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A living outdoors encyclopedia

Tribune file photo Dick Clayton leads a class on snowshoeing at Sibley State Park in this Tribune file photo. He’s introduced thousands of people to outdoor activities at Sibley State Park, with snowshoeing, maple syrup collecting and bird watching among some of the more popular.

For more than a generation, Dick Clayton has defined for us what a park naturalist should be.

Soon, it will be someone else’s turn.

Dick Clayton, a naturalist for 35 years, has announced his plans to retire from Sibley State Park on Dec. 3.

“I don’t know how you can sum it up in words,’’ said Jack Nelson, manager of Sibley State Park. “He really is a legacy.’’

That Clayton has become what Nelson calls the “go to’’ guy, or the “walking Sibley-pedia,” probably all owes to one simple fact

“Every day I came here I made a point of not taking for granted the things I see and experience,’’ said Clayton. “Every day I go to Mount Tom it’s still a beautiful scene. I don’t care if I’ve been up there a thousand times or on one of the trails. I’ve never wanted to take that for granted.’’

What we’ve taken for granted all these years – that Clayton was cut out from day one to be a park naturalist- is not the case.

Clayton was completing his junior year at what was Mankato State University- majoring in biology and physical geography- when the head of parks and recreation studies asked him if he’d be interested in a park naturalist intern position at Lake Shetek State Park for the summer. “Without even knowing what the heck it was I said yes,’’ said Clayton, laughing: “thirty five years later, now I know.’’

He almost quit that summer job. He didn’t realize he’d have to stand in front of people and talk, and he was “frightened to death’’ about doing so.

The only way he could manage it was to thoroughly prepare for each presentation, knowing his subject absolutely to have the confidence he needed.

By summer’s end, he was a changed person and knew exactly what he wanted to do with his life. “I couldn’t wait to get back to college,’’ he said.

He worked as a park naturalist at Flandreau State Park, New Ulm, the next year. That was followed by three years at Camden State Park near Marshall, where he worked about eight months of the year as a naturalist and the remainder as a parks laborer. A funding cut made it a seasonal position. Clayton was on the verge of taking a position with Southwest State University in Marshall when the position at Sibley opened up.

He’s never looked back. That was in 1981, the year the Interpretive and Trail Center building opened. 

Lloyd Bakke had served as a seasonal naturalist at Sibley, and created a strong foundation for the program, said Clayton. He had the opportunity to build it up from there.

Two things have guided him. He’s always known just how special the natural and cultural resources of the park and region are, and loved nothing more than learning about them while introducing others to them. The history of the Veteran’s Conservation Corps and its work to build the park infrastructure, and the conservation ethic that made it all possible, are rich histories he loves to share.

The mix of oak savannah habitat, lakes and prairie make this one of the most blessed areas of the state for its natural resources, according to Clayton. It helps explain why Sibley State Park is one of the top 10 in Minnesota in terms of visitor use. It hosts roughly 200,000 visitors a year.

The other thing that has guided him all these years is his love for connecting people of all ages to the outdoors.

Along with the camaraderie of the staff, he said the thing he will miss most will be those opportunities to connect people with nature. “When you are talking to somebody about something and you can see that it’s clicked,’’ said Clayton. “They now understand something they didn’t know before and you helped them to know a little bit more and have a different feeling about something.’’

When he started his career, a nature walk and Saturday night movies with a 16 millimeter projector were big deals. Today, thanks to Legacy funding, Clayton said park naturalists can do the things only once dreamed about.

Today the park offers inter-active displays, hands on activities like archery, and lots of technology based introductions to the outdoors, such as geo-caching or digital photography.

Clayton is an avid angler and hunter, but knows well that others enjoy the outdoors for other reasons. He can only guess how many people have learned and adapted outdoor activities such as collecting maple syrup or snow shoeing after participating in programs he’s led at the park.

 What he doesn’t know either is how many summer naturalist interns have caught his enthusiasm thanks to working alongside him. The last five years have seen dramatic growth in park naturalist programs thanks to the Legacy funding that has allowed for summer intern programs. Nelson said Clayton has done a tremendous job of leading, not directing the interns as naturalists.

Clayton said only that he considers himself lucky to have known early on that working with and amidst the resources- rather than being office bound- was the right thing for him.

So too was the decision to stay with Sibley State Park. “This is a wonderful area,’’ said Clayton. The whole area, west central, New London, Spicer, Willmar area, has so much to offer. I think (we have) incredible outdoor resources.’’

We know and appreciate them all the more for his work.

Tom Cherveny

Tom Cherveny is a regional and outdoor reporter with the West Central Tribune in Willmar, MN.

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