Middle school student tours Montana after winning essay contest
By Sarah Campbell
Ben Zino, 12, got to expand his adventures from his backyard to a sprawling Montana landscape this summer.
The Southeast Middle School seventh-grader was one of 15 students nationwide to attend a 10-day expedition, the reward for winning an essay contest sponsored by National Geographic Kids magazine.
Zino had just been to a wedding with his family in Montana when he returned home to find information about the contest in the latest magazine.
“I thought it was really cool that I might have a chance to go back,” he said.
Zino got to work on his essay, which required him to tell the magazine how he explores his world. He ended up writing about the time he tracked a skunk that he later dubbed “Mr. Fluffy,” from the edge of his yard into the woods.
When Zino got the call that he had won, he spent the day elated.
“I was jumping around the entire time, I don’t think I stopped smiling,” he said. “The rest of the school year went by really quick because I was looking forward to the trip.”
When Zino arrived in Montana last month the first thing he did was start snapping photos with the Canon camera he received to document his journey.
“I was taking pictures from the bus,” he sad. “The scenery was amazing, all of the water was teal blue because the glaciers grind up the rocks and they have blue minerals in them that changes the color of the water.”
During his trip, Zino visited the Blackfeet Indian Reservation where he saw dances done by Native Americans in elaborate costumes, retraced the footsteps of Lewis and Clark and took hikes through Glacier National Park where he saw ground squirrels, dear, bull moose, mountain goats and bears.
“It was really cool to see the wildlife in their natural habitats, not behind bars,” he said. “We saw a grizzly bear from a boat on Saint Mary Lake and when I looked through my binoculars the claws were ginormous.”
Zino said it was neat to see the ground squirrels pop out of holes in the ground and almost beg for food by making chirping sounds. He also enjoyed seeing the thick and fluffy coats of the mountain goats.
Rafting on the Missouri River and taking a ride down the alpine slide were also memorable experiences for Zino.
But one of his favorite parts was participating in an archaeological dig.
“Since I was 2, I’ve loved dinosaurs and when I found out the first T-rex was found in Montana I knew I had to go there,” he said. “We were with real paleontologists at a real dig site with real dinosaur bones so we got to be mini-paleontologists for the day.”
Zino got to meet David Trexler, the paleontologist who wrote “Becoming Dinosaurs.”
“That was really cool,” he said.
He also met wildlife advocate Jack Hanna of the television show “Jack Hanna’s Animal Adventures.”
Another perk of the trip was making new friends. Zino plans to keep in touch with them via email.
“It was really neat meeting all the other people who loved exploring as much as I do because we shared the same stories,” he said. “It was like we were made for each other.”
Zino got his itch for adventure after reading wildlife expert Jeff Corwin’s biography.
“After that I thought maybe I should go out and try to see some animals,” he said.
So, Zino set up a motion-activated trail camera in the woods behind his house and reviews the footage on a weekly basis.
Zino said he enjoys adventure because it never gets dull.
“There’s always something new to find,” he said. “You can visit the same spot 10 times a week and there will be something new there all the time.”
If you haven’t been to Montana, Zino said it’s a destination to add to your bucket list.
“It has everything,” he said. “It’s this little time portrait going back maybe 100 years with untamed wildlife and tons of scenery. I’d never seen anything like it before.”
Contact reporter Sarah Campbell at 704-797-7683.