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Thursday, August 26, 2010

My Road To Becoming A Ranger

Bandelier National Monument
As a young person I had ambitions of becoming a field biologist. I was a kid who devoured books about animals, daydreamed about  cheetahs on the African plains and imagined a sky black with passenger pigeons.  My hunger for all things natural was nourished by my grade-school science teacher, Russ Warner. Mr. Warner knew exactly how to inspire uppity pre-teen students. He took us on field trips, intrigued us with gee-whiz science experiments and challenged us to understand our connection and impact on the natural world. I was sure I would grow up to become an ornithologist or maybe a botanist studying the birds and plants in some far-away corner of the world.

However, as fate would have it an opportunity to work as a seasonal park ranger arose when I was a senior at Rutgers University studying natural resource conservation. I thought, perhaps being a ranger might be fun for a summer or two. So way back in 1980 I got my feet wet both figuratively and literally as an interpretive ranger leading canoe tours and doing informal presentations for the newly established Upper Delaware Wild and Scenic River.

I spent most of my days in a kiosk along the banks of the Delaware River. Visitors, few and far between, were mostly fisherman and boaters. During those lazy days of summer I had ample time to get to know the plants and birds of the region further igniting my desire to be a biologist. But one thing led to another and soon after graduation I found myself working as an environmental educator. It was great fun.

While honing my skills as a naturalist I still had a nagging desire to be a field biologist. A little voice in my head said, “Move West.” So I did and for the next ten years I made my living doing field biology. I worked on vast arctic tundra, in dense spruce forest, mucky bogs, rugged seacoast and islands in the wilds of Alaska, I traversed hillsides of old-growth Ponderosa Pine in western Montana, wandered through northern Idaho’s towering cedar-hemlock forest and became mindful of cactus in the spiny sun-baked desert of southern Arizona. Season after season in the field afforded me the opportunity to study, observe and really get to know the places where I lived and worked. I was living out my dream. Yet something was missing. I had no outlet for sharing my knowledge and experience. The best way I knew how to convey my passion for the land was as an interpreter. And so I returned to work, first as a ranger in Apostle Islands and later to cruise Alaska’s Marine Highway aboard the SS Kennicott in the resource-rich Tongass National Forest. The intimacy with landscape that I had come to know as a biologist transferred effortlessly to natural history interpretation.

Perhaps, the greatest gift of my career was realizing that landscapes and cultures are intertwined. Cultures are defined by landscapes and landscapes, in turn, are impacted by culture. I cannot interpret one without talking about the other. This truth, first revealed when living and studying shorebirds along the Arctic Coast in Cape Krusenstern National Monument, has influenced the way I interpret natural and cultural history.

During those summers living in tent along the beach ridges of Cape Krusenstern I befriended Inupiat elders who still lived in traditional subsistence camps. Each camp was adorned with a wooden fish rack laden with the bounty of the sea drying under the arctic sun; food that would feed the bellies of humans and sled dogs year around. The fish, nets and racks defined the Inupiat culture.

My encounters with the Inupiat provided insight and sensitivity for interpreting all cultures. Today, I spend my days interpreting the lives of the Ancestral Pueblo who once lived in Bandelier National Monument. New Mexico may be a long way from Arctic Alaska, but all people, past or present, north or the south depend upon the land for their survival.

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