Course of nature: Gabriel Mapel is for the birds—and the bears

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Gabriel Mapel co-founded a birding club for kids ages 7 to 17. Photo: Ézé Amos Gabriel Mapel co-founded a birding club for kids ages 7 to 17. Photo: Ézé Amos

During a visit to Shenandoah National Park when he was 9 years old, Gabriel Mapel saw a mother black bear with her three cubs, and “from that moment on, my life would fully revolve around nature,” says the now-16-year-old. Not only did the bears get him “hooked,” Mapel says they also turned him into an advocate, and he now makes it his mission to spread the message that black bears “are 99 percent of the time mellow, docile and more scared of you than you are of them—if you give them their space.”

A year later, Mapel noticed another mother bear with her cubs in one of the park’s seven picnic areas. On that day, he also met Rodney Cammauf, a Shenandoah National Park volunteer and a professional nature photographer, who had been documenting the four bears. Cammauf told Mapel that Gertrude (the name he’d given the mom) had gotten into some trouble thanks to a group of picnickers that left their food out when they went on a hike.

“Gertrude had gotten ahold of it,” Mapel recalls. And “when bears get human food, they become habituated and are considered nuisance animals by wildlife officials…generally they have to be relocated, which means they have their lives put at risk because they have to fight for new territory or be destroyed.” The thought of humans putting Gertrude in danger “saddened and angered” Mapel, but he says he also realized the picnickers didn’t know they’d done anything wrong. His solution? He wrote Oh No, Gertrude!, a children’s book that features Cammauf’s photographs.

Bears, however, aren’t Mapel’s only passion. Around the time he finished Oh No, Gertrude!, he fell in love with birding, and when his godmother asked him why he never birded with people his age, he said he didn’t know any other young birders. To remedy this, he co-founded the Blue Ridge Young Birders Club (blueridgeyoungbirders.org), which now has 30 members, ranging in age from 7 to 17.

“I enjoy mentoring the younger birders,” Mapel says, adding that he also leads field trips, supervises the monitoring of bluebird trails and participates in other bird-related projects such as the Audubon Christmas Bird Count and breeding bird surveys. And then there was that time in 2011 when Mapel, who is homeschooled, did a junior Big Year, during which he found 437 species of birds.

“I visited many of the birding hot spots throughout the country,” he says, including South Florida, the Rio Grande Valley of Texas, the Pacific Coast of California, the Lake Erie shore of Ohio and Alaska. Nowadays, Mapel spends much of his free time closer to home, volunteering for Rockfish Gap Hawk Watch and at Shenandoah National Park, as well as working as the field trip chairperson for the Monticello Bird Club. When asked about his dream job, Mapel says he’d like to be a Shenandoah National Park ranger.

“Nature is under-appreciated and, sadly, often abused,” he says. “I want to make a difference, and the best way to do that is to educate people and wake them up to how awesome nature is—and how it needs to be respected.”

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When Gabriel Mapel and Rodney Cammauf decided to collaborate on the children’s book Oh No, Gertrude!, their goal was simple: “We wanted to help educate people about how to behave in bear country” and keep bears safe, says Mapel. The book, which was published in 2010 and features then-10-year-old Mapel’s words and Cammauf’s photography, tells the true story of Gertrude, a black bear who found herself in big trouble thanks to some clueless people.

When Mapel met Cammauf, he learned the photographer had been taking pictures of Gertrude and her cubs for a while, and had “captured [their] entire story through the lens of his camera,” Mapel says. Reaction to the pair’s book version of the bears’ Shenandoah National Park adventures “was more than anything we could have imagined in our wildest dreams,” he says, adding that Oh No, Gertrude! has sold more than 7,000 copies. It is available online and at several national parks, including Shenandoah, Great Smoky Mountains, Yellowstone and Big Bend.—S.S.

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