Nature has its own language. Metro Vancouver’s park interpreters help visitors to understand those connections between plants, animals, and humans in regional parks. Learn why they love their work and what kind of background they bring to their jobs.
“Want to try holding a live crab? There’s nothing to be nervous about, nothing here can hurt you,” says Metro Vancouver park interpreter Jennifer Swanston, as she coaxes a young girl into getting up-close and personal with a tiny but intimidating resident of a local beach.
Metro Vancouver regional parks are more than just lovely places. The also contribute to the health of the region by conserving it’s natural assets and at the same time, promoting a healthy society.
“Splash as much as you can!” says Swanston, as she leads a group of children through a puddle on a forested trail. She is one of about a dozen park interpreters charged with inspiring people to get out into nature, to reap the physical and mental health benefits and to be educated about being stewards of our natural spaces.
“One of the most important jobs that we have working in our system of Metro Vancouver regional parks is to share the importance of conservation in these park areas and to engage the public in an understanding of our natural systems and the importance of maintaining those systems for the health of the region,” says Swanston.
Being a park interpreter is a big job, requiring not just strong knowledge of natural history, but also strong presentation skills and the ability to manage large groups of people. But, just what exactly is a park interpreter?
“I think that term interpreter may throw people off,” says Swanston, “because they think of people who interpret from one language to another. But, I feel that is exactly what we do. We interpret the language of nature, for people who may not understand how the natural world is interconnected.”
Swanston holds up a small toy bear in front of a young audience
“I promise, if we see a bear today, it won’t be doing this,” she says with a smile, referring to the threatening posture of the plastic bruin. They don’t wait in the bushes (to pounce).”
Children are a key audience and that makes preparing for school programs an important part of a park interpreter’s job.
“Once we know the age of the children and the theme they are exploring we can determine what activities will be suitable for that age range and fun and engaging for the kids and then we put together an outline of our route,” explains Swanston. “Typically there’s at least two interpreters, if not three or four, all programming simultaneously and potentially needing to share materials. Every program is an adventure. Every program is a chance to see nature through the eyes of your participants. And, it thrills me to this day. I still get stage fright, I still get excited when I head out with a group of children or families, I just love it!”
When people see park interpreters, they are out in the park, they’re with a group, they’re doing a program, they’re at a special event. But there’s a lot of things that happen behind the scenes that they don’t see,” says Peter Lawrance, Metro Vancouver Regional Parks Park Interpretation Leader.
Preparing and presenting programs is an acquired skill.
“We need to learn group management,” explains Swanston. “Because when you 15 or 30 very excited Grade Three kids, you need to keep them engaged sufficiently that they’re having a physical hands-on experience and yet not running wild. So, there’s skills to be gained before you start managing groups of people out in a wild space.”
Interpreters are often involved in many Metro Vancouver regional events. Peter Lawrance provides an example.
“Something like Country Celebration (in Campbell Valley Regional Park) they are responsible there for a tent and a display about old-fashioned times — how they washed clothes, collecting eggs, digging for potatoes, so they will come up with those interpretive elements about the heritage aspects of that park.”
And a flair for the theatrical doesn’t hurt either. Park interpreters also need to acquire and maintain a large supply of props.
Swanston lists some of the items they use in their work, “Everything from animal skulls to rubber ‘scat’ (animal feces), we have rubber tracks of animals, pelts, feathers, lots of different outfits, so we can do things like turn an interpreter into a human beaver. That’s always entertaining,” she notes with a smile.
Park interpreters can also be called in where wildlife or habitat can be at risk due to human behaviour. During a recent visit by a flight of snowy owls to Boundary Bay, park interpreters set up a display to dissuade people with cameras from getting too close these magnificent birds.
Public educator, inspirational speaker, child wrangler. Who can measure up to this job? It turns out the pathway to a career as a park interpreter can follow many routes.
“Most of them have some sort of natural history background, says Peter Lawrance. “But we’ve also had poets, creative writers, actors, teachers. We also look for people who have some recreational skills, who enjoy hiking or might have some canoeing skills.”
Lawrance recounts an experience that has remained with him as an example of the value of their work.
“I will always remember a young girl on a program and I held a live crab and the first thing she did was jump up and scream and run as far away as she could get. But by the end of the time together, she had come up, she’d looked at the crab, she’d touched the crab, she had even held the crab. And when it was time for them to go, she ran back and gave me a great big hug and I thought, ‘today I did my job as an interpreter right.'”
Swanston adds, “People do frequently say, ‘you must have the best job in the world’ and I do, I love it. It is the best job in the world.”