What's Your Nature?

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My Start, My Growth, and My Return to the North Country

My Start, My Growth, and My Return to the North Country

By Dan French

As the new Project Manager for Nature Up North, I’m excited by the many possibilities in front of me. In my first few weeks I’ve had the opportunity to visit students in Norwood as they learn about the difference between deciduous and coniferous trees. I’ve worked with the encounters on our website as we built our 2024 calendar (for sale now!). I’ve met our many St. Lawrence University interns who work with us to produce blogs and podcasts like this one, and who run our day-to-day social media. The weather hasn’t cooperated yet, but I’m especially excited to work with the communities that dot the North Country through citizen science projects like Monitor My Maple and MOW the Grasse to emphasize the important role we each have to play in our ecosystem. I’d like to say that I had a passion for this area my entire life, but the truth is that my love for the North Country had to be found through the many experiences that have shaped me so far.

Like many of us who are born and raised in the St. Lawrence River valley and in the shadow of the Adirondack Mountains, the outdoors were a pillar of my life growing up. I don’t remember much from my early childhood, but the family videos tell a definitive story. At two years old I had skis strapped to my feet as I confidently walked around the backyard. I went camping every year with family and ate s’mores by the campfire. I  swam in the St. Lawrence River and fished through the ice when the river still froze over each year. I interacted with nature in my backyard in all four seasons whether I wanted to or not, and at the time I took it for granted.

As I got older, the regular weekend ski races my dad signed me up for began to take their toll on my enthusiasm. Hikes in the high peaks became a chore. My body was growing, and its sore and awkward phases were convenient excuses to stay inside and watch TV. Like many teenagers, I was resentful of anything and everything mainstream. Up here, that lent itself well to an aversion to all things “outdoors”. Instead, I focused on sports where I found community with other young men who shared my experience. By the time I graduated from Potsdam High School in 2017, I had decided leaving the North Country was the best course of action. I settled on attending Bentley University, a small business school just outside of Boston. I didn’t know it at the time, and I wouldn’t realize it for a few years, but leaving was the best thing I could have done to highlight how important the North Country is to me.

I had a blast at Bentley and benefited from making friends within a diverse community, but the location of our campus in a suburb of Boston meant that I usually stayed on campus.. There were opportunities to get out and explore the city, but it was enough of a hassle to get there and back to discourage me from venturing in often. Between school years I would return to the North Country and my summer job at 4-H Camp Overlook (in Owls Head, NY) as a counselor and then later as a member of senior staff. Camp Overlook is where my love for the region began to grow; my mood would improve just by being there. I could not be upset while I was at camp. I would later learn in an environmental psychology class about a concept called “place attachment”. The idea is if you experience positive emotions repeatedly in an environment, be that at home, on top of a mountain, in a workplace, or anywhere else, that your body begins to react involuntarily when you return to that place, producing dopamine simply because you’re there.. You’ve formed an attachment to that place.. I hope that you can think of a place where you feel similarly, and if you do, it may give you a glimpse at my motivation. I formed my attachment to an outdoor space, but it was also my workplace, and I’ve been chasing that feeling ever since.

I realized I needed to find a career that would give me opportunities to work outdoors, teach in informal environments, and that would allow me to share my connection to nature with other people, so I went to Montana. I decided when I graduated from college that I wanted my career to take me back to the North Country, but I also knew that if I started my career here I would never leave. Thus, I took an opportunity to work for the National Wildlife Federation (NWF)  in their Missoula office through the Montana Conservation Corps. While in Missoula, I served as the Garden for Wildlife (™) Coordinator for Missoula and the surrounding areas under the supervision of NWF’s Education Coordinator for the state. I learned immensely from the on-the-job experience provided by the program, and it only solidified my confidence that I had chosen the right start for my career. Near the end of my term with NWF I was scrolling through job boards to find the next step in my career when I saw “St. Lawrence University” appear on the screen and I knew I had to apply to be the next Nature Up North Project Manager. 

Now that I’m back in the North Country I’m excited to begin my next chapter. I’ve already had the chance to get out and enjoy the mountains and St. Lawrence River. If the weather starts to cooperate, ski season shouldn’t be too far away either. If you’re interested in forming a stronger connection to our local environment, or just want to learn more about it and get outdoors, keep an eye on our website, https://www.natureupnorth.org/, for updates on events, more blogs, encounters, and more! You can also follow us on Facebook (Nature Up North) and Instagram (@natureupnorth). I hope to see you on trail soon!

By Dan French

Dan French is a 2021 graduate of Bentley University in Waltham, Massachusetts. While there, he majored in Sustainability with minors in General Business and Management. As an undergrad he had the opportunity to intern with the National Park Service's Office of Policy in Washington D.C., conduct self-led research on the Hemlock Woolly Adelgid's impact on North American species of Hemlock, and was elected sectetary of his universities ultimate fresbee team, Bentley Icehouse. A native of Potsdam NY, Dan spent many summers cultivating his love for outdoor education at 4-H Camp Overlook where he was a camper turned staff for a total of 14 years. In his free time, Dan enjoys hiking in the Adirondacks and skiing when the snow allows. Most recently, Dan returned to the North Country after a one year term of service as an AmeriCorps member in Montana. He served as the National Wildlife Federation's Garden for Wildlife (TM) Coordinator in Missoula and the surrounding area. Now that he's back, Dan hopes to expand his connection to the environment through whitewater kayaking, backpacking, and expanding access to the wonders of the North Country to anyone and everyone who wants to tag along.