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DNR's Park Quest brings out the best of the outdoors

Susquehanna State Park was a muddy mess. A heavy thunderstorm had brought a downpour to its trails, and Richard Smith had not brought the right pair of shoes for such a hike. It didn't help that it was still raining, if only lightly.

The shoes he had on worked well enough, though, because Smith and his family navigated the trail without slipping and falling. Normally, they would not have bothered to go to the park on such a nasty day, but they had good reason: They were on a quest.

Smith, along with his team of wife, Jennifer, and daughters Jill and Emmy, was there to complete one part of the state Department of Natural Resources' Park Quest.

Every team that visited any 10 of 24 state park locations from Memorial Day through Labor Day and completed a "quest" challenge — which included going on a hike, canoeing along a specific route, catching a fish or even answering a riddle — was eligible to participate in the Park Quest Rendezvous on Sept. 21.

This year, Park Quest's sixth, marked the fourth time the Smith family has participated in the program.

Each year, someone else names the team, so Richard's "very boring" Team JJER last year was replaced this year with Emmy's Thunderclan, a name inspired by the Warriors children's book series, one of her favorites.

Thunderclan was one of 274 teams to participate in the Rendezvous this year, the largest turnout for the event, said Steve McCoy, acting park manager at Patapsco Valley State Park, which hosted the Rendezvous.

The event used to be more focused on competition, McCoy said, but it has changed over time to award tickets for participation in team activities that can then be put toward drawings for prize packages.

Among the rewards are free weekend stays in the parks, a free weekend at Wisp Resort, a full family set of REI camping gear and a set of Diamondback Bicycles mountain bikes.

The Smith family was lucky enough to win a weekend stay in a cabin at Pocomoke River State Park.

"We've never ended up being able to do one of the Park Quest events there, so that's one of the many things we love about Park Quest, is opening up new places for us," Richard said.

"Normally, it opens up new places based on the ones we're going to to do the Quest events, but this is even better. We actually won something and we're going to try the new park at the same time."

The Smiths came close to not qualifying for the Rendezvous. After coming close to participating in all 24 quests last year, they finished their 10th quest only the weekend before the Rendezvous.

Richard, an Eagle Scout, spent a lot of time camping in his earlier years, but costs have kept him from camping more often as an adult.

"We're not going to be the transitional outdoor family that you're going to see spending $1,000 on camping equipment," he said.

"But we are, I think, the type of family you're going to see us at Patapsco Valley State Park going on a 3-mile hike or something."

While his family is only "medium outdoorsy," Richard said, they enjoy going camping occasionally and spending time at the parks. After four years of exploring what the parks have to offer in every corner of the state, the Smiths certainly have achieved that much.

The Rendezvous is "a very large endeavor by the [National] Park Service, but it's one that we all look forward to and it's a lot of work, but it's also a great opportunity for us to spend a day with what we consider some of our most appreciative and dedicated park visitors," McCoy said.

"They are just a wonderful group of people to spend the day with and to experience their appreciation for the state parks as well."

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