Lauren Nelson and her sister, Claire, are on a mission.
Should they accomplish it, the two from Corvallis would be rewarded with prizes, a bit of unexpected education and, probably best of all, a chance to go take a cool dip on a hot day in the Bitterroot Valley’s Lake Como.
With a borrowed cellphone in hand, the two were following clues from Agent Mallard Duck that took them on a short walk from the already-busy sandy beach to the first stop on the brand-new Agents of Discovery Mission in the Bitterroot.
When the two tapped into GPS, their phone led them to an engraved rock that commemorated Glacial Lake Missoula.
Upon arrival, Agent Mallard Duck provided some interesting facts about ancient lake, followed by a couple of multiple-choice questions that the pair had no problem answering.
With that mission accomplished, the two girls were ready for another as they followed their new secret agent friend across the bridge and atop the dam that overlooks Lake Como.
Bitterroot National Forest spokesman Tod McKay was all smiles as he watched the two girls successfully operate the app and appear to have fun along the way.
Lake Como is by far the most popular recreation site on the Bitterroot Forest, used by thousands of beachgoers, campers, hikers and boaters.
“People ask us all the time what can I do when I’m at Lake Como,” McKay said. “There is a lot to do here and now we’re going to be add playing Agents of Discovery to that list.”
Agents of Discovery is an educational mobile gaming platform that uses technology to superimpose a computer-generated image on a phone or tablet that aligns with the real world. Players have the chance to follow their secret agent from one spot to the next along a 1 1/2-mile route on the north end of the lake. Along the way, they face 10 challenges that offer them a chance to learn a thing or two about the area.
Lake Como is one of four Agents of Discovery missions that was launched last week in the Bitterroot Valley.
At Travelers Rest State Park in Lolo, players will tag along with Agent Seaman — Capt. Lewis’ Newfoundland dog. Father Ravalli’s cat, Tomaso, will serve as the guide at Historic St. Mary’s Mission in Stevensville. And in Hamilton, Agent It’syYeYe, will share her Nez Perce culture while dressed in full regalia as she leads adventurers through the community’s River Park and Ravalli County Museum.
The Agents of Discovery app is free to download at Google Play or the App Store.
Bitterroot Forest Archaeologist Matt Werle said Lake Como was an obvious choice in the Bitterroot.
“There are so many people who use this area,” Werle said. “It has so many features that people go right by without even noticing.”
Werle worked with other Bitterroot Forest specialists to develop the course that included stops at the dam, Glacial Lake Missoula’s monument, a cambium peeled Ponderosa tree, Wood’s Cabin, and a nearby wetlands. The challenge includes a chance to take a virtual cast out onto the lake and maybe catch a virtual trout along the way.
And when the young players complete their challenge, they can stop the Darby Rangers Station or supervisor’s office in Hamilton to pick up a Smokey Bear commemorative pin.
Other missions around the valley offer their own swag for those who make it to the end. Those young agents who complete all four in the Bitterroot are eligible to enter to win grand prizes.
“The one caveat that people need to remember before venturing out to take on the challenge at Lake Como is there is limited cell connectivity at the lake,” Werle said. “It’s good to download both the app and mission before heading up the lake.”
The GPS component works just fine.
Kris Komar of the Bitter Root Cultural Trust said the initiative to bring Agents of Discovery to the Bitterroot was a partnership between the trust, the Bitterroot Forest, Travelers' Rest Preservation andHeritage Association, Historic St. Mary’s Mission and the Ravalli County Museum.
“Each mission was a team effort and we all learned so much building them out,” Komar said. “I’m very proud of our mission partners, most of whom are not digital natives.”
Considering that 97% of all American youth play video games, and childhood obesity has tripled since 1979, the Agents of Discovery app is designed to get kids outside and moving. The Conservation Education program in Washington, D.C., is working to create missions on national forests and sites surrounding them in all parts of the country. So far there are more than 80 mission sites in the nation.
Werle sees all kinds of opportunity with the program.
“We can change the challenges periodically so people can come back out and try something new,” he said. “We can set up challenges in other places. There are lots of different options for us to explore. I think we’re just scratching the surface.”