The other day I opened Snapchat to find a park ranger snapping from the Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge. "There are about 2 million acres of refuge here," she said. "You probably won't find Pokémon, but there are 3,000 bears." Then I was treated to clips on clips on clips of bears. Bears playing in a river, bears playing in a river near a waterfall, bears fishing in a river, bears playing with their food in a river—all against some of the most beautiful wilderness backdrops I've ever seen.
That's the magic of the the U.S. Department of the Interior's Snapchat account: it's a charming mix of gorgeous scenery, animals doing weird animal things, and national parks employees who really, really love their jobs.
"I like to think of our Snapchat account as an inspired promo for outdoor adventures," says the Department of the Interior's digital director, Rebecca Matulka. "The Department manages a significant portion of America's public land, so our goal was to reach a new audience, and to show them all of these amazing places that are owned by the American people, which they should go out and explore."
One time, Barack Obama surprised a bunch of schoolchildren at Yosemite National Park.
And who better to guide this exploration than the men and women who work at these parks every day? Matulka allows most of the Department's Snapchat stories to be informed by the creativity of the park rangers. At Denali National Park, rangers introduce Snapchatters to the sled dogs who help patrol the park (and who have names befitting dogs who work at a national park, like Summit, Venture, Vista, and S'more).
At Katmai National Park, Ranger Dan brags that his park "is the best place in the world to see wild brown bears do wild stuff." Other park employees show off dragonfly larvae, a herd of bison (which includes Sparky, a bison who survived being struck by lightning in 2013), and a towering, 100-year-old saguaro cactus.
Below, the Department of Interior's digital director shows us what it takes to put together the ultimate nature Snapchat story.
How do all of these amazing Snapchat stories from all over the country come together?
I'm in Washington, D.C., so I do some of the D.C.-based stories. But I work with people at national parks and other public lands across the country. We have a Google calendar for them to reserve the account, and the people on the ground do most of the planning. A lot of them try storyboarding, and then end up throwing those ideas out the window as they're shooting in real time, but they definitely have a thought-out process of everything they want to include.
Join a family of bears on their daily fishing excursion.
Do you plan out themes or series?
The content is based on a park's location. I don't know if you've heard of bear cam, but it's a webcam of bears at Katmai National Park in Alaska. The salmon start spawning this time of year, so a bunch of bears come to this place called Brooks Camp, and they fish in the river. Bear cam has a cult following, so that's sort of a recurring theme on the Snapchat account, showing what's happening in real time, behind the scenes, on bear cam. [Ed. note: We love bear cam, and so should you. Go to explore.org/bears]
What has been your most ambitious story?
The president was in Yosemite, and the logistics of that were a little bit harder because of access. That was one of our most popular ones, showing some behind-the-scenes shots of what he was doing there. We had the White House contribute snaps to our account, in addition to having someone at Yosemite snapping.
What have been some of the most visually powerful stories the Department of the Interior has done?
There is a bison in Iowa who was struck by lightning. His name is Sparky. We got the people who manage the wildlife refuge there to go out and find Sparky and do snaps about him. Sparky sort of went viral in January with so much news coverage of him. It's just an interesting story, a bison surviving a lightning strike. Having an update on how he's doing and how he's enjoying the refuge was really awesome.
Arches National Park used the account pretty early on, and they were really creative. They have a lot of rock formations with fun names like the Three Gossips, and the Elephant, and even Delicate Arch. They used doodling and captions to show why these arch rock formations got their names.
Any fun Snapchat projects we can look forward to?
We've been talking about other kinds of stories, instead of just getting one park to use the account for a day. Maybe it'll be snaps all along Route 66 one day, or having a weekly regional series. Like, "If you're in Seattle or the Pacific Northwest, here are all the amazing places you can visit and explore." Sort of virtual tours of those locations. But now that Memories [the new Snapchat feature] has come out, maybe we'll come up with something new.