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If you catch Angie Hong's social media posts it's likely you know what a pluviophile is. Or a skink. Or where to find sharp-tailed grouse, or the purpose served by ephemeral spring wildflowers.

These things are all in or near Washington County, but the other thing they have in common is an appearance on Hong's TikTok or Instagram or newspaper column, where the Stillwater resident teaches the public about the natural world.

At a time when the news about the planet is dire, Hong dwells on spots of beauty or on ordinary things people can do to help clean the place up.

"What I'm seeing is where we're trying, we're succeeding," said Hong, who preaches an optimistic view from her perch as the water education senior specialist for the East Metro Water Resource Education Program.

If the job title and office name are clunky, Hong makes it all accessible with clear-eyed descriptions of flora and fauna, sometimes with the excitement that belies her training as a zoologist, and usually while on a trail or digging through the understory. Once, in a carefully choreographed video, she made a post while treading water in Square Lake.

"That was surprisingly hard to hold a phone and tread water at the same time," Hong said, laughing.

The 34,000 followers of her @mnnature_awesomeness account on Instagram might agree. As would 108,000 followers on TikTok.

Her job was created in 2006, a time when local watershed management organizations were looking for a way to reach out to the public. The obscure boards serve an important function in the metro area and operate like a school district: They're independent and have taxing authority but they have a limited scope, focused on flood management and water quality.

Six local units of government joined forces to create an educator position, hiring Hong. She now works with 31 organizations covering all of Washington and Chisago counties and portions of Isanti and Ramsey counties.

That means Hong can be at a park in Lake Elmo one day and walking through the Standing Cedars State Natural Area in Osceola, Wis., the next.

Some of what she shows on social media is opportunistic — if she spies a giant puffball mushroom, she might talk about how it can be harvested and eaten — but there's also a comprehensive message.

"We're doing all sorts of outreach and programming," said Hong, speaking of the watershed districts, "and with the partners, I'm sitting down with them every year and I'm asking them, 'What's going on in your community?'"

A watershed might be pushing for more rain gardens, and Hong will take up the message and share it with her followers. She often promotes native plants, urging people to include them in their gardens and lawns for a wide range of benefits.

What she's found is that people are far more interested in the nerdy details of land management and aspects of the wilderness than might be expected. One of her most popular posts was about a green streets initiative in Maplewood.

"For some reason, instead of only 90 people watching the video, 90,000 people watched the video," she said. "I realized I don't have to make these videos ridiculous or trendy or funny. People are actually interested in the information, which surprised me in a good way."

She can't take full credit for her most popular video, a TikTok juggernaut with 15 million views. For that, she has to thank her son, Charlie, who was tromping around a flooded downtown Stillwater with her when they discovered a whirlpool. The video opens with him shouting excitedly and, in solid reporter fashion, describing what it is and where it was located. In a made-for-viral-viewing moment, Charlie then drops a good-sized pine bough into the whirlpool and watches as it gets sucked straight down.

It was while trying to find something for Charlie to do during the early days of the pandemic that Hong first dabbled in social media for her job. Until then, she had been doing most of her public outreach work through columns in Washington County newspapers. When Charlie's grade school shuttered, Hong took him into the woods and thought he could play while she make content for work.

Their first video was of a "tiny baby spiny softshell turtle" that Charlie had found, Hong said. It was a hit, and Hong realized she had a new way to reach out.

An advance copy of Angie Hong’s new book, “Exploring the St. Croix River Valley,” photographed at Sunfish Lake Park in Lake Elmo.
An advance copy of Angie Hong’s new book, “Exploring the St. Croix River Valley,” photographed at Sunfish Lake Park in Lake Elmo.


She'll take the job one step further this summer when, in July, she releases her first book, "Exploring the St. Croix River Valley." The book will let readers take the next step and see some of the spots that star in Hong's social media posts. Published by the University of Minnesota Press, the 369-page guide reveals history and wildlife of the 8,000-square-mile St. Croix River watershed, one hike at a time.

Hong said she's encouraged by the progress the metro area has made to restore wildlife and healthy lakes. The Twin Cities have a lot more native plantings in urban areas compared to other cities, she said. It's a sign people are listening, she said, and that it's possible to repair the environment.

"Where we're working, it's succeeding if we just keep on doing it longer," Hong said.