DARIEN — Connor McNamara has never been to Hawaii. But you would never be able to tell that reading his award-winning essay for the Connecticut State Daughters of the American Revolution history essay contest.

McNamara took first place out of all other fifth graders in the Goodwife River’s essay contest in February with his creative nonfiction essay describing a visit to the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. In May, McNamara’s essay went on to take first place out of 45 other winning essays submitted by different DAR chapters in Connecticut.

“I just started writing a lot of stuff,” the ten-year-old said. “I wrote a lot of drafts.”

The prompt asked fifth-graders to write an imagined diary entry on a fictional trip to a National Park in honor of the one-hundred year anniversary of the National Park Service (also fittingly founded in part by Darien resident, Stephen Tyng Mather, whose homestead became a town museum this year). Essays are then judged for historical accuracy, adherence to topic and interest, among other criteria.

Students wrote about fictional trips to Yellowstone National Park, Alaska or Dry Tortugas National Park. McNamara constructed a realistic trip to Hawaii in his essay through research. The Royle School fifth-grader took several trips to the Darien Library, collecting and reading books on Hawaii, to help describe his fictional trip. He also consulted with his parents, who spent their honeymoon there. He spent over a month working on the essay, crafting multiple drafts, all on his own volition.

“Connor has an interest in learning about things,” said his mother, Christa, who serves on the Darien school board. “The opportunity to learn more about volcanoes nicely fit into his interests. Writing was a nice vehicle to express it.”

McNamara had experience with creative writing before, writing pieces about hockey and lacrosse, some of his favorite sports, for school. But he also has a passion for volcanoes which led him to write about Hawaii.

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Connor’s essay

Today I went to the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. There was so much to see in this 230,000 acre park! It is located on the island of Hawaii, also called the “Big Island.” It was made a National Park in 1916 by U.S. President Woodrow Wilson, with the help of Thomas Jaggar, one of the first scientists to study the Hawaiian volcanoes, and Lorrin Thurston, a local business man and newspaper publisher.

I am staying at the Volcano House, the only hotel in the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. The park has two volcanoes, Kilauea and Mauna Loa, and this hotel is right on the edge of the Kilauea caldera, which looks like a big bowl on the top of the volcano. Kilauea is the most active volcano on the planet and many Hawaiian people believe it is also the home of the goddess, Pele. Mauna Loa is a much bigger volcano and is actually the biggest mountain on Earth! It takes up half of the island of Hawaii.

The Kilauea Visitors Center was a great place to first learn about the park’s history and the volcanoes. The Hawaii Volcanoes National Park was the twelfth National Park created by the U.S. Government, and actually the first park created by the National Park Service when it was established by Congress in 1916.

We started out on Crater Rim Drive, an 11 mile drive around the caldera. Everywhere I saw rock — the hardened lava! I walked around the Halemaumau crater that is inside the caldera. Some of the lava rock was as jagged as a picket fence, but in other areas, the rocks were as smooth as silk. Oh, but what was that horrible smell! It smelled like rotten eggs! I learned it was from the yellow sulpher vents in the crater. Then I saw a nene waddling ahead of me. The nene is a Hawaiian goose that likes to walk on the cooled lava rock.

It has short wings and long legs, and has brown and white feathers and a black head. It is actually the state bird of Hawaii and is one of the world’s rarest species of animals.

When I went to visit the Thurston Lava Tube, I felt a little nervous. It is really a rock tunnel made about 500 years ago from a lava river, when the outside crust hardened and then the lava inside flowed out. It felt warm and dark inside, but the torches helped light it up. Coming out of the tube I saw that everything was green! It was a huge rainforest filled with tall fern plants and ohia trees filled with red and white flowers. I could hear birds chirping and the rustle of leaves being blown by the wind. It was beautiful!

As we drove down the Chain of Craters Road, I then saw the most amazing site of all! New land actually being formed as the molten lava from the volcano dripped into the Pacific Ocean with a huge cloud of steam erupting as the hot lava hit the cool ocean water. The sound was intense with the noise of rocks crackling and scraping as they slid into the Pacific Ocean.

What an awesome trip! The Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is one of our national treasures because it is home to so many of nature’s gifts. And I know that families will be able to come here in the future to see all the park has to offer: the volcanoes, the plants, the birds, because it is all protected by the National Park Service.

“I like volcanoes, lava and fire a lot,” he said.

After winning the Goodwife River’s contest (and a $50 gift certificate to Barrett’s Bookstore), McNamara’s essay moved up to the state level. After winning the state competition on May 8, he, his parents and his twin brother, Mark, went to the Connecticut State Daughters of the Revolution Board of Management State luncheon at Matthies Hall in Windsor, CT. There, McNamara received a certificate and a silver medal, as well as a $50 prize. He also read his essay aloud to attendees.

“I was nervous at first,” he said. “But then I got used to reading it.”

The soon-to-be sixth-grader at New Canaan Country School said he plans to continue participating in future DAR essay contests, which span to several grades. But this one has significance due to the nature of it being national parks.

“The whole world would change,” he said. “Nothing would be fun if there were no national parks.”

McNamara’s essay will now be submitted to the New England Regional Society Daughters of the American Revolution essay contest.

ekayata@hearstmediact.com; @erin_kayata