A crucial part of successful educational initiatives and interpretation is the incorporation of feedback. Underscoring all we do in the Division of Interpretation here at Rocky is the role of our supervisors in monitoring, auditing and helping each of our programs grow. One of my goals for the summer was not simply to write my own interpretive programs and have them live up to my own standards, but also to take and successfully incorporate supervisory feedback.
This week was the first round of my program audits, in which my supervisor attended each of my programs as a visitor in plainclothes in order to take notes and lead me in a subsequent coaching session. I was nervous at first, even though this is an entirely normal part of this process – and something I am familiar with studying education. This position has felt so right and logical these past few weeks, it was hard to imagine that there was a potential for my performance to be evaluated in terms besides my own.
Scrutiny is never easy to learn to deal with and somehow I’ve never been terribly good at watching it happen, even if I’ve learned to take constructive feedback well. It was difficult at first to try to deliver children’s programming – and foster a welcoming, warm and relaxed demeanor – while keeping my eyes wandering toward my supervisor’s notepad. At some point, something in me clicked and I remembered a few key things – a) I like my job, b) I’m good at what I do, c) If I was going to do anything at all, it was to prove to my supervisor that all the weeks of me poring over paper and books and writing and re-writing my programs had indeed produced something worthwhile.
Breathing worked. I relaxed and my programs flowed smoothly and logically. Even a series of temper tantrums on my discovery hike for families on Saturday couldn’t damper my mood. My subsequent coaching sessions went well – they were validating and affirming to all the hard work that had gone into producing them. The suggestions from my supervisor were minor, but I am excited – in pursuit of my summer goals – to incorporate them and deliver even better programs this week.
It’s hard to believe that my time at Rocky is coming to an end. Today I got my last schedule here and it finally began to sink in. After just 9 weeks this place has already felt like I’ve been here forever. (It almost seems appropriate now to stick in a sappy John Denver lyric, fittingly enough about the Rocky Mountains; “Coming home to a place he’d never been before.”)
I wanted to dedicate one of my last blog posts to processing what it will be like to have to leave this place and return to NYC and two more years of undergrad. This summer has felt right for lots of different reasons, but perhaps mostly so because I finally feel like I am an affirming and supportive workplace, doing what I enjoy. I truly love New York, but between having grown up there and attending college there, I feel like I’d forgotten to imagine that there were, and are, different ways of relating to work, schooling and relaxation — it was nice to be reminded of an alternative that I think ultimately is better for me.
Beyond differences in workplace culture, I can find differences within myself and how I operate that stand in marked contrast to who I was at the beginning of the summer. I feel more confident that this is something I want to do with my life — outdoor interpretation and education — than ever, but beyond that I feel bold enough to be open about that in the rigid, pre-professional environment I’m currently finding myself in at my school. I’ve met so many people here who I find to be brave — chiefly because they’ve been so ready time and time again to admit, and then give those things up, that the way their life was working wasn’t right for them and decided to follow their passions. It’s a story I’m not unfamiliar with back home but to be in a place where it felt like everyone had made bold sacrifices in some form or another — whether it be money, a home or a previously settled career (or just the know) — for this position is amazing.
I’m simply in awe of where I am and know I have so many lessons to bring back to New York with me.
“You have the coolest gig!”
A teenage boy yelled this in my direction after I gave him and his friends directions on my morning rove in the Bear Lake corridor area. Roving has quickly become one of my favorite parts of this job. A rove, by definition, is “to travel constantly without a fixed destination; wander.” Yet, it is this wandering that is such an important part of my days here and role as a park interpreter.
Sometimes my job is to wander. That is crazy to type out; actual hours I spend hiking to beautiful destinations is of value to my division and the Park visitors, enough so that I get to do it multiple times a week. When I first began this internship and received my master schedule, I was unsure how fulfilling it would be, especially coming from New York and such a crazy, demanding and over stimulating work environment. Would I really be happy with this much “down-time?”
Roving to me has become more than “down-time” – it’s something I routinely look forward to, excited by the places I’ll go and the people I meet. It felt that almost out of nowhere, my roves have become something uniquely rewarding. Now when I speak to visitors of places in the Park, I know them on my own; not in the abstract, and not through photos. I can tell them that I love Sandbeach Lake because of the trickling waterfall that will convince you it’s a true ocean. I can warn them about the steep climb to Gem Lake or the spot I always catch a glimpse of marmot at Forest Canyon. When I send people to the tundra, the locations of my favorite blooming wildflowers guide me, not the road. In learning this Park, I’m becoming its ambassador, and hopefully, sharing some of my own emotional connections to it with the visitors.
When I walk, I stop and talk. I’m friendlier than I’ll ever be while I hike on my day off (I’m often trying to avoid visitors those days anyway), stopping and chatting, handing out extra park maps. I’ve gotten good at roving, which means I always have trail maps, junior ranger booklets and badges and golf pencils in my pack and a pencil and highlighter in my pocket. It feels extra but providing resources for visitors, informational or tangible, has been the best window into conversation. Suddenly, I’m engaging them in a deep conversation about what this place means to them or how the Park handles wildlife management or conducting an impromptu geology class for kids at the Alluvial Fan (I swear this happened). Or maybe I’m simply clarifying signage. Either way, somehow I know I’ve made an impact even if I don’t quite yet know what that will be.
It was hard for me to realize that regardless of the hours and research I’ve put into my educational and interpretive programming, not every visitor will want to stop by. I can’t reach everyone or be the best interpreter by staying at my scheduled post or my advertised programming – maybe, I’m doing the most I can when I do my “downtime.”
That boy is right – I do have the coolest gig.
I’ve always wondered if I had the patience to be a birder. On Thursday of this week, I found that with a bit more sunblock, I definitely did.
My supervisor here in the Interpretation Division has organized times for me to partner with another park department, Resource Management, once a week in what has already proven to be an incredibly enriching experience. Each Thursday I will be working on a different project in their division; an opportunity I hope will help me create a greater synthesis between the various facets of the Park and better inform my interpretive programs.
As the science education intern here at Rocky, I have a slightly different role than some of the other interpretive interns. In addition to my talks, hikes and roving, I don’t work in visitors centers, but rather have additional opportunities to engage with the scientific work and research being conducted in the park to integrate into my programming. I feel so lucky to have the opportunity to work with these extra departments – and get extra time in the outdoors.
This week I assisted one of the head wildlife biologists on a raptor survey in the Fern Lake area of Moraine Park. We were looking for confirmation that a pair of Peregrine
falcons occupying the area along Arch Rocks at the ends of the trailhead had begun their nesting period.
Raptor surveying and field observations require infinite patience and a comfort with silence. For four hours, a timeline established by US Fish and Wildlife for observation periods, we sat in near silence, using our binoculars and spotting scopes to identify potential perches and nests. It can make one antsy, but seeing two peregrines – a truly remarkable bird – along with a slew of other raptors and a surprise eagle nest was incredibly rewarding in a way that I wouldn’t have expected bird-watching to be. Learning how to identify specific birds, their nesting patterns and the importance of this work to maintaining the ecological integrity of Rocky gave me exposure to and an appreciation of an often hidden side of Rocky for someone working in the public face of the Park.
Mycology and mycorrhizal networks. Exploring the ways in which fungi interact with and complicate forest networks and growth patterns has been one of the most complex intellectual endeavors I’ve ever attempted.
…And also one of the most fascinating. Expanding and destabilizing my own definitions of sentience, recognition and life as they applied to forest ecology has been one of the most important things I have ever done as someone studying sustainable development and environmental history. Challenging myself as an intellectual at the undergraduate level is something I didn’t initially know how to translate to my work with children. Yet, I knew I still needed to do it.
This weird meditation on how I’ve come to think about and consider forests as sentient, beyond any assertion of their “living” qualities brings us to (somehow) the completion of my very first Junior Ranger program here at our Jr. Ranger Headquarters at Hidden Valley at RMNP.
While I was developing my program outlines, I kept remembering one of the head researchers (with whom I was fortunate enough to have a conversation) tell me that too many interns in Interpretation (my division) are “afraid to let their programs have teeth.” His words stayed with me, even after two weeks of intensive training in which I was inundated with information.
Maybe I like a challenge (if you want to be nice) or I am a bit of a masochist (the truth is somewhere in between the two) but I resolved to imagine programming that was rooted in complex and interesting science, elevated kids rather than lowering them down or our expectations of them, and just somehow proved to be engaging. I worked and worked myself trying to imagine how I could accomplish this.
About a week before my first Junior Ranger programs were slated to begin, I had a bit of a breakthrough – which mostly involved cheering to my roommate and a host of flurried scribbling in my notebook. I wanted to take a huge risk and talk about something that was on the surface incredibly boring and in every other regard (to me at least) wickedly fascinating – mushrooms.
I spent the next week and a half scrambling – how was I going to get six year olds to relate to a complex, and hidden at that, ecological phenomenon that only I seem to care about? Was I going to cave and develop something average but well-attended and well-liked?
This week’s programming at Junior Ranger Headquarters was one of the most pleasant and validating surprises during my time here at Rocky Mountain – my program wasn’t too abstract or a flop! It was the highest attended afternoon program yet. Kids enjoyed it and were curiously asking me questions about mycorrhizae in greater detail. This kind of success is what makes working with children so rewarding – they have an ability and thirst for learning that far exceeds what people would imagine them to be capable of. There are smaller kinks a perfectionist like me will have to iron out in the program as I give it week to week but my most important critics have already spoken – the kids.
Wilderness management, a term famed for its oxymoronic nature, is a constant conversation within Rocky Mountain National Park. One of the most controversial examples of human intervention into the wild landscape and ecological processes within the Park is the Elk and Vegetation Management Plan. A comprehensive study, representing the work of countless departments, stakeholder interactions and assessments and research money, the Elk and Vegetation Management Plan works to control the overabundant elk population within the Park and provide opportunities for habitat regeneration and riparian improvement, especially for species such as the beaver, aspen and willow. One of the most visible, and unpopular, pieces of the plan is the implementation of elk exclosures, large fenced in areas which exclude elk from certain grazing areas, giving opportunity to many other species who desperately need the regeneration of their habitats and growing areas to remain within the Park.
Rocky describes the plan as “[relying] on a variety of conservation tools including temporary fencing, vegetation restoration, redistribution and culling. The park may use additional management tools in the future using adaptive management principles.”
The plan, though arrived at through careful mediation with local groups, visitors and other important stakeholders, is nevertheless controversial to many park-goers, and is under constant need for interpretation. As part of seasonal staff training for the department of interpretation and education, this week I went out in the field to actually see one of these exclosures firsthand and process what this plan meant for the Park with my coworkers.
The results, even after only a few years since its implementation in 2014, are striking. Even at a distance the disparity between areas on either side of the exclosures is obvious, with lush, tall and thick vegetation within the exclosures and sparser, shorter growth to the exterior. Water tables within the exclosures have risen significantly, allowing the dry, flatter meadows created by home-steading within the Park for the last century to return to the marshy, wet and lush riparian lands they once were. Even as the results are tangible, and Park employee consensus is that it is wholly beneficial to the ecological integrity of the Park, it is still fraught with controversy.
What is the role of human intervention in wilderness management? Have we created a cycle of human intervention that we can never reverse? What truly constitutes wilderness? How mindful must we be of the urban-wild interface when we as a Park imagine solutions to our most pressing problems?
The fences will likely remain for the next ten years, to the dismay of many visitors, but how long will we see the mark of human impact in a Park that is 95% designated wilderness area?
“From climate change to civil rights, the job of the National Park Service is to stand behind and represent our nation’s most challenging stories.”
On the first day of what will be two weeks of seasonal staff training, one of my supervisors stood at the front of the thirty members of the Division of Interpretation and Education for the East side of Rocky Mountain National Park and said these words. I was struck and excited, reminded of exactly why (and how) I am excited by the Park Service and my role here as the Science Education Intern.
This last week has been a whirlwind of long days, note taking and research, as the entire department convenes for seasonal training and explore our relationships with one another, the Park, our jobs and roles. I’ve really valued this first week, with opportunities ranging from beginning to research our own programs to develop, to traveling through the tundra, to engaging with our counterparts on the Western side of the Park, because of the emphasis every single one of our supervisors has placed on value, originality and depth. It is incredible to be part of a team that strives not only to represent the Park to its visitors and use the natural beauty and significance of Rocky to unlock an appreciation for natural spaces and environmental protection, but also properly arming and empowering its staff.
Each supervisor, with precise training, workshops, resources and sessions has asked each of us on the staff to be reflective in regard to how we see ourselves and others and think critically about our mission and task. Even as I am daunted by the prospect of having just one more week of training before I have to give my very first public programs, I feel relaxed knowing I have been entrusted with a plethora of techniques, skills and trainings to help me feel comfortable — with myself, the resources, the park and leading programming. The level of care and warmth I feel from this team is a big shift coming from New York, but a welcomed one. I was happy for the short break of this weekend and the opportunity to explore some more of Rocky by myself, but I am delighted by the prospect of next week’s training.
It’s hard to believe that my first week at Rocky Mountain is already over. I’ve only been here for 5 days and somehow it feels like I’ve been here forever. While seasonal staff training begins officially on Monday, I was really privileged to go out into the park twice with both the park photographer and one of the more established rangers and become acquainted to the park and some of its most compelling ecological features. While we drove, hiked and spoke with dozens of volunteers, rangers and support staff, I was able to speak with them directly and specifically about how to cultivate a personal relationship with such a beautiful place that I can translate into creating successful and impactful interpretive programs this summer. What is interpretation? What does my role really mean?
In Interpreting Our Heritage, Freeman Tilden writes, “The visitor’s chief interest is in whatever touches his personality, his experiences, and his ideals. The adult visitor who happens to be the auditor or reader of interpretation has no general awe of the interpreter…He does not so much wish to be talked at as to be talked with.”
I’ve been reading Tilden as I try to sort out what my role means for me; for the visitors I’ll be interacting with; for the Park Service. How do I engage with visitors in a way that animates the natural history of the park? Its social history and implications? How do I make the Calypso orchid not merely a small purple speck on the trail but bring it alive in its context? How do you properly blend the intellectual and emotional to really impact a visitor?
I’m asking lots of questions, but as one of the rangers told me yesterday, this is the time for questions. I am excited for training to begin next week and begin to put some meat on the bones of my relationship to this park. This weekend I plan to keep hiking and running; soaking in as much of the personal and emotional as I can.
Here are some of my favorite photos that capture some of the best moments of this week:
On another note, elk are everywhere and I intend to close every blog post with them. They’re majestic and quirky (which must be why I am so enamored with them), but if you ever intend to visit Rocky, you should start by accepting just how commonplace they are… these tri-tone landscape fixtures with the capacity to define the landscape of an entire park.
Hey everyone! My name is Sofia Petros-Gouin and I am a rising junior at Columbia University, majoring in American Studies and Sustainable Development with a special concentration in Education. I will be interning at Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado where I am excited to work as the science education intern. A New Yorker for much of my life, this will be my first time in Colorado!
Much of my academic research focuses on the environmental and social history of energy infrastructure and development in the United States and the rise of the conservation movement and environmental justice. I am also deeply interested in the viability of non-traditional and experimental education models. Through much of my work, I’m seeking to ask how can we educate others, especially young people, about the outdoors, environmental justice and work towards de-privileging and protecting natural space? I have worked extensively in outdoor education initiatives and on environmental justice campaigns in New York and I am excited to bring this energy and desire to learn to my time at Rocky Mountain!
This summer I’m excited to learn about career opportunities and realities within the Park Service, to gain the necessary skills to develop, implement and lead original public and interpretive programs, to expose myself to guiding and wilderness education strategies that can be applied across a variety of age groups and to establish connections in the regional network and local environmental/conservation organizing.
I’m excited to start this journey and call such a beautiful place my home for the summer! I’m one of the first of the seasonal staff on site, so I’m excited to get to meet everyone at the end of this week and begin staff training soon!
Attached are photos of me arriving at the airport and a gorgeous view of the park I get to see from the local grocery store.