July 29, 2019
Ranger Chris keeps an eye on bears from the bridge.
Two steps off the path, my boots sink ever so slightly into the spongy earth. An apparent break in the pattern of foliage has caught my eye.
I'm not wrong. Just a few feet from my face a spruce grouse perches motionless on the overgrown roots of a fallen tree. I try to mirror its stillness, hoping to extend the moment as long as possible. But suddenly my radio crackles with meaningless call signs, flushing the grouse ––along with a flurry of chicks I hadn't yet discovered.
Back on the path, I turn my radio down to a level I hope will be just barely audible. It's drizzling and sixty degrees, and though it's been overcast all day, you can tell just where the sun is pressing against its wall of cloud, like it could break through any moment if it wanted to. I continue on my way as the forest resumes oozing the rich, saturated colors I've come to associate with Alaska. (A biologist friend dares describe them as "technicolor.")
Passing a final stand of purple fireweed, I come out of the woods behind the maintenance shop and realize that this short path, which connects the older cabins on Lake Brooks to the newer Valley Road cabins, has become one of my favorite hidden corners of Brooks Camp. On my way home later this evening, I'll be reminded that brown bears like it too – and be forced to take a different route along the Valley Road.
View down the trail connecting Lake Brooks and the Valley Road cabins
Having arrived at my destination, I knock on the door of Ranger Chris's cabin and let myself in. Her recliner is turned towards the window, giving her a dense forest view. As I settle into the other chair and take out my voice recorder, I tell her about my walk over. It turns out she's also a fan of the trail that connects our respective "neighborhoods." Although she is a resident of Atlanta, her accent is unmistakably Long Island, a fact that caused me some confusion when we first met on the bus to the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes some two months ago. On that bus ride, we began the conversation I've come over tonight in the hopes of revisiting, about something we have in common: that we are both only just beginning our careers as park rangers.
"I was an analyst for a natural gas distribution company," she says. "I was with the company for thirty-one years, I did that job for probably the last fifteen. But I always wanted to be a park ranger."
"Always?" I ask, somewhat taken aback by the absoluteness of this word.
"Always," she assures me with almost childlike certainty. "I always liked bears, so I would look into a lot of things with bears, and it was a job that I could be around bears with."
Never having had such a straightforward career goal of my own, I have to admit that I'm envious of Chris' clarity. But I also want to know why she didn't realize her dream right away.
"I didn"t have the money to go to school. So I went to a two-year school to learn something thatwould help me make a living, because I had to pay for it myself. I went to a business school, and came out and went to work for a utility in New York. I was like a secretary. I spent four years there and then I moved to Georgia and was a secretary there until I tested into a job that I liked better, with a lot of numbers. I like numbers. But I always wanted to be a park ranger, so I made a deal with my kids that when they went to school, I would go to school."
Chris answers a visitor's questions at Brooks Falls.
So it wasn't just work, but also motherhood that intervened. Chris' son Craig kept her busy with soccer and her daughter Kate with softball and violin concerts. "I wouldn't have wanted to be in school when they were younger, where I might have had to miss something that they did." But in 2009, a year after Craig graduated, Chris started online coursework towards her Bachelor of Science degree with a major in Environmental Science and a minor in Wildlife and Fisheries from Oregon State University. She took the core science and math courses and her labs in person at Georgie State - all while continuing to work full-time at her career as a business analyst.
Chris graduated in 2015, after six years of hard work. But her park ranger dream was still just out of reach. She had made a deal with her company to give them two more years of service in exchange for putting her through school. Chris is grateful that her boss was always willing to help make sure she was able to attend classes and exams. "If he hadn't been so flexible it would have been much more difficult."
Of course, Chris didn't have to wait to become a park ranger before she could start making
good on her fondness for bears. But it did take several attempts before she succeeded in seeing a bear in the wild. In 1984, she and her husband Frank, "New York City cop" decided to go for broke. "We had a 4WD Toyota pickup truck, we threw our tent and sleeping bags in the back, and drove from New York to Wyoming and back in eleven days. Got to Yellowstone and didn't see a bear. And when we moved to Georgia, everybody saw the black bears up in North Georgia, I never saw one. When the kids got older, we started coming up here to Alaska. First it was black bears, and then finally in Kodiak in 2013 I saw my first brown bears."
Juggling school and work wasn't always easy for Chris or her family. "Because I had a goal in mind, it was easier. I knew what I wanted, but I also realized I had no experience in
interpretation. So I started volunteering at the aquarium in Atlanta to get some practice." With two years of experience at the aquarium as well as a stint volunteering at Grand Canyon National Park under her belt, Chris landed her first job as a seasonal interpretive ranger last summer at Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument. Although she sounds a little disappointed that she didn't see any bears in Montana, the big payoff finally came this year, when she was hired as an interpreter at Katmai.
"Don't give up because, if I had said in 2009, by the time I finish this I'm gonna be in my 50s... But you know what, I'm gonna be in my 50s that many years later anyway. Doesn't matter if I went to school or I didn't. If you're a hundred percent sure of what you wanna do, just go for it."
For obvious reasons, Chris' kids are proud of their mother. Her daughter Kate - now a veterinary technician who works with marine mammals - credits her mother with showing her how to be tenacious in her own career. "My son Craig and my daughter-in-law Namrata made me go to graduation. I wasn't gonna walk. But they flew all the way out to Oregon to watch my graduation. I have great kids. I was more afraid they would be embarrassed, you know, your mom is what? A park ranger? Kate says, 'I'm so glad I don't have a normal mom.'"
As I lace up my boots and prepare to head back out into the beautiful drizzle of an Alaska
summer evening, I ask a final question. I smirk a little, because of course I know the answer,
and I know Chris knows I know, and probably suspects that I'm just fishing for another good
"Was it worth it? I wanted to be a ranger in a park with bears, and here I am. I used to joke and say, I just want the hat. The first thing I did when I got the hat was take a picture and send it to the kids. The flat hat, that's a ranger."
Chris staffing the Treehouse at Brooks Falls