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McKenzie and mosquitos and bears, oh my!

Mon Jun 12, 2023
Brynn McKenzie and friend at the Vince Shute Wildlife Sanctuary

Brynn McKenzie and friend at the Vince Shute Wildlife Sanctuary

After helping the West Valley tennis team to an undefeated Coast Conference championship and completing a demanding academic program, one might expect Brynn McKenzie to spend the summer at the beaches in nearby Santa Cruz. Instead, McKenzie packed her bags and headed to a remote cabin in northeast Minnesota to spend the summer with 100 or so black bears.

McKenzie griddied across the stage to accept her AA in Liberal Arts, Science and Math at the end of May, spent a few days at her central California home in Creston and then caught a flight to Orr, MN, just an hour south of the US/Canada border. Her final destination: an unheated cabin in the Vince Shute Wildlife Sanctuary in the Kabetogama State Forest near the shores of Pelican Lake. Her closest neighbors are the bears and dense clouds of mosquitos.

"Minnesotans tell me this is the worst mosquito year they've ever seen," McKenzie said recently. "My skin looks like a big game of connect the dots! It's a swamp in this part of Minnesota, which is rough, but the bears love it."

And, the bears, not the bugs, is why McKenzie is in Minnesota. She is an intern at Shute, providing educational tours for visitors in the sprawling sanctuary. Other interns this summer are from Colorado, Kansas, Ohio and Pennsylvania. On her first day at Shute, McKenzie saw more than 15 bears.

"It's been amazing so far," she said. "I have already learned so much. When I return to school, I plan on studying wildlife biology and/or zoology with the end goal of working in animal education and rehabilitation."

One of the bears she saw on her first day was Peanut (pictured below), who, at 33, is the oldest bear in the sanctuary. "We're super happy she's back this year," exclaimed McKenzie, who sports a black bear tattoo on the inside of her left forearm.

McKenzie was one of the most improved players in northern California in 2023. She was 9-4 in singles and 10-10 in doubles in 2022, but jumped to 7-2 in singles and 9-3 in doubles in 2023. Her work ethic last summer was a big reason, according to Viking coach Lauren Hickey.

"She was actually offered the same internship after her freshman year," said Hickey. "But, she opted to focus on her tennis instead. She was a major factor in our program's success this year."

McKenzie qualified for the CCCAA state championship tournament in both singles and doubles and finished 2023 ranked 27th in the nation, with partner Sonya Hu, in the final ITA doubles rankings. She and her fellow Vikings had a 3.51 combined GPA in fall, 2022 and they were recently named the ITA Region One Community Service Award winner. But, McKenzie's aspirations reached beyond the court, far beyond.

"We always joked she would become the female Steve Irwin," Hickey said, referencing the late Crocodile Hunter. "She's always worked with animals. In fact, she raised a pig and sold it last summer at the Midstate Fair in Paso Robles. I believe she'll be working at zoos or someplace similar somewhere in some form or another."

In addition to her tennis and studies at West Valley, McKenzie was a game day public address announcer at Viking softball games this spring. She discovered a side of herself and an interest she didn't know she had.

"I'd love to work in animal rehabilitation, but maybe I can do some announcing on the side!"

Don't put it past the quick-learning, hard-working McKenzie. But, for now, she's focused on the ursine inhabitants of Vince Shute Wildlife Sanctuary, figuring out a way to stay warm in her chilly cabin when the temperature drops in August, and battling ravenous Minnesota mosquitos.