Interpreters Help Enhance the Experience at State Parks and Fish Hatcheries

Beth Tillman at P.J. Hoffmaster State Park conducts an ecology workshop on the dunes.

February 3, 2011

Most visitors to Michigan's state parks are content with what they see on the menu. They're happy to spend the day enjoying the natural features - beaches, waterfalls, forests or dunes, to list a few or the accompanying amenities.

But for many others, that's just scratching the surface of what state parks have to offer. State parks and recreation areas are living laboratories of the natural world that can lead people to more knowledge or a better understanding of that world. And a number of state parks, recreational areas and even state fish hatcheries take that mission to another level with special displays and educational programs designed to make the learning experience more accessible.

The job of designing and implementing these educational programs belongs to a handful of individuals at some of the more spectacular or best-attended parks. They're called "interpreters", teachers, as it were, who have been trained in natural resources and specialize in sharing that knowledge with others.

P.J. Hoffmaster State Park interpreter Beth Tillman shows youngsters a box turtle during a workshop.

"If you go to a park like Porcupines Mountain Wilderness State Park or Ludington State Park and look around, hopefully, you find the natural resources inspiring," explained John Spieles, a 20-year veteran of the Department of Natural Resources and Environment who was the naturalist at Tahquamenon Falls State Park for 10 years before becoming the agency's interpretive manager. "We try to relate to you how those resources fit in with other resources, including those that are right in your own back yard."

It's a task that has become more important, and more difficult, in recent years, Spieles said, because increasing numbers of people lack the built in connection to the natural world that was more commonplace in the past.

"This is something new," he said. "Now we have folks who were never exposed to the outdoors having children. All of a sudden we have two generations, the one that moved away from that outdoor connection and their off spring. How do you get kids to go fishing if their parents don't know how?"

Theresa Neal, the interpreter at Tahquamenon State Park says she leads one to three mile hikes weekly throughout the summer months (as well as snowshoe hikes in the winter) that may include looking at an abandoned bear den or even an hour of blueberry picking.

"The idea is to expose visitors to things they may not see or do on their own," Neal said. "It's an excuse to get people out in the middle of nowhere."

Interpreter Shana Ramey conducts a wetlands hike at Wolf Lake State Fish Hatchery.

Although Neal says she has a lot of visitors that return to the park for additional learning experiences or even to take the same hike again in a subsequent year "the majority of them have never been on an interpretive hike or even to Tahquamenon Falls before. Or, if they had, they were little and now they're bringing their own children."

The aptly named Bob Wild, who heads up the program at Porcupine Mountain, said he gets as much enjoyment out of leading park visitors on exploratory missions as the visitors get from taking them.

"On paper, my job is to be in charge of educational materials and messages," Wild explained, "but in reality, what interpreters do is create resource stewards. We help people explore the very reasons why these areas were set aside.

"I love sharing my knowledge and passion for the outdoors with people," he continued. "Park visitors are a receptive audience for it, they want to be here so we have a lot in common."

Wild leads a variety of hikes in the area, to an abandoned copper mining town, through wolf habitat, or to a historic observation point, that attract some 5,000 people annually.

"It's through these programs that we teach people about the resources at the park," he said. "Our user group at this park is adventurous; that's the reason they come here."

Interpreter Theresa Neal at Tahquamenon Falls State Park, conducts a workshop for youngsters.

In contrast to Wild and Neal, who work out in the middle of nowhere, Shana Ramsay is the interpreter at Wolf Lake State Fish Hatchery at Mattawan in southwest Michigan. Ramsey's clientele is more likely to travel a relatively shorter distance to arrive at the facility than those visiting U.P. state parks, and none of them camp out over night.

But Ramsey said she sees her job as very similar; to provide visitors an opportunity to learn about natural resources and outdoor recreation in Michigan and converting people into "active, informed stewards of those natural resources."

The single most popular program at Wolf Lake is the catch-and-release fishing program that runs every Saturday from Memorial Day through Labor Day. There's a one-half acre pond that's stocked with all the species of fish that are raised at the facility. The program is basically designed for youngsters 6 through 16 years of age (there's also a "Little Minnow" program for 3 to 5 year olds) and all bait, tackle, and instruction is included.

"Some of these kids have fished," Ramsey said. "But a lot of them never have, so here's an opportunity for them to find out what it's about. And it fills up almost every Saturday."

Besides the hands-on fishing opportunities, Ramsey conducts hatchery tours (March through November) and puts on programs for school groups, which usually combine the hatchery tour with a nature hike. The nature hike focuses on the flora and fauna of wetlands; a nesting pair of trumpeter swans lives at Wolf Lake.

Snowshoe hikes, like this one at Porcupine Mountain Wilderness State Park, are popular winter activities at a number of state parks.

Although you might assume fish would be the main focus at Wolf Lake, Ramsey has designed a number of programs that include other aspects of outdoor recreation. Throughout January and February, she conducts weekly snowshoe hikes on the grounds and she holds an annual winter bird walk in conjunction with the Audubon Society's Winter Bird Count. There are ice fishing seminars and fly tying workshops during winter, too.

To hear Ramsey talk, you'd conclude that she gets as much out her programs as the visitors.

"I think Nature's awesome and it's pretty cool that I get to share it with people," she said. "I love it. People get excited and it's great to be a part of it."