Arnold teenager explores the world — and her own backyard

One of Lauren Morrell's earliest memories involves a family hike and a candy wrapper, which explains why the 16-year-old from Arnold is now the student representative to the Severn Riverkeeper group and why, the day she turned 15, she applied to become a Pangaea Young Explorer, trying to help a world-renowned adventurer named Mike Horn save the planet.

Her passion began with summer trips to the Adirondack Mountains of upstate New York -- and that little piece of trash.

"We were on top of a mountain, and my father just picked it up and said, 'I just hate it when people litter the mountain,'" Morrell recalled last week at the Severn School in Severna Park, where she is a senior. "It stayed with me."

It remains a large part of Morrell's life. Long active in competitive sports and other outdoor activities, Morrell became interested in exploration when one of her two younger sisters brought home a magazine that included an article on Horn, a now-47-year-old South African who had formed the Pangaea Young Explorers group after his own daughters, then 11 and 12, became the youngest people in the world to reach the North Pole.

Seeing that the Young Explorers group centered on three of Morrell's favorite activities -- sailing, traveling and protecting the environment -- she wanted to apply. The only problem was that she was only 13 and had to wait two years to be considered. The group is for ages 15 to 20.

She hung the article on the wall in her bedroom. "It's actually still there," she said.

Said her mother, Margaret: "She was interested in [the environment] before, but that's when the whole combustion of activity really kicked in."

The day she turned 15, Morrell applied for an invitation to Horn's selection camp in the Swiss Alps. In addition to writing several essays, she submitted a video that she believed helped her get the invitation. The video was accompanied by a song from the movie "Up" called "The Spirit of Adventure."

"I think I just kind of embodied the spirit of a young explorer by caring for the environment, caring for exploration, open to new ideas, already involved in different clubs and groups," said Morrell, who aside from now being the captain of her school's sailing team and a member of the swim team has been the president of the Environmental Club since her sophomore year. "I think I showed them my passion. I think that energy really translated in the music and pictures I used."

After successfully competing for a spot in one of Horn's expeditions, Morrell was named part of a group headed to the Himalayas. But a problem arose: Right before she traveled to Switzerland for the selection camp, the destination had been changed from Nepal to Pakistan.

"At this point I had been training for 10 weeks and my parents said, 'We're going to figure out how to make this work,'" said Morrell, whose training included running and walking the hills of an adjacent neighborhood with 60 pounds of sand in her backpack.

But since the group was flying into and staying for two days in Islamabad -- near where Navy SEALs killed Osama bin Laden last spring and where a Marriott Hotel had been bombed in 2008 -- Morrell's parents eventually rejected the idea, taking their daughter out of consideration to be part of one of Horn's explorations.

Margaret Morrell said her daughter would have been the only person in Horn's group traveling with an American passport.

"I've never been more devastated," Lauren Morrell said. "I couldn't be angry at my parents, because I knew they wanted it almost as badly as I did. They were really, really excited for me. It was actually my dad's dream. That's the only time I've ever seen him cry."

Instead of losing interest in the face of the bitter disappointment, Morrell became even more focused.

"I had to find another outlet," she said.

It led her to throwing herself into the Severn Riverkeeper group, with Morrell speaking directly to Gov. Martin O'Malley at a conference on the Watershed Implementation Plan last year.

"She got up in front of all these people 20 to 30 years older and was very knowledgeable and organized," said Fred Kelly, who started the Severn Riverkeeper organization in 2002. "The governor didn't know what she was talking about. He looked at a couple of his aides for help and they didn't know what she was talking about either. She was very impressive."

It also led Mercedes-Benz, which sponsors Horn's expeditions, to fly Morrell to Malaysia to be part of a program to deter local fishermen from cutting off the fins of sharks and to promote the nurturing of the local sea turtle population. It was there that she made a presentation to persuade Horn to stop in Baltimore for a program involving pollution in the Severn River.

The project in Maryland involves planting trees along the Severn to anchor a storm-water conveyance system.

Morrell said that "basically just means 'Put it back the way it was.' We have all these things that are artificial control items. If we return so that the pollution is filtered out by sand, by rocks, by trees before it reaches the water, as it was intended to be, that actually provides a natural balance that stops the pollution from draining directly into the water."

En route to the Florida Everglades, Horn's group will be in the Baltimore area for four days beginning Thursday for programs at the National Aquarium, the Severn School and the Annapolis Yacht Club. Part of the Saturday program at the aquarium is open to the public.

Along with starting the Adventurers Club at school, Morrell also helped recruit one of her classmates, Anne McGarvey, to become a Young Explorer. McGarvey, a sophomore from Davidsonville, is currently at Horn's selection camp in Switzerland.

"The selection camp was the most thrilling and the most important 10 days of my entire life," Morrell said. "The last two days is called the Pangaea Raid. … You don't go to sleep because the other team can get ahead. It's in the Swiss Alps. They give you a series of coordinates and a compass, and you have to find your way. It's just intense and your adrenaline is pumping. It tests to show your true character when you become completely exhausted, teamwork and cooperation, as well as endurance."

Morrell's passion is often lost on her friends who can identify more with those chosen to be on "American Idol."

"It's not easy to relay, especially when it comes to the friends-all-over-the-world thing," Morrell said. "When my friends [in the Young Explorer program] tell me a joke about how things relate in Singapore, I can't really express that. I just have a different sense of the world. Who wants to climb into a crevice and hike their way back up? I do, but most people don't. It's difficult to share that sometimes."

Morrell can now relate to what her father, Craig, was telling her all those years ago.

Last summer, Morrell said a cut on her hand, coupled with fears of infection from unclean water, prevented her from going into the Severn River to join her sisters for water-skiing, tubing and swimming.

"I had to sit on the boat because I had an open cut, and I said, 'This stinks,'" she recalled. "I remember when I could swim with a cut and today I can't. I have gained appreciation for that and I realize that it's time to give back. Somebody has to do that."

Craig Morrell, a partner in a commercial development company, knows this is only the start for the eldest of his three daughters.

"She's unstoppable at this point," he said.