Place is a huge factor in the life of this interpreter on the world’s largest temperate rainforest - the Tongass National Forest in Alaska. Born in California, raised in the “country-country” parts of Texas, educated at two colleges in a Midwestern rust belt city and south-central Maine, add in a few years of living and travel in four western states and her Korean heritage and now she wants to be where she can see the ocean or trees and take a short walk and be out in the woods. The allure of the natural environment in southeast Alaska has helped create her fusion of interests: being a real natural-foods foodie, passionate about working with kids and being committed to community. Oh yes, and just ask her about her interest in slime molds.
How long have you worked for the Forest Service?
I worked as a seasonal employee for a while as a visitor services information assistant but then a permanent seasonal employee position opened up and I’ll soon celebrate my one-year anniversary. I work 13 pay periods (a pay period is two weeks) performing interpretive and visitor services work. Additional work may be available depending on the forest’s needs. This year I only had two pay periods off so it was very interesting and exciting because I had other work over the winter including training related to the National Environmental Policy Act and some public affairs assignments. I’m transitioning back into my visitor services role now and getting ready for the summer. It’s a great feeling. My first day as a permanent employee was a wonderful milestone.
Why did you want to work for the Forest Service?
After college, I worked as an interpreter for the National Park Service and that experience made me realize I enjoyed working for public lands resource agencies.
When I moved to southeastern Alaska, I saw how the Forest Service is a huge part of people’s lives here. It’s so important because the Tongass National Forest is southeast Alaska for the most part. It surrounds us, it’s how people here make their living and it’s where they go for food and fish. I knew that if I wanted to be involved public lands, the Forest Service plays a huge role in the community.
What makes you get up in the morning, put on your Forest Service uniform and go at it?
I love my job because I’m really involved with the community. It’s great to have a job where I work with lots of children and get to hike with them, help them get outside, get connected with nature and name the things we find. They’re lucky kids to get to grow up here. I enjoy helping them explore their backyard.
Being on an island has a different dynamic. Wrangell is a small town - a little more than 2,000 people on the island of Wrangell. You get drawn into lots of things as part of the community and when you participate you really become vibrant. I’m a DJ for the community radio station, I’m on the town’s convention and visitors board, and now I’m on the Wrangell’s roller derby team. Being part of the community makes you understand how things tick.
What are your responsibilities?
Well my official job title says visitor services information assistant but it doesn’t really cover all that I do. Everyone around here just refers to me as the district interpreter.
It’s all about sharing information about the resources we have on the Tongass and working with the community of Wrangell and helping them connect to all this really cool stuff in their backyard. Our job is to explain the Forest Service role and resources and how we can help people.
Part of my job is also working with visitors. Wrangell is a niche market for the small cruise ships, so I work with the town’s visitor center where I meet a lot of people coming to see southeast Alaska. People are so happy to be here because they’ve saved to go on their trip of a lifetime. I love telling them about Wrangell-- what makes this community unique, what the Forest Service offers them here.
What’s special about the Wrangell area?
The people and the land. It’s a beautiful place, but also a place where people still rely a lot on what the forest and the land have to offer them. So many people make their living off of resources like trees, the forest’s recreational opportunities, and fish. The Forest Service plays a big role in managing the habitat to ensure we have great fish runs. We also have people who rely on subsistence hunting and gathering. Our role is to maintain habitat for a sustainable wildlife population so people will be able to go out and hunt.
One year, we had a traditional food expert come out and offer a few talks. So I’ve discovered an interest in finding what you can eat in the woods. It’s fabulous to be able to go on a hike and know I can eat this or that.
What types of foods can visitors find?
Well for the beginner, I’d recommend berries because they are recognizable. I have a big plan this year to find different things throughout the seasons, like seaweeds. My mom is Korean and her father was a fisherman so she grew up eating pretty much anything you can get from the ocean. A lot of things that people might find odd I really enjoy, like octopus which I beg from fishermen friends to share with me instead of cutting it up for bait.
We have different types of seaweed. Though I haven’t found nori in Wrangell, the black seaweed used in sushi that most people are familiar with, we have lots of others. One that is easy to find because it grows in the upper intertidal zone is called rockweed or popweed (Fucus spiralis) because of its inflated bladders that you can pop and the gelatinous stuff oozes out. It’s all edible so I want to experiment and make it into something wonderful that everyone will want to try. I’ll probably start by trying it out on guests at my dinner parties!
What’s a week in the life of an interpreter like on the Wrangell Ranger District?
Well in the summer - the height of our interpretive season - I’m constantly preparing for the next program to give. We work with partners like the local parks and recreation department to take kids on morning hikes once a week and offer a weekly public library program with a nature-themed story hour. Depending on the weather, we go outside or stay indoors for an activity based on books that tie in with the library’s summer reading program. For example, we helped kids make bear masks as part of the local bear festival. So after this little boy finished his mask, I grabbed a skull and just started growling and role playing with him to imagine what the animal might do if it encountered a bear.
We offer Forest-Service led hikes and a weekly Friday night campfire program at the Nemo campgrounds in the summertime. Following a potluck hosted by our campground volunteers, there’s a mix of activities, trivia questions or craft workshops. Sometimes local experts in the community or visiting Forest Service employees will offer talks. We always get a mix of locals and visitors which is fun because visitors get a good taste of what Wrangell is all about.
I also help plan events and bring in speakers for festivals like the Stikine River Birding Festival in April. Other events include a float for the 4th of July, the annual Bearfest in July and smaller events.
Have you had any interesting or unusual experiences in your career?
Every day! Even a trail can be a different experience day to day. It’s really fun hiking a trail with kids. The program you’ve planned to talk about may suddenly take a turn when you come upon the unexpected like mushrooms or fungus. One week they are not there and then another week, they’ve popped up. Then there are the slime molds (not part of the fungus family) and they come in many colors. You can kind of guess what they’re like. So if we find these, we don’t hike as far as planned because you end up spending half an hour poking and looking at the slime mold. These slime molds, the fungus or the bug programs may not attract the adults but kids are kids-- and I love that they love them.
You’re so enthusiastic about your job. What motivates you?
Oh that’s part and parcel of being an interpreter. To be a good interpreter you have to be enthusiastic about what you’re talking about or people aren’t going to care. You have to show that you care about a particular item or area, even if it’s a slime mold. I’m always looking for something out in the woods that’s cool to point out to people.
I’m just enthusiastic about Alaska and southeast Alaska. The Tongass offers so many places that just feel so wild and places to find yourself. We have great wilderness areas and other places where you can boat over to a little island and still feel so connected to the land.
May is Asian Pacific national heritage month. What does your Asian heritage mean to you?
It’s definitely a source of pride. I’ve spent a lot of my life in small, rural towns that aren’t always very diverse, so my heritage is part of what makes me stand out and feel unique.
Though I will say that when I was a kid I think I identified more with just being an American. It’s really cool that we live in a country where diversity is accepted and you can think of yourself that way, which is why I can’t imagine living in a previous era.
I feel my biggest connection to my Korean heritage is food, which is rather appropriate, since food is a huge part of the Korean culture. One thing I learned after spending time in Korea is you can’t visit anyone’s house without being offered food, even if you just ate a huge meal out with them! I like to use the natural foods that you can collect around here and then use a Korean cooking style to create my Alaskan-Korean fusion creations. That’s what people know me for. They ask ‘when are you going to have your next Korean dinner?’