The Black Bear that Came to a Ranger-led Walk

It was one of those days where the cell phone was left at home by accident. No calls and no photos, either. It was also one of those days where you say something and immediately the universe sets out to prove you wrong.

I had just finished saying to the group that joined me for a morning forest walk that we don’t often see larger wild animals on this heavily visited trail when a lady came running off the trail saying there was a bear at stop #2. Surprising, but not totally shocked, as this bear had been down farther on the road for weeks, stripping trees of their bark. See Photo. As she was showing the group photos she had taken on her ipad, someone in my group blurted out, “I think the bear just walked onto the bridge! Unless I am seeing things, but I caught a dark figure out of the corner of my eye.”

This bridge is an odd one. Its walls come up about 4 feet or so, making it impossible to see through it. It also has a 90 degree turn, which at this moment I was cursing. I told the group to remain in the parking lot while I checked. Tip-toeing up the bridge, I peered around the corner to see a small bear peering right back. Uff. 

I commenced hollering and whooping and smacking the side of the bridge [which didn’t make the loud noise I was looking for, just hurt my hand, and apparently served as a visitor call to action, cameras in tow]. The bear didn’t run, just walked calmly off the bridge as if it had read our directions for wildlife encounters [“Don’t panic, make yourself look big and back up slowly. DO NOT RUN.”].

Once the bear was off the bridge, it milled around on the hillside for its photo op and slowly was working its way away. I was trying to think of ideas on how to get the group back together, as well as pondering if it was wise to leave the parking lot folks to their own devices if the bear were to return. The brainstorming session was abruptly halted when some folks next to the parking lot were trying to get a better view of the bear, noisily walking through some vegetation. The bear’s head snapped up, it located the source of the noise, and then went galloping straight towards them!

For Pete’s sake, I thought, am I supposed to smack those visitors or the bear first?? Running back down the bridge, I started the yelling again. I think the sound of me running down the bridge spooked the bear, so he tried halfheartedly to climb a tree, paused, and decided on a stump next to the bridge about 15 feet away from me. I was hoping he would scramble away, but I had him pinned against the bridge and he started to look a little more panicked. Backing up a step or two, I started banging on the metal trailhead sign. Later that day, I would forget all the banging on things I had done and wonder why my hand tingled so much. The bear, still not as terrified as I would have liked him, took a few steps towards me and the parking lot of wildlife point-and-shoot paparazzi. This is it, I thought, I’m going to have to tackle him. I didn’t see what the people were doing behind me, although all the exclamation was enough to indicate a frenzied crowd that likely wouldn’t run fast enough. Luckily, as he reached the edge of the bridge, he decided not to run into the parking lot or back up the bridge, but head for the edge of the hill and flail down it [and probably ran across the road below without looking both ways, too].  

Letting go of my trailhead sign drum, I walked to the edge of the hill. No visual of him, nor any noise. Good. I went to address the parking lot crowd to tell them the proper techniques of encountering a bear. An adrenaline-rushed lady, one of the family that triggered the bear’s gallop into the parking lot, ran over to me, squealing “THAT WAS SO COOL!” Some days, I am glad I don’t have ears like a cat, because at that moment, they would have been flat against my head in annoyance. 

I spent the rest of that hour giving my forest walk, a mundanely insightful look at an old growth forest that was nothing as exciting as a bear…

This happened a few weeks ago, and reports of the bear have kept coming in. A visitor submitted photo to our facebook page shows just how hard this bear is having it: Visitor’s Bear Photo

Someone took misguided pity on him and threw him a whole loaf [plastic bag and all]. With that handout, the chances of his survival have greatly lessened. If he’s not hit by a car first, he could likely either starve or, if adverse conditioning attempts don’t work and he becomes aggressive, be put down. 

What Do Rangers Do…?

…In the off-season? Well, if you’ve ever wondered how park rangers hibernate, here’s your all-inclusive, tongue-in-cheek guide to the secret life of a park ranger in the off-season!

Usually, this question comes after a string of questions starting with the basic directional inquiries, like “Where do I go from here?” or “Where do I go to see ____?”  From there, the questions turn more personal: “Where are you from? – How long have you been stationed here?” These questions usually lead into the topic of working seasonally, since a permanent job is as rare as a black-footed ferret.

And then it comes. “What do you do in the off-season?” Uh…well….

It’s as awkward as asking what someone does when they get home from work. It’s personal. It has nothing to do with the surrounding beauty. Did I mention it’s personal?

Since it is a personal question, it, of course, varies from person to person. Some rangers head to a “winter park”–a park that has high enough visitation to warrant people to work in the winter months. Others, if their park can manage it, work for a different division or unit. And some rangers just go home.

I feel lucky that my home is now only 30 miles south of my current park. At one point, home was 1,300 miles away. Another time it was just a less intimidating 600 miles away. [Imagine the headache every time you work at a new park, you have to fill out a new background check. That requires listing the places you’ve lived for the last 7 years–with no breaks and someone as a reference to verify! That’s been at least 11 moves in 8 states for me! I can’t imagine what back-to-back seasonals have to list!]

I know some rangers travel a lot in the off-season. Others go back to school. Some work as teachers, find other jobs to fill the financial gap, or volunteer.

Usually, at the end of every season, I have the custom of making a mental ‘To-Do’ list of things I’d love to accomplish in the off-season. I look forward to all the extra time, the clean house, and the mountain of finished projects. And then at the start of every season, I wonder where in the world all that time went!

In the first off-season here [or was it the second? –It was the second, the first I was still trying online grad school!], I was so antsy to find and train a dog. I imagined visions of grandeur as the dog would complete agility courses and catch frisbees jumping off my back. Eventually, we found an old Pyrenees [look up their trainability-ha!]…That pile of fluff squished those dreams. We took three hour long walks together. She is now perfectly camera trained [I couldn’t ask for a better camera/walking buddy. I lift my camera, she stops, ready for 10 minutes of photographing one flower].

The next off-season, I planned to be domestic apparently, hoping to learn knitting, to finish a couple crochet projects that have been around for years, and to have a full-blown photography business. I managed to partly do the photo business and hike most of the 70 miles of trails in Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park. I haven’t touched my crochet hooks in two years! I did manage to knit a small square, though. And I did a few paintings in acrylics.

This off-season, I was hoping to volunteer at a local wildlife area. Three months, two background checks and counting…maybe I’ll volunteer once before I go back to work! I randomly attend natural history talks and astronomy club gatherings. I enrolled in a class to catch up on the digital media software world. I am preparing for an upcoming talk in April between bouts of homework. Essentially, I gave up on planning anything for this off-season. It’s no use! Fighting reality with my arbitrary goals seems useless – better to just go with the flow, I suppose.

So, how to answer that question, “What do you do in the off-season?,” as you can see, is harder than describing geologic formations, how trees grow, where the ‘buffalo’ roam. I can tell you how many old-growth redwood trees in one acre it takes to make an “old-growth redwood forest”, but I can’t tell you what I’ll be doing next week.

Since, as demonstrated through this case study, predicting what rangers do in their off-season alludes to no set trends or patterns, perhaps guidelines on how to spot an off-season ranger in captivity might be more appropriate.  Off-season rangers will either be reading nature- or history-related books, bird-watching, exploring for the sake of exploring, spending countless hours on, outdoor gear-shopping, or talking to random strangers about the natural or cultural significance of the surroundings. One or more of these behaviors observed together indicates a high likelihood that you have an off-season ranger in your midst.

This concludes this segment of “What Do Rangers Do In the Off-Season”. Stay tuned next April or May for the sequel, “Where DID the Time Go?!”

Did I mention, I fuss about light pollution, too?

Mountains out of Molehills

When Work Follows You Home

It happens. A nice weekend, with splendid weather [the exception and not the rule], comes about and it’s overrun with work.

Sometimes, I get jealous of people’s grand weekend plans. All the elaborate adventures they take part in, filling their conversations for the next week or so. Two days never seems like enough to have an adventure. When do you catch your breath??

While my weekends are a little on the bland side at times, I feel a twitch of embarrassment when I work all the way through them.  Why yes, I did happen to get up at 6:45 am on my weekend to catch a webinar on social media and am trying to write up a training on how to give interpretive walks.  In the grand scheme of it all it, it’s all molehills, not mountains. As long as I don’t let work overrun *every* weekend, and as long as I don’t “NEED” to have an adventure every weekend to feel like I am validating my life, either, I suppose keeping a good sense of perspective and loosing my weekend to work is a decent trade-off.  Come the end of summer, I’ll be wondering where all the work went to anyway.

3 National Park Service Sites, Many Stories!

Working in the National Park Service as a seasonal ranger is certainly an interesting AND entertaining experience. What could possibly be more fun than hanging out with people while they are on vacation? Some of the most amazing things don’t always happen with animals or nature, but with those seeking nature who come with questions, humor, or wonder.

My memory is a little fuzzy since every six months my poor brain gets ‘reworked’ and ‘situated’.  Can you imagine trying to know the answer to every possible question about a place you had never even heard of two months prior???!  It HURTS!  These stories, even though I stored them in a ‘special place’, need to be in writing since old age forgets no one!

First Time on Stage: De Soto National Memorial

Yea…”Where?!” you ask.  Bradenton, FL, on the south side of Tampa Bay.  I had never heard of the place, but my grandmother was a snowbird, so I thought, in order to earn my degree, an internship there while living with my lovely snowbird grandmother would be great–and it was!  Of course, it was really intimidating at first: dressing as a man, wearing armour, shooting black powder weapons, making chainmail, shooting crossbows.  Eventually, though, I got the hang of it, and didn’t get offended anymore when a visitor would look me up and down and then ask “What are you? The wench??”  Really, I’m over it…I swear!

But these were my first interpretive talks, talks that park rangers do, and I had a really wonderful, if not very beneficially demanding boss.  I was nervous and not very loud, and it didn’t help that there is wildlife EVERYWHERE in Florida.  Parrots would fly by, and as soon as they caught my eye, I would interrupt myself, telling the misguided and crazy adventure that De Soto led his men on, and exclaim “Oh look!  Parrots!”  The whole audience would turn and look…and I would lose my place, forget what I was saying, and have to ask what the last thing I said was…

I know, you want to know where to get those awesome socks!

On this day in particular, a little critter made a rather impressive appearance in the middle of a talk.  I didn’t have a large group, maybe 8 or so, and most of them were together.  A really jolly group of retirees, having fun and joking around.  It was more of a conversation than a talk and it was all going wonderfully well…and then….

His little head popped up over the large encampment fence!

A racoon, who must have smelled our camp food, was sitting on the crown of a tree directly over my shoulder!  The tree was draped in vines so he could sit right on top and I’m sure he had a great view.  He sat there for 5 minutes or so, looking around to see if he could see the source of the smells and probably only seeing 18 eyes looking back at him.  There was no way to interrupt this raccoon’s cameo to get back on topic, so we started to talk about him.  I’m sure he loved that! 

He didn’t do much besides stare right back at us, so probably disappointed that he didn’t see giant piles of food he eventually climbed down the vines and went on to do his raccoony things, but it was a pretty neat experience to share with the visitors and an entertaining interruption to boot. 

Second Time Around is Spooky: Saint-Gaudens National Historic Site

Truthfully, I don’t believe in ghosts, or at least ghosts that are able to move things around in our realm of exsistance, but this little place in New Hampshire almost had me!

Within the shadow of Mt. Ascutney, Saint-Gaudens preserves the home, studio and gardens of America’s Micheangelo, Augustus Saint-Gaudens.  He did indeed die in his house in 1907, upstairs in the house where we rangers give tours.  The tour only goes through three rooms on the bottom floor, but it gives you a wonderful idea of how he and his wife Gussy lived.  Because you only have access to three rooms, the tour is limited to 12 people so everyone isn’t crowded and cramped, just “meet-your-neighbor close.

See any ghosts?  House is on the right.

This tour was one of those, full and comfortably close.  Trying to keep an eye on 12 people while pointing out fun little details is sometimes a challenge and kids are especially hard to keep off the stairs, so occasionally there is someone upstairs walking across the old, creaky floors. 

As I led this group from the foyer to the kitchen, I heard some noise upstairs.  It sounded like very even footsteps.  Thinking it was a rogue visitor, I excused myself from the kitchen and hollered up the stairs for whoever the lost lamb was to come back down….No response, so I tried again.   Still nothing.  I couldn’t go upstairs and leave everyone in the kitchen, so I counted heads instead.  Everyone was there.  Huh.

So I went on with the tour, and brought the people back to the foyer where the tour ended.  I wasn’t the best at keeping the tour to 20 minutes, so I was running over a little, but the visitors were engaged and were asking about the mistress, so I had to explain some things on behalf of Mr. Saint-Gaudens.  Lo and behold, that darn noise again!  Footsteps across the floor upstairs.  I asked the visitors if they had anyone missing in their party; everyone shook their heads.  They started coming up with explanations and their favorite by far was ‘GHOSTS!’  They concluded that it was Mr. Saint-Gaudens himself, a little uncomfortable that we’re talking about his mistress so much.  I laughed and we moved on to other topics. 

All of the sudden we heard a noise at the back door!  It jiggled, clicked, jiggled, and then very slowly opened.  I’m sure you can imagine the looks on the visitors’ faces.  The majority had very wide eyes and mouths a little agape.  Then, as the being behind the door came through the sunshine filled portal, everyone let out a collective “Ooooh!”  One fellow bellowed “IT WAS HIM!”  This being was my boss and he was a little flabberghasted about all the attention given to him for just walking through the back door.  Maybe they felt it was a little anticlimatic to see another ranger, who they thought was a ghost come through the door, but they decided that was the time to leave. 

My boss walked up to me after I said my goodbyes to my ghost hunting group and apologized for the interruption.  The last fellow, in response to my boss, turned and said “We thought YOU were a GHOST walking around upstairs!”  Wanting to avoid anymore hoobaloo, I tried to change the conversation, but too late! My boss’ face lit up like a Christmas tree and you could here the exhuberance in his “REALLY?!”  He wasn’t upstairs, I knew that, and I didn’t want to explain that I thought I ashamedly lost a visitor.  I could feel a lecture about group management coming.

But none of that mattered to him.  For MONTHS he talked about that possible ghost ‘sighting’.   He would bring it up at end-of-day meetings, ask after I came back from tours if I had heard anymore spooks, watch the security cameras for ghoulish appearances; truthfully, it was giving me the heebie jeebies.  It was a little unnerving to close the buildings on dark and dreary days.   I never did hear anything more from Mr. Saint-Gaudens, though.  Maybe he went on vacation until the off season.

Third Degree: Badlands

At Saint-Gaudens, I took a lot of foreign school students on studio tours, and some understood, some didn’t quite as much, but they often had wonderful answers to the questions I asked them.  So when I made it to the Badlands, in South Dakota, I was a little surprised when I got a question I couldn’t answer!

A wonderful place, Badlands National Park is often mistaken for a horrid “snake-pit” and a barren wasteland, but it is 244,000 protected acres that form a treasure trove of Oligecene fossils and fantastic formations.  It’s really like being on the Moon, surrounded by fossils.  I gave tours and worked at the information desk, and the first year I was at the desk, I got a question that almost got me!

Sometimes, I have a very hard time hearing, especially in noisy places, like the Ben Reifel Visitor Center is often.  Even listening to music is difficult. I can’t figure out what the lyrics are unless I know what to expect.  So when I get an unexpected question, it takes a long while for me to process it.

The wonderful couple that posed the unexpected question was from Asia, my guess Japan, but I don’t know.  They were full of smiles at first, as he approached a little shyly and said “Fo-SAIL”.  I’m a little familiar with linguistics and know that R’s are sometimes difficult for those who don’t use them–and sometimes those pesky R’s turn into L’s!  But I asked him to repeat his question, so he pointed to the map and again said “Fo-SAIL”.  He must have seen my confused look and said “Land-Fo-SAIL”.  I repeated “land” and pointed to the map.  He shook his head, so I assumed he was looking for land to buy; “LAND Fo[r]-SALE”.  Well, shoot, I thought, I just got here, I have no idea where the reality office would be…maybe Wall, SD?  I told him that a lot of the land was ranching land, so you’d probably want to go that route unless you wanted a small house in a tiny town like Interior.  And of course, I added, all the land in the Park is protected. 

He stood there and absorded all that I blabbered out and then a look came over his face.  It was a look of “YOU”RE CRAZY!”.  Back to square one…

He was very patient, thank heavens, but at a stalemate with me and not sure what to do.  He spoke to his lady friend and they seemed to be in a huddle about how to talk to this Eastern-deprived park ranger.   I saw her point to an exhibit with a fossil and when they broke huddle he said “Fo-SAIL” again and I said my equivalent.  Fossil was it!  Now, what about fossils???

We went back to pointing at the map, and after a little bit of repeating fossil like I was a broken record, I finally got it!  They wanted to know where the fossils were….ooh, after all that work!  It took them so long to get through my thick skull and broken ears and now I can’t tell them what they want to know!  Not that I didn’t know where some fossils were, it’s that I can’t just tell people, since fossils easily fit into cars and the ONLY National Park Service site to be decommissioned happened to be in South Dakota and happened to lose its status because of fossils disappearing so much so that there was nothing left to show. 

Oh!  What to do?!!  Well, what I did could have been really bad if these two weren’t such wonderful people.  There is a fossil right in the view of the road, but no one ever sees it.  My boss knew about it–everyone knew about it, so I figured, if someone sees two people trying to pick this thing out, they’ll get caught, and I’ll get in trouble, but the fossil will be safe.  I never did this again, though, since the chances were too darn high for something to disappear, but this couple was lucky, I guess, that they had a willing ranger.  It’s not like you can’t find fossils out in the Badlands, it just takes some climbing around.  We get TONS of fossil siting report forms over the summer, but still, it’s not a good idea for a ranger to point out where they are…

So I took a deep breath and pointed to the map and told them where to park.  After they repeatedly thanked me and left, I was so nervous and worried.  I was waiting for an LE [danger ranger, cop ranger] to come in and haul me out.  It was around noon that they asked, and by the time my shift was done at 4, I had mostly forgotten, so what I saw on my drive home threw me for a loop:   they were still out there looking for it!

The horse’s head, a year later. It was in one piece when they saw it!

Now, I don’t know for sure if they were still looking, or had just started, but they looked throughly confused and disheartened.  I pulled my old Buick over and jumped out.  I took them to the fossil, walking carefully to not tread on any rattlers or cactus, and pointed to the ancient horse’s skull, sitting on display on a little knee-high badland formation.  They were amazed!  They chatted excitedly about it, and then she asked “Picture it?”  Two seconds after the go-ahead, I think she had already taken 30 pictures!  Her next request put me on edge: “Touch?”  I’ve seen what kids do, and a lot of adults aren’t much better–sometimes worse–so I wasn’t too comfortable, but I don’t have the word ‘no’ in my vocabulary, so I said “yes’ again.  By golly, they were petting it so gently, as if it might have been alive!  

After the fossil safari was over and we all went on our seperate ways, I vowed never to do that again!  TOO MUCH STRESS!  But I felt that these two visitors from a far off land now had a richer, more fulfilling experience because of their ‘fo-SAIL’ find.  I just had to find a different way to give all the visitors this kind of ‘wow’ experience without endangering anymore wild fossils…Luckily, we had a few ‘toters’ to show, so it was the real thing, just not uncatalogued and undocumented! :)

McFarthest Middle of Nowhere

Alright, take a look at that link and then come back here. 

Thankyee for coming back!  I personally think that is something cool and honorific to be living in a state where the nearest McDonalds is a good drive away, too far for lunch in most cases.  From here, Badlands National Park, it would be around 70 miles.   But it also suggests that any good produce is that far, too, and indeed, it is. 

Anyway, just thought I’d share that. 

I’ll also share that there was a wonderful sight all day today that I got to share with a bunch of hunters and a bus full of senior citizens; bighorn sheep decided to wander around the base of the formations all day today, in perfect view of our wonderfully large windows. 

 It was a real delight to announce over the PA system that there are bighorn sheep out front and to watch people pour out of the theater to see them one minute before the movie started.  

It was also nice to show them to two ladies to whom I had to tell they couldn’t bring their cute little dog in to the visitor center.   The lady and the dog both seemed to frown when I told them, but they were very happy once they found the sheep in the binoculars, climbing up the sandcastlesque and ancient formations.  Well, I suppose the dog didn’t care, but he didn’t mind being petted.  :)

It was a nice day!

Sidetracked by Disney.

No animals here again….sorry.

Disney is very good at duplication…or at least attempting to replicate a feeling. Say you are in Florida and are really wanting to make it out to Yellowstone. But you find your funds aren’t going to make it past Branson, MO let alone allow you to stay in the famed Old Faithful Inn. So, what is your next best option????


Of course! Where else can you ride coasters, take safaries, and ‘experience’ other cultures [translated through Disney’s eyes, of course]? You will find THE one and ONLY Wilderness Lodge at Disney World, whose interior is modeled quite closely after the Inn at Yellowstone. But not only do you get the feeling that you are in Yellowstone [well, the Inn, at least], but you also get a ranger! That’s right, a ranger! Not a United States National Park Service Ranger, but the next best thing–a Disney World ranger!

To me, this seems a little odd.  But that is Disney for you….or at least, for me.  But if there is one thing Disney is good at, aside from duplication, marketing, and the like, it is customer service.  I find it frustrating sometimes that such good people are missed or can’t get into the Park Service.  Even if they aren’t working for the ‘best part of the government’ at least they serve as wonderful examples. 

Take Disney World Ranger Stan.  You can read all about him here.  He displays all of the qualities that a ranger in the Park Service should, even though his Lodge isn’t in the middle of the grand wilderness.  For one, he knows his resource–something very important for park rangers, considering the fact that they talk A LOT and if they are talking that much, but don’t know what they are talking about, then why would they be talking [It happens, believe me…]??  Stan, by the sounds of it, knows his resource AND the one off which it is based!  That’s pretty good.

Another good quality that Stan possesses is he “loves people, and it shows.”  There is an odd phenomenon in the Park Service, and it’s usually covered up pretty well, but sometimes…well, it rears it’s ugly head.  If you’ve ever had to work with people day in and out, you sometimes get fatigued, and sometimes….that fatigue never goes away.  Stan is a wonderful refresher on the way it should be!  For 20 years he has been at it!  That makes the end-of-season burn-out seem like a hiccup!

Another positive that Ranger Stan manages is his ability to ‘make you feel like you are part of his family.’  How often do you go to a National Park and get that feeling??  Often, rangers are pitted between the resource and the visitor.  It makes for some uncomfortable situations sometimes.  For instance, when you find a child crawling through a prairie dog town that might have the plague and the parents have obviously ignored the warning posted at the roadside, but they are finding such enjoyment from watching their child, how do you tactifully disrupt that potential vacation-making memory?  Ranger Stan probably has the answer!

It appears that Ranger Stan is very willing to do his job, roaming around the lobby and grounds of the Lodge.  Would you believe that it can sometimes be difficult to get Park Rangers out on trails????  Roving, or walking around looking for visitors to talk to, is one of the best ways to spread resource information, but is often negelected for the air conditioned comfort of the ’employees only’ area or government vehicle. 

Even though it could be argued that Ranger Stan isn’t really a true ranger, just a duplicate, he definately has the heart of one!  So if nothing else, I can racket Disney up for showing me how to do my job better.  Thanks Disney, and thanks Ranger Stan!