As a boy growing up in northern Illinois I loved playing outdoors. In my teen years I attended summer camps and worked outdoor jobs. I counseled at a Christian camp one summer during college and thought: What a great profession this would be. Following seminary and a brief youth-director stint, I learned of a ministry that does summer backpacking in the mountains of Oregon with troubled youth. It seemed like a dream opportunity. That experience launched my outdoor ministry career. Through the years as I have worked with folks of all ages, my goal has been to help them “rediscover the outdoors.” Job 37:14 motivates me: “Listen to this, Job [Gary]; stop and consider God’s wonders.”
Our creator God instills in us interests and abilities unique to our personalities. Our lives are enriched as we find out what kind of person God has created us to be and develop those inner God-given strengths. We grow happier in life and more likely to reach our full potential. I am still in awe that God helped Susan and me be actively involved in the formation of Tilikum and in training leaders in camping across Russia and around the world. And for many years I was able to teach courses in camping at George Fox University as professor of outdoor ministries. Wow! To then complete a doctoral program on rediscovering the outdoors—double wow!
Nature is also my focus in photography; I call myself an advanced amateur. My hobbies give me satisfaction and give others joy and make them more aware of God’s creations.
So—has retirement put me on the shelf? Hardly. Since 2008 I have become active as a volunteer naturalist at the Tualatin River National Wildlife Refuge in Sherwood, Oregon. My time at the refuge continues to nourish my lifelong love of the outdoors. I find joy in seeing scouts, elementary school outdoor ed groups, families of homeschoolers, men on parole from jail, and others discover some “nature nugget” while we walk the trails of the refuge.
Since the 1970s, when I was director at Tilikum, I have ardently worked at introducing children in particular to the wonders of creation. One of our most popular winter programs at the refuge is Puddle Stompers for preschool children. After stories in the classroom, the kids don green raincoats and boots with frog designs. Then out on the trail we look for the biggest puddles to jump in, filling boots and getting everyone wet. What fun! Why is this program so popular? Perhaps parents wish they could have jumped in puddles when they were kids. But I hope these experiences will permanently lodge in the memories of children the fun of being outdoors, even in the winter.
This is the first time in all my years of outdoor ministry that I have worked in a totally secular environment. I’ve enjoyed just being myself, relating to children and others as a granddad who cares about them and loves to be outside with them. I get to live out this fondness for the outdoors and my Christian worldview in a federal government refuge, working alongside people who for the most part do not share my Christian convictions or lifestyle. And yet I feel accepted and respected by my coworkers because of my enthusiasm and knowledge of working with children. I promote the ideals we have in common to make the refuge a positive environment; I do not preach or condemn. I do, however, pray.
Here is one example. Erin is manager of the refuge. During her first day on the job she watched me lead a group of Puddle Stompers. Her response: “I cried! I was so overcome with joy and pride—I thought—he gets it!” This was the beginning of our growing friendship. I was drawn to Erin as a person because she has overcome her disability of deafness and displays inspiring leadership at the refuge. One day with excitement, anticipation, and cautious optimism, Erin told the staff and volunteers that she would be receiving a cochlear implant. I shared the others’ excitement and told her I wanted to pray for her. I pledged to her that I would trust God to help her remain calm and optimistic, to assist the doctors as they use their skills, and for a positive outcome. She seemed to appreciate my concern. Since her successful surgery, almost every time I see Erin I ask what new sounds she has to report.
I am involved at the refuge because, as a retiree, I want to continue to make a contribution to the betterment of our small part of this planet and do something I believe pleases God. I’m still an outdoor enthusiast, and I still love connecting others to our beautiful surroundings.