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Meet Paul Wiemerslage

Aug 03, 2011

Paul Wiemerslage is Au Sable's incoming Environmental Education Coordinator.  In many way, he found himself at Au Sable, through the Environmental Education Internship and while serving as a Program Assistant for Trish.  His experiences in the program led him to pursue a Master's in Environmental Education at Western Washington University.  While completing his degree Paul worked as an instructor for the North Cascades Institute in North Cascades National Park.  Additionally, he volunteered with the Stilly-Snohomish Fisheries Enhancement Task Force, leading lessons designed to raise awareness and appreciation for salmon and salmon habitat. 

Other than his environmental pursuits, Paul has "never learned to sleep comfortably in a hammock, is naively optimistic about his cribbage play, and instinctively trusts anyone with dog hair on them."

We asked Paul some questions about his environmental education influences growing up, his Au Sable experience, and his vision for the Environmenal Ed program:

Where did you grow up?

I never did.  Actually, I grew up in an almost suburb of Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minnesota called Hudson, Wisconsin.  There is a five or six mile buffer of cornfield and forest that separates the true suburbs of the Twin Cities from my hometown.  It is a pretty amazing place actually.  My home was located a stones throw from Willow River State Park.  During the summer, the band of neighborhood kids and myself would voyage with peanut butter sandwiches in hand and Swiss army knife in pocket through the park to swim and fish, and then sneak back to our homes before our parents would call us in for supper.

What were your majors in college?  What Colleges did you go to?

I recently graduated from Western Washington University in Bellingham, WA with a Master’s in Environmental Education.  Prior to that I attended Bethel University in St. Paul, MN and graduated with a degree in Biology and a minor in Philosophy.

What courses did you take at Au Sable?  Any favorites? 

I took a number of courses at Au Sable: Plant Ecology and Biosphere Science at Pacific Rim and Limnology, Insect Biology and Ecology, and Winter Stream Ecology at the Great Lakes Campus.  I don’t think I could pick a favorite.  Every class had something memorable and meaningful.  In Plant Ecology, we hiked to the base of a glacier and crossed several torrential streams in blanket fog to study life zones.  Emerging from the confusion of the fog at the base of a glacier is a dream-like memory.  In Biosphere Science we explored the marine environment of Puget Sound by snorkel!  Here at the Great Lakes campus, Limnology met everyday on a different aqua colored lake to take samples from aboard a pontoon boat.  Insect Ecology revealed to me the fascinating world of insects.  I am a grown man, and I am not ashamed to admit that I enjoy chasing butterflies with a net.  And how could I forget Winter Stream Ecology.  Below zero temperatures; gobs of snow everywhere, yet we found an abundance of life thriving in the streams.

How has your Au Sable experience influenced you?

I think it made me aware of the greater world of science beyond the university.  For whatever reason I bought into the idea that school was enough to prepare me for the outside world, and it wasn’t.  Au Sable’s classes, professors, and staff opened doors that I never knew existed. The world opened up for me here, and I have seen this same thing happen for so many other students as well.  There is something special and deeply engrained in the heart of this place.  It’s difficult to explain, but I continue to see its result.

What role did environmental education play in your early years?

I grew up among a cadre of informal educators comprised of parents and friends who shared their joy of nature with me.  Aside from my father and mother taking me camping and fishing from a very early age; Mrs. Miller, the mother of a childhood friend also heavily influenced me.  During the summer we would pick berries and peas from her garden, hunt gophers with bow and arrow, search for agates and salamanders in the gully, and sell gourds, pumpkins and corn in the fall.  One time we dug a hole twelve feet deep in the middle of the front lawn just to see if we could find the water table.  She encouraged us to explore.  In talking with Trish [Fagg, our former Environmental Education Coordinator] recently, she told me that the first step in being a naturalist is to simply ask questions, and I think she is right.  In that sense, Mrs. Miller taught us to be naturalists by encouraging us ask questions like, “At what color is a raspberry perfectly ripe?” or “What kind of food do salamanders like best?” or even, “Is it possible to dig a hole to China?” and then allowed us the freedom to discover the answers ourselves.  Sometimes we found the answers, sometimes we didn’t, but we were always learning.  I am still not convinced that with the right tools, we can’t make it to China…

What made you realize that Environmental Education was the right vocation for you?

When I was in high school I actually wanted to work in construction.  It took sports and my parents’ relentless insistence to get me to attend college.  When I graduated with my biology degree I was still thinking that construction might be the path for me.  Almost by accident (or divine plan…) I ended up working as an intern for Au Sable’s environmental education program.  The internship only operates for part of the year, so I ended up working construction with my brother in-law during the off-season.  It was while working with him that I realized I would never be satisfied doing something that didn’t directly impact others.  While construction is a great trade, I felt restless and was constantly thinking about purpose in life.   I was being called to put my education and my passion for God and the environment to use.  Environmental education emerged from that moment as a real possibility for me, not just a one-time experience but as a potential career.

What is your hope and vision for the Environmental Education program in the future?

Trish founded this program 34 years ago.  In that time over 120,000 students have participated in our program.  It has trained 230 interns and our reach beyond that is perhaps incalculable.  In the past ten years or so we have seen our numbers slowly decline each year.  There are a lot of reasons for this; chiefly the economic hardships that we and everyone else have had to endure.  That being said, teachers are hard pressed to justify and fund field trips.  In light of the situation I will be working closely with teachers to assure them that Au Sable’s programming is worth the cost and will exceed their expectations.  Where our programming doesn’t meet their needs, we will create programs that do.  Where costs are an issue, we will work to find funding or create programs that work within their constraints.  All options are on the table. Creating a demand and increasing participation will allow us to increase the extent of the internship and the vitality of the organization.  There is no reason we can’t have year round educational programming and outreach for the communities of northern Michigan.

Any last thoughts?

I’m happy to be here.