Bob Boekelheide loves to learn and with that passion, he’s carved out a career in teaching the biological sciences over the past 25 years. When he steps down as director of the Dungeness River Audubon Center on Dec. 31, Boekelheide will continue to do what he does best after a decade of shaping the nonprofit: educate the community about the rich natural world surrounding Sequim.
“My future role will be as a volunteer and teacher. I’ll continue to help with educational programs — I just won’t be here for day-to-day operations. Maybe one or two days, I’ll see how it goes,” Boekelheide said.
The director’s job has been a good fit for Boekelheide, after teaching high school science for 15 years, a half dozen of those split between Sequim and Port Angeles. He came to the peninsula in 1995.
“I really enjoyed teaching but when this job opened up (in 2001), it was too enticing; I had to apply. When I started at the center, it was an empty shell, literally. Railroad Bridge Park had been open since 1992 and the River Center was the culmination of the project.”
Boekelheide, who has a bachelor’s degree in zoology and a master’s in ecology, started from scratch, building programs for the public, from children to adults. The Wednesday morning bird walk in the park was one of the first programs and is still a personal favorite. Boekelheide, 59, has led them week in and week out for a decade with only rare cancellations. With an average of 15 birders trooping behind him, Boekelheide points out one bird after another by sight or by sound, giving a mini-briefing on each.
“My favorite part of my job has been the bird walks, showing people really cool things, like salmon spawning in the river, and getting people excited about nature. People ask really good questions so I get to tell stories about what’s going on here on the Olympic Peninsula,” Boekelheide said.
In 2010, the center hosted 86 student field trips, made 89 classroom visits, held three summer nature camps, made 33 presentations and taught 15 adult education classes. There were about 126,300 crossings of the Railroad Bridge.
“This park is loved,” Boekelheide said.
“I’ve had superb and great support from the board and staff. It’s really been a wonderful experience but it can be overwhelming at times,” Boekelheide said. “Running a small nonprofit, and depending on the economy, it can be tough. We survive on memberships, donations and grants. Of those 126,300 crossings, if 1 or 2 percent of those folks would become members, we’d be doing really well.
“This park is so different — our existence is due to the benevolence of the community and our partners: the Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe, the Olympic Peninsula Audubon Society and the National Audubon Society. Without their support over the past 10 years, the center wouldn’t have happened.”
Boekelheide also has been a tireless advocate in fundraising for the center, having led nearly a dozen popular bird-watching cruises to the San Juan Islands since 2007 and eight puffin cruises to Protection Island since 2003. He’s also organized the annual OPAS BirdFest every April.
“What’s fun to me is learning information. I like to pick up tidbits about nature to pull out of my back pockets at opportune moments.”
He also believes every town should have a nature center and thinks that the River Center has fulfilled that role well for Sequim. The river and forest, with the animals and birds attracted to this habitat, make for a compelling story, Boekelheide said. It’s one that he and education coordinator Powell Jones relish.
When he began as the center’s director in 2001, Boekelheide said he set out to accomplish these things: “to increase the understanding of bird use in our riparian forest; to increase public awareness of nature; maintaining and running the park for the public; and working with the board and partners for good operating conditions.”
And his greatest achievement?
“I feel it might be getting more people excited about the natural world, from kids to adults.”
Boekelheide submitted his letter of resignation in May and said, “I thought I would slip into the sunset without a lot of notoriety. It was just time for a change. I have other things I want to do and it was time to do them — writing, a lot of bird data to analyze, going to scientific presentations, helping my 85-year-old father in Los Angeles move up here.”
As far as hiring a new director, Boekelheide said the board has not decided how to proceed and will discuss options in an October planning meeting.
“It’s been a joy working here. I’ve had wonderful staff and volunteers and an excellent board, plus the park users have been very supportive. I’ve been very blessed here.”