As a boy growing up in Mountain Lake, a small city in southwest Minnesota near Jackson and Windom, Mike Dunker knew he wanted to work with nature as a career when his fifth-grade class took a trip to a local raptor center.
“I was holding a raptor on my arm and thinking, ‘Yeah, this is what I want to do when I grow up,’” Dunker said.
His father was a driving force in getting him interested in nature and what it has to offer, he added.
So Dunker tailored his schooling to his chosen career path, going to college at Bethel University, Bemidji State University and Mankato State University.
From there, Dunker worked as a naturalist at Forestville Mystery Cave State Park, Beaver Creek Valley State Park and Great River Bluffs State Park, all in southern Minnesota.
He even worked as a journalist for about six years at the Cottonwood County Citizen.
The funding that kept Dunker’s position in the southern Minnesota state parks ended about a year ago, so Dunker applied for the naturalist position at Wild River State Park that opened after former naturalist Kacie Carlson left last year.
Due to funding cycles, it was a while before Dunker could become the new naturalist after securing the position.
He started just before Memorial Day, and he said he’s enjoyed getting to know the park and the people of Chisago County and surrounding areas.
“This is such a beautiful area,” Dunker said, noting that he plans to keep the programs of the park’s previous naturalists going, such as the prairie care program and the numerous recreation opportunities that have come to define the park in recent years.
Dunker said it’s a bit early to ascertain what kind of new programs he’ll bring to Wild River, but he’s excited to put his own touch on the park.
He said the park is unique in that it has a myriad of ecological diversity.
“Probably one of the draws to this park that really got me is you have the St. Croix River, but you also have the conifers, the hardwoods, a lot of the prairie that’s here and they’re doing the (prairie) restoration,” Dunker said. You have so many different eco communities here, and that brings different wildlife and plant life. As a park, this is really a special place that people want to come out to.”