Last year I was a part of the Maine Conservation Corps’ Community Leader Program. During my last couple of months I served under Matt McGuire at Sebago Lake State Park. Sebago Lake State Park has an extensive network of day-use trails, gorgeous beaches, well maintained boat launches, camping facilities, playgrounds, and the Songo Lock State Historic site.
In addition to these diverse offerings, there is one other attraction at Sebago Lake State Park. During the summer, Interpretive Ranger Bob Hunt mans the Sebago Lake State Park Nature Center. I missed it last year because I started my service after Labor Day when the Nature Center usually closes. This year, Bob has been joined by Environmental Steward Becky Pratt.
I took some time to visit the Nature Center during this past September. I came not really knowing what to expect. When I arrived I found a shady little parking spot near one of the west campgrounds. The Nature Center was a small brown cabin with a large roofed porch. Inside I found Bob Hunt sitting at his desk: he welcomed me and told me that Becky would be along shortly.
While we waited for Becky, Bob enthusiastically gave me the full tour of the Nature Center. Bob has had his run of the place for a few years and the little building is crowded with displays of his own creation. The exhibits range from live creatures and habitats, to preserved critters, to paleontological specimens. He knows the history of the Park and its surroundings very well, and he told me stories about the park and the Nature Center’s history.
Like Mount Blue and its Nature Center, Sebago Lake State Park’s was originally a building built by the Civilian Conservation Corps. The Sebago Lake State Park Nature Center is smaller than the Mount Blue center, but it is just as crowded with educational displays. One of the first exhibits I came to was a tank filled with water and rocks. Inside, a small black animal swam to and fro with a fluid, undulating motion. Bob informed me that this cute little animal was nothing less than a blood sucking leech!
Far from being revolted, I was fascinated by the little creature. Bob regaled me with stories of his seasonal adventures catching leeches for the display, and also spoke to the medicinal applications of the little blood sucker’s anti-coagulant.
When we reached the exhibits on trees Bob showed me examples of beaver work, a tree trunk with a huge hollow made by successive generations of nesting woodpeckers, and a massive gall from a pitch pine that once grew in the park. The best parts of this section were his “cookie calendars.” For those of you who are not savvy to “chainsaw lingo” a cookie is a circular piece of wood cut off from the end of a log or stump. Bob’s cookies came from a pine and an oak tree that fell during the ice storm of 1998. Both of the trees had been dated to the 1830s and Bob had counted and marked the rings with the dates of significant events. The trees had lived through the years of the civil war all the way up to modern times.
My favorite exhibit was at the back of the building where Bob had assembled a display of rocks and minerals. At the edge of the table there was a pair of rocks containing fossilized sea shells. Both of these rocks apparently originated near an old Dam off the Golden Road in Northern Maine. One of the fossil rocks had been chipped into several pieces by Bob’s pick, and he kept it as a puzzle for children to take apart and assemble. I could easily imagine a curious child taking it apart, and gasping in wonder as they discovered fossil covered facets. I’m in my late 20s and even I was getting a little wide eyed as I played with the stone.
The real substance of the Nature Center wasn’t the exhibits themselves, but the stories Bob could tell about them. Nearly every exhibit had a narrative. Bob impressed me as an eager and energetic story teller. I could tell that many other people felt the same way. I took a look at the Center’s guest sign-in book. Next to nearly three quarters of the names were comments like: “Bob is great,” “It was really cool talking to Bob,” and “Thanks a lot Bob!” During my visit some park visitors wandered inside and soon were lost in conversation with him.
When Becky arrived, I asked her about her own experience: “I was in the Nature Center every Sunday. In the beginning, Bob explained what everything was so I had an idea and could accurately give information to the guests. Being in the Nature Center gave me a chance to actually interact with guests, something I did not do much working on the trails.” Becky seemed as just as eager to hear Bob’s stories as the other visitors.
The Nature Center, however, was less than complete. Bob’s collection of furs and some of his park guidebooks were destroyed when the park’s main office burned down last winter. While the fire caused this material loss, between the surviving features at the Nature Center and Bob’s lighthearted storytelling, I don’t think the visitors were too disappointed.
This three part series on Nature Centers will continue next week with a visit to Ferry Beach State Park. Check it out!
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