As we walk along the winding foot path, Bernie enthusiastically points out the difference between the pine trees and the cypress palm. He stops to pick up and admire a small turtle sunning on a leaf. As we reach the expansive deck at the end of our trek, Bernie takes in a deep breath and says, “The quiet is a real resource. We have quite an impressive little oasis right here in the middle of the city.”
Bernie Yokel’s assessment couldn’t be any more accurate. The Trout Lake Nature Center has been an integral part of the Eustis landscape for 23 years now. Through a variety of instructional programs, the staff and volunteers at the center educate children and adults alike on the importance of maintaining our area’s natural habitats. Bernie, who once served as the center’s president, is one of those dedicated volunteers. And it’s no wonder. His love and appreciation for all things nature goes back as far as memory serves him.
“I was always roaming around, exploring, fishing,” he says. “Nature has always been a stimulating interest for me.”
Originally from the frigid north, Bernie attended college in Ohio on a football scholarship. His plan was to pursue a career in education after graduation.
Bernie spends much of his volunteer time educating school children on the importance of preserving out environment.
“I married my junior year of college and we decided to get out of Ohio,” he recalls. “The government of Guam was recovering from the impacts of World War II and was recruiting teachers, so once I received my degree we headed to Guam.”
There, Bernie taught physical education and the industrial arts. But it’s what the island of Guam taught him that he remembers the most from their years there.
“It was absolutely breathtaking,” Bernie says of Guam’s natural beauty. “Any free time I had I was either under or on the water. The coral reefs became a real fascination for me.”
Bernie adds that at that time, marine biology was becoming a viable science.
“I decided it was something I really wanted to pursue,” he says. “So back to Ohio we went where I spent two years strengthening my background in math, science, and writing.”
Through his studies in Ohio, Bernie received a fellowship at the Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences at the University of Miami, Florida.
“We lived at Rookery Bay between 1960 and 1984,” Bernie says. “We had manatees in the front yard, bears in the back, and snakes in the house. It was a great deal of fun.”
Studying the ecology of estuaries and the abundant plant and animal life that call our area home, Bernie acknowledges that he was privileged to see and experience a lot of wild Florida.
The Trout Lake Nature Center houses a variety of educational tools to teach area kids and adults, including these species on display.
“The rocky road that led to our home came across a swamp and eventually arrived at the mangrove forest,” he says. “We were isolated and it was marvelous.”
His hard work quickly earned him the title of Head of the Rookery Bay Marine Station, presently the Conservancy of Southwest Florida.
“Throughout my life I’ve been involved in plenty of environmental groups,” Bernie says. “The Audubon Society is one of those groups.”
When asked to head the Audubon Society, Bernie and his family packed up their home and made the move from South Florida to Mount Dora.
“I never did go back to saltwater,” Bernie shrugs. “I miss it, but Central Florida has a natural world all its own.”
Upon arriving in Eustis, Bernie—ever the nature lover—sought out local nature groups. The Trout Lake Nature Center was lucky enough to become one of them.
“What Bernie has brought to Trout Lake is his larger than life presence,” says Trout Lake Nature Center Naturalist Lavon Silvernell. “At first when you meet him he’s just kind, knowledgeable Bernie. As I’ve gotten to know him, though, I’ve found out that he’s an icon in the environmental community. When I read articles and clippings on Bernie’s life I am awed to know and work with someone like him. The center is lucky to have him.”
And Bernie feels equally lucky to be a part of the center.
“Staying involved allows me to continue to teach,” Bernie says. “I feel like I have information that’s fun and useful to pass on. I try to generate interest and curiosity in the environment for our youngsters because the more they understand and get fascinated with the natural world, the easier it will be for future generations to protect these vital areas of our land.”
For Bernie, whether he’s teaching children or adults, his work is about opening a new world for someone.
“People of all ages love Bernie,” adds Lavon. “It’s amazing to watch him at the dock with guests, especially the children. He’s a great storyteller and makes learning about science like reading a storybook. That’s just one of the things that makes him Bernie.”
Want To Go?
Trout Lake Nature Center
520 East County Road 44
Eustis, FL 32736