Explorer Guides educate and entertain at Michigan state parks

Explorer Guide Mike Latus enthralls campers with fireside storytelling at Warren Dunes State Park.

July 2, 2015

As the sun sets over Lake Michigan, Mike Latus holds court on the sand of Warren Dunes State Park. He's an animated one-man show, walking in circles around a small fire pit, talking about voyageurs and Indians, legends and myths, planets and ghosts, while a crowd of more than a hundred - mostly youngsters, but adults, too - listen, some amused, others enthralled.

To Latus, it is a typical weekend night, when the fireside story hour regularly draws a big crowd.

Several hours earlier, he'd led a group of 30 on a hike through the woods, pointing out medicinal plants or unusual trees, answering numerous questions. As soon as his fireside chat is finished, he's setting up telescopes for visitors to explore the night sky for his regular "Sky Watch" program.

Explorer Guide Mike Latus confers with youngsters about a fossil at Warren Dunes State Park.Latus is an Explorer Guide, one of an army of Department of Natural Resources employees who educate and entertain visitors at 43 state parks in Michigan.

Latus, a high school math and science teacher the rest of the year, has enjoyed his summer job for 21 years. He's considered a rock star by the other program members for his longevity, enthusiasm and ability to wow a crowd.

"This is my summer vacation, it's my hobby, and I live close enough to the park that I'm out here every weekend, even during the winter," he said. "It's teaching and being outdoors and connecting with people who are trying to connect to nature."

Latus is aware of his status among Explore Guides. "I think I've gotten a reputation because I just don't quit," he said. He puts on 11 scheduled presentations a week, but will rearrange his schedule for church, Scout and school groups or whoever may be coming to the park but can't make a scheduled event. He presents some programs regularly, others intermittently.

Explorer Guide Mike Latus questions campers during a Warren Dunes State Park fossil program."Certain programs are just made for Warren Dunes," Latus said. "You've got to do dune hikes; you've got to do beach hikes. And people have come to depend on the storytelling. We do Sky Watch every Friday and Saturday night and we always get a crowd for that."

Explorer program coordinator Karen Gourlay says the Explorer Guides are "seasonal naturalists."

"They work in state parks all over Michigan," she said. "Their job is to connect the visitors to the resources available in the park. They create their own programs, market their own programs and present their own programs.

"They're a very creative bunch of employees. I'm always excited to see the programs they develop and their ability to get the visitors excited about natural resources and the parks."

Explorer Guide Devin Burke entertains campers at a Meteors & S'Mores program at Young State Park.Many of the Explorer Guides are college students - often natural resources or education majors - who are working summer jobs as they explore potential careers, but they needn't be.

"Mostly I'm looking for people who are enthusiastic and willing to learn and teach what they learn to others," Gourlay said. "Having enthusiasm for outdoors is important. The youngest person I've had working for me was fresh out of high school. The oldest was 70 years old."

Explorer Guides attend a weeklong training session at the beginning of the summer, where they learn about the job and share experiences with each other. A full day is devoted to fishing, but employees also learn additional program-creating techniques.

"Hook, Line and Sinker is a huge part of the program," Gourlay said. "They may know a lot about fishing, but they may not know how to teach fishing."

Adults and kids listen as Explorer Guide Melissa Cieniuch leads an expedition to find beach glass.Other than that, guides are free to develop their own programs.

"They're individualized," Gourlay said. "They figure out the cool factor - what it is that brings people to those parks - and go with that."

Michelle Schepke, the Explorer Guide at North Higgins Lake State Park, conducts a regular fishing program at nearby Marl Lake every Friday evening. And Saturday afternoon she leads a tour through the CCC Museum. The rest of the week, Schepke, in her second season, presents programs on archery, canoeing, kayaking or any number of subjects.

"I love teaching and I love working with children and families," said Schepke, a preschool teacher. "I love to see their faces light up when they learn something new or exciting. I always try to have some nature programs - a turtle program or a frog program with a live animal - something unique that will draw people in.

"I love it."

So does Shelby Brown, in her third year of running programs at Metamora-Hadley State Recreation Area. A student at Central Michigan University, Brown said she started out by presenting well-established programs, but has since developed her own unique presentation.

"Last week I did a Michigander program. I researched a bunch of cool Michigan facts and set it up trivia style," she said. "People seemed to like that. And I do a program on 'hoppers'- frogs, rabbits, white-tailed deer - animals that hop.

"It's a great summer job. I like being outside all day and I'm a people person so I'm with other people all the time. And everyone who comes to my programs is genuinely interested - it's not like school. They want to be here. It's awesome."

Always popular with state park visitors, the Explorer program is becoming even more of a draw. Originally designed to cater to park visitors, the programs are increasingly being regularly attended by local residents. The DNR has expanded outreach to local community centers and libraries to publicize the programs.

"That's a huge component now of what we do," Gourlay said.

To help meet demand, Explorer Guides sometimes make presentations at other nearby parks. And some park supervisors send one of their summer workers to the training so they'll know how to present occasional programs.

For a list of state parks with Explorer programs and scheduled events, visit www.michigan.gov/stateparks.

The DNR is always looking to expand outreach opportunities and will be hiring more guides next year. The job is perfect for educators or naturalists, but those are not requirements, Gourlay said.

"You can't be afraid of bugs," she said. "Or you can be, but you just can't show it."