At home in the Great Outdoors

Published 2:57 pm Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Alex Watson is right at home in the outdoors. He’s also right at work.

The 26-year-old Austin resident has a passion for nature, which has translated into a burgeoning career as a naturalist. Formerly an intern at the Jay C. Hormel Nature Center, Watson recently started working at the Forestville/Mystery Cave State Park in Preston, Minn.

“Working in a lab really is boring,” he said. “Sharing the outdoors is much more exciting.”

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Watson gets to share nature as a “caver” — he leads tour groups down below the Earth and shows them all the natural wonders that await. He said it’s tough work — tight corners and bumps and bruises are par for the course — but something he enjoys.

“It’s absolute beautiful wilderness, right here underground in southeast Minnesota,” he said.

Cave manager Warren Netherton said it’s a pleasure to have Watson on board.

“He sees the big picture and can apply it on the local level,” Netherton said.

Netherton has gotten to know Watson the past few summers because Watson has worked at the park on and off in between stays at the Hormel Nature Center. In that time, Netherton said he’s been impressed with Watson’s skill for relating with all types of people.

“He has that knack that many good teachers do,” Netherton said.

Working with and teaching people during tours is one of Watson’s favorite parts of the job.

“A real good naturalist doesn’t just identify for people,” he said. “They promote an understanding of a resource.”

Watson said he enjoys working with all different age groups, but he especially likes interacting with the younger crowd — skills he honed at the Hormel Nature Center.

At the center, he was primarily responsible for working with school groups who were visiting. Watson said his goal was always to breakdown any preconceived “falsehoods” in the young minds, while also making nature fun and approachable. For help with that, Watson had quite the person to look up to — nature center director Larry Dolphin.

“He was a huge catalyst in my life,” Watson said.

The two met four years ago during a bird-watching hike. At the time, Watson was a frequent visitor at the center, but not employed. The hike started before 6 a.m., and Dolphin said he was impressed to see a young person show that type of dedication. By the end of the hike, Dolphin turned to Watson and asked, “Would you like to work here?”

Since then, Watson worked on and off at the center. In the winter, he occasionally helped with ski rentals. Other times, he filled in for people who were sick.

From last September up until the end of May, he worked as an intern, helping Dolphin with children who came to visit. Dolphin raved about Watson’s talent to connect with the kids.

“Alex made me a better teacher after 30 years,” Dolphin said. “He has a really good ability to relate to all levels.”

Now Dolphin has big shoes to fill, but said all of this year’s candidates were very skilled. Inevitably, Dolphin said he drew comparisons to Watson.

“Alex is as good as any (of our past interns),” Dolphin said.

Watson is now taking the next step in his career path. He said he enjoys working at the cave, but he’s also considering going back to school, this time for a master’s degree.

He’s also taking some of the first steps in raising a family — he’s been married three years and has a 5-year-old son, his “outdoor buddy” London.

Watson said he likes Austin, noting that he has a good network of friends in the area. While his life’s path is still to be determined, he did say he could see himself in Austin, saying it’s nice to “bloom where you’re planted.”

And if he stays in Austin down the road, could a return to the nature center be in order? Watson said it’s impossible to say.

“There’s a lot of sorting out to do,” he said.

Dolphin said he’s joked around with Watson about taking over when he retires, but Watson said he can only work hard at what he does and earn whatever comes his way.

But wherever Alex Watson is, chances are you’ll see him outside, doing what he loves.