Passing along the Love

Love Creek County Park naturalists, from left, Lamanda Hilty, Pat Underwood and Derek Pelc are shown at the 200-acre park on Huckleberry Road in Berrien Center. Underwood will retire from his full-time position July 20 after 35 years. Pelc took over as chief naturalist earlier this year from the retiring Kip Miller, who worked at the park for 37 years, and Hilty started last week as assistant naturalist.

BERRIEN CENTER — There is plenty of love flowing around Berrien County’s Love Creek Park – love of nature.

It’s something that its naturalists, Kip Miller and Pat Underwood, shared with the public and each other for more than 30 years.

And now it’s something they are passing along to their successors, Derek Pelc and Lamanda Hilty, upon their retirements. Miller stepped down as chief naturalist after 37 years earlier this year, and Underwood, who came to the park in 1985, will leave his position as naturalist on July 20.

Pelc, who came to Love Creek about five months ago, took over Miller’s position, and Hilty started last week as assistant naturalist.

The three naturalists, along with Miller, share a lifelong love of the outdoors and animals, and it’s something they want to pass along to park visitors.

“I want to get people outside and get them moving,” said Pelc, a Nebraska native.

Hilty, a Niles native who still resides there, had previous experience at Love Creek as a summer employee. After earning a degree in environmental biology she worked at Fernwood Center and watched another employee conduct a school group and thought “that would be a really cool thing to do.”

She called the position at Love Creek “my dream job,” and she is looking forward to more students coming, starting in the fall.

Underwood was also bit by the naturalist bug early on by watching a colleague share his knowledge with visitors at Yellowstone, where he worked after attending Western Michigan University.

“I thought, I guess I don’t want to be in the fire tower, I want to be with people,” he recalled.

He also worked at Fernwood and became acquainted with Miller, who came to Love Creek in 1983, and was offered a position.

When they started together, the only structure the park had was a picnic pavilion. Part of that was later enclosed for office space, and the remainder was enclosed for educational programs.

That was what they had for 27 years, until the current lodge was built in 2001. Underwood said that up to Kip’s last day they still marveled that they had been gifted this facility.

Berrien County’s park system was equally constrained in those days. There was only Love Creek, Madeline Bertrand and Rocky Gap. The property for Silver Beach was acquired in 1989. The most recent acquisitions have been the Galien River and Paw Paw River parks.

Along the way Love Creek has expanded its boundaries and offerings. They had cross-country skiing when he first started, and have since added mountain bike trails for summer and winter riding, and highly popular dog trails, Underwood said.

Pelc already has expanded the bike offerings through a partnership with Whirlpool Corp. and Outpost Sports for the donation of mountain bikes for rentals.

Love Creek has been expanded with the donation of two parcels of adjacent land. While this provides a buffer along the park’s northern border, Underwood regrets that they were not able to create a similar zone along the southern side.

Underwood and Miller have shared a love of birding, and together helped develop the annual Birdathon competition and fundraiser for area nature centers, which had its 31st gathering last year. The new naturalists said this is a tradition they expect to continue, especially Hilty, who said she enjoys birding with her husband.

Pelc and Hilty said that Kip and Pat did such a great job maintaining the park that there aren’t a lot of improvements that need to be made, and they will be looking at building on the work of their predecessors.

Miller has moved to Colorado. Underwood, a Stevensville resident and Benton Harbor native who later attended Lakeshore schools, will continue part-time at Love Creek, at least until winter. He hopes to focus on such areas as removing invasive plant species from the park.

He also is looking forward to having weekends off and traveling with his wife, Diane.

What advice does he have for the next generation of naturalists?

“Keep being friendly, and keep doing the little things,” Underwood said. He recalled the advice of former county parks director Randy Rood. “He said ‘Click the pen.’ If someone asks for a pen, click it for them so it’s ready to use. It’s something Kip and I always tried to do, to make everyone’s visit as enjoyable as possible. And with these guys, I’ve already seen that.”

Contact: jmatuszak@TheHP.com, 932-0360, Twitter: @HPMatuszak