Professional explainer connects people with nature

By Wayne Bryan Published January 12, 2014 at 12:00 a.m.
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PHOTO BY: Rusty Hubbard

Jason Parrie is the head park interpreter at DeGray Lake Resort State Park near Bismarck. Here, Parrie, a Louisiana native, stands behind an exhibit at the park that replicates the nest of an American bald eagle. Parrie has worked at the park since 2004.

Jason Parrie enjoys his work.

“One morning you’re in a kayak on the lake, just a few feet above the cold water, and in a moment the warmth of the sun, rising over the mountains, hits your face. As you look up, an eagle flies over you,” he said. “The next day you might be showing a group of kindergarten students about bugs in the woods and then maybe making an arrest in the park. Each day is different, and yet — each day is just another day in paradise.”

Parrie is the head park interpreter at DeGray Lake Resort State Park, and he may be the only interpreter in the state who is also a park ranger with law enforcement responsibilities as well. He said he got to hold both jobs through a “quirk” in his training.

“The usual way to advance through a career with the parks department is to move into different positions as you move from park to park and work your way up to becoming a superintendent. That can be hard on families,” he said. “I was offered what they called a management-training track that I could do from my home park. That first year, I went to the law enforcement academy.”

Parrie said he has established a good relationship with Hot Spring County officers, and they will help when Ranger Parrie receives a call.

The park, 984 acres on the north shore of DeGray Lake on the Caddo River between Bismarck, Arkadelphia and the Ouachita Mountains, offers almost 14,000 acres of clear lake waters, camping, water sports and golf, along with a resort and convention center.

As a law enforcement ranger, Parrie can turn his attention to what the people are doing and enforce state laws, but as an interpreter, he focuses on introducing those people to the wildlife, which is protected on the parklands.

“I’m a professional explainer. That can be very difficult to define,” he said. “My job is to help people establish a connection with the outdoors. If you can get someone to understand something, they have a greater appreciation of it, and then they want to help preserve it.”

Such communing with nature might seem like a summer activity, but it is in the winter months that the park offers one of its most popular programs, the Eagle Tour. Parrie and the other park interpreters lead guided eagle-watching tours around the lake. The island in the lake is a popular wintering spot for the American Bald Eagle. Some even live there all year. The tours also allow the visitors to meet up with osprey, loons, herons, ducks and other birds who find the lake every winter. In the evenings, there are Owl Prowls, scheduled to encounter the birds that hunt in the dark.

“We always tell our visitors to keep an eye out for what’s flying by the lodge or around the lake,” Parrie said in November. “It is not unusual to be looking out of a window at the lodge and see an eagle fly by.”

While the majestic birds don’t litter the trees all over the park, there are enough that Parrie said the interpreters will be going out to count the eagles during the weeks ahead.

On Jan. 24, the park will hold its 35th annual Eagles Et Cetera weekend. Visitors can take an up-close look at birds of prey, meet a raptor rehabilitator and even go hunting with a falcon, along with looking for the eagles.

“It is one of our most popular events,” Parrie said.

When warm weather comes, Parrie turns a playground dare into a laugh-filled, but educational, nature program. On a hillside in the park’s woods, Parrie invites, cajoles, offers incentives and “is not above subjecting someone to peer pressure” to get them to eat a bug.

‘The Eat a Bug program was here before I arrived at the park, but I put my own flair in it,” he said. “My programs are less fact filled and more about discovery, or the big picture connection and how things fit into the grand scheme of things.”

During one of the programs in June, Parrie offers prepared bugs to eat. First, he brought out a carton of the larvae of the mealworm beetle.

Parrie placed a larva on his tongue, held his tongue out for all to see, then chewed. He handed out the larvae, and while most of the children took one and gulped it down, most of the adults did not.

Next, the ranger offered crickets that had been roasted and flavored. Some folks who had refused the larva tried a cricket, while others said, “One bug a day is enough.”

Afterward, he handed out badges that proclaimed, “I ate a bug at DeGray Lake State Park.”

Parrie said the program is more than about insects and the environment.

“It is about having a good experience,” he said. “I tell the kids that we have to challenge ourselves. If things are getting hard, I tell them they can say, ‘I ate a bug. I can do anything.’

“These kids will not let anything stop them.”

Parrie said he is now especially excited about a program about making what he called “primitive fire.”

Again he credits someone else for the original idea. We had a interpreter here who had made fire part of a wilderness therapy program for teens with substance-dependency problems.

“Drew Edmonds would take the kids out in the desert with minimal supplies, and he would teach them how to survive, including fire skills,” Parrie said. “We wanted to use the fire skills here, and I want to keep it going.”

The ranger said he was surprised at his reaction when Edmonds taught him to make fire using primitive methods.

“It was a powerful thing,” Parrie said. “I don’t want to get smushy, but I made fire! All that man has done comes from taking two sticks and making fire. Using skills that are thousands and thousands of years old was a connecting moment with humanity.”

The latest students to learn how to make fire using primitive methods were a class of third-graders from the Malvern Public Schools, Parrie said.

“I went to the school to teach them,” he said. “I know there is some risk in teaching 8-year-olds to make fire, but for adults, the good news is, it’s difficult. There is no danger of third-graders setting their houses on fire.”

Parrie said his philosophy about children learning about nature agrees with the ideas expressed by author Richard Louv in his book Last Child in the Woods.

“He says today’s children have a nature-deficient disorder,” Parrie said. “We should let children take some risks and get dirty discovering some things on their own.”

Born into a military family, Parrie was born in California but considers Covington, La., north of Lake Pontchartrain and New Orleans, as home. He was a competitive swimmer and was a member of his college swim team. His first job was as an assistant swim coach for an athletic club training local teams, including the high school team.

While attending Louisiana State University, he went to a job fair and talked with people from the Louisiana Office of State Parks.

“It was at the end of the fair, and there was not much that interested me, and I think I went to their booth because it was green and had pictures of trees and stuff,” Parrie said. “I talked with an interpreter, and I was hired as one at Tickfaw State Park in 2001.”

Parrie said he discovered his career.

“I found out that this is the thing that I have always wanted to do. I just didn’t know it,” he said. “I get to show people cool stuff. I used to lead guided tours of the drainage ditch that ran through the neighborhood, taking kids and adults. Who knew that could be a job?”

He came to work for the Arkansas parks, first at the Plantation Agriculture Museum in Scott, then at Pinnacle Mountain State Park outside Little Rock. But Parrie found his park home at DeGray Lake.

“I’m a water guy, and this was just the place for me,” he said. “It’s big, and there is a lot going on.”

Parrie said that to be a good interpreter for nature, it takes some art and a lot of spirit.

“It is a very personal medium. It is, after all, interpretive,” he said. “We have to use our actions and emotions to forge an emotional connection, helping others understand.

“I look for that magic moment that gives them excitement and builds their enthusiasm. It is a deeply personal thing. If we make that connection, they will come back. We are all storytellers.”

Staff writer Wayne Bryan can be reached at (501) 244-4460 or at wbryan@arkansasonline.com.

Tri-Lakes Edition Writer Wayne Bryan can be reached at 501-244-4460 or wbryan@arkansasonline.com.

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