Kristie Ridgway says her love of nature, and for the Indiana State Parks in particular, began in her childhood during regular family visits to Ouabache State Park in Bluffton. Ridgway said she hopes to spark that love of the outdoors in the hearts of visitors to Clifty Falls State Park where she is the new interpretive naturalist. (Staff photo by Ken Ritchie/kritchie@madisoncourier.com)
Kristie Ridgway says her love of nature, and for the Indiana State Parks in particular, began in her childhood during regular family visits to Ouabache State Park in Bluffton. Ridgway said she hopes to spark that love of the outdoors in the hearts of visitors to Clifty Falls State Park where she is the new interpretive naturalist. (Staff photo by Ken Ritchie/kritchie@madisoncourier.com)
It was at Ouabache State Park where Kristie Ridgway discovered her love of Indiana state parks.

As a youngster, she visited the Bluffton, Ind., property several times a year - rarely missing a program from the naturalist and interpreter on staff.

"She never had a no-show program when I was up there, because I came to everything," Ridgway said.

She remembers eagerly waiting for the program calendar and then meticulously planning her free time around the park events. So, it was fitting that at 9-years-old, Ridgway had already decided on a career.

"For some reason, I wanted to wear these green pants," she joked. "I knew that was the thing for me."

The green pants accompany a tan shirt as part of Ridgway's Indiana Department of Natural Resources uniform as Clifty Falls State Park's new naturalist/intrepreter. She replaced Dick Davis, who retired earlier this year.

Ridgway started at Clifty in May after working five years at various Indiana Parks properties. She has worked as a seasonal naturalist/interpreter for Upper Wabash Interpretive Services - which serves properties in Wabash, Huntington, Wells, Miami and Grant counties - and also at Turkey Run State Park.

Ridgway graduated with a degree in natural resources and environmental management, with a focus in interpretation, from Ball State University.

She grew up in Hartford City not far from Ouabache State Park - where she attended interpretive programs regularly.

"My whole childhood was pretty much spent at Ouabache," she said.

For her first job, Ridgway was given an unpaid internship with Upper Wabash Interpretive Services.

She worked for no pay the first year but was hired as a seasonal naturalist and interpreter for the next three years. The commute was anything but ideal, so she lived at the park during the duration of her job each year.

"I actually was able to pull my grandparents' 1970s camper up there, and I lived in it for four summers," she said.

While she's swapped out the camper for a Madison home, Ridgway plans to bring the same excitement and dedication to Clifty.

"As far as my coming to the park, I'm just trying to make my own footprints here and see what we can accomplish," she said.

Already, she has released a full activity list for June, and plans to continue building on the park's public outreach programs.

"Programming in general is incredible, to be able to share what I love and knowledge about the natural and cultural work around us," she said.

Ridgway's goal would be to expand the programs into day camps, which would include several hours of activities each day for several days. The repeat camps allow children to experience nature at an early age and encourages multiple park visits.

Ridgway said she often saw the same faces every year while running programs and day camps for Upper Wabash.

"(Day camps) are probably one of my favorite things about the job," she said.

Another idea is to develop a Friends of Clifty Park group. Park officials had a call out for the supporting organization last fall but did not receive a strong enough response to form.

State park Friends groups can assist in a wide array of areas, including programming, volunteer field work, funding, public awareness, etc.

Having worked with Friends groups in the past, Ridgway said they play a vital role as the park's voice in the community.

"That, more than anything, is something we definitely want to get off the ground," she said.