ILWACO — Steve Wood knows how lucky he is. He is in love with his job as an interpreter at the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center at Cape Disappointment State Park.
“When I take my lunch break, I can stare out that big window at the mouth of the Columbia River. If I’m having an exceptionally bad day, I’m gonna go lose myself in the forest. I get to work here,” he said as he motioned to the seemingly boundless beauty of the park. “For me and my personality, parks are very important to me, to kind of maintain my well being.”
Wood moved around a lot early on in his career, with stops in a Colorado and the East Coast before ending up in the Pacific Northwest.
“I wanted to get a good sense of where I wanted to land, and I fell in love with the Northwest,” he said.
Wood, who turns 40 this August, took his first job with Washington State Parks 11 years ago as an interpreter at Grayland Beach State Park in Westport, or as he calls it, “The next beach to the north.” Wood moved to the Peninsula to take his current job at the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center nine years ago.
Why did you become a parks interpreter?
“I took a trip to the Grand Canyon when I was in college and it was a very central moment in my life, that really kinda set the course for a lot of things. (It was) over five days down in the canyon with a good group of friends when the Hale Bopp comet was circling. And it really gave me a better sense of what I wanted to do. It was working parks, whatever way I could. My academic advisor in college was actually well known in the field of (park) interpretation. He got me my first job with Wind Cave National Park. I was also an interpretive ranger in the Black Hills of South Dakota and loved it.”
What does your job at the park consist of on a normal day?
“What’s a normal day? And that’s one thing I love about my job, it’s so diversified. On paper, I’m responsible for volunteers at the LCIC, out at the North Head Lighthouse and the Fort Columbia Interpretive Center, which are open seasonally. I also coordinate the Waikiki Beach concert series. This will be our 12th summer, and we’ve only ever had to cancel one show. It’s a really unique opportunity to provide in a park setting, especially in the setting we have. You’re staring out the mouth of the Columbia River. And when the weather is nice, when the sun comes in at those angles, it’s just magic. It’s like from 7 to 8:30 and it’s just that magic light hour, especially in June. It meets the mission of what it was originally intended to do — bring more locals into the park.”
I get the sense that you love your job, and you previously told me that your passion these days is “insuring that people leave the park with a smile, and see the value in all that parks do — especially kids.” I was wondering what you personally do to help accomplish that?
“I try and do my job to the best of my ability as my job was intended to be done. Create positive, memorable experiences. Just be available. (Parks) recently issued us flat hats (Smokey Bear hats). When we get busy on weekends, when the weather is nice, I like to say, ‘it’s a good day to go walk around in the “flatty,’” and just go walk around. It’s amazing what that hat does from a public perception. People see you so much easier. And when you get people and look them in the eye, it goes a long way. That’s an expectation people have when they come to a park.”
Parks are constantly in financial trouble and don’t receive the kind of governmental support they once did. Why do you think parks are so important?
“Parks offer everyone, in some aspect, the opportunity to walk away from their day-to-day existence and breathe, walk around, listen to the birds, loose yourself in a forest. Whatever it may be. Parks offer us a break, literally. They give us a chance to kind of escape everything that might be weighing us down. Recharge our batteries as much as we can, before we have to go back and face the music again. That’s one thing I’ve discovered in parks, for myself. From a very young age there was a city park that I loved that had a little stream and patch of woods. And I could just forget about school, chores, home life. Parks offer that. And while parks have been called America’s best idea — I mean America has had a lot of great ideas — this is definitely one of them. And it’s worth fighting for.”
I know that you have done some acting, is that what originally appealed to you about doing living history?
“Absolutely. It’s funny, when I interviewed for Washington State Parks I did this little five minute bit that I had created — which I don’t do anymore because it is in no way historically accurate. It was loosely based off of Johnny Depp’s Jack Sparrow (his character from the Pirates movies). And I would also be myself (like a split personality). And I was telling the historically factual story of Robert Grey finding the Columbia River. And then I’d pull out this little paisley rag and I would become John Boyt, this low-raking mate (on the Grey ship) and I would employ this character. It turned a few heads, for good or ill. I enjoyed the opportunity that living history gave me. Living history is a very difficult program to pull off, because you need to have a few pieces in play. You need people to kind of set the stage so that hopefully you don’t get those hecklers. It does make you think on your feet and be witty and somehow work your way through it. But it takes a lot out of you by the end of the day.”
You used to perform as a living historian at the North head Lighthouse, what character did you play and how did you land on that character?
“Carl Leick was the architect of the North Head Lighthouse, and was an architect with the 13th district of the United States Lighthouse Service, so he designed lighthouses in Alaska, Washington and Oregon. This was at a time when they were building a lot of lighthouses, so his signature is on so many in the Northwest. Before I chose my major of park management in college, I studied architecture for about two years. And I’m still fascinated by it, but it was not something I could do for a profession. I put in the research and came to really appreciate the man. Before he designed lighthouses, he was an architect in private practice and designed the Flavel House (in Astoria). That’s one of what many would consider his crowning achievements. I saw a master. Someone who had honed their craft to this razor sharp edge. And I was really drawn to that creative genius.”
If you were recruiting someone to work for Parks, what would your pitch be?
“There would be some harsh truths. You’re not going to get rich doing this so you better enjoy it. But if there’s even a scrap of you that enjoys it, I think you’ll find that it’s a very redeeming line of work. I can, most of the time, feel pretty good at the end of the day for the work that I’ve done. Also, be ready to work with people. If we don’t have people coming to parks, then we’re a wildlife refuge or something. Parks and people go hand in hand. That goes back to its original allure for me.”