Upper Cowlitz Area State Park Rangers Bring Outdoor Learning to Computers and Campsites


Out of hundreds of rangers for Washington State Parks, Leah Garner and Alysa Adams are two of just 11 designated “interpretive specialists.”

They’re based in the Upper Cowlitz area, which encompasses Mount St. Helens, Seaquest, Lewis and Clark and Ike Kinswa state parks.

On a wet, foggy morning in late October, The Chronicle met the two at Lewis and Clark State Park in a shelter warmed by a crackling cedar fire.

They’re vibrant, friendly, tech-savvy women, both with passion for the outdoors that could stretch to the top of Mount St. Helens and back. Recently, the duo have been on a uniquely challenging and rewarding mission: making learning about the outdoors accessible and exciting for everyone, whether the learner can go out in nature or not.

The last two summers have brought a new wave of people to the recreation scene as folks of all ages turned to the outdoors for COVID-safe fun.

“There's a black and white way of viewing it, or there's a gray way of viewing it,” Adams said. “Everybody flocked to Washington State Parks, which was wonderful because they needed that moment to be back outside again. But my goodness, for park staff, it was a hurdle to jump over and we weren't always able to meet the demands. The best we could do is make a presence and be positive and smiling.”

As interpretive specialists, Garner and Adams are tasked with creating and delivering programs for park-goers. Before the pandemic, this often looked like delivering speeches and skits in amphitheaters of families. Obviously, that practice couldn’t hold up.

Everything else was going virtual, so why not state parks?

Through YouTube and other social media outlets, they started creating videos about seasonal changes in the parks, the mountain, the 41st eruption anniversary and conservation.

The films are kid-focused, using easy-to-read graphics, dance moves and props. Soon, what started as a way to continue the status quo became reaching a crowd they had never been able to get to before.

“People with disabilities, children who maybe couldn't sit still in a program where their parents aren’t comfortable bringing them,” Adams said. “We were now reaching audiences we weren't even aware of missing previously. Now as we go in the future, we're so much more aware of our impact on people and what is needed from the community.”

The pair also shifted their in-person interpretive programs to more intimate campsite meet-and-greets. They zoomed around the different campgrounds on a UTV, bringing families presentations and props including animal skins and bones for hands-on learning.   

“We've both had experiences this summer with kids where it really touched our hearts and our souls and being able to talk with them one-on-one,” Garner said. “Kids learn differently. Some like to touch some like audio, visual, we have all different kinds of learners.”

Both noted the diversity of Southwest Washington park visitors. Some, such as those at Lewis and Clark and Ike Kinswa State Parks, had been camping at the same site every year for a decade. Others, like at Mount St. Helens, were coming from all over the world.

In the summer of 2020, Adams gave 117 presentations to 740 people. Garner came along in April, and in the summer of 2021, the rangers were able to give 240 talks to 1,740 people, more than doubling their in-person reach.

Online, they could reach an even bigger audience. The most popular of their nine YouTube videos, about the 41st anniversary of the eruption of Mount St. Helens, received almost 2,000 views. It takes about a week to finish a video, Adams said, but the energy expenditure is well worth the amount of people who might be able to connect with the content. Plus, the lesson can be watched over and over.

On Instagram, they’ve had one video — a 30 second clip of wooly bears, the classic orange and black caterpillars that are ubiquitous in autumn — that got 35,000 views in one day. Across all platforms, it earned over 50,000.

“It's a wonderful way to again engage with people in their preferred method, which tends to be on their cell phone,” Adams said.

Being the connection between the parks and the people is at the heart of all Interpretive Specialists’ job descriptions, but these programs have all been created, piloted and driven by Garner and Adams, with the agency’s blessing.

“When you're in the park system, it's definitely a lifestyle choice. We don't do it for the money. We do it for the passion and feeling inspired to give back to the community and give back to nature itself,” Adams said, adding later: “When you have that like that magical moment with the kid where you just said something that maybe they didn't know and you're seeing the light bulb go off in their eyes, it's something so profound. I feel so fortunate that we have that within our professions.”

To see Adams and Garner in action, visit the Washington State Parks YouTube channel, or head to parks.state.wa.us/1197/Virtual-Learning-Opportunities-in-Parks. State parks also has Facebook, Twitter and Instagram pages.

Lewis and Clark State Park is open May 1 to Sept. 30 every year, but on New Year’s Day every year at 10 a.m., the rangers lead a free guided hike through the old growth forest with a history lesson. To attend, park across Jackson Highway and walk up the road in the park to the shelter.

Ranger’s Pick

State Parks Interpretive Specialist Alysa Adams says her favorite hike at Lewis and Clark State Park is the Old Growth Trail loop. With about 2 miles of over 600-year-old trees, she called this hike “the gem of the park.” The park is open May 1 to Sept. 30.