DNR tours offer unique look at Michigan

Published 9:25 am Thursday, July 9, 2015

Submitted photo.

Submitted photo.

SAWYER, Mich. —As the sun sets over Lake Michigan, Mike Latus holds court on the sand of Warren Dunes State Park. He is an animated one-man show, walking in circles around a small fire telling stories, talking about voyageurs and Indians, legends and myths, planets and ghosts, while a crowd of more than a hundred — mostly youngsters, but adults, too — listen, some amused, others enthralled.

To Latus, it is a typical weekend night, when the fireside story hour regularly draws a big crowd.

Several hours earlier, he led a group of 30 on a hike through the woods, pointing out medicinal plants or unusual trees, answering numerous questions. As soon as his fireside chat is finished, he is setting up telescopes for visitors to explore the night sky for his regular “Sky Watch” program.

Latus is an Explorer Guide, one of an army of Department of Natural Resources employees who educate and entertain visitors at 43 state parks in Michigan.

Latus, a high school math and science teacher the rest of the year, has enjoyed his summer job for 21 years. He’s considered a rock star by the other program members for his longevity, enthusiasm and ability to wow a crowd.

“This is my summer vacation. It’s my hobby, and I live close enough to the park that I’m out here every weekend, even during the winter,” he said. “It’s teaching and being outdoors and connecting with people who are trying to connect to nature.”

Latus is aware of his status among Explore Guides.

“I think I’ve gotten a reputation because I just don’t quit,” he said. He puts on 11 scheduled presentations a week, but will rearrange his schedule for church, Scouts and school groups or whoever may be coming to the park but can’t make a scheduled event. He presents some programs regularly, others intermittently.

“Certain programs are just made for Warren Dunes,” Latus said. “You’ve got to do dune hikes; you’ve got to do beach hikes. And people have come to depend on the storytelling. We do Sky Watch every Friday and Saturday night and we always get a crowd for that.”

Explorer program coordinator Karen Gourlay says the Explorer Guides are “seasonal naturalists.”

“They work in state parks all over Michigan,” she said. “Their job is to connect the visitors to the resources available in the park. They create their own programs, market their own programs and present their own programs.

“They’re a very creative bunch of employees. I’m always excited to see the programs they develop and their ability to get the visitors excited about natural resources and the parks.”

Many of the Explorer Guides are college students — often natural resources or education majors — who are working summer jobs as they explore potential careers, but they needn’t be.

“Mostly I’m looking for people who are enthusiastic and willing to learn and teach what they learn to others,” Gourlay said. “Having enthusiasm for outdoors is important. The youngest person I’ve had working for me was fresh out of high school. The oldest was 70 years old.”

Explorer Guides attend a weeklong training session at the beginning of the summer, where they learn about the job and share experiences with each other. A full day is devoted to fishing, but employees also learn additional program-creating techniques.

“Hook, Line and Sinker is a huge part of the program,” Gourlay said. “They may know a lot about fishing, but they may not know how to teach fishing.”

Other than that, guides are free to develop their own programs.

“They’re individualized,” Gourlay said. “They figure out the cool factor – what it is that brings people to those parks – and go with that.”

Always popular with state park visitors, the Explorer program is becoming even more of a draw. Originally designed to cater to park visitors, the programs are

increasingly being regularly attended by local residents. The DNR has expanded outreach to local community centers and libraries to publicize the programs.

“That’s a huge component now of what we do,” Gourlay said.

To help meet demand, Explorer Guides sometimes make presentations at other nearby parks. And some park supervisors send one of their summer workers to the training so they’ll know how to present occasional programs.

For a list of state parks with Explorer programs and scheduled events, visit www.michigan.gov/stateparks.

The DNR is always looking to expand outreach opportunities and will be hiring more guides next year. The job is perfect for educators or naturalists, but those are not requirements, Gourlay said.

“You can’t be afraid of bugs,” she said. “Or you can be, but you just can’t show it.”