Naturally naturalists

U.S. Forest Service interpreters field some strange questions, as well as help locals and tourists

Posted: Sunday, July 25, 2004

Someone once said the only dumb question is the one that never gets asked. That being said, the U.S. Forest Service's seasonal interpreters at the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center sure get some strange questions.

"Some of the funnier questions are people always ask if the people out at the waterfall are actually penguins, things like that," said Matt Brooks, a second-year interpreter at the visitor center. "A lot of people think the ice is covered in pollution from the cruise ships."

"You do end up with some strange questions," agreed Wayne Ward, assistant director of the visitor center.

One common question is, Why is the glacier dirty?

"We've had people say, 'Why don't you clean it? Is it the cutback in federal budgeting that's creating these dirty glaciers now?' " Ward said.

Actually, the Mendenhall Glacier is spotted by material scraped from rock walls by the moving ice.

Other questions range from, Where is the bathroom? Is the glacier retreating? What lives near the glacier? to more personal questions.

"Sometimes you get questions that aren't even related to the glacier; they're about you," said Naomi Seidel, a third-year seasonal interpreter from California. "People want to know a lot about you and why you're here, what brought you here. They're just trying to live that fantasy, possibly, through you to see how come they never chose to come up themselves."

More and more locals and tourists are asking questions of the 23 seasonal interpreters at the visitor center.

"There are a bunch of them out here," said Lisa Mayers, a 36-year-old homemaker from Houston, Texas. "I think it's nice to have someone around who you can ask questions to."

Ward said he expects roughly 350,000 people will visit the glacier by the end of the season, up 50,000 from last year.

"Our visitorship is growing in percent every year faster than the percentage that's growing in the number of people that are coming in on cruise ships," said Ward.

The Forest Service has created attractions and activities to keep visitors entertained and informed.

Between the center's operating hours of 8 a.m. and 6:30 p.m., visitors can explore the Exhibit Hall and its interactive displays, view the glacier from the observatory's panoramic windows, watch an 11-minute movie titled "Magnificent Mendenhall," and browse at the gift shop.

They can watch spawning salmon from a designated platform, hike to Photo Point, take guided hikes, and view spawning fish through a camera.

It costs $3 to enter the center, but outside facilities are free.

The interpreters' goals are to keep visitors safe and answer questions, particularly about the area's ecology, Seidel said.

Brooks said the interpreters also are stewards of the Tongass National Forest.

"As interpreters here, I think our most important job is to interact with visitors in a positive way so when they leave, they leave feeling that they've learned something," said Brooks.

Sockeyes are now filling the creeks, Ward said.

"And the bears will follow as well. We'll end up with lots of bears," he said. "The bears will probably become numerous in the next week or so, and that's a big challenge for us is to try and keep the visitors safe.

"We try to keep them from disturbing the bears and try to keep the bears away from them, as well. People want to get up as close to them as they do in the zoo with a camera. But these are wild animals, and they're not quite as passive and protected against humans as they would be in a zoo."

Bear country adds an element of danger to the job, said Maegan Cieciel, a second-year interpreter. In November of 2003 Cieciel was false-charged by a brown bear mother who had stuck around with her cubs for a late run of coho in Steep Creek.

"I was walking to find materials for a kids day program. ... My radio went off and she charged me and she stopped within 10 feet," she said. "I did exactly what you're supposed to do. I stood my ground and made noise and identified myself. I didn't panic, and when I felt that she wasn't going to come near me I walked backwards away from the area."

Seidel said some people don't understand that interpreters are just doing their jobs when they enforce policies.

"We're just trying to make sure that this is an atmosphere that everyone can enjoy, so just don't take it personally," she said about those who might be asked to put a dog on a leash or stay on the trails. "We're just doing it so everyone's happy in the long run and so everyone's safe."

• Eric Morrison can be reached at

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