Lake Itasca Naturalist Tends to Its Treasures

photo by tj turner

Connie Cox is now in her 20th year at Itasca State Park, having spent 18 as its lead naturalist. The state’s oldest and most iconic park contains more than 100 lakes as well as the headwaters of the Mississippi River, where it begins its more than 2,500-mile journey to the Gulf of Mexico. Cox follows in the footsteps of Mary H. Gibbs, who was Itasca’s first female park administrator in 1903.

“Naturalists are the connection for people to the outdoors. We’re the friendly face and the friendly voice that reintroduce people to nature. Itasca is internationally recognized—there are people who come here who say they are seeking out the most beautiful places in the world, and the source of the Mississippi River is on their bucket list. “

“There is a family picture of me in my stroller taken on a camping trip to Itasca when I was just over a year old. I used to watch Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom, and I wanted to be taming wild animals and teaching people. We had a woodlot behind our house, and as a little kid, I would spend all my free time outdoors climbing around the swamps and sloughs.”

“When I was in school in the late ’60s, ’70s, early ’80s, girls went into something socially acceptable, and boys got to do the outdoor stuff.  I do recall when someone asked me what I was going to school for and I said, ‘Biology,’ she said, ‘For nursing?’ I said, ‘No, Wildlife Biology’ and she said, ‘Really?’”

“I’ve always thought that as a woman you have to prove yourself. I was one of the few women in the science program and I had to work a little harder—so I did. I had a reputation with one professor as ‘the woman who has a thousand questions.’ I studied hard and it always made me feel good when I passed his tests, especially when some of the guys thought they had it in their pocket.”

“A classmate told me her mother was looking for summer naturalists, and I was going home that weekend and didn’t have a resumé with me, and she said, ‘Here, write your qualifications down on this.’ I wrote down a list of all my classes and work things. Now people always laugh, especially our new interns, when I tell them that I got my first park job off a Post-It note.”

“In the summer, if you can walk barefoot it’s a direct connection. On the one hand, nature is complicated, but on the other it’s very calming and simple. When I get back to the house everything seems so cluttered—I have to fight the urge to get rid of things!”

“People seem much busier [these days]. They’re more scheduled, they want to get somewhere faster, so some our programs have changed. We still do the traditional hikes and campfires, but we do notice that time seems [shorter] for people nowadays. It’s getting people to slow down. We still share the same messages, it’s just that we use different tools in our bag.”

“Mary Gibbs was not the most popular person in terms of the prevailing economic interests of the time, but she had vision and she had leadership. A lot of people like that had this visionary goal—that it isn’t all about me, it’s for the greater good, not only for today but for the future as well.”