From the very first interpretive program I did over twenty years ago (where an audience member called out “relax, we’re on vacation” as I fussed breathlessly with a burnt-out slide projector bulb), to the night walks when I lost the trail, my life-as-an-interpreter is littered with “gulp” moments. Looking back, I like them all; mostly because of what each taught me about how to be a better interpreter, and a better human being in general.
My favourite disaster story is the time when I almost drowned my audience.
I was four seasons into interpretation and only one season into interpreting Fundy National Park on the Bay of Fundy in New Brunswick. The park’s specialty was daily ‘tide walks’ - taking advantage of the world’s highest (and lowest) tides to expose visitors to cool animals, such as tube worms and crustaceans. I loved doing the walks, and over the course of my first season at Fundy had become totally engrossed with the flight plan of the Semipalmated sandpiper, the mechanics of a fish weir, and showing people how to lure periwinkles out of their shells by whistling. But, I was always a little jealous of the senior interpreters I emulated. They. Knew. Everything. And, they got to do the special guided walks on the bimonthly spring tide – when the gravitational influence of moon and sun overlap, causing a particularly high (and particularly low) tide. My own programing schedule meant I was never able to attend one of these special walks, but I heard tales of magic and mystery and of creatures resplendent with colour! Groovy as I found them, the mudflat critters were resplendent in shades of, well... brown.
Fast-forward to my second season at Fundy. My supervisor told me that since I was now a 'senior' interpreter, I was to give the spring tide walk. The route was more or less predetermined: I would lead visitors out to a normally underwater reef on a falling tide, look at all the cool stuff, and head back before the tide started to rise again. Having never actually attended this special walk myself, I had no idea what we might find. And, while I was by this time an expert in the sex lives of barnacles, I wasn’t sure I would be able to identify anything more exotic than a starfish (which I was trying to remember to call a ‘sea star’). So, I loaded up my backpack with every intertidal field guide I could find, some magnifying lenses, and a plastic container to temporarily house our finds. My mother was visiting, so I brought her along to help, because you never know when you’ll need your mother, and she was still fascinated by the fact that I knew about things that lived in the sea.
We eagerly set off with a group of about thirty visitors (including five or six young children). After walking across slurpy mud and a few damp barnacle-clad rocks, we arrived at the designated spot - a rocky outcrop with small pools fringed with rockweed. We got right into it: exploring, exclaiming, puzzling, and looking up all this wonderful stuff we encountered in my field guides. There was beauty everywhere: clumps of blue mussels clinging to the edge of the outcrop, saffron-coloured sea stars, prickly sea urchins, endless bizarre worms, unidentifiable clumps of egg-seeming goop, and our big prize – a silver spotted sea anemone.
We were all seriously into it. So into it, in fact, that I didn’t lift my head up even once to look around at our surroundings, until my mother materialized at my side, tugging on my shirt and whispering, “Um, I think you should look at the tide.” Oops! We were stranded on a rapidly shrinking rock that had gone from outcrop to island during the hours we’d been delightedly ogling sea creatures. Trying to sound as if this was entirely part of the plan, I told the group to gather up the field guides and magnifiers, and to get their backpacks on their backs and ready to go. As they looked goggle-eyed at the rising water, I realized it was time to act. As in theatre. “We’ll need to wade!” I said cheerfully, trying to keep the question mark out of my voice. “I think we should carry the kids. The water might be a little deep. Ish.”
Illustration by Allison Roberts
And, off we set, children precariously balanced on various sets of shoulders, my field-guide-laden backpack held high above my head. We waded slowly through rising tide with water up to our thighs. Everyone stayed very focused; there was no talking, no laughing, and we made it back to dry land without mishap. No one slipped, no one drowned, but everyone got thoroughly soaked. I was horrified. I said goodbye to my now-shivering visitors and staggered back to the office, chagrined, to explain to my supervisor that I had almost drowned an entire group of visitors. Under the circumstances, she was gentle: she gave me a talking-to, warned me to prepare myself for some negative comment cards, and we put the matter to bed.
But, the negative comment cards never came. Instead, we got card after card of positive comments about the visitors’ wonderful experience, how their children were inspired to study marine biology, how valuable a place this Bay of Fundy was, and how ‘wow!’ A week later, the park superintendent received a letter raving about the extraordinary experience that this family had with me (Me! Clueless, disastrously dangerous, un-knowledgeable me!). In particular, they enthused, their children had loved how we had to get off the island at high tide. It was an adventure, it was exciting, and they loved the creatures they had seen.
I learned that a sense of danger (perceived danger, not real danger) can create a very compelling experience, allowing people to feel as if they have achieved something special. This sensation can be created by leading your group across a rushing brook, taking them outside without flashlights in the dark, or challenging them to hike to the top of a certain peak. Essentially, we are providing them an opportunity to transform themselves in the environment we are interpreting. I also learned that as the guides, we are the ones responsible for the situation, and we have to find ways to keep part of our attention on the logistics.
Munju Ravindra got her start in interpretation in her home province of Nova Scotia, as a naturalist in Cape Breton Highlands National Park. She has since worked at Fundy, St Lawrence Islands, Gros Morne, and Auyuittuq National Parks, interpreting everything from the sex lives of barnacles to the story of plate tectonics. When she’s not with Parks Canada, Munju runs a tourism and interpretation consultancy, working with communities to create transformative visitor experiences. This has led her to projects in Albania, Costa Rica, Antigua, and all over Atlantic Canada, and into subjects ranging from Siberian tigers to the art of sock-knitting in rural Newfoundland. She is also an award-winning writer.