From catching tadpoles as a child to chasing wolf packs as a university grad, Larry Halverson is, at his core, a man of the great outdoors.
How many people have saved the life of a bear that fell from a tree with CPR compressions? Halverson has; that was just one of a mountain of wild experiences he had working as a Kootenay National Park naturalist.
Based in Invermere, B.C., Halverson identifies himself as a “Gentleman Fly Fisherman” these days, but he’s also known for his time as a Parks Canada naturalist at Jasper, Yoho, Banff and Kootenay national parks, where he spent 38 years connecting visitors to the natural world.
The recent winner of the Canadian Museum of Nature’s Lifetime Achievement Award dedicated his career to inspiring not only park visitors but entire communities to care about and protect the environment they live in through storytelling, humour and good old fun in the outdoors.
“It certainly is [an honour to receive the award], but in one way I felt guilty taking it because there’s an old saying, ‘If you love your job, you never work a day in your life’ — and that certainly applied to me. I love people and I love nature, and the work didn’t seem like work,” said Halverson in an interview with Canada’s National Observer. “I had the best job in the world.”
Based on the hilarious, heartfelt stories told at the local celebration following the announcement, most, if not all, attendees would agree Larry was and continues to be one of the most passionate, knowledgeable and inspiring naturalists out there.
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“Larry engages people, and then the next thing you know, you’ve volunteered for life. Larry has an infectious personality — lots of humour — and it’s very difficult to say no to the man because you want to do your damndest to try to make him happy,” said Ross MacDonald, president of the Wings Over the Rockies Nature Festival and a former Parks Canada colleague and friend of Halverson, in an interview with CNO.
MacDonald originally got involved with the festival — now 25 years running — because of Halverson, who co-founded the event in 1997 after seeing how well-received a presentation on harlequin ducks, or “Harleys,” was for a local gathering of motorcyclists.
Profits from the Wings festival went toward many other nature initiatives, including Wild Voices for Kids, which sponsors environmental education in the East Kootenays; the Columbia River Greenways Alliance, which establishes corridor networks for wildlife and humans; and the raptor rehabilitation cage, Project Take Flight.
But Wings is just one of many volunteer projects Halverson has taken on, offering his time and expertise. Along the way, he’s recruited many others, including MacDonald, to join him.
Halverson’s celebratory gathering drew more than 100 people. Among the highlights was one especially memorable “Halverson story” by MacDonald that demonstrated Halverson’s ability to get folks involved.
It was 1985, and MacDonald was at Parks Canada’s 100th-anniversary event in Kootenay National Park. “Larry was legendary for his ability to organize guided walks, so when he told all of us to wear comfortable clothing, we were excited because we were thinking we were going to get [one],” recalled MacDonald.
Instead, Halverson showed up with plastic bags, vinyl gloves and instructions to collect freshly dropped bighorn sheep scat for a pneumonia viral-load study they were doing. And so, 30 people, including senior managers, ran around trying to pick up steaming sheep scat.
Their reward afterward was a dip in the Radium Hot Springs pools.
“So, we’re sitting in the hot water, laughing, when there’s this human turd that goes floating by. Everybody’s backing up and getting out, and then you hear this cackle from the side, and it’s Larry,” said MacDonald, laughing.
The turd turned out to be peanut butter and cocoa-coated pine cones, courtesy of Halverson’s handiwork.
Known for his humorous, fun approach, Halverson’s love for nature and wildlife has inspired many to learn more about their local environment, including now-retired BCIT instructor and friend of Halverson, Danny Catt.
Before becoming a Fish, Wildlife and Recreation program instructor, Catt, 19 at the time, landed a seasonal position at Kootenay National Park. Halverson was his supervisor. “I can still remember one of my first little field excursions we did with Larry, and I remember he taught me how to identify a bird by its song alone,” said Catt, who eventually pursued graduate studies using this exact technique to study birds in Kootenay National Park.
“He shares his love for the natural world and encourages people to learn more about it, and in doing so, thousands of people have been inspired by Larry to walk gentler on the Earth, on the planet and to care for it… He’s just an amazing human being.”
George Sranko, a seasonal park naturalist with Mount Revelstoke, Glacier and Kootenay national parks and friend, captured Halverson’s love for what Halverson himself would call “wild moments” in a short essay he wrote for the local celebration.
“Larry didn’t like to sit still too long when we were in our 20s. Every day, he seemed to come up with another bright idea for a new adventure,” Sranko wrote in an email to CNO. Some of these included canoeing through untested rapids, snowshoeing up an unexplored canyon and taking cross-country skis up a treacherous cliff edge, poised above another set of rapids.
“One such story involved four of us naturalists — Larry, Kevin Van Tighem, Jan Cadieux and me. Our plan was to ski to Helmet Falls Cabin on New Year’s Day, 1976. We didn’t hit the trail until noon because, of course, we celebrated the night before. One of us carried a bag of baked potatoes, another carried a roast turkey, and I carried a bottle of wine,” he wrote.
Through thigh-deep snow, they slogged up and down steep terrain as daylight waned, eventually guided by a flickering flashlight after Larry’s suggestion to stop for tea around 3 p.m. to watch the sunset.
“Heading downslope through the trees, we skidded from one tree to the next with our arms spread wide, hoping to grab a branch before plummeting into the dark at breakneck speed,” he wrote. After a near-miss — Van Tighem falling into a creek below the trail — and a close-call — Cadieux becoming hypothermic in the -15 C to -20 C weather — they finally made it to the cabin at midnight, but it was under so much snow, they had to dig down to find the chimney.
In the end, they made it inside the cabin, warmed Cadieux up with hot tea and feasted on a well-earned turkey dinner, knowing they would be telling this tale for the rest of their lives.
Even when outdoor adventures lead to risk and discomfort, Halverson believes getting people into nature is the best way to motivate them to care about the environment.
It allows them to ask questions and learn, he said.
“A naturalist is one who loves nature, who can take nature and put it into common words or a common understanding for the public,” explained Halverson. “When you really love something, you’re excited to tell people about it, and I guess that’s been the motivation for me.”