Getting Outside with the Oregon Master Naturalist Program

I am excited to have completed the first half of my ecoregion fieldwork with the Oregon Master Naturalist (OMN) program this past week. The focus area was the mid-Willamette Valley. The OMN program is through Oregon State University Extension. Oregon’s landscapes define the people and wild species that call this land home. Students of the OMN program learn about the natural history, ecology, and natural resource management practices of Oregon. I am looking forward to applying this new knowledge within my own volunteer-led hikes so others can better appreciate Oregon’s beautiful and dynamic landscape. Kudos to the OSU Extension and the many volunteer instructors for helping to make this happen!

Pacific giant salamander
Green heron

An Easy “On the Go” Tool for Helping to Tell the Story of an Educational Adventure Tour

When leading an educational adventure how does one tell the program’s story, while keeping those on your tour informed, imparting knowledge that helps them to make a connection, is lightweight, and “on the go?”

When building out my interpretive program I develop it so I can carry laminated sheets. For lack of a better term, I often call them placards. Here is the set of placards I use while visiting central Oregon on a 6-day educational travel program. There are about 80 placards that support my trip’s 1 interpretive theme and 3 sub-themes.

I also have about 10 placards with just data. For example, when we visit Bend, Oregon, travelers want to know about the cost of housing, population, etc. While I sometimes use the placards to help me remember, and even after discussing them, I often pass around the placards or share them during a meal so people can read at their leisure and better the photos.

On each placard, I include a color photo on one side and on the other text in 14-point font. This makes it easier to read for eyes that are over 50.

When I am working with a local or knowledge expert, I try to research their emphasis and then selectively use my materials to help them tell their story. It is like helping to set the stage so the sage on that stage can better succeed.

One of my favorite uses of placards was on an intergenerational (grandparents and their grandchildren) trip to Crater Lake National Park. That morning, I gave a brief presentation about where we were visiting and what to look out for, including a rare sight known as The Old Man of the Lake, a centuries old tree trunk that floats upright and traverses the lake’s clear waters. When I was done, I passed the placards around so people who wanted could read up a bit more. The placards included:
– basics about the lake water’s clarity
– the newts & crawdads of the area
– key info about the lake’s depth with a detailed satellite image
– how the lake is the source point of various watersheds
– more about the Old Man of the Lake (shown left).

Then our group was to hike 700 feet down to Cleetwood Cove where we would board a boat for a two-hour boat ride inside the 5-mile wide caldera. While returning across the lake, one of the kids called out that she had seen in the distance something on the water. She asked the caption if the boat could investigate, the captain did and everyone received a rare surprise, seeing the Old Man of the Lake up close.

Afterward, the captain pulled me aside and mentioned that he had known where the Old Man of the Lake was, but it was just far enough out of our route that he was not going to make a stop unless someone said they had observed it. She was surprised that someone so young in my group knew about the old man and was so eager about seeing this wonderful natural feature.

It is feedback like that that makes my job so wonderful, and having items that are lightweight, supports a theme, adds that bit of magic that makes travel so wonderful, and can better help me keep the program on schedule, are golden.

If interpretation is an idea you would like to know more about, here is a short video from the National Association for Interpretation.

The Surprising World of Washington’s Quinault Rain Forest Nature Trail

During a trip to the Olympic Peninsula in March, I was excited to experience the Hoh Rainforest, but upon arriving at the Ranger’s kiosk was told that a tree had fallen over the road. The tree was large enough that outside help had been called in to help with the removal. My vehicle, along with others, was told to return another day. 🙁

But the ranger, upon hearing that I was traveling to the south shore of Lake Quinalt suggested visiting the Quinault Rain Forest Nature Trail -a personal favorite of his.

Upon seeing the striking beauty of the trail I was hooked. This trail was about half a mile in distance but required an hour just to meander through this old-growth forest and fern-covered canyon. There were hanging carpets of lush green moss, signs of various animals, fungi, and the wonderful smell of clean air. This place, in a word, is breathtaking. I love interpretive trails but had not expected this half-mile walk to be so encompassing. For a longer walk, the nature trail connects to the Quinalt National Recreation Trail System with several additional miles of trails. The trail has some fantastic interpretive signage – kudos to those who arranged the material! This visit was in the springtime with temperatures in the low 50s and lots and lots of rain.

Exploring & Hiking on Oregon’s Central Coast 2021

Trip Report:
Group Leader: Mark Hougardy | Organization: Road Scholar | Date: August & September 2021 | Departures: 4 | Duration per Program: 6 days | Hiking Distance: 30 miles each departure | Participants: ~20 per departure | Type: Hiking | Note: The trip leader and participants were fully vaccinated against Covid-19 and Covid safety protocols were strictly observed. A big thank you to everyone for being considerate and recognizing the safety of your fellow travelers allowing all to better enjoy this program.

Sunny weather and pleasant temperatures greeted participants on 4 hiking programs exploring Oregon’s central coast. The focus of each program was learning about how the coast has changed especially over the last 100 years. Hikes included exploring the temperate rain forest, old-growth Sitka Spruce, the rugged Oregon coast, and the Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area which is one of the largest expanses of temperate coastal sand dunes in the world.

Exiting Through the Gift Shop: Using Interpretive Principles to Strengthen the Park Store

Sharing the story of your nonprofit is critical work.

Storefronts are often the front line of this work as they blend: revenue generation, outreach, and interpretation.

These stores can be critical funding sources for friends-of-the-park groups, zoos, museums, education travel organizations, nature centers, aquaria, botanical gardens, conservation organizations, cultural museums, and historical sites. The products sold must be meaningful and relevant to support the mission, support fundraising goals, and allow for emotional and intellectual connections. This is done by strengthening park store products through interpretation.

Here are six principles of interpretation developed by Freeman Tilden and re-stated by Larry Beck and Ted Cable in their book, “The Gift of Interpretation.” I’ve mapped their principles to questions for you to ask if a product is appropriate for your audience/store.

To learn more about Interpretation visit the National Association for Interpretation online,

Article originally published June 2014; updated November 2020.

How to Create a Water Discovery Kit for Your Traveling Outdoor Classroom

Creeks and rivers are amazing storytellers – they can teach, captivate, and inspire curious minds.

I always try to include creeks and rivers into the larger interpretive theme of a tour or educational travel program, especially when these waterways can provoke people into broadening their horizons.

It’s always fun to open up an itinerary so trip participants can look under rocks, get their feet wet, observe critters in the water, touch, hear, smell, see, and learn more about the story of a place.

To help with bringing this story to life I bring along a simple “Water Discovery Kit.” The kit can be made at home, packs well, and weighs just a few pounds. It includes:

  • 1 Gallon-sized Plastic Bucket with Handle
  • 1 10x Microscope
  • 2 Dip Nets
  • 1 Big Pipette (medium-sized turkey baster)
  • 1 Thermometer
  • 3 Magnification Loops
  • 1 Set of Laminated Instructions
  • 1 Plankton Net with ziplock
  • 6 Small Pipettes
  • 3 Round clear observation dishes
  • 3 Rectangular clear observation dishes
  • 3 Rectangular observations plates
  • 1 Funnel
  • 1 Gallon-sized ziplock
  • 1 Secchi dish (8-inch)

Everything on the list fits inside the bucket, except for the Secchi disk which I carry separately.  The kit can be used by elementary kids on up, though it works best when various generations (grandparents and grandchildren) are involved.

Guiding Tips: Learning About “Vegan Issues” on Tour

Shown: Two vegan “small plate” dishes enjoyed at an Indian restaurant while on tour; Gobi Manchurian – fried cauliflower tossed in a sweet and sour sauce, and Samosa Chaat – two savory bean and pea pastries topped with a garbanzo bean curry and house chutneys.

As a trip leader, I love creating meaningful experiences for participants – especially through food! For me, tour directing and eating vegan are complimentary flavors.

That’s why I’m surprised when fellow guides and tour leaders express derision towards vegans. At a recent annual guide meeting for an educational travel company, these sentiments were expressed in a hot topic segment titled, VEGAN ISSUES.  The frustration was palpable as vegans were derided with words such as, “problematic,” “unsociable,” “quiet,” “freaks,” and phrases such as “I wish they would just stay home,” or “Why can’t they eat normal food like everyone else?”.

These responses were not unexpected, because about a decade ago, I had similar views. Fortunately, I tried to become a better guide and I learned about such matters. I eventually learned that vegans aren’t problems on tour. For the trip leader of any meaningful or transformative travel experience, what is required is a better knowledge of the audience.

To help my fellow guides, here are seven tips to help them to better understand the vegans in their group. This is not an exhaustive list, but it is a start. These 7 points originate from actual questions I received from fellow guides.

1. Why are vegans, vegan? And, what is plant-based?
Vegans eat the same food as everyone else, except it’s not made from animals. Vegans value compassion. They seek to eliminate, as much as practical and possible, the use of and exploitation of animals in their everyday lives.  They understand the most immediate way to enact compassion is to control what they put on their plate. Another group to know about is plant-based travelers; they eat plants solely for dietary or health benefits. Veganism takes plant-based a step further and includes the ethical component.

2. Why are vegans quiet?
Vegans are often stereotyped as being quiet. Some can be. Many vegans tend to be reserved when traveling because they don’t want to be judged or derided. Here are some actual quotes from tour directors:

  • “Why don’t they eat like normal people?
  • “If they can’t eat normal food on a tour, they should be made to eat what the rest eat!”
  • “They seem smart, too bad they can’t figure out what they’re going to eat this week.”

Any traveler might be quiet when a tour director’s personal biases (yes, biases) are communicated. Trip leaders need to understand that everyone on their tour wants to eat good-tasting, wholesome food. Vegans want food without the animal or hidden animal products.

3. Why are they vegan at home, but not while traveling?
I often hear trip leaders say, “Why are they vegan at home, but not while traveling?” At home, all of us can control ingredients, quantity, salt, oils, etc., but this can be very difficult for anyone during a week-long travel program. Vegans have learned to be pros when it comes to ordering food selectively at restaurants to avoid hidden animal products, substituting side dishes, or supplementing their travel meals by visiting the store. However, on tour, most of the travel company’s pre-selected restaurants on an itinerary are solidly meat-centric. When confronted with zero choices, many vegan travelers just won’t eat. Others might order various side dishes to create something of a meal. Others might make a ‘what causes the least harm’ decision. Maybe they need to eat something they normally would not so they have the energy to enjoy their trip. Maybe, they need to regulate blood sugar or take medicine with food.

4. Why don’t they eat the restaurant’s special vegan meal?
The biggest frustration I’ve heard from tour directors is that the specially prepared vegan meal rarely gets eaten. I can say without hesitation – 95% of the specially prepared
vegan meals on tours are notoriously bad. These vegan meals might be made well-intentioned, but non-vegan staff often have no idea what vegans eat. The results can range from lackluster to downright frightful. If someone on tour is skipping meals, their basic needs are not being met.

5. What about vegans eating alternative meat on tours?
The target audience for alternative meat products (like Impossible Burger or Beyond Meat) isn’t plant-eaters, the target audience is meat-eaters who want to reduce the amount of meat they are eating. To many vegans, alternative meat is junk food and is eaten sparingly.

6. What do vegans eat?
Vegan food can be as diverse as a fresh salad or pizza. Vegan food can run the range of food as apples, bananas, blueberries, oranges, strawberries, broccoli, carrots, cauliflower, kale, lettuce, potatoes, corn, green peas, winter squash, barley, millet, oats, quinoa, wheat berries, brown rice, black beans, chickpeas, lentils, pinto beans, walnuts, pumpkin seeds, tahini, almond butter, or even rice, soy, oat, almond, and cashew milk. The entire vegetable and fruit aisle at the store is vegan. A good part of the grain aisle and some of the bread aisle is vegan. Additionally, there are plant-based mayonnaise, cheeses, and other sandwich condiments that taste like traditional products and are cost-effective. On the social side, most french fries and beer are vegan. There’s no shortage of plant-based foods or creative ways to eat vegan while on tour, here’s a few:

Shown: Some of the vegan meals, desserts, and snacks served on the tours and trips I’ve led.

7. How should I talk to the vegan on my tour?
Have a conversation as you would with any human being on your trip. Remember, vegans want to eat delicious food too. If they have a question about food it’s originating from a place of compassion. Use compassion as a starting point – as you should with all travelers. I try to set this tone in my pre-trip welcome letter, I explain that while our trip has made efforts to eat at places that offer a variety of foods some of the menus can be limited. I add that we will have an opportunity to stop by a local grocery store so all participants can supplement food, and grab something fresh and healthy if needed. At times when travelers explore a town on their own, I always find a local restaurant that offers a selection of vegan options and invite others to join me. I also speak with the office about locating restaurants that are generally healthier. During the tour, if needed, I speak with kitchen staff to see about suggestions for substitutions.

On a tour, everyone can experience new places through local tastes. It does require some up-front communication with travelers about what to expect on a trip. It also requires some greater knowledge of your audience.

Note: The list of foods on #6 comes from Forks Over Knives

When Travel Experiences Are Not in Context, Guests Don’t Remember

In recent years, adventure learning companies have focused on quantity versus quality in regards to their programs. As a trip leader, I’ve seen it too often.

In a rush to increase destination offerings, for a wider audience, many of the experiences are often not in context with the purpose of the trip. The result is that after a week-long program the guest remembers they participated in some fun things, but are not exactly sure how they grew as a person. If they cannot successfully answer this, then how is your company unique? And, why should they return?

An easy way to help guests grow, and nurture them for joining future trips, is to keep all of the travel program’s experiences in context with a big idea. In short, what is the big idea you want your guests/participants to remember? Think of a big idea as a unifying theme for the trip. All of the site visits, excursions, and explorations on the trip should gravitate around this big idea.

It is very easy to build a program around generic information, which is what most tourism companies do (see photo below). It is more challenging to design an adventure learning travel program around a unifying message where all of the experiences (walks, food, guest speakers, site visits, etc) are in context with a big idea. When travel experiences are in context, guests remember they had fun, but also their discoveries.

Building an Interpretive Theme for a Travel Program

All lifelong learning travel managers wrestle with one idea: how to craft a transformative travel program.

The most common approach is to select a topic (such as the topic of fire, or destinations such as the topic of Crater Lake), and then build the program around that.

This seems simple enough, yet why then are so many travel programs such a continuous source of frustration and ambiguity for those designing the program, even for those who have to craft messaging and then market the travel program?

The problem arises because the topic is often associated with the travel program’s theme.

Themes should not be thought of as nouns (subject, place, or event), think of them as being a verb (interpretive).

Another way to think about a theme is to answer, “What is the big idea I want participants to remember?”

Some examples:

A multi-day program built around the topic of “Fire” now becomes:

  • Theme: “Discover how fire helps forge every aspect of our life.”
  • Sub-themes might include homes/communities, food preparation, entertainment, arts, places we play, and our survival).

A week-long bus/hiking/rafting program with the topic of “Visit Central Oregon” transforms into:

  • Theme: “Exploring Oregon’s dynamic geology allows for first-hand discovery and connection to one of the most fundamental forces of nature, in both its creative and destructive roles.”

An active hiking program with the topic of “Exploring Crater Lake” evolves into:

  • Theme: “Crater Lake’s breathtaking beauty, seasonal weather extremes, and distinguishing natural and cultural features, combined with a variety of recreational opportunities, provide visitors with abundant chances for discovery, reflection, and inspiration.”

Creating a theme in this light focuses all of the activities and interactions around a single idea; it helps the program designer and the trip leaders focus on what is relevant while bringing the program to life.

By Playing with Fire We Appreciate How It Forges Every Aspect of Life – 2018

I’m happy to have been the leader on another great Road Scholar trip. This program introduced grandparents and grandkids to how fire helps forge every aspect of our life (homes/communities, food preparation, entertainment, arts, places we play, and our survival).

Trip Report:
Leader: Mark Hougardy | Organization: Road Scholar | Date: June 2018 | Duration: 6 days | Participants: 28 | Type: Field Trips & Motorcoach

“Erupting volcanoes. Blacksmithing. Outdoor cooking. Glassblowing. A fire has countless uses, and incarnations, and has been paramount to our way of life since the beginning of our time. You and your grandchild will spark your desire to safely learn more about fire through interactive experiences with professional firefighters, survivalists, welders, and fire dancers. Discover how fire can create a delicate piece of artwork, as well as destroy entire forests and cities. Learn how to survive in the remote wilderness, and discover the inner workings of a city’s fire engine. Together with your grandchild, finally have the chance to play with fire as you discover why nothing can hold a candle to this learning adventure.”

How Interpretive Are Your Park Store Products?

During a visit to a National Park last summer, I overheard a family refer to the products in the park store as “weak.” Looking at the shelves filled with plastic mementos and affixed logo items I knew what they meant, but still, I politely inquired.

The family had attempted to find products that were emotionally meaningful instead they found trinkets. Such products did not represent the visit they had just experienced. Over the past several days the family had shared a rare extended weekend together in one of America’s most beautiful locations. During their last hour in the park, they wanted to buy something that helped “connect” them to their enjoyable family experience, but they found nothing that expressed a strong emotional connection. Their final moments in the park would end on a lackluster note. Unfortunately, many parks or nature-related stores do not understand why customers buy.

A park store should not sell products; it should sell benefits.
Customers buy benefits

Park store customers seek benefits. Another way of saying this: customers do not buy products; they buy the benefits they receive from the products. Examples:

Kids do not buy plush animal toys; they buy companionship.

People do not buy books; they buy entertainment/knowledge.

People do not buy a whistle; they buy safety.

People do not buy annual park passes; they buy convenience.

People do not buy jackets; they buy warmth.

All products in the nature store, or at least every product group, need to be benefit-assessed.

The next step is to determine how these benefits add up to strengthen the store, extend interpretive programs, and benefit customers. Classify your product’s interpretive value as ‘weak’, ‘medium,’ or ‘strong.’

Example: Have you ever been to a park concessionaire, or park association store, and seen an entire shelf of coffee mugs? While a mug might be used for drinking, its basic use is for a single purpose. Other examples of weak products are postcards, magnets, stickers, posters, t-shirts, and clothing items.

Weak benefit products are generally impulse-buy items that do not engage the user beyond the act of purchasing them. Too many weak items in your store (greater than 50% of inventory) do not serve the mission of your organization.

Are weak benefit products bad? No, they serve a purpose, but do you want your store to offer only products that offer only a single benefit? You can do better. A targeted question to ask: How could this product help a person to better understand my resource (park, natural area, etc.)? How can it help them to be creative?

Your job as a non-profit marketer is to find how you can differentiate your product (natural area, park, watershed, historical site, etc.) within the mind of the customer. You need to provide more products that are medium and strong.

The hallmark of a medium-strength product is the ability to engage the user and better appreciate the local resources, parks, natural areas, etc.

Examples: Water bottles, walking sticks, local guidebooks, and plush animal puppets. The more sustainably sourced these are, the stronger they will be.

Examples of strong products: Regional/park guidebooks, maps, field guides, and items that support interpretive goals. Another example is a backpack utilized in children’s programs, used as a ” checkout pack” which allows families to borrow a daypack from the nature store to use while exploring the park. When returned the family is offered a significant discount at the nature store to help with a sale.

The sign of a strong product is its ability to alter perceptions and continually help the user to be creative.

Strive for a weak product inventory of 40% and a combined medium/strong inventory of 60%. Remember, products do not sell themselves, the benefits of the product do.

Interpreting the Mountain Lion


Interpreting the Mountian Lion:

Able to:

– Leap a height of 3 humans tall
– Heavier than 16 housecats
– Eat the equivalent of 1 deer each week

This large cat shares many names: mountain lion, puma, panther, and cougar.

Built for stealth and power these majestic creatures have large padded paws, tawny-colored fur, muscular limbs, and sharp claws. They are generally elusive and can be found in remote wooded or rocky areas where the deer populations are prevalent.

The photo was taken in Sunol, California, at the Sunol Regional Wilderness Interpretive Barn.

Greening the Park Store

Parks and outdoor interpretive organizations are always looking to green their operations. But sometimes the enthusiasm of the moment results in a “Ready, Fire!, Aim” approach when a “Ready, Aim, Fire!” approach is needed.

READY: Understand the purpose of greening the park store.

Ask the question, “What problem do you wish to solve?”

This may sound counter-intuitive, but the purpose of greening your space is not about ‘saving the planet’ or ‘protecting the environment’. While individuals and organizations may be passionate about such issues, framing a discussion around these hot-button slogans could have combustible results. Remember that a manager, co-worker, budget officer, visitor, or even a donor may have a very different perception of these words and their meanings.

The purpose of greening your organization should instead be grounded in measurable benefits like reducing waste, reusing-recycling materials, and conserving energy which aid in those correcting those other issues.

AIM: Understand the mission-based justification.

What results or benefits do you wish to obtain from greening your store? Here are three of my favorites:

  • Help visitors to better understand where they are visiting.
  • Gain a competitive advantage.
  • A healthier bottom line.

FIRE: You take action!

Here are five helpful steps to consider as you take action.

Step 1: Scope
Document your project’s scope – this includes the project’s purpose and business justification.

Step 2: Assessment
The purpose of an assessment is to help establish a baseline for your green practices. A baseline is an original plan for a project, and any changes will be measured against the baseline.

Step 3: Implementation
This is an entire subject by itself of which future articles will be written. But here are some key points to remember when implementing your green processes.

  • Build on small victories.
  • Generate momentum (buy-in) for your project by demonstrating the economic benefits.
  • Green activities should not be dictated from above – but rather modeled.
  • Always Document processes.

Step 4: Communicate
Publish the processes on an intranet or another centralized internal website. Communicate with your donors and visitors about how you are reducing pollution, etc. Educate any front-line staff on the advantages and goals of your project.

Step 5: Measure
Refer to your original baseline and track progress at least on a monthly basis.

When greening your own operation remember a “Ready, Aim, Fire!” approach before starting a project. Understanding the purpose and the justification of the project will help you in reaching your green goals.