LAVALETTE — Melissa Cardina’s official title is “park naturalist,” but that only describes part of what she does.
“It’s not just about nature,” she said. “It’s about event planning, recreation planning and making sure everyone is happy.”
Cardina is one of 12 to 17 naturalists hired each summer to supervise recreation in West Virginia’s state parks. Some of them have extensive backgrounds in biology or ecology, but most of them don’t. Cardina, a graduate student in public recreation at Marshall University, is fairly typical.
Wednesday through Sunday of each summer week, she works up a list of activities designed to draw campers at Beech Fork State Park out of their RVs and into the sunshine.
“The idea is to find a way to get people outside and keep them happy while they’re there. They don’t always want to go on a nature hike; sometimes they want to get lost in a game or a sport of some kind,” she said.
In fact, since she started the job on Memorial Day weekend, Cardina has learned that nature hikes are among the least popular activities she offers.
“They told us when we went through training that trail walks are the hardest activity to get people to come to,” she said. “Most people would rather not go hiking with a guide. They generally prefer to go by themselves or with friends.”
Even so, Cardina has found that there are those who actively seek out nature-related activities.
“There is one lady who comes on every one of my hikes,” she said. “She asks me to e-mail her or call her any time I have one. We’ve become Facebook friends, and she posts pictures she’s taken on the hikes.”
Activities vary from park to park. Cardina said a naturalist’s first job is to take a look around to discover what facilities the park has to offer.
“Here at Beech Fork, we have Beech Fork Lake and a nice network of hiking trails, but we also have volleyball courts, baseball fields, basketball courts and tennis courts. My job is to get campers interested in using the resources we have here at the park.”
On Wednesdays and Thursdays, when Cardina’s duties include manning the park’s boat dock, she schedules activities that can be held nearby.
“I’ll set up games of cornhole, or bocce ball, or maybe even some paddleboat races,” she said. “I really like the paddleboat races. The campers get really excited about them, but then they come back exhausted. It’s fun to watch.”
Activities ramp up on weekends. Campers’ favorites include “Movies Under the Stars,” an outdoor movie theater that offers family-oriented movies such as “Finding Nemo” and “The Nut Job;” hayrides; beach volleyball games; softball games; “water games,” which Cardina said usually begin with water-balloon tosses and squirt-gun target practice, but usually devolve into flat-out water battles; and, of course, nature walks or trail hikes.
Not surprisingly, the job keeps Cardina on the move almost constantly.
“When I got hired, the secretary at park headquarters said to me, ‘You’re the one who’s going to be running around all the time, so get used to it,’” Cardina said. “She was right.”
Cardina wishes more people knew about the variety of activities offered in the park during the summer.
“I think local folks should give the park a chance,” she said. “A lot of the people [at Marshall] don’t seem to have heard of Beech Fork, even though it’s only 15 minutes away from Huntington. It’s free to get in here, and all the activities are free. Folks don’t realize what they’re missing.”