Essay: How I Came to Be a Park Ranger

First posted in July, 2004

I've enjoyed archaeology since I was nine. I even formed and led an after school archaeology club in fourth grade. But the fact of the matter is, I never thought of pursuing it as a career. Money was perhaps a factor, but also, at least at the time I started college, my primary interests were elsewhere.

Then came my freshman year at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. I was enrolled pre-law, and as an elective I decided to dabble a bit more in anthropology, and took Anthro 110 - an introduction to physical anthropology. Well, instead of getting a big semester-long lecture on evolution, I instead was treated to lots of terribly intriguing crime scene photos - my professor was Dr. William Bass, at the time arguably the premier forensic anthropologist in the United States and a globally-recognized pioneer in the field. Here was an alternative to pursuing criminal law (my desire at the time) - I could solve crimes in a way that intrigued me, never be paid to defend people I knew were guilty who might go free if I did my job properly, never to fail in defending anyone who I knew to be innocent. It was a way of being involved in the justice system in a very useful way while still being allowed to, um, pass on the prosecution/defense responsibility. So I switched to anthropology as a major and was very fortunate in that Dr. Bass took me under his wing. I was a mere freshman, but he thought I was worth the time to mentor. That will always mean a great deal to me.

Second semester, in pursuit of my new anthropology degree, I took the intro archaeology course and, at the end of it, decided to participate in a summer dig. Upon returning from that dig with new skills in data collection, transit operation, and other excavation techniques, I decided I'd spend the second half of my summer volunteering in the national park near my home. I'd lived on its boundary for years, enjoyed its recreational opportunities, but never had I really given anything back. I saw this as my chance, and applied to be a volunteer.

They didn't even have an archaeologist on staff at Great Smoky Mountains National Park at the time, and I was passed from one division to the next. No one knew what to do with me, and I really wanted to use my new archaeological skills. I was just about to lose hope during my final meeting with park staff, the park historian, the man in charge of cultural resource management in the park (a team of one). I was actually getting up to leave when he said, "Wait a second. Do you know how to map things?" I nodded, and he told me that he'd been wanting an inventory of the park's 150+ historic cemeteries for some time. I began working several hours a day in the Cades Cove district of the park, as a volunteer with no pay.

The project went very well. So well, in fact, that the historian phoned that fall after I'd returned to college and asked if I'd be interested in working again the next summer. I told him that I'd really enjoyed the work, but that working four to eight hours - for free - and then going on to a real job (working for a white water rafting company, if you can call that a 'real job') so that I could earn money had really worn me out. I'd love to do further work on the cemetery inventory, but I wasn't capable of working two jobs again, and they'd really have to pay me. And I figured that he'd laugh at me. He didn't. He told me he understood and we hung up. A couple weeks later he phoned back and offered me a summer job.

That was the start of my career with the National Park Service, and the beginning of my eventual master's thesis. I was fortunate to work as a student hire, eventually enjoying full time employment during the holidays and twenty hours per week when school was in session. I was still primarily studying forensic anthropology, attending American Academy of Forensic Sciences conferences, assisting whenever I could at the Anthropological Research Facility (perhaps better known as The Body Farm, where they investigate rate of decay for human bodies) and loving it, but was being paid to do archaeology on the side to put myself through school, which is pretty much unheard of.

Then I approached graduation. I started evaluating my future. I could remain in the anthropology department at the university and continue to study under Dr. Bass, though he would be retiring soon. And I began to realize that forensic anthropologists made very little off of each case they worked. In order to be a forensic anthropologist, I would have to find a job in a very tight and flooded field or remain in academia. The idea of the publish-or-perish rat race was not appealing to me; I wanted to work in the field and on cases full time, but I was starting to realize how unrealistic my dream was. After graduating, I decided to return and get another bachelor's degree, this time in biology, to put myself better in line for medical school. I thought forensic pathology might be the way out of my dilemma. But as I found myself starting from near-scratch, taking genetics and organic chemistry with people three to four years younger than I was, I started again looking long term. After all the fellowships and residencies and various requirements of specializing in forensic pathology (assuming I could financially afford to make the journey), I would be thirty-six. Thirty six without having earned a pay check in my field. That was depressing.

And all this time I'd kept working to put myself through school as an Archeological Technician (sic) for the National Park Service. And I'd been working on this huge project for a few years. I had tons of data on the cemeteries in the park. I had a little 'career-development talk' with my present supervisor (the previous historian had since retired). He told me that if I got a masters in archaeology he thought he could swing me a permanent job with benefits. I liked working for the NPS. I got paid to work in one of the most beautiful places on earth. I decided to leave behind forensics. Not so much because I loved archaeology, but because I liked the NPS. Archaeology was merely my (supposed) ticket for permanent employment with the agency.

I approached the head of the anthropology department at UT. I knew it was a bit unorthodox to pursue graduate work at the same school where I'd received my bachelor's but I had this great job only fifty miles away. He smiled when I told him why I'd come to visit his office, and said it was 'about damn time.' He'd been wondering when I'd 'come to my senses.'

I left behind my biology degree and enrolled that winter, ultimately blazing toward a master's degree in anthropology with a concentration on historical archaeology in a mere two years. My thesis was entitled On the Hallowed Hill: An Analysis of Historic Cemeteries Within the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. But all was not well in career land. They'd readvertised my job about six months before I got my degree, when I'd finished my coursework but not my thesis. Competition was stiff - there were PhDs that applied but didn't even make the hiring pool. I was out of the running for my own job. That was depressing. (Notice the development of a theme.)

I loved home. I loved the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. I loved working for the National Park Service. I liked archaeology, but not really so much as I enjoyed why I was doing archaeology, which was to preserve the cultural resources held in trust for the American people. That was what made me happy to come to work each morning. The why rather than the how. To tell the truth, I loved the little side jobs I occasionally got to do far more than my primary archaeological duties - I enjoyed helping stranded motorists and assisting in search and rescue efforts. And now my future was uncertain. I would soon no longer be a student, so they'd be unable to keep me on as a student hire. The permanent job had gone to someone else. What would I do?

I was dating a park ranger at the time, and he'd previously worked in Alaska. On a whim, he'd applied for a job as the person that supervises the job he'd previously held in Dry Bay, Alaska, and they'd offered him a job. He decided it was too good an opportunity not to take, and he was moving. I was looking at my education, job, and relationship all ending within a six month time frame. That was depressing.

But then he invited me to join him in Alaska. He'd gotten his first permanent position in the Great Land, and he'd heard of many other people doing the same. So I took perhaps the biggest risk of my life and quit my job in the Great Smokies (it would have ended in less than a year anyway, so perhaps it wasn't so big a risk, but that, coupled with the move seemed to be a huge gamble at the time). That January I moved to Alaska (a state I'd never seen before) and wrote my thesis from a small Tlingit Indian village 2,974 miles from any of the cemeteries I'd researched. There was three to five feet of snow outside the window, and I spent ten hours nearly every day bundled up inside typing furiously away on my work, sending drafts by e-mail to my thesis committee, desperately trying to get the thing done by summer so that I'd be marketable for a job as soon as possible. Through some miracle, I wrote the thing without going insane or blind, and successfully defended that May.

I managed to get a job for the summer as an Archeologist with Wrangell-St. Elias National Park. This was a big step up from the Archaeological Technician job I'd held at the Smokies. Though it wasn't permanent, it was a big jump in both pay and responsibility. I spent that summer flying all over the nation's largest national park as the primary archaeologist on several compliance projects. I was supervising the field work of an Arch Tech. I was making progress in the field of archaeology.

But my heart was still far more with the NPS than with archaeology in particular. And I kept running into the same annoying problem I had had at the Smokies - I was witnessing site disturbance as well as various natural resource violations and was really powerless to do anything more than take good notes, a photograph if possible, and tell a law enforcement ranger. By the time I got to where I could talk to anyone who could do anything, the damage was done and the person who'd done the damage was generally long gone. That was depressing.

And my job still wasn't a permanent job. I had no health insurance. No retirement. The work wasn't year 'round.

I put some more serious thought to my future. To be honest, what I really wanted to be was a park ranger. I wanted to be outside more than I wanted to be couped up writing site reports. I wanted to be doing even more to protect the resources, and I enjoyed helping people. I was with the right agency, but I had the wrong job, and the job I wanted I wasn't trained to do. For a long time I thought that I wasn't capable of the work - I mean, park rangers have all these skills! They rescue people and fight fire and do law enforcement to protect the parks - sometimes putting themselves in very serious situations with poachers or with violent criminals who choose to go on the lam in national parks.

But the guy I was dating was doing it. And he was just human (a really good human, but just a human). I was capable of doing anything he could do. I decided to see if I could handle law enforcement, because despite the fact that people think of park rangers as naturalists (and some are, but not the type I'm talking about here), they're actually federal law enforcement officers who have a very demanding job. When my job as an archaeologist ended that fall, I got a job dispatching with the Yakutat Police Department. As luck (if you can call it that) would have it, Alaska's regulations allow you to work as a police office under close supervision without any formal academy training for a period of a year, and so I managed to get a switch from dispatch to being an officer. And although there were a lot of unfortunate downsides to that experience, they were all administrative. The actual police work I enjoyed quite a bit, and I confirmed what I suspected - I could do the job. There came a point where I had to either go to the state of Alaska academy or resign. I decided to resign - the working conditions in the department and the political climate of the town were really unacceptable for safe police work at the time, and going to the academy meant that I would owe them a couple more years of my life. I went back to the National Park Service, this time as an interpretive park ranger.

A quick definition of the term 'park ranger' as it applies to the US National Park Service. There are two sorts. There are interpretive rangers, who work in the visitor center and give talks to the public and are, more or less, naturalists. When it comes down to it, they specialize in what I think every single person who works for the park service should do: they interpret the resources of our national parks in a way that allows the park visitor to connect with the resource on an emotional or intellectual level in a way that is significant to them as an individual - this inspires a feeling of stewardship for the cultural and natural history of the parks, and allows them to enjoy their national parklands in a way that provides for the preservation of these areas for generations to come. They help people experience these wild places and encourage them to feel a vested interest in their preservation.

Then there are the law enforcement rangers. These are the folks you see on patrol in your national parks. They're interpreters, too (hopefully), but their specialty is protecting the park and its visitors from harm. There's a lot going on in the national parks, and I could do several long posts on that topic, too, but for a taste, just go read a few editions of the NPS morning report, a summary of the law enforcement and fire incidents for the previous few days.

I spent that summer as a low-level interpretive park ranger. It was a cut in pay, but I was staying in Yakutat where my significant other was stationed and I wasn't doing archaeology anymore. I was talking to more visitors, assisting them in new ways. It was an improvement, but I was still seasonal, without benefits, and I still wasn't doing the sort of rangering I felt I wanted to do.

And so I took another risk. I saved every penny I could and when that seasonal job concluded, I enrolled in National Park Service Seasonal Law Enforcement Ranger Training course at Southwestern Community College, near my home in the Smokies. Our very first day of class was September 11, 2001, the day the face of federal law enforcement changed. Rangers now were responsible for everything they'd done in the past, but were also responsible for the protection of many of our nation's most important icons. To this day I can not properly express my relief that the Statue of Liberty is still standing. I remember how I cried in the museum at the base of the statue as I read the letters written to the statue from immigrants about how they felt the first time that they saw her. I have a photo of myself on the ferry returning from my visit to the statue, and the twin towers are in the background. We came so close to losing her. Not that park rangers could have stopped such an attack, mind you, but park rangers in NYC did a lot that day. They helped a lot of people during a very chaotic time. And they will do so again if the need arises, and I'll be proud to be part of any such effort.

But I digress. While at the academy, the interpretive ranger job I'd held in Yakutat the previous summer was advertised as a permanent position. Permanent positions are, for the most part, only offered to people who already have permanent status in the federal government. It's really hard to get your foot in the door (case in point, my experience back at the Smokies). But I applied. Never having been an interpretive ranger before that summer, I wasn't top on the list of applicants, but I was close to the top, and everyone else above me turned it down due to the remote location. I got the job. I finished the academy in November, spent December traveling the Caribbean, and began working for the NPS again that January, this time with benefits.

And I still have that job today. I am the Yakutat District Interpretive Ranger. I manage the visitor center operation here in Yakutat, oversee all interpretation and education programs given in the district, and supervise a small summer staff.

But everybody knows I'd rather be an LE (law enforcement) ranger. About a year ago, I broke off my relationship with the man with whom I moved to Alaska, which means that I am no longer dating the supervisory law enforcement ranger in the district. Where there was once an ethical issue none now exists, and the park has been kind enough to let me take advantage of my academy training before it expires (that would have occurred this coming September) and given me a law enforcement commission. At present, I'm a permanent federal employee, doing interpretation but commissioned to do law enforcement, and I'm looking to make the final switch into what I think will finally be my career. My next job will be in a primary position as an LE ranger, and I'll have to go through thirty-four weeks of additional training when that happens. I'm looking forward to getting through that and finally settling in to the career I've been searching for all this time.

Edited to add: In November, 2004, I made the switch from interpretation to law enforcement after being hired for a primary protection ranger position with Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park.