Diego Gutierrez, 10, of Fairfax is currently on a National Geographic expedition to the Cayman Islands after winning a nationwide essay competition that National Geographic judges said showed the most interest and enthusiasm for exploring. The incoming fifth-grader at Greenbriar West Elementary School was one of 15 winners. His mother said he wants to be a scientist when he grows up.

Here’s his winning essay:

When I step onto the trail that borders Rocky Run Stream, the civilized world quickly disappears. Oak trees form canopy over my head. Gravel, acorns and twigs crunch loudly under my sneakers. The sound of passing cars is drowned out by the gurgling water, the rustling leaves, and the chirps of birds and squirrels.

I think the only one who likes exploring these waters more than I do is my big brown dog, Paisa. He eagerly splashes around, and lets the water come up to his neck

Diego Gutierrez (Courtesy of The Gutierrez family)

I took this picture on a crisp November morning. The stream was quiet, like it was taking a little nap. I looked at the old Sycamore tree on the bank of the stream, its roots like little bendy straws trying to drink up the water. I picked up some well-worn stones and skipped them across the water. Skip, hop, plunk. When I crouched down along the edge of the stream, I could see tiny fish scatter in the muddy water.

Then a light breeze parted the tree branches above me and let in a bright ray of sunshine. The water was sparkling as I snapped this photo. I fell like I had captured a bit of fall as I put the camera back in my pocket. I whistled to my dog. It was a good day for exploring.