Today’s post comes from Yvette Bree. Yvette has been the naturalist at Sandbanks Provincial Park for 35 years and she will be retiring at the end of August this year.
1986. A year forever etched in my memory.
The year I graduated from the University of Waterloo with a Bachelor of Environmental Studies (BES) with a Resource Management option.
The year I married my (still going strong) high school boyfriend.
And the year I got my first job at Ontario Parks.
Starting in Lake Superior
I was desperate to become a park naturalist. Even though we lived in Kingston at the time, I applied everywhere.
My husband, a geologist, was also looking for work. As fate would have it, we both got jobs that started about a month after we got married.
He went to the Yukon and I started my career at Ontario Parks in Lake Superior Provincial Park.
Personal situation aside, I was hooked. Lake Superior was the reason I chose my career: vast nature, wildlife, hiking trails, staff camaraderie, history. This park had it all.
I tried hard, learned a lot, made mistakes and overcame my fears of public speaking. I loved the park, and still do! The only problem was that it was very far from friends and family.
I had only been hired for 16 weeks, so at the end of my contract I returned home. I became a waitress and started looking for my next opportunity in the park.
Now a park naturalist!
I went to several interviews that spring. I was starting to lose hope when I got the call at the end of May.
I had been applying for naturalist assistant positions, assuming this was my next logical step. But in an example of “right place, right time,” I was hired as a naturalist for Sandbanks Provincial Park in 1987.
I had never been to Sandbanks and had to look it up on a map before my first day at work.
I felt underqualified and read everything I was given. Other than a tour of the campgrounds and park facilities, I didn’t leave my office for the first few weeks.
Other park staff told me how busy the park was and what a great beach it had. I met my two assistants and eventually my four summer students.
Summer arrived and it was a whirlwind of schedules, programs, campers and beachgoers.
At the end of it all, the park broke an attendance record: 324,000 visitors had come to the park that summer.
What a busy place compared to Lake Superior!
More than just a beach
I’ve never been much of a beach fan and couldn’t believe the popularity of the park.
However, it was my foot in the door. I was determined to spend three years here to gain experience before going to a park that was more my style.
At the end of the summer, I finally had time to walk around the West Lake bar with those “big dunes” I had been talking about on shows all summer.
Words can never describe what I felt while walking through this rare habitat. I heard waves and birds, I smelled that “park,” I identified plants I had not observed anywhere else, I saw history in front of me in the form of majestic (albeit dead) cedar trees, I walked barefoot along the water’s edge with sand between them. my fingers…
This park was not just a beach; It was – is – a provincial gem.
To this day, when the frenetic pace of the park gets to me, I can still find my own private, quiet space in those dunes and remember why I didn’t leave after three years.
Here we are in 2021
It’s hard to believe it’s been more than 35 years.
The sandbanks have changed. I have changed.
Two campgrounds have been added (Woodlands and West Lake), providing more electric sites. There are six trails instead of the original one. The main entrance is no longer where it used to be. We added the Dunes Beach day use area and comfort stations at the campgrounds. The list goes on.
Nowadays, it is common to receive more than 800,000 visitors a year.
In the beginning, there were interpretive programs to present, a visitor center to operate, and the occasional trail guide to write.
We were called Visitor Services (VS), which later changed to Natural Heritage Education (NHE) and, more recently, Discovery.
As time went on, my department grew in size and became involved in resource management, self-use guides and interpretive panels, social media and outdoor education opportunities for schools.
We develop special events such as Lakeshore Lodge Day and Theater in the Park. Although I have remained in the same position, I have gone from being called Visitor Services Leader to Chief Naturalist of the Park.
Ecological and educational impacts
Over the past 35 years, I have presented hundreds of interpretive programs to thousands of park visitors, explaining the importance of sandbars and the importance of protecting them.
Let’s hope these environmental messages are taken home and acted upon there as well.
I have enjoyed working with my staff, most of them high school, college or university students.
Some were gaining experience for a career in a related field, and some changed their career path after working here to become teachers and naturalists themselves.
Many were simply looking for a summer job, but I hope I have inspired all of you to respect the environment and encouraged others to do so too.
As my career at Ontario Parks comes to a close, I can look back and see what has been accomplished and what remains to be accomplished.
There is always more to do, new projects to work on, new staff to inspire. There are good people – excellent people who work at Discovery with me.
I have no doubt that my park will be in good hands when I retire.
Thank you to the campers I recognized year after year in my programs. I enjoyed our conversations.
Thank you to the park staff who supported Discovery projects.
Thank you to the Friends of Sandbanks who supported many of our efforts.
And last but not least, thank you all, many VS/NHE/Discovery staff that I have had the undeniable pleasure and privilege of working with.
May we meet again.
Yvette Bree has been an integral part of the Sandbanks Provincial Park Discovery program and the day-to-day operation of the park. She has inspired countless young students and visitors to appreciate Ontario’s natural spaces.
Thanks Yvette! You will be greatly missed.