Mother’s Day marigolds turn a lifelong passion into a nationally recognized eco-tour business.
When photographer and birding guide Kyle Te Poel was 5 years old, he brought home marigolds as a Mother’s Day gift from school. As an avid reader, Te Poel found himself with a book about wildlife and a view of the flowers sitting on the windowsill a few days later. At that very moment a rose-breasted grosbeak stopped to rest on a marigold. “As a kid, you just use your imagination,” Te Poel says. “Seeing nature as a drawing in a book feels unreal, and then you see the drawing come to life outside. It’s like an action figure—and you think, ‘Oh, my gosh, that’s what that really looks like.’”
It was that fascination that formed his future business. In graduate school, he studied environmental education. The Stillwater resident says, “I wanted to help teach people how to enjoy time outside and [how to value] the natural world as a whole.” So, he started with internships at nature centers and in schools, eventually landing as a park ranger at two different national parks. “I applied more than 200 times before I even got an interview,” he says of his wish to work as a ranger.
Eventually Te Poel took the leap and started his own eco-tour business. “I wanted the freedom to teach whatever someone wants to learn,” he says. In 2016, Next Bend Birding Tours & Photography was created with a focus on helping others understand the challenges of the natural world and to help make a difference in the environment. Of his business name, Te Poel says, “There’s always something to see if you just keep at it. Hike the trail till it bends around the corner or go down the next road. Just keep exploring.”
Te Poel’s new business just got going when the pandemic hit. As things shut down, he says the cooped-up experience so many people were having actually sent his business soaring. “There’s a market for experiences that are outside of the norm. Touring outside was one of the safest things people could do for a while,” he explains.
Since then, Te Poel has had clients ranging from beginning birders and nature lovers to National Geographic photographers and members of the board of Cornell University, arguably one of the world’s leading bird research organizations, according to those in the know. (He’s even taken family members of ex-presidents out on the hunt, though mum’s the word on who that includes.) Many of his clients are birders from across the globe, heading to see what Minnesotans may take for granted. “The other day, I spoke with someone from Taiwan, and I’ve got people coming from Ecuador to see specific types of birds and their migrations,” he says.
The goals of eco-tourism are to learn about and experience different environments without harming or disrupting the locale. Te Poel says his hope for his business is that tourists leave knowing more about native trees, landscape, water cycles and, of course, the many species of birds that frequent Minnesota during migration season and year-round.
Though Te Poel says he will take adventurers anywhere, often his clients want to head up North. The Sax-Zim Bog, northwest of Duluth, is a favorite for spotting owls, wolves, moose and many native plant species. He also guides tours in the Twin Cities. “Some of the top birding places in the state are here in Minneapolis, St. Paul and places like Stillwater and Afton. We’re really lucky to have access to trails and park districts that maintain a good mix of wildlife species.”