This post was written by Warren Verina, Assistant Superintendent at Algonquin Provincial Park.
Stop and rewind 125 years (give or take a few months).
Imagine you are asked to gather rations and supplies, leave the bustling city of Toronto, and head north to the wilderness to what is now known as Algonquin Provincial Park.
You have been tasked with constructing a park headquarters and a network of trails and portages with shelter-lodges to act as patrol cabins for park rangers.
A changing landscape
The land is vast and untamed, and the wildlife is plentiful. Imagine, for a moment, the first Algonquin Provincial Park Superintendent Peter Thomson, looking out onto Canoe Lake and the task set out before him. Did he have any idea what he was starting, and the legacy he would leave behind?
These early park superintendents sought to tame a wilderness for visitors, while the superintendents of today are finding ways to re-wild their parks and navigate an even wilder digital landscape. It’s fair to say that the role of park superintendent has changed a lot since Thomson took the helm of Algonquin Provincial Park nearly 125 years ago.
Same position; two different perspectives
As part of this year’s OP125 celebration, and as a nod to the many park superintendents who have served over the last 125 years, we recently asked a few modern-day superintendents some questions about their own experiences, inviting them to reflect on Ontario Parks past, present and future.
We reached out to recently retired Superintendent Rick Hornsby and one of our organization’s newest superintendents, Seaaira LeBlanc. Both were gracious enough to answer the call, reflecting on their careers with Ontario Parks, sharing some advice with aspiring park rangers, and providing their perspective on the future of Ontario Parks.
Just starting out
Rick and Seaaira both started their careers in unique roles, both involved with visitor services. Rick began his career auditing snowmobile and cross-country ski trails in the North Bay area.
“At the time, the ministry provided financial grants to clubs throughout the province to construct and groom trails in an effort to promote the growing winter sports activities. [Ontario] Parks was assigned the task of visiting and auditing the various clubs to ensure the grant money was used according to set provincial guidelines.”
Rick recalls working with local stakeholders and interest groups, and remembers fondly the appreciation imparted to the ministry at the time: “Everyone truly appreciated and valued the work that Ontario Parks/MNRF performed. I knew then that this was the career for me!”
Seaaira started her career early. In fact, her first position was in Algonquin Provincial Park as a Museum Technician while she was still attending high school.
“We had to run the museum and bookstore, and provide information to park visitors. Being new to the park and the area was a challenge. I made so many friends during my years there, and some that still work for Ontario Parks. It was during this job when I realized I wanted a career as a Park Warden, and that’s what I worked towards from then on.”
Some especially memorable moments
It was clear after hearing from Rick and Seaaira that both enjoy working for Ontario Parks because of the people. Being on a restoration team presented with an Amethyst Award or pinning Ontario Parks’ first-ever “50 Years of Parks Service” gold pin on Ed Ramsay are both fond memories for Rick during his 38 year career with the Ministry.
“In the southwest, we had to conduct our prescribed burns in late March or early April, prior to when most fire staff returned from their seasonal hiatus,” explains Rick, talking about another fond memory. “The Southwest Zone took on the challenge and had parks staff trained for burning. Following one successful day of prescribed burning, I had a photo taken of the Fire Team in a blackened burnt portion of tall grass prairie (it was not so tall after the fire). All members of the Fire Team that day including myself were staff from Ontario Parks. I had a smile from ear to ear!”
Ontario Parks are like a family
Seaaira agrees with many of the sentiments conveyed through Rick’s experiences: “Being able to interact with people and learn new things from them is exciting and refreshing. The staff that work for Ontario Parks are like family. We all have at least one thing in common: we all have the best interest for the future of Ontario Parks.”
Being able to see staff grow their career with Ontario Parks, being able to teach them new things, and provide them with lifelong skills and training has been the most rewarding aspect of Seaaira’s career, to date.
Your action items:
Seaaira has some great advice for aspiring leaders and anyone looking to work for and progress at Ontario Parks: “Remember to learn as much as you can and take as many opportunities as you’re able to in each position you step into, no matter what the position is.”
Seaaira attributes her success to a willingness to learn and grow. “The more you learn about each position, the more it will help you to be able to supervise and manage that program in the future.”
Rick emphasizes the importance of being yourself. “Be a team leader, not the boss! Really get to know and support your team members… Believe and aspire to the goals and objectives of Ontario Parks. Enjoy every day! Before you know it you will be retired!”
Part of this year’s celebration is looking at all of our accomplishments in the past, but also looking into the future of our growing organization and the role of our leaders.
Seaaira has quite a few years before retirement, and she strongly believes “the future for Ontario Parks is something we all need to be mindful of.”
She continues, “Especially for our high-use parks, we need to educate our users to be respectful of our amazing yet fragile landscapes and promote ecological integrity. As park superintendent at Sibbald Point, I am hopeful that I can start this change in our visitors through education, promotional programming, social media and enforcement if warranted.”
Rick, having recently retired, has a different perspective, but one we all can relate to: “My role during my retirement years will be to continue visiting many parks, support and encourage everyone to get out and enjoy our Ontario Parks! Not only is there awesome things to see and do, it will greatly benefit their lives.”
Rick is confident that over time, all Ontarians will come to realize the social and health benefits of Ontario Parks!