By Aaron Rogers
Park Interpreter & Safety Patrol
North Cheyenne Cañon Park
We all strive to find a profession that we can love. We all dream of a job that we can wake up in the morning for and be excited to head off to. For me, that is being a park interpreter. I am fortunate enough to work in the picturesque North Cheyenne Canon Park, in Colorado Springs, CO. This park is home to world class trails, magnificent waterfalls, tremendous history, and the best team of professional interpreters.
This past season was just my third season as a park interpreter. I am still relatively new to the profession and I am still learning the art of interpretation. I soak up all the information and skills I can from everyone I work with. All my early successes belong to great mentors and colleagues who have taken time to show me how to inspire and educate the public about nature. In North Cheyenne Canon, we have a tradition of helping each other improve professionally.
In November, two of us from North Cheyenne Canon were awarded with the Dick Taylor Scholarship and were able to attend the NAI National Workshop in Denver. This was an opportunity that I would have never been able to afford to attend without the financial help of the scholarship fund. Dick Taylor was a tremendous man. He created a legendary legacy based on generosity and inspiration. Being awarded this scholarship is like being handed the torch, I represent the new generation of park interpreters and it is my duty to keep the profession strong and respectable. That can only be done with continuing Taylor’s legacy. That starts with improving my skills and knowledge so I can inspire visitors in new ways and help colleagues grow as well.
I had an absolutely wonderful experience at the NAI Workshop in Denver. This was my first workshop I have attended and it surpassed my wildest expectations. Going into the workshop, I did not know what I was going to see or experience. To this point in my career, I have only worked with small staffs and have never been around large groups of interpreters. In addition, outside of an internship with the Randall Davey Audubon Center in Santa Fe, NM, I have never had any formal classes or training in interpretation. I did not know what to expect from the people I would meet and from the classes I would attend. By the end of the final day of the workshop, I was thoroughly amazed with the connections I made and I left with a wealth of knowledge from the classes.
One of my favorite parts of the workshop was the people I met. It was exciting be amongst a sea of professionals and students, from everyone corner of the world. At every turn, I met a person who was excited to share wisdom or offer to be a mentor. I also loved the diversity of the people in attendance. We all come from different walks of life but we all share the same goals and the same problems. It was exciting to hear everyone’s stories of bizarre events or triumphs on the trails. The friendships and connections I made at the event will help me for the rest life.
I was amazed with the quality of the classes and seminars offered during the workshop. I was able to attend classes ranging from skull identification to building nature playgrounds in our parks. One of the most fascinating sessions I attended was the “How to Manipulate an Audience” with Skot Latona. This session opened my eyes to how easy it is to influence visitors with simple psychological principles. The interpretive walk around downtown Denver with the hilarious kilted Wil Reading was another one of my highlights. The techniques and wisdom he provided our group was amazing. It gave me a new way of seeing guided hikes and his activities will help bolster my own programs. The “Bird of a Feather” session was by far one of the most helpful and fun sessions I attended. Throwing paper airplanes to represent migration and yarn bracelets to represent banding are activities that I plan on bringing back to North Cheyenne Canon with me. All and all, the sessions I attended all had something to offer. I gained many new perspectives and skills that I cannot wait to use in the upcoming season.
On the field trip day of the workshop, I was a part of the “Amazing Race: Denver.” Even though I am a Colorado native and I have spent a ton of time around Denver, I still found new places and experiences in Denver. I will never forget running up the steps of the Capital building or searching for five different species of animals at the South Platte Park and Carson Nature Center. Being forced to eat Rocky Mountain oysters at the Buckhorn Exchange was definitely a new experience too. My favorite part though was getting to know my team really well and hearing about their stories from the parks and zoos they work at. Even though my team came in a very close second place, this field trip was easily my favorite part of the workshop.
One of the challenges I picked up from the workshop was the uncertainty for the future. Everyone I talked to had complaints or concerns about funding and support. I also heard tales of low pay and insurmountable workloads brought upon by shrinking staffs. These issues are adding a lot of stress and turning away a lot of good front line interpreters. From the conversations I had with my peers, park interpretation is quickly turning into a game of survival being who can outlast the stresses and low pay long enough to keep their dream of being a park interpreter alive. The other big challenge is park funding. A lot of the parks not tied to the federal government are just barely holding on. With little to no support from local governments, these parks are forced to lean to heavily on friend organizations and volunteers to survive. These challenges are not impossible to overcome, but it does weigh heavily on the minds of interpreters looking to stay in the field. It is a black cloud that was hanging over the workshop.
In the end, I loved my experience at the Denver workshop. The memories I made will last me a lifetime. The skills and knowledge I picked up will help me create memorable experiences for the thousands of visitors I will encounter next season. It was a very humbling experience and I am so grateful to have received a scholarship to attend this conference. My final thought is that every interpreter, no matter if they are a veteran interpreter, or a newbie like me, needs to attend at least one national workshop. The feeling of knowing you are not alone in sharing a love for interpretation and being able to share stories and skills is worth the investment and time.