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The Wild Life


Naturalists share the challenges and joys of working in Southern Indiana's parks.


A black rat snake, coiled around a bowl of water in a glass tank, needs urgent attention. The snake has stopped eating, and blood leaks from his underside. Sam Arthur, an interpretive naturalist at McCormick's Creek State Park, examines the snake to help diagnose the problem.

"We've had an issue with reptilian mites," he explains. "They get on the snake kind of like how lice get on us." He and another naturalist clean up the snake's tank. They pick up the 3-foot-long black rat and swipe a paper towel across the glass to clean up the fluid that has seeped through snake's skin. But it's the blood that Arthur and his partner are worried about. They'll keep an eye on the snake over the next few days, logging its eating habits and symptoms in a thick binder, but they say the snake should be fine.

This snake lives in the Nature Center at the park. It's not a pet and doesn't have a name, but the snake is important to Sam because he uses it to educate park visitors. "This is part of what we do as interpreters," he says. "We use the animals as a resource to protect the rest of the animals out in the wild."

Since the late 1800s, when the profession first took a name, a certain mystique has surrounded the park ranger. We see them as rugged outdoorsmen who work with the wildest parts of nature. They protect campers from bears and rescue lost hikers from ravines. In Indiana, our rangers are interpretive naturalists who share their knowledge to protect our state's precious natural land and wildlife. Jon Kay, director of Traditional Arts Indiana, wants to capture that Hoosier mystique for future generations, which is why he's working on an oral history project called "Ranger Lore." He then worked as a ranger for eight years in Florida. Now he's partnered with Indiana University's Folklore Department, the Kentucky Folklife Program and the Indiana State Park system to collect the untold stories of our naturalists. While there are stories about the history and natural beauty of Indiana's parks, the role of park workers is missing. "There are holes in knowledge. There wasn't anybody looking at park rangers--not in Indiana, not in the broader scheme--although people have talked about it for many years," he says.

As a folklorist and park enthusiast, Kay hopes "Ranger Lore" will fill this gap.

"Often when we think about park rangers, we think of the quintessential ranger," Kay says, "The idea of ranger is a person dedicated to their public service and prepared to do a specific task at a park, whether it is an interpretive naturalist or a gate keeper."

While Kay works on his project, 812 decided to bring readers a sneak peek into the lives of some of Southern Indiana's naturalists.

--C.M.

We asked the folks at The Department of Natural Resources for interpretive naturalists who were willing to share captivating stories about their job. Sam Arthur, Jill Vance and Jim Eagleman told ustheir tales from the trails in Southern Indiana's forests -- from deer barging into an office to kids surviving random bee attacks.

Ranger from 812 Magazine on Vimeo.

Sam Arthur, 34

McCormick's Creek State Park

"I'm very much in the 812."

Arthur grew up in hilly Southern Indiana and says he could not fathom living where the land lies flat. A Bedford native, Arthur graduated from Ball State University in Muncie with a degree in natural resources and environmental management. Today, he takes pride in working at Indiana's first state park as a naturalist.

I always wanted to be a musician. I played guitar. It was one of those weird moments where I realized that if I made music my career then I would have to play music all the time. I would have to rely on it, and that might take the fun out of it. Working in the nature profession, all of those same things could happen. But it just never occurred to me. I've always been an outdoors kind of guy. I realized, "I can do something with my personal interest and turn that into a profession." I didn't know necessarily what I wanted to do, but I knew I wanted to be a part of this. We get to work in the places where people come to relax. There's a certain relief that I feel coming through those gates every day.

One of my favorite trails is Trail 7. What I like about Trail 7 is that you start on top of the Canyon Rim. You aren't at the highest point of the park, but you feel like you are. About halfway through the hike, you walk down beside the White River and then you come back up. You see topographic change and you see forest composition change throughout the year. You can get away from the center of the park and experience the different environments we have to offer.

We work with the public. That's the great thing that I love about my job, but it is also one of the hardest things. You start thinking back to the speech classes you had to take in high school and college. There's nothing more intimidating than standing up in a group of your peers and presenting a program or a speech. An interpreter at Pokagon says, "It's okay to have butterflies before you have these public speaking engagements. You just have to make sure you get them flying in formation."

Lost hikers happen. You have parents whose children wander off, so that's when you have to organize your resources and get coordinated. You have one commander who sends folks out to scour areas of the park and maintains contact with the missing person's relative. In every case I have been involved in, they do, inevitably, turn up and go, "Oh, I didn't realize anything was wrong. I was out hiking on Trail 5."

It's always interesting when you encounter wildlife on the trail. Whether you're walking with visitors or out there on your own, you use those teachable moments. When you run into reptiles and snakes on the trail, you use those opportunities to take fearful expressions and turn them around.

One of the programs we hosted in Parke County, in partnership with Turkey Run, was the Eagles in Flight Weekend. During the winter months, generally from mid-January through early February, you can often observe eagles hunting along Big Raccoon Creek south of the dam. It would not be unusual for me to observe anywhere from one to 15 eagles fishing or hovering over the area. No matter how many times I see these magnificent birds, I find myself in awe. Their successful re-introduction truly is one of the greatest success stories I've witnessed in my lifetime.

Visitors, now they're the real wildlife. With a state park you have all the same problems that you have in a small city. Every weekend. We have full campgrounds, pets causing a disturbance and all of those little things that add up to the same issues a small town would have. Let's just say that I'm no longer surprised.

This is home. I didn't just land here. It feels natural to be here, where you can't see around the turns. I think that's what makes Southern Indiana and its state parks different - the relief in the landscape.

-M.B.

Jill Vance, 32

Monroe Lake State Park

"I find it interesting that people get thrilled over seeing a deer when it's a part of my everyday life."

Vance grew up in Auburn, where cornfields sprout in every direction. As soon as she settled into Indiana University, she discovered the beautiful and hilly landscape nearby. After graduating with a degree in environmental anthropology, Vance decided to remain in Southern Indiana and become a naturalist.

Since I was in third grade, I wanted to be an archeologist. I wanted to study the Aztecs in Central Mexico. I was fascinated with human sacrificial rights and thought it would be so cool to study. I went to IU to go into archeology. Then at some point I had a realization that I wasn't going to be able to do what I wanted to do, because what I wanted to do required bulldozing modern day Mexico City. I said to myself, "Jill, there is no way anybody is going to let you do that." So, I started looking around for something more practical.

One of the worst things that happened to me was while leading a hike around Labor Day weekend. I had a huge group of about 75 people behind me. All of the sudden I heard screaming from halfway down the line. Some people had stopped to look at a hole in the ground and were poking around in it. That interesting hole was a yellow jacket nest, and the yellow jackets were not happy. They just poured out of that hole and attached themselves to an 8-year-old girl. We could not get them off her clothes. We had to strip her down to her underwear. She was a good sport about it.

One of the funniest encounters was at McCormick's Creek State Park, where I started out as a seasonal naturalist. Some people were walking around the nature center for about 45 minutes. They had a baby they were carrying in one of those little backpack carriers. It wasn't until they were actually on their way out of the building that I realized that was not a baby. That was a monkey in the carrier - a little chimpanzee. I didn't say anything. It was just kind of an internal, "Wait a minute..." I think it might have had clothes on, too.

The most amazing animal encounter was at Spring Mill State Park. A group of about six barred owls were doing an owl prowl in mid-February. It was one of those magical experiences. Everything came together. The wildlife cooperated and did what we wanted when we wanted it. We were calling for the owls in a parking lot and they were up on both sides of a hill. They kept calling back and forth to us and to one another. Then they began flying back and forth above our heads. It was incredible.

I had this idea that Indiana was flatlands and cornfields. I spent my whole childhood yearning for elevation change. I wanted something interesting to look at. I came down to Bloomington to go to school and discovered Southern Indiana. It is absolutely beautiful. There's so much worth protecting.

-M.B.

Jim Eagleman, 64

Brown County State Park

"My index finger has grown from all the pointing I have to do."

Jim Eagleman, is a 38-year veteran with the Department of Natural Resources. Growing up on a farm in Berks County, Pa., Eagleman was an outdoorsy guy who liked to hunt, fish and trap. After majoring in wildlife biology and earning a master's degree in botany from DePauw University, Eagleman dedicated his life to educating park visitors, studying populations of wildlife and occasionally dust mopping the Nature Center.

My dad wanted me to be a vet. My heart wasn't in it. I remember coming home one Thanksgiving break, and I said I didn't want to be a vet. My dad was pretty angry, so the funding ended and I was on my own. I wanted to go into natural resources. I saw all the wildlife students coming back from their field station and the foresters doing their thing and I thought, "That's what I want to do."

I had a deer come into my office one time, back when we had high deer numbers. I had an apple on my desk. The deer must have smelled that and walked into the office, ate my apple and then walked out of here.

Encounters with people in a natural area surprise you.. I always get a kick out of watching families bring in the kids who could probably care less about getting out in nature. Schools assign leaf collections, so in come Mom and Dad with the tree book and the phone book with the leaves pressed in between. Johnny or Billy or Susie has to get a sugar maple. "Is this a sugar maple leaf?" they ask me. "Where's the kid?" "Well he's in the car." "Well if it's his report, have him come in and I'll talk to him." So reluctantly he comes in, pulls out his ear buds, and we talk about trees. He's not connecting at all. I think we're losing a battle with some of the youth. And that's our challenge.

The scariest part about starting out is being deemed the expert. There's no possible way to know everything. You probably over prepare for a program. You think, "Well I better know because that's my job to know." So you take it slow. You get comfortable with one area and move on to another area. You've seen a mushroom before or you know an insect behavior that people are remarking about, and you're able to, not impress them with all you know, but instill in them this sense of wonder.

The most frightening thing to happen on the job was the first deer hunt. We had to find a way to limit the number of deer, and we looked at all the options. It was decided that the best way to do it was to use public hunters who were skilled and credentialed. Locally, that was met with mixed feelings. Some were very supportive of us and others weren't. The night before the hunt, I got a call at about 2 a.m. The caller said, "Tomorrow deer won't be the only thing shot in the park." I couldn't get back to sleep because I was so worried. It just shook me. I thought my life and my family's life were all at risk because of some crazed lunatic. It was a prank call intended to get me shook. But when you come in the next day you're looking over your shoulder.

The vistas and the overlooks are our reputation and trademark. As the fog lifts, and the rain stops, and the sunlight comes out, they just explode with color. That would be the must-see of Brown County State Park. The most inspirational and captivating views come from these higher elevations. We can look out maybe 10 to 15 miles to the horizon. We hear people come south of Indianapolis and think they're in another state because it's so different.

--C.M.

Insider tips on where to explore in Southern Indiana parks

Arthur, Vance and Eagleman told 812 their favorite places in the park for you to explore this season.

Peden Farm and the Spring House in McCormick's Creek State Park

Just off the beaten path on Trail 9 are Peden Farm and the Spring House. The first family of McCormick's Creek State Park had a large farm over by Deer Run Shelter. While most of the structure has been removed, remnants of the farm remain. You'll find pillars of an old barn, and the Spring House, which had deteriorated but was restored, now stands in a forested environment thanks to friends of the park. It's an area Arthur calls the forest's "kitchen junk drawer." You're never sure what you might find.

The vistas of Brown County State Park

The overlooks are Brown County's prized views. He suggests a visit in May to search for Redbuds and Flowering Dogwoods in bloom just over the vistas. "That would certainly be the most inspirational and captivating view of this beautiful forest from these higher elevations," Eagleman says.

Salt Creek in Lake Monroe State Recreation Area

In the spring, just below the dam's spillway, runs a stream outlined with a variety of wildflowers. Among them is a white-blooming form of Virginia bluebells. "I've never actually seen them anywhere else before," Vance says. "So that is just gorgeous."

-M.B.

What it takes to work in the wild

If you love the outdoors, a career path as a naturalist may be your calling. But working in the state parks involves more than just a love of hiking and animals. Naturalists are educators, resource managers, historians and scientists. The Indiana Department of Natural Resources provides many resources with tips and requirements on how to start a career as a naturalist. Here are a few important aspects of the job to consider.

1. Hone your public speaking skills. Naturalists work with the public every day, whether they're presenting educational programs or taking a group on the trails. While this can seem intimidating, working with people is often one of the most rewarding aspects of the job.

2. Have a willingness to learn. Being a naturalist is a job that requires constant learning. Naturalists study everything they can about plants and wildlife to relay the information to visitors.

3. Think about your degree in college. Earning a degree in natural sciences is an essential step in the path of becoming a naturalist. Eagleman studied wildlife biology as an undergrad, while Arthur earned a degree in natural resources and environmental management. The School of Public and Environmental Affairs at Indiana University offers a variety of options.

4. Take advantage of summer opportunities. While in college, you can gain hands-on experience working in one of Indiana's parks over the summer. You'll be able to develop programs, work with visitors and learn what being a naturalist is all about. To find out more information, check out the Department of Natural Resources website where you can find a PDF brochure about how to apply for a summer position or contact the park where you are interested in working to ask about summer openings.

5. Develop your passion. Our naturalists are enthusiastic about what they do, from educating kids about animals or sharing the history of Indiana's public land. Whether you love snakes, mushrooms or trees find out what you're passionate about and be prepared to share this with visitors when you enter the field.

6. You can always be a volunteer. If you don't want to work as a naturalists as a career, there is always room for volunteers with DNR. There are a variety of volunteer positions including working in the nature centers, leading hikes, or cleaning up the property. You can contact the park where you would like to volunteer and fill out an application or visit the DNR website for more information.

--C.M.