Whitewater State Park Naturalists Make Nature and Science Accessible – Post Bulletin

ELBA — On Friday afternoon at the Whitewater State Park visitor center, interpretive naturalist Jeremy Durst showed a class of about 20 people — children, parents and grandparents — how to tell if something is a fossil.

“You see something round when we’re looking for fossils, pay attention to it because that indicates life, right? Life has a pattern,” Darst said, holding up a limestone-encased fossil the size and shape of a dinner plate. “Do you see a pattern? There’s a touch, there’s a touch to it.”

As a former science teacher turned Minnesota state park naturalist, Durst said his role at Whitewater State Park is really about inspiring people to learn more about the world around them.

“We’re … trying to make a connection with nature in the hope that they’ll take someone else and show it, or revisit it and do it again themselves, and if they fall in love with it, they’ll want to protect it Darst said. “So there’s this idea that you’re trying to instill that love for something that we all love, especially if you’re a naturalist and grew up outside like I was.”

As for his programs, like Friday’s fossil hunt along a limestone cliff face just off County Road 9, Durst said participants won’t remember everything he’s taught them, but he wants the feeling of enjoyment to stay with them.

“I didn’t go into all the little details,” he said. “If they remember that (region) was an ocean, they remember that fact and it was fun … that’s really the goal.”

While Durst has been working as a naturalist for 15 years, spending 10 of them in Whitewater, Maple Lasilla is just getting started. Originally from Canada, Lasilla is an Environmental Science student at Rochester Community and Technical College and an Interpretive Naturalist intern at Whitewater.

Maple Lasilla is an Interpretive Naturalist intern at Whitewater State Park. Lasilla is pictured Friday, Oct. 21, 2022, at Whitewater State Park near Elba.

Joe Alquist / Post Bulletin

“A lot of people always think I’m a park ranger,” Lasilla said. “The full title is interpretive naturalist, and the interpretive part is the really important part. What I always tell people is basically to be the bridge between the hard science that a lot of environmental scientists do and the general public.”

Naturalists can also participate in this science; during her internship, Lasilla used radio telemetry technology to count bats at night.

“My job is to take these concepts, conservation, stream studies, bird watching, all that kind of stuff, and find a way to present them to the public in a way that’s both fun and educational and gets them excited about the park,” she said.

It’s a job with even greater emphasis now that the impacts of climate change are becoming more apparent.

“We’re looking for specific things in the park, so it’s not some abstract idea that the climate is affecting us, this is how it’s affecting Whitewater,” Darst said. “Mineyska (Campground) has been there because of the 2007 flood, and this is in a series of floods that are becoming more frequent. We looked at it and said, “Well, we can keep the campground that was there, and people would potentially, in the future, we’re going to have more problems. Or we can build a new campground.”

“So it could be something really fundamental,” Durst continued, “like when you’re sitting around the campfire tonight, climate change has something to do with why you’re staying here instead of across the river.”

On a fossil hunt, the children took turns bringing pieces of limestone to Darst, asking him what fossils they found. Darst would point to the spirals of prehistoric snail shells and the uneven, scale-like imprints of clusters of algae called receptaculites.

Naturalists at Whitewater State Park

Dede Mraz of Lewiston and her grandchildren, Daniel Richard, 8, and his sister, Maggie, 4, participate in a fossil hunting program at Whitewater State Park on Friday, Oct. 21, 2022, near Eyota.

Joe Alquist / Post Bulletin

For Dede Mraz, who took her grandchildren Daniel and Maggie on a fossil hunt, she said programs like this are great because kids are naturally curious. Before her grandchildren came along, Mraz took her own children to Whitewater.

“I think it’s fortunate that we live close enough to take advantage of things like this,” said Mraz, a Lewiston resident. “Who knows, maybe they’ll become geologists or biologists — it’s just good to expose them to things like that.”

Because she has first-hand experience on the job, Lasilla said she wants to work as a naturalist after earning her associate’s degree and furthering her education at the University of Minnesota’s environmental education program.

Naturalists at Whitewater State Park

Jeremy Darst, naturalist interpreter at Whitewater State Park, helps Keeva Raab, left, and Blakely Feiner, both 8, of Roseville, identify a fossil during a fossil hunt program, Friday, Oct. 21, 2022, near to Eyota.

Joe Alquist / Post Bulletin

“I think it’s one of those professions that a lot of people don’t realize exists,” Lasilla said. “And there are so many environmental jobs that if someone is interested in a career in the outdoors but is interested in another career, chances are that career also exists in the environmental science realm.”

Darst’s advice for those interested in an environmental career: volunteer.

“Go volunteer to Oxbow, to Quarry Hill, to Chester Woods; find out if you like it or not and find out if you like being in front of people,” he said.

And opportunities to get out and learn about the environment exist even during Minnesota’s icy winters.

“We have programs every weekend of the year,” Darst said. “Winter is dead, I’m sick of being inside – come to Whitewater and go snowshoeing. It’s February: I’m still sick of the cold, it’s getting dark outside, come and learn how to make maple syrup… What can we do, the offer is pretty solid.”

MORE PHOTOS FROM WHITEWATER STATE PARK:

Naturalists at Whitewater State Park

Jeremy Darst, Naturalist Interpreter at Whitewater State Park, gives a presentation on fossils Friday, Oct. 21, 2022, at Whitewater State Park near Elba.

Joe Alquist / Post Bulletin

Naturalists at Whitewater State Park

Jeremy Durst, Interpretive Naturalist at Whitewater State Park, helps identify a fossil during a fossil hunting program, Friday, Oct. 21, 2022, near Eyota.

Joe Alquist / Post Bulletin

Naturalists at Whitewater State Park

Maple Lasilla is an Interpretive Naturalist intern at Whitewater State Park. Lasilla is pictured Friday, Oct. 21, 2022, at Whitewater State Park near Elba.

Joe Alquist / Post Bulletin

Naturalists at Whitewater State Park

Daniel Richard, 8, of Lewiston, participates in a fossil hunt program at Whitewater State Park on Friday, Oct. 21, 2022, near Eyota.

Joe Alquist / Post Bulletin

Naturalists at Whitewater State Park

Jeremy Durst, Whitewater State Park Naturalist Interpreter, helps Blakely Feiner, 8, of Roseville, identify a fossil during a fossil hunt Friday, Oct. 21, 2022, near Eyota.

Joe Alquist / Post Bulletin

Naturalists at Whitewater State Park

Jeremy Durst, Naturalist Interpreter at Whitewater State Park, talks about spotting a fossil during a fossil hunting program, Friday, Oct. 21, 2022, near Eyota.

Joe Alquist / Post Bulletin

Naturalists at Whitewater State Park

Jeremy Durst, Naturalist Interpreter at Whitewater State Park, talks about spotting a fossil during a fossil hunting program, Friday, Oct. 21, 2022, near Eyota.

Joe Alquist / Post Bulletin

Naturalists at Whitewater State Park

Maple Lasilla is an Interpretive Naturalist Intern at Whitewater State Park. Lasilla is pictured Friday, Oct. 21, 2022, at Whitewater State Park near Elba.

Joe Alquist / Post Bulletin

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