7 Questions for Yosemite Naturalists

7 Questions for Yosemite Naturalists

A Yosemite Conservancy expert-led backpacking Outdoor Adventure leads participants to Clouds Rest and Half Dome, with breathtaking views of the high country along the way. Photo: Karyn O'Hearn.

Above: A Yosemite Conservancy Outdoor Adventure backpacking trip. Photo: Karyn O'Hearn

The naturalists who lead our year-round Outdoor Adventure programs have decades of experience exploring, studying and sharing the natural world. Many have spent decades in and around Yosemite, where work and play overlap amid geologically fascinating features, snow-fed lakes and rivers, and ecosystems that support an astonishing array of plant and animal life.

We asked three of our naturalist guides to share a small piece of their Yosemite stories: Pete Devine, our resident naturalist, who has taught in the park for more than 30 years; Graham Ottley, who has spent more than a third of his life exploring the Sierra, including as a guide for the Conservancy and other organizations; and Andrea Canapary, who is new to our team but not to Yosemite.


1. What made you want to become a naturalist guide?

Pete: Going on ranger walks as a kid and being inspired by how they shared their parks.

Graham: I was interested in becoming a naturalist because of a personal interest in our natural world. Being a naturalist requires constant study, wonder and learning of the world around me. It is a lifetime pursuit. I know I will never have "arrived" as a naturalist but that it will be an incredibly fascinating journey along the way.

Andrea: Yosemite has been my home for twenty years.  I enjoy the awe-inspiring and unique views, the changing light and skies, the plants, lichen, rocks, wildlife, insects, the power of moving water, the songs of the birds and the silence of the wilderness, the variety of weather and biodiversity at different elevations, the night skies and so much more.  Thinking about the history of the people that were here before, the lifestyle of the Miwok, the pioneers and the first guardians, artists and lovers of Yosemite fascinates me.  My gratitude runs deep in regards to the forward thinking of John Muir and others in bringing awareness about preserving natural places for future generations.  The desire to share this with our park visitors, whether they are here for a few hours or a week, is an honor and privilege and is what made me want to become a naturalist guide.

In addition to all of this, I have always believed strongly in Yosemite Conservancy’s mission to help preserve and protect the park and I see positive results of their work everywhere I roam.  I am honored to support this by connecting people with Yosemite and building their appreciation and understanding of this place.


An Outdoor Adventure group hikes along the shore of Elizabeth Lake, toward the base of Unicorn Peak. Whether on day hikes or multi-day backpacking treks, visitors benefit from an immersive experience, learning from naturalist guides in a stunning setting.


2. Where did you train to be a naturalist?

Pete: My best training was from a mentor at Mass Audubon (the Massachusetts Audubon Society). I also received training at college in Colorado, and through the many diverse professional experiences that brought me here.  The fun part is that the training is never finished…

Graham: I studied Outdoor Education and Environmental Studies at Montreat College in North Carolina. I was first employed as a naturalist in Santa Cruz for Mission Springs Camp and Conference Center. I later accepted a field educator position at what was Yosemite Institute (now NatureBridge).

Andrea: My training has come from countless hours spent in the park both in the frontcountry and backcountry.  It started in 1996 and 1997 when I spent five-month seasons living in a tent in the backcountry while supervising California Conservation Corps trail crews.  Since then I have taught natural history classes in the park and spent hours teaching myself through the many resources available regarding both the human and natural history of the park.  Whenever I can, I also join in on Yosemite Conservancy classes, NPS interpretive ranger trainings and join in with park experts to help document the local flora and fauna.

In addition to naturalist training, I have been an educator all of my life in various settings and with all age groups, but primarily outdoors.  This practice in working and teaching people has been an important part of my training as well.


3. Describe a day you were guiding that stands out in your mind.

Yosemite's Lyell Glacier has lost about 80% of its surface area since 1883. Outdoor Adventures offer hikers a chance to experience and learn about the receding ice field with an expert naturalist.

Pete: Bringing people on the challenging ascent to walk on the vanishing Lyell Glacier is a powerful experience for everyone.  Going into the sequoia groves is likewise life-changing.  On one field seminar I had a member of the public faint in front of me — halfway up the Half Dome cables!

Graham: I remember one day in Santa Cruz when I was pointing out the plant sticky monkeyflower (Mimulus aurantiacus) in a chaparral area to a group of 5th graders. A fun way to capture their attention is to stick the sticky leaves to their faces. Later in the day (and to my horror) I heard a student complaining that the leaves weren't sticking. Upon closer examination, I realized he was trying to press leaves of poison oak (Toxicodendron diversilobum) to his face. Yikes.

Andrea: There are many days and moments that stand out in my mind: watching a family of marmots going about their daily business of gathering food and sunning themselves on a rocky slope, helping a family of differing physical abilities hike up and down the very strenuous Four Mile Trail, walking through the “hanging gardens” on the trail to Mt. Dana, seeing sphinx moths busily pollinating, experiencing a first hike up Half Dome with a group on a backpack trip, and observing a bear tearing apart logs in search of insects.  Every moment is magical in Yosemite — the exciting part is waiting to see what will reveal itself on any given day!


4. What is it about Yosemite that inspires you as a naturalist? 

Pete: I’ve been a ranger in several other national parks but Yosemite is its own minor planet.  This is where citizens first asked their government to protect something merely because it was beautiful, and this was the place that the remarkable John Muir explored so deeply.

Graham: I think the most inspiring thing about Yosemite is that every day is different. You can a visit a particular place a 1,000 times, and every time you go, there is something unique. You just need to look closely enough.

Andrea: Everywhere you look in Yosemite there is inspiration big and small.


5. What book are you currently reading?

Pete: To Conserve Unimpaired by Robert Keiter, an environmental law professor at the University of Utah.

Graham: I just finished Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged. It was 63 hours on audio and I think I'll need that much time to think about the philosophy she describes. I'm currently reading Continental Divide: A history of mountaineering in the United States by Maurice Isserman.

AndreaThe Other Wes Moore by Wes Moore, and Montana 1948 by Larry Watson.

An essential tool for aspiring (and pro) naturalists, with more than 2,800 illustrations.


6. What is something you always take with you on a guided trip?

Pete: Water.  Staying hydrated is a key to happiness on the trail.

Graham: I really like the Laws Field Guide to the Sierra Nevada by John Muir Laws. It has much of what can be seen in terms of flora and fauna and is very accessible for both children and adults.

Andrea: Binoculars, magnifying lenses and maps.


7. If you could be any animal, what would you be?

Pete: A human!  We can be pretty full of ourselves, but we ARE so interesting.

Graham: Peregrine falcons are cool.

Andrea: Hard to say…. a Yosemite black bear life looks pretty good. Or perhaps a bighorn sheep as they must get some amazing views!


Now that you know a little about Pete, Graham and Andrea, start planning your next Yosemite adventure.

Yosemite Insider