“Check it out!” An excited teenage voice echoes up the trail, amid the whisper of aspen leaves and the call of a distant raven. “You’ll never believe the cool mushroom I just found.” The thrill of discovering a mushroom encircling a stalk of club moss spreads to fellow hikers. Camera shutters snap. Grandparents check LCD screens with grandchildren. Middle–schoolers help toddlers.

We are on a fall digital photo safari at Kenai National Wildlife Refuge—one of a dozen seasonal safaris held on the refuge since 2010. The theme of this outing is: Look closer, hunt for tiny worlds along the trail. Participants’ memory cards are filling fast with images of spiders on webs, mushroom gills and ripe rosehips.

Holly Conner, the mother of three children on the photo safari, says intermingling digital technology and a nature walk is “a great idea because technology is threatening to overwhelm us ... Sitting on the couch playing a video game or watching TV sounds much more comfortable than walking down a forest path at 25 degrees. But when you throw technology into the mix, our young people get interested again.”

Kenai Refuge in south–central Alaska has 16 digital cameras it uses for safaris and other interpretive and educational programs year–round. Seasonal photo safaris start with a brief lesson in camera operation, a conversation about the highlights of the particular season, and a discussion of the hike’s theme. Participants are encouraged to build the theme into photos they take. They could be asked to find something special that others may overlook, take photos from an insect’s perspective or capture different textures, colors or shapes through the lens.

Hikers Own the Hike

Like any guided nature walk, there are rules. Stay on the trail to protect the plants! Walk so that running feet don’t scare away wildlife! Respect other hikers! But the rule that makes Kenai Refuge photo safaris special is: Don’t ever let the group pass by something cool that you see!

This rule inspires safari participants to own the hike, to be present, to be aware. It shares the responsibility of keen eyes among everyone. The details that a preschooler picks up and the grand vista that an adult sees combine to reveal the richness of nature. Because every participant is armed with a camera, cool discoveries like a club moss–hugging mushroom get captured from every angle.

Today’s technology can help us connect to our world in ways our grandparents never dreamed. Technology can also connect youth to the outdoors. The excitement of the too–cool–for–a–photo–safari teen when he found that mushroom was unlocked because we were using digital technology as a gateway to the forest. Before we started walking, his distant expression had clearly indicated that he was along only because his mother and sister insisted.

Awakening a connectedness to nature in youth who find technology intuitive may be done best by integrating technology and nature instead of ignoring the electronic devices that are ubiquitous today. Formal educators know technology can be an effective tool in the classroom. The same is true outdoors, where technology can encourage young people to look closer, delve into nature, feel its textures, listen to all its sounds and explore its beauty.

Ten–year–old Katherine Conner has a word of caution for environmental educators, though.

“A camera is fine, but not a Kindle or something like that,” she says. “If you were playing on a Kindle or something like that, you wouldn’t see anything new because you’d be focused on the Kindle instead of on nature.”

Leah Eskelin is a visitor services park ranger at Kenai National Wildlife Refuge.