It was the first day of high school when Darlene Upton (HBOR/BSC’91) came across a poster that changed her life.
In the school guidance counselor’s office was an advertisement for the Junior Rangers Program – an initiative geared towards ambitious teenagers interested in working in the bounty and beauty of Ontario’s protected parks.
The Ministry of Natural Resources established the program in 1944. Every summer, in camps across the province, youth busily cleared trails, planted trees, learned how to canoe, took part in fish and wildlife projects, and established lifelong friendships with other rangers. At the time, Darlene was too young to join.
Several years later, she was determined to be a Junior Ranger. “Before my 17th birthday I searched for that poster and put my application in stating that I wanted to go as far north as possible,” she says.
Darlene was accepted to the program. With her bags packed, she left Newmarket – the town north of Toronto where she grew up – passing through Thunder Bay on her way to Atikokan.
“I never really turned back,” she says. “I loved the north and decided to apply to Lakehead University so I could head back there when I finished high school.”
Today, Darlene lives in Ottawa and is the executive director of Waterways for Parks Canada. She’s responsible for seven of the nine canals managed by Parks Canada, including the Rideau Canal, the Trent-Severn Waterway, and Montreal’s Lachine Canal.
Darlene graduated from Lakehead’s Outdoor Recreation, Parks and Tourism program in 1991 with a second major in natural sciences and a certificate in tourism.
“I seized opportunities that interested me and always focused on the moment and succeeding in whatever I was doing, not worrying about what was next. The most surprising thing to me now was just how many great opportunities came my way.”
After Lakehead, Darlene became a research canoeist in Algonquin Park for the Royal Ontario Museum. Her research was part of Dr. E.J. Crossman’s book, Fishes of Algonquin Provincial Park.
When her work wrapped up, Darlene went backpacking and kayaking in Central America before returning to the Royal Ontario Museum to catch salamanders in Haliburton, Ontario. This experience inspired Darlene to pursue a master’s in zoology at the University of Toronto.
While working on a PhD in 1996, Darlene was offered a dream job with Parks Canada. She became a park warden at Bruce Peninsula Park.
“When you can match your values with those of the organization you are going to devote a good part of your life to, it can’t be beat. I am proud to say I work for Parks Canada and I feel connected to my colleagues here and around the world working in parks.”
Outside of work, Darlene runs a weekly craft program with the ladies at Cornerstone Housing for Women. She focuses on creating crafts they can use or give as gifts to the people in their lives. She’s been volunteering there for four years.
“This volunteer work balances me, allows me to express my creative side, grounds me in reality, and has educated me on women’s issues.”
As an avid traveller, it’s not uncommon to find Darlene browsing in the travel section at Chapters with grande half sweet soy Earl Grey tea latte in hand, flipping through travel guides.
“The fact that I don’t have anything specific planned for the future makes waking up each day very exciting,” she says. “Who knows what the future will hold!”