She can tell you about the birds, the bees, the flowers, the trees, along with the river, the rocks and the trails.
An 11-year employee at Riverbend Park in Great Falls, Marijke Gate, a McLean woman, was recently awarded the Excellence in Interpretive Service Award from the Fairfax County Park Authority for her dedication to teaching visitors to the park about the area’s natural splendor and the creatures that reside in the park.
“Marijke was selected for this award because of the diverse things she does at Riverbend, and she does them all so well,” said Mona Enquist-Johnson, manager of the Interpretive Services program through the Park Authority. “She blends together so many skills and outstanding qualities into what we like to call our recipes for success.”
With a Ph.D. in animal behavior, Gate has “an unmatched ability to work with visitors of all ages. She’s got a love of the natural world that gets people excited about learning about the world they live in,” she said.
A typical week for Gate may include kayaking, storytelling around a campfire, leading nature walks, running a camp, giving interpretive talks, hosting a birthday party, conducting a program for students and changing some exhibits at the park, Enquist-Johnson said.
“She creates these exhibits every month, and she always has new ideas for them,” she said. “She just has so much energy.”
As the assistant manager at Riverbend Park, John Callow has worked with Gate for the entirety of her 11 years at the park.
“She can do any type of program we have here and still finds ways to have fresh ideas,” he said. “She leads adults through nature walks as well as she leads children.”
Among her favorite topics to discuss in the park are wildflowers, but she manages to tie several aspects of life in the park together during discussions and walks, he said.
“Marijke is a pleasure to work with,” he said. “She’s a great storyteller.”
HE REMEMBERS one time Gate was giving a nature tour with several families and began to tell a story, despite the noisy chatter of the adults in the group.
“Some of the families were having picnics or whatnot, and she was trying to bring them all together with a story,” he said. “She started telling her story to the children alone, up in front of her, but by the end of the story, she had captured all their attention, the children and the parents alike.”
Gate had always had an interest in becoming a biologist, and in the back of her mind she envisioned being a park ranger, she said.
“I got my Ph. D. in animal behavior from the University of Liverpool in England and spent some time working as a lecturer in Africa,” she said. “I knew I didn’t want to spend my life doing research.”
Her work at Riverbend Park began when her son started first grade. “I worked as a volunteer for a year before I started my job here,” she said. “It’s so beautiful there, and it’s a very varied job so you don’t do the same thing every day.”
Part of her job includes leading nature walks through various parts of the park and answering questions from the people she leads.
“Their questions make each walk different. I gear them towards their interests,” she said. “We can always find something new in the park.”
Gates is a part-time seasonal employee, which makes the recognition all the sweeter.
“Seasonal employees tend to not get as much recognition for their work, so this is really nice,” she said. “I really appreciate all the work John and Karen put into the nomination. It was really wonderful of them.”
Springtime in Riverbend is her favorite time of the year, with the abundant bluebell fields in full bloom. “It’s my favorite weather time of year as well, and it’s just lovely there,” she said.
For her recognition, Gates received a plaque featuring a photo of a field of bluebells in the park and another of a different location within Riverbend, she said. “The plaques were all reflective of everyone’s specialty,” she said.
Also recognized at the ceremony held in early April were Bill Godfrey from Sully Historic Site, Alan Stull of Frying Pan Park and a team from the Hidden Oaks Nature Center in Annandale.