Thanks to a rock band, pursuing a career in getting kids and adults out into the natural world

When Kirk Gentalen talks about what got him thinking about pursuing a career in environmental education and management he doesn’t point to the influence of a favorite teacher or a childhood spent camping and hiking. Instead, he credits the Grateful Dead.

“It was going to the band’s concerts in high school and being exposed to different ways of thinking. Beyond the stage there were always booths devoted to different topics and issues—simple things like recycling that I hadn’t thought about before.”

Another formative experience for the New Jersey native was spending three weeks studying milkweed on Hardwood Island in Blue Hill Bay near Mount Desert Island. “I went to my guidance counselor at the end of my junior year in high school and said I wanted to do a summer science camp,” Gentalen recalls. “He went to his filing cabinet and picked out the thinnest file in the drawer. It was about the Maine Island Ecology program on Hardwood Island. That seemed perfect.”

While at Hardwood, Gentalen traded t-shirts with another camper. “The one she gave me was covered with banana slugs, which got me interested in the University of California Santa Cruz—the Fighting Banana Slugs!” At Santa Cruz Gentalen majored in Environmental Studies. Following graduation in 1992 he began working in environmental education, mostly at three- or four-month summer camps.

Gentalen’s choice of which camps to apply to for work was often motivated by a desire to see some bird or environment that piqued his interest. “I left California for Ohio—the warblers out there are just not as cool as back here so I ended up back east a lot. Here there are many more species and many more niches. I like the diversity and seeing how different niches developed.” His summer travels eventually took him to Wisconsin, Tennessee, Cape Cod, Georgia, Washington state and back to California. Along the way he met up with Amy Palmer, to whom he is now married. While out in California the couple also spent several summers doing eco-tourism work in Homer, Alaska.

As Palmer worked on completing a master’s degree in teaching the couple contemplated their next move, this time, they thought, to a more permanent location. “We had things lining up in California when we decided that maybe it would be good to relocate to a place closer to Amy’s parents in upstate New York,” Gentalen says. “So I said, how about getting a job on an island in Maine? And within a couple of weeks that’s what she did—she got a job teaching at the school on Vinalhaven.”

Gentalen and Palmer spent 11 years on Vinalhaven, from 2004 to 2015. That is where their son, Leif, who is now eight years old, was born. Gentalen again found summer work at Tanglewood Camp in Lincolnville and with a whale watch business in Bar Harbor. But in 2007 he began working year-round for the Maine Coast Heritage Trust (MCHT), taking the post of “regional steward” for Vinalhaven and North Haven, a position he still holds.

The work of each MCHT regional steward differs according to the specific needs of each region and the skills and experience each brings to the job, Gentalen explains. “My main job is to provide access for open space on the islands through trail maintenance or forestry, like attacking invasives, building bridges or waterbars to prevent erosion, or chain sawing. I also monitor easements—mainly for views either from the water or the land—to make sure people are doing what they’ve agreed to do.”

And because of his background in environmental education, especially with young people, a big piece of Gentalen’s job is to do outreach with schools. “I work with kids on Vinalhaven, but I also do a lot of walks and talks with kids around the state.” Although Amanda Devine is the regional steward for the St. George area, this past year Gentalen worked with her and St. George School science teacher Alison England and her 8th grade students studying vernal pools in the Bamford Preserve at Long Cove.

While his work for MCHT had familiarized him with St. George, his ties to the town have grown stronger since he and his family moved to St. George from Vinalhaven in 2015, when Palmer took a job teaching at the St. George School. Last year, for example, Gentalen became a Cub Scout den leader here. He also has helped out with the Girl Scouts and begun leading occasional nature walks for the Jackson Memorial Library.

Gentalen and his family also recently bought a house near the end of Watts Avenue in Tenants Harbor. Most exciting for Gentalen is that their new property reaches right down to the Tenants Harbor marsh not far from a beaver dam. “We totally lucked out on this spot.” Gentalen says. “The other day I photographed 10 different species of dragonflies! I’m also a big otter guy. The first time I went down to the beaver dam I went down to this point of land and found an otter latrine. I was standing there looking at it when I heard this snorting sound. I turned around and there were two otters looking at me.”

Encouraging people to get out into the natural landscape is something Gentalen enjoys and believes stimulates conservation mindedness. “We’ve been doing these Thursday morning bird walks out on Vinalhaven for seven years. And when we first did them there weren’t that many hikes offered and people came along just to see where we were going to go so they could come out and hike later. Anytime you can get people out there is just great. It has just been impressive to me, from when I was a kid until now, how much more conscious people are of the environment.” —JW

PHOTO: Julie Wortman

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