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Larkins fulfills goal on Sanibel as an education ranger

By Staff | Oct 14, 2015

A highlight of Ranger Becky Larkins’ trip to Alaska was spotting wild beluga whales in Anchorage. PHOTO PROVIDED

A love for animals guided one ranger into pursing her dream as an education specialist on Sanibel almost six years ago.

“This has been my longest appointment, but my favorite because the education ranger has always been a goal of mine,” J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge Education Ranger Becky Larkins said.

An initial desire to become a veterinarian changed .

“I didn’t want to be a vet. I didn’t want to see the end . . . people taking animals out of nature,” she said.

While attending Ohio State University, Larkins took extra courses in history and education, which ended up becoming the right career path for her.

J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge Education Ranger Becky Larkins spent five weeks in King Salmon, Alaska at Becharof National Wildlife Refuge this summer. PHOTO PROVIDED

“By the time I graduated from Ohio State I had a double degree . . . animal science and history education,” Larkins said. “Now I use my teaching degree as my main focus. I still have my biology background. That really helps you when you are teaching about nature.”

Larkins incorporates a Cherokee proverb into her teaching, “We don’t borrow the land from our ancestors. We borrow the land from our children.”

“That’s what I live by. I teach that in almost every program,” she said. “You need to remember that this is not our land, it’s our children’s. We are giving our land to our children . . . use it wisely.”

Two days after graduating from Ohio State, Larkins applied for an internship at Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services. Within two weeks she gave her first program and fell in love.

From there she worked at Salt Plains National Wildlife Refuge in Oklahoma as the outdoor recreation planner before a position opened at “Ding” Darling.

She said it was a huge culture shock traveling from Oklahoma to Sanibel. In Oklahoma, the closest grocery store was an hour away and the only traffic she dealt with were cows crossing the road.

“I love what I do,” Larkins said. “The nature world is fascinating. It’s all connected and I love the connections.”

This summer, Larkins traveled to Alaska, where she spent five weeks in King Salmon at Becharof National Wildlife Refuge conducting an intense science and culture camp for high school students. The camp took six local area students, five of whom completed the course, from surrounding Eskimo villages into a remote location on the refuge for six days.

“They can only get to the remote camp by airplane,” she said. “It’s a float plane because they land on the Becharof Lake.”

The lake is the largest in the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Services covering approximately 300,000 acres. Larkins said Becharof is the second largest lake in Alaska.

Before traveling to the remote area, she spent four weeks prepping for the camp. Larkins had to put all of their food into bear cans, as well as all of the equipment and programs she needed into tupperware.

She taught the students about science at a rustic campsite that had no electric, or WiFi. They only had satellite phones and radios.

The views at the camp were breathtaking and educational because the lake overlooked Mt. Peulik – a volcano, as well as a glacier. Larkins said they were in the ring of fire and had the opportunity to see the climate change around the volcano.

“It was great,” she said smiling. “The weather can change so quickly there. There were two days that we couldn’t even see across the lake because of the cloud cover. It rained a little bit.”

One of the activities included a hike to Bear Creek, which was about a mile long. Larkins said they had to cut their hike short due to a bear standing in front of them and another that came out behind them.

“We were actually sandwiched between two large brown bears,” she said. “We had to stop what we were doing and get the kids all wrapped up and hike back to safety. A safe location to where we could observe the bears from a distance.”

Brown bears are the same size as grizzly bears, Larkins explained, adding that grizzly bears live within the interior of Alaska, while the brown bears live on the coastal side.

“I was apprehensive because I was in charge of the students,” she said of spotting the bears. “There was a cultural aspect to the camp and we actually had an Eskimo native and he had a rifle. Not to hurt the bears, but shock them enough to realize, ‘hey this is not a good behavior.'”

With no internet, Larkins said one of her students, Caleb used his imagination and created a softball from an old T-shirt and duct tape. After an old bat was found in the cabins and plastic discs from a habitat program were used for bases, the campers played many softball games during their free time.

One of the requirements of the camp was keeping a nature journal. The students were in charge of a vegetation square. They had to record the temperature, soil composition and draw sketches of their square.

Some of the highlights of her trip included watching red foxes jumping the tundra hunting, spotting black turnstone birds and building a campfire on the side of a remote lake roasting marshmallows.

Although those memories were special, seeing wild beluga whales in Anchorage sent her over the moon.

“Beluga whales are my favorite and to see them wild I was over the moon happy with that. I was so excited,” Larkins said.

Follow Meghan @IslanderMeghan on Twitter.