Kathie Fiveash is so passionate about understanding and teaching others about the natural history of Isle au Haut that last year she became “The Island Naturalist.” Fiveash takes groups of up to four people on guided tours of the flora and fauna of the island.
I think of nature as the teacher and myself as the guide,” says Fiveash, who gave 20 tours in her first summer of business in 2009.
According to Beginning with Habitat, an organization that uses a habitat-based approach to conserving wildlife, Isle au Haut is home to many rare plants and animals, including the inkberry, a plant not found anywhere else in Maine. There are at least four bald eagle nests on the island, and a plethora of resident and migratory birds.
Fiveash’s “themes for exploration” include Isle au Haut’s pond, forests, bogs, clam flats, meadows, birds, animals (including education about tracks and signs), plant communities and tide pools.
“When someone makes a connection, understands a natural relationship, or sees something s/he has never noticed before, I feel that I have facilitated a deeper insight into the way the world works,” Fiveash says.
Some of Fiveash’s favorite treks on the island include Rich’s Point, Seal Trap, Duck Harbor Mountain, Squeaker Cove, the Nat Merchant trail, Boom Beach tide pools, and Thunder Gulch.
Fiveash enjoys teaching adults, and, as a former school teacher, she has expertise in working with children. “Children are willing to get wet, muddy, hot, or cold in pursuit of adventure, and they are great observers,” she says. “Recently, I was observing ants with a three year-old and he said to me, ‘Look how that ant is standing on tippytoes!’ I knew I was in the presence of a budding naturalist!”
Fiveash points out the “best things” in her tours “are always the things you don’t expect to happen.” For example, great horned owls are rare to actually see on Isle au Haut, but when they do see one it is very special and exciting. Fiveash says that many in her group find bogs extremely interesting simply because it is something they’ve never studied.
For Fiveash, learning and teaching about the environment is a lifelong pursuit. She enjoys exploring the island with her students through careful observation, then following up by asking questions and doing research, something ideally both she and the students do. She believes that by understanding nature, we are empowered to make better decisions about how to live more wisely in our local communities.
“I know a lot about Isle au Haut. I’m a generalist, providing an overview and how the whole thing fits together. Since this is an island, it is harder for things to get out here. It’s more extreme in a variety of ways.”
Fiveash explains that island ecology is very unique, and that the crossover between the ocean and land means there are “rich communities” such as seabirds and land birds sharing the same air space. There are also inter-tidal pools, clam flats, and rocky shores to explore and ask questions about.
“Last summer I did a lot of tours with Linda [Greenlaw]…we had a wonderful time birding and lobstering at the same time,’ Fiveash says.
Fiveash earned a master’s degree in environmental studies from Antioch University New England. She has decades of teaching experience, including 12 years as a kindergarten teacher and eight in elementary and middle schools.
She came to the island in 1999 to join her partner Al Gordon, and to lead a “simpler and more self-sufficient life.” Fiveash taught music and island ecology to Isle au Haut’s Rural School children for eight years, conveying her passion for the local environment to her students.
She is or has been a member of Isle au Haut’s Comprehensive Planning Committee, the fire department, and the Island Community Development Corporation’s board of directors.
Fiveash stopped teaching at the rural school last year so that she and Gordon could spend part of the winter with their new grandson in Massachusetts. She missed teaching in the outdoors, and hatched the Island Naturalist tours “as a way to continue using my knowledge and understanding to educate people of all ages about Isle au Haut, and about the wider natural world we all share.”
Fiveash’s current favorite mammal is the coyote, a recent addition to the island that she says inspires a lot of interesting questions: “How did they get here? Why did they come? How do they disperse from here? How is the top predator affecting the populations of other island animals and birds such as deer, turkeys, snowshoe hares, and voles? How will having a top predator affect the island’s plant life? How are coyotes adapting to the presence of people, and how are people adapting to them?”
Her favorite island bird is the golden-crowned kinglet, ” . . . tiny, busy creatures weighing about as much as two pennies.”
For more information, contact Kathie Fiveash, The Island Naturalist, at 207-335-2171.