Buckle up for the ride of your life! Performer David Bree is about to take us on a trip down memory lane.
After 32 years, the end is near.
Hello, my name is David Bree and I have worked at Ontario Parks as an interpreter (aka park naturalist) for over half my life.
As I move into my final year as an Ontario Parks employee, I embarked on a tour of retirement nostalgia through the parks where I worked.
Join me as I reconnect with some of Ontario’s great natural landscapes, discovering what’s changed and what’s stayed the same in these parks.
Jumping in head first
The first, appropriately enough, is my first park. Lake Charleston Provincial Park.
I came late to a parks job, having spent most of my 20s as an academic and exploration geologist. In 1988, I was in the fourth year of a two-year master’s project. Nothing was going right, the experiments weren’t working, and my scholarship was over, so I was procrastinating to find joy and solace in my personal exploration of the natural world.
I say personal, but I shared my exploration with my wife, who was already working as a naturalist at Sandbanks Provincial Park. One day in late June 1988, she came home and said that the Charleston Lake naturalist had just accepted another job and they were looking for a replacement, now!
Hey! An opportunity to forget even more about my master’s degree, continue learning about nature and earn some money.
I borrowed a friend’s car, went to an interview, and they hired me the next day. I was in the right place at the right time. Little did I know that this stroke of luck would be the beginning of a lifelong career.
On June 11, 2020, I drove two hours to Charleston Lake.
I’ve been back a couple of times since then, but today seemed different. I was a little nervous, a little excited and it was easy to go back 32 years. Although I had been to Charleston Lake several times as a visitor before I started working there, I learned that working in a park gives you a different perspective.
It becomes yours. You take care of him, you learn his secrets and his moods and it becomes very personal.
Your first park, like your first love, always remains special.
I arrived early and immediately headed to my favorite trail: Quiddity.
Walking the trails
Quiddity is a short trail, but wonderful for showcasing the park’s natural diversity: forest, two boardwalks over bushy swamps, and a rocky overlook, all in less than 2 km.
The trailhead is just steps from the Nature Center, where I worked 30 years ago, so it was easy to walk around Quiddity. For four years, I did at least one survey a week, recording all the flowers that bloomed along that trail. More than 50 species were listed.
I noticed about a dozen today, including tufted loosestrife in the swamp and maple leaf viburnum in the woods. It would be interesting to see if flowering dates have changed in three decades. Maybe a retirement project.
It was here that I developed my lifelong fascination with dragonflies.
There were many, and all of different colors: yellow, red, green, blue, some with prints, others plain. But what were they?
As a park naturalist, I should know, I wanted to know. But there was no iNaturalist to post photos on. In fact, there was no internet or even digital photographs.
Taking a photograph to show someone would require a wait of a week or more while the film was sent to be developed. You wouldn’t even know if your photo was in focus until then!
There were no field guides for dragonflies and the technical guide was out of stock. Not even the Queen’s University library had it. She was stuck. In fact, I had to wait more than five years before the technical guide was reprinted and I could start identifying dragonflies.
By then, I had already left Charleston Lake, but the images of the swift dragons and the joy they brought me have stayed with me to this day.
My recent visit did not disappoint. There are still dragons in Quiddity.
My study of dragonflies has slowed in recent years as my eyesight began to fade and my shooting reflexes diminished, but Quiddity had me snapping left and right with renewed excitement (digital photography is great!).
I easily identified more than a dozen species in an hour, including two species rare in Ontario: Harlequin Darner and Lilypad Clubtail. The latter was a pair in a wheel, a mating configuration unique to dragonflies and damselflies.
Rediscovering the discovery
The rocky overlook at the end of the trail was as pretty as I remembered. It was here that I felt the granite under my boots again. Most of my career in geology and the first five parks I worked in were in the Canadian Shield.
There is something about feeling the hard, ancient root of the continent beneath your feet that connects you to “wild” Canada. I missed that in Presqu’ile.
The Discovery Center wasn’t open, so I couldn’t visit my old office, but I did see the campfire circle behind it. It was essentially the same, a small, intimate space.
It was here that my supervisor, Mike, and I proved once again that fun, educational sing-along programs could be presented with two kids who didn’t play musical instruments and sang like crows.
We did a lot of parodies.
For the songs, I learned to follow the enthusiastic applause of the guide girls in the front row to maintain the rhythm and beat, which I would inevitably lose on my own.
I learned the action song “Swimming, Swimming in Charleston Lake” that I carried with me from park to park for the next two decades, changing the name of the lake as appropriate wherever I was.
Good memories, but a guitarist would have been nice.
A geologist’s dream
I walked through the screen of trees to Bayside Campground, which 30 years ago was essentially a field.
It was now well wooded and the sites were protected and private. Many of those trees had been planted years before I started working.
As a geologist, the Sandstone Island Trail has always caught my attention. Geology and landscapes unique to Ontario are exposed along its first 1.5 km. Here, 500-million-year-old conglomerates and sandstones lie directly atop billion-year-old granite.
The actual contact can be seen at one point. This unconformity is rarely seen and greatly excites geologists (seriously, ask one!). More visually attractive are the rock shelters. The sandstone and conglomerate have eroded at different rates, forming overhangs.
These rock formations have produced artifacts indicating that they were home to ancient bands of First Nations hunters and early French travellers. The rock shelters look the same as when I crossed them.
Geology doesn’t change much, at least during a human lifetime. But everything changes and these shelters will one day collapse, something I always liked to point out during my guided walks to get people moving again.
Not all the changes I noticed were good. I was distressed not to hear a single Cerulean Warbler along the trail where in the past I could hear seven males singing. The park’s current naturalist, Chris, had told me that this at-risk species had disappeared a few years earlier, but I didn’t want to believe it.
Although the forest here appears healthy, its absence indicates that no park is an island and that many of our birds require habit and protection throughout the American continent.
While most of the forest looked fine, I noticed quite a bit of invasive garlic mustard in some spots. Although she probably knows, I decided to mention the places to the local environmentalist and the superintendent.
In 1988 there were no environmentalists in the area to ensure the ecological well-being of the park. This fell to the park staff. Depending on interest, knowledge and experience, that type of work could be overlooked.
We basically let the ecology take care of itself and only care about customer service. We now control invasive species, do restoration work, divert trails away from sensitive areas, and more.
Up close and personal
I had to stop by the amphitheater, the site of my first formal performance in the park.
It still looks the same. One of the most beautiful amphitheaters in Ontario parks. It is accessed along a rocky ridge and is surrounded by beautiful hardwood forest.
However, such a natural environment can have its drawbacks. I clearly remember the night my talk was interrupted by a fat gray tree frog that fell from the tree above and landed with a loud thud on the stage in front of me. Fortunately everything went well and after a quick discussion about tree frogs, I was led back into the forest and continued with my presentation.
There was no continuity the night two barred owls had a long and very loud conversation right above his head. Calling back and forth to the audience, I was only able to sit with the visitors and turn the talk into a discussion about owls (and how rude they could be sometimes).
No park naturalist can compete with the real one. Why would they want to do it?
It turned out to be a much better program than what I could do. I don’t remember what the topic of my talk was that night, or if I ever touched on it again, but I do remember those owls and I’m sure the audience does too.
Turning back time
Before I left Charleston Lake, I made a point of stopping by the office to say hello.
Amanda, the park employee, was there. Park employees are the backbone of a park’s management. While the public doesn’t see them much, they maintain the park’s budgets and are the go-to person for information on expenses, salaries, and benefits.
As I always tell my staff: be nice to the employees, they are the ones who make sure you get paid!
Amanda was there 32 years ago when I first walked into the office. She looks a lot like the day she made me sign my first contract for the park. Back then she also made camping reservations, which she wrote down on large signs.
A cancellation required him to put out a draft to open the place again. A crude system, but it worked pretty well. Today she seemed a little bewildered by my nostalgic recounting of her place in my life story. I’ve probably signed hundreds, if not thousands, of contracts throughout his career, but the one he did for me was a turning point in my life.
I discovered that, despite jumping into my first summer season with no experience and little preparation time, I had a knack for telling stories.
That combined with the love of nature, history and the desire to learn positioned me perfectly as the park’s naturalist material.
I began my transition from geologist to naturalist and spent four glorious seasons on Lake Charleston before moving on to my next park: Bon Echo Provincial Park.