Aida Frey knew she wanted to be a park ranger ever since her first visit to a national park.
Three years later, the 13-year-old from Algonquin has visited 163 national parks and historic sites with her family, and earned about 300 badges, pins and medals as part of the National Park Service's Junior Ranger program.
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"I don't have a favorite because each national park is special in its own way," she said. "I like the nature part of it, and the history. The thing that I mostly like is spending time with my family and learning about all these places … instead of just reading about it in a book."
Her enthusiasm prompted the National Park Service to dub Aida the agency's unofficial spokeswoman.
Aida was featured in a YouTube video promoting Richmond National Battlefield Park in Virginia, and photos of her are making the rounds on park websites, fliers and newsletters. Aida also has been asked to be a guest blogger for the National Park Foundation.
"There's a handful of what we call super junior rangers, and she is one of them," said Julia Washburn, National Park Service associate director for interpretation, education and volunteers, who oversees the Junior Ranger program. "She certainly has a zest for learning and is clearly someone who has become a great steward of our nation's natural and cultural resources. It's nice to see someone of that age take an interest in the parks. It gives me faith for the future that our planet will be OK, if we have kids who care about it."
There are about 800,000 junior rangers nationwide, but only a few who have visited so many national park sites and earned that many badges, Washburn added.
Washburn, a former junior ranger, said some families like Aida's get really involved and plan their vacations around visiting parks and participating in their junior ranger programs.
"I have maybe two or three kids that have come through my office per year that have done maybe 100 to 200 programs," she said.
The junior ranger program is designed to be partly self-guided, allowing participants to interact with real park rangers. It involves activities around the parks, including scavenger hunts, challenges, games, artistic work and a service component, such as picking up trash and pulling weeds.
"It's definitely geared toward being educational, engaging and fun," Washburn said.
Aida's goal is to visit all 401 national parks, historic sites, trails and beaches.
"Some of them are hard to (get) to without going on a plane," she said.
She also is part of the park service's Web Rangers program, an online program that uses games and puzzles to teach people about the national park system and allows them to explore park sites.
Her fascination with parks aside, Aida maintains a high grade-point average and is part of the student council of St. Thomas the Apostle Catholic School in Crystal Lake. She also is a cheerleader and an altar girl, and belongs to book clubs, said Aida's father, Shawn Frey.
"It's been a really great journey for us," he said. "It's something really cool for us to participate in. She's a great spokesman. They've really accepted us into the park service. This (YouTube) video has really opened up a lot of doors (for) Aida."
Aida's dream job is becoming director of the national parks system or superintendent of Oxon Hill Farm in Maryland. "They have a lot of animals, and I really like animals," she said. "It's a really beautiful place, and I like the scenery."
What she likes best about being a park ranger is there is no age limit.
"You could do it when you are 80," Aida said.
Aida will share her trivia knowledge of national parks with other junior rangers during Junior Ranger Day April 27 at the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore.
"I'm known for knowing everything," she said. "I'm hoping to get more kids, my friends, and more families to get involved in this wonderful program, so they can learn more about our country and learn about all the things that happen here."
Parks: 'It's been a really great journey for us,' teen's dad says