Virgin Islands National Park’s most popular offerings is its annual seminar series, a program that runs during high season with the goal of connecting visitors with the park’s natural and cultural beauty.

With many of the seminars typically conducted by island elders, however, the organization knew that their traditional series format couldn’t continue safely in a world that’s experiencing a global pandemic.

“We’re so fortunate to have this great big wide open park, so we tried to create a calendar of things we knew we could commit to, keeping our numbers low with ongoing events,” said Friends Development Director Tonia Lovejoy.

The seminar series became Fridays with Friends, with recurring events happening the first, second, and last Friday of the month. On the first Friday of every month, Delroy Ital Anthony conducts a native plants walk and talk at Cinnamon Bay, where visitors on island as part of the Friends’ volunteer trail crew are headquartered, giving the volunteers access to knowledge they can use in their trail work.

“Providing the volunteer trail crew with Ital talking about native plants is a way to engage them as first responders when they’re doing their trail work,” said Lovejoy.

“They learn what plants they’re working with, because we want to protect native and rare plants within the park, which could be found along the sides of the trails.”

Anthony’s plant talk is open to all who are interested, not just trail crew volunteers, with a cap of 10 participants.

The second Friday of each month is dedicated to paddle outings aboard kayaks or stand up paddle boards, led by local excursion companies at various locations including Maho, Francis, or Hurricane Hole.

On the last Friday of the month, the Friends presents a guided hike, sometimes including a pre-hike presentation at the trail head by a local expert.

The regularly scheduled in-person events are limited to 10 participants, with masks and social distancing required where appropriate.

The seminar calendar is supplemented by virtual offerings which allows those who are off-island to participate.

“The virtual format is a positive that has come out of this evolution,” said Lovejoy. “We have research scientists whose work and its meaning carries beyond the two weeks they’re actually here on St. John. People who aren’t on island can benefit from that knowledge. Ranger Laurel Brannick has done a virtual bird talk, and VINP archaeologist Ken Wild is going to do a seminar online as well. Those pop up according to availability and we rely on social media to promote the virtual seminars a couple of weeks out.”

The move to virtual seminars could also have benefits for island students, Lovejoy continued.

“I’m really excited about how we can translate these online seminars into self-guided learning experiences for kids,” she said. “We’re working on producing mini-videos that would give a little snapshot of an activity like the Reef Bay hike, or Annaberg, to encourage kids to go with their families. Hopefully, when we do have field trips again, they’ll still be useful as a pre-learning activity.”

Lovejoy said she hopes the virtual seminars will attract the attention of island residents who may not otherwise attend in-person seminars.

“We always have a mission with the seminars to try to bring something valuable to the community members who live here,” she said.

The seminars are free for members of the Friends; those who aren’t members are asked to join the organization for $30 a year in order to attend. Sign up for a plant walk, paddle excursion, or guided hike at www.friendsvinp.org.

There is no seminar tomorrow due to the holiday. Instead, the plant walk will take place on the second Friday in January.