~story and photos by Ryan Stacy
I’ll admit it: I’m a little…uncomfortable around snakes. So when I found myself enjoying the experience of being between two large reptilian specimens recently—one venomous, even—I was kind of proud of myself.
Credit for my peace of mind that day goes to Patrick Haulter, Interpretive Naturalist at Brown County State Park. As he does almost every day on the job, Patrick was moving throughout the park’s Nature Center, striking up conversations with visitors about the exhibits and answering their questions. In the aisle between the glassed-in homes of a large, black rat snake and a timber rattler, a small crowd of inquiring minds had gathered. Armed with his friendly demeanor and extensive knowledge, Patrick took his cue, and soon had the group engaged in a dialogue about the behavior and habitats of the two animals and their role in the local ecosystem. Before long, I found myself absorbed in the impromptu nature lesson, and forgot my anxiety over the rattlesnake at my elbow.
“I’m just genuinely a people person, with the gift of gab,” Patrick says of his work. “I’m here to help people enjoy the park at its full potential and have a good time. I’m in the service business, really.” And Patrick’s made it his business to turn his education and experience into a real benefit for anyone visiting the park. As Naturalist at Brown County, he designs a range of educational and recreational programs that bring in the public from all over, year-round. “We’ll do wildflower tours and live raptor shows when it’s warm out, and hikes in the dead of winter to a man-made lake that was never completed,” he says.
It was a family trip out west when he was a boy that first sparked his interest in parks work, Patrick recalls. “I thought a woman we met at the national park we visited had such a cool job, and she told me she was a park ranger. That’s when I knew what I wanted to do.” A few years later, he says, a middle school guidance counselor tried to dissuade him, telling him he should consider a more “realistic” career path. “I was the type of kid who took anybody telling me I couldn’t do something as a challenge, so here I am,” Patrick laughs.
After high school, Patrick took a seasonal position at Clarksville’s Falls of the Ohio State Park, and eventually earned a bachelor’s degree in geology. “It blew my mind, learning about the composition of the land right around us,” he says. “I like telling people who visit the park about how Brown County is what happens when glaciers have no place to go. You hear so much about Indiana’s flat terrain and limestone, and here it’s hills and sandstone. It really affects the type of natural systems we have here, and they’re like no place else in Indiana in a lot of ways.”
But it isn’t just his love of science and nature that makes Patrick feel like he’s a perfect match for his role as the only full-time Naturalist at Indiana’s largest state park, a position he’s held for the past three years. “I’ve also always loved history too, and I’ve always loved art and culture,” he says. “That’s another thing that’s so great about Brown County: there’s a big focus on history and culture, as well as a big focus on nature. You see those three things overlap all the time—our love of nature here is a big part of our history, and nature and history are big themes in our culture. I try to bring all three to my job at the Park.”
Patrick admits he’s a little biased in saying a visit to Brown County State Park is a must for anyone planning a trip to Nashville or other nearby destinations. Aside from the breathtaking views, camping, hiking, and other attractions, he says, “There’s just a special feeling here that’s hard to describe. You’ll get that feeling of a genuine experience, and it’s unique to this place. You gain a new appreciation for the natural world and slowing down.” Even for those who don’t consider themselves outdoor types, Patrick recommends simply enjoying the scenery from their car. “Sixteen thousand acres is huge, and driving the park’s roads is an incredible experience. There are so many hidden gems, you’ll be glad you came no matter what you choose to do.”
This fall’s program lineup at Brown County State Park gives people of all ages the opportunity to enjoy learning about nature through direct experience. A number of hikes, animal presentations, and special events will be offered.
For a complete schedule of programs, visit
<https://www.in.gov/dnr/parklake/2988.htm>, or call the Nature Center (812) 988-5240.