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Ex-Geologist's Rock-Solid Passion for New Career as Yellowstone Guide

Barbara O'Grady and her "bold and irreversible step"

Barbara O'Grady, a former geologist, found her life calling as an interpretive guide at Yellowstone National Park. She's now an entrepreneur, building up her business, Wild Bear Adventures, where she gives nature tours. We asked the 59-year-old 10 questions about her transition to her new life at Yellowstone.

Q: What exactly do you do as an interpretive guide?

A: An interpretive guide takes the different situations they come across on a tour and finds the depths and connections behind those situations. For example, if you were in the park and encountered a group of wolves we'd tell you the story of how they came to the area. We didn't have wolves here before 1995, so explaining how they got here and some of the hardships they encounter as a species in Yellowstone really interests people. I always try to kind of flesh out the experience and give them something they can go home with that is more than just a two-dimensional photograph.

Q: You previously worked for the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, where you were involved in the cleanup of Superfund sites. Did you find satisfaction in your previous career?

A: There was a time when I thought of it as a dream job. I was helping the environment using the laws that were in place. As a regulator, I wanted to make people who polluted clean it up, and a lot of times these polluters were not particularly interested in doing that. The ability to sit down with an entity and negotiate what was adequate cleanup in order to protect the people in my state was very satisfying.

Q: How are you using the skills from your previous career now at Yellowstone National Park?

A: I looked at Yellowstone from the perspective of what geology niche could I possibly fill in Yellowstone? I think that's probably where it made more sense to go. As I started to study the park, I thought the wildlife was the most interesting. But I realized if I was going to get a job up here it would likely have to be as a geologist and so I had to set out and learn as much as I could about the geology of the park, which is extremely interesting and lots of fun.

Q: Describe the day you left Colorado for Yellowstone National Park in May 2007.

A: I would say it was probably the scariest day of my life. It was also exhilarating. I had a tremendous amount of hope, promise and excitement about what the future could hold. But still, I thought "What am I doing?" I had my little silver Honda CR-V absolutely packed — and what was in there was all I had for the next several months of my life. It almost felt like I was going off to college again. It was definitely a bold and irreversible step.

Q: You made several sacrifices to pursue your dream without a Plan B. That can be very difficult for some people. What advice do you have for anyone who wants to follow their dreams, but may be afraid of the risks?

A: Just jumping blindly into something is not a good idea and certainly not something I would recommend. Once you have a plan for what you want, even though it might be very difficult, it will likely be one of the most rewarding things you will ever do. But, the caveat is, don't think there won't be problems, that there won't be obstacles. I don't think I ever looked back and said, "I wish I didn't do this," but it doesn't mean that it was a smooth road. The key is, if you know in your heart it's what you want to do, then go ahead and take that step.  

Next: "There's so much to learn." >>

Q: Tell me about your favorite places at Yellowstone. Where do you most feel connected to the beauty of nature and have peace?

A: My favorite place in the park has to be what we call "the southeast arm of the lake." It's pretty far off the beaten path, and takes a little more effort to get down there because it's accessible by canoe, kayak or hiking. When I'm down there, I'm usually with someone and we typically don't see anyone else except who we're with. You will see tracks from wolves and tracks from grizzly bears, and you really feel like you are part of the ecosystem; no longer at the top of the food chain.

Q: What recommendations do you have for travelers 50 and older?

A: Don't come to Yellowstone and just drive through the park and see what you see, because you'll be missing so much. If you don't have a lot of time, definitely go with someone who knows the landscape, who can give you in a short amount of time things that might take days and weeks to find on your own. The 50-plus are absolutely able to get off the beaten path and that's the other key to knowing Yellowstone. Even if it's a day hike, or more like a day of fly fishing or maybe to take a class, but something to delve into the park in a more profound way than just staying on the boardwalks and pavement.

Q: Any suggestions you have for grandparents wanting to take grandchildren to Yellowstone?

A: The Yellowstone Association actually has family programs where you can go with a parent or grandparent on a multiday trip around the park with several activities for kids. The Park Service also offers a junior ranger program and a grandparent usually learns as much as the kids, or maybe more, going through that program.

Q: What advice can you give to people who are still searching for their calling?

A: Find time in your life when you can be introspective. For example, reading poetry or writing. I think writing is something that benefits everyone. What are you thinking right now? How do you feel right now? Where are you? Are you in despair or are you feeling exhilarated and happy? My recommendation to anyone would be to keep a journal.  

Q: What does the future have in store for you? What are you looking forward to now that you're living your dream?

A: I intend to give tours and be an interpretive guide as long as I can. There's so much to learn. I have piles and piles of papers and reports and things that are so fascinating that I want to learn more about. I never go into the park and come out without learning something new. Hasn't happened yet and I don't think it will ever happen.