This is the first in a series of posts about the work and life of park rangers at Katmai.
The first day of a new season is always one of the most exciting. It’s a mix of old and new, seasonal and permanent, hopes and expectations. There is so much happening, it can be hard to absorb it all. One aspect that never changes from the beginning of one season to the next is that we must all be trained to do our jobs in the most efficient, effective, and safe manner possible.
Training at Katmai includes basic orientation to the community and landscape. Here, newly arrived Brooks Camp staff discuss salmon migration and tides in Naknek River. NPS/L. Thomas.
Training is a fact of life. No matter the job, we all need training and continuing education to reach higher goals and achieve our best. Katmai takes training very seriously. It varies slightly each year, but the aim is the same: enhance the skills and knowledge of permanent and returning seasonal employees while imparting knowledge about their new park to the first-year seasonal employees.
Permanent employees spend the training period realizing how much there is to accomplish in such a short time. Returning seasonal employees are shocked at the amount of information they’ve forgotten since the previous season. New seasonal employees are overwhelmed with the amount and scope of material they need to master before meeting the ultimate test: the inquisitive visitor.
Years ago during my first season, I realized visitors expect rangers to know the answer to every question possible—from upcoming weather reports to life spans of plants to identifying trails in completely different parks. Training might not prepare us for every question that will come our way, but the change in confidence from the beginning of training to the beginning of the season is amazing to watch. The difference in being a returning seasonal versus a first year is also quite large. The first year you’re full of questions. Subsequent years still have some questions, but you’re regarded with respect because you have some of the answers.
You might be asking, “Well, what exactly happens during park ranger training? To be honest every park is different. Rangers at Katmai interpret a variety of subjects—bears, human history, salmon, volcanoes, and wilderness; therefore, we are expected to know a lot about these topics. There are sessions with geologists so we understand the landscape and natural forces shaping the park. We need to study aquatic life, especially salmon which are the keystone species of Katmai. We read about cultural aspects of the park and visit archaeological sites to comprehend the human history of the park.
Rangers Roy Wood (standing at the base of the stage) and Mike Fitz (seated on the stage) discuss the bearcams with interpretive staff. NPS/L. Thomas.
One subject at Katmai that is returned to again and again, however, should be no surprise: bears. We spend days on end studying their eating habits, behaviors, and what makes them one of the fiercest and most beloved creatures on the planet. We learn how to read and respond to common behaviors the bears display. At Brooks Camp, we also spend chunks of time learning about specific bears in order to full appreciate them as unique individuals.
As you can imagine, it takes weeks to impart and absorb all this information. So what’s the point? Why bother with hours of instruction, almost never-ending “What if?” scenarios, and everything else training entails? It all comes down to you. You are why we are here.
When you ask, “How many teeth does a bear have?” we need to be able to tell you. When you ask, “How did Native Alaskans thrive in this environment?” we want to show you the landscape as they saw it over 100 years ago. And, when you ask “Why,” we know we have succeeded. When you ask why, it means you’re making this park relevant to you and your life. It means you’ve formed a connection to an out-of-the-way, lightly visited corner of the world. It means the stress of training was all worth it.
This year training started like it always does. Confusion reigned. Luggage didn’t make it to the rangers, schedules were flip-flopped around, and the multiple time zone changes messed with our internal clocks. However, I know on Monday, June 1 when Brooks Camp opened for the season, we’re prepared (at least as much as we can be).
Every ranger out there and those scattered throughout the park will be a jack-of-all trades and a master of none (well, there might be an exception or two), but we will band together. This season will be a success. When you ask where, how, or most importantly why, we will answer and answer with confidence—even if it’s to say, “I don’t know, but I know where I can find out.” It all starts with chaos, confusion, and a little bit of apprehension. In a word: training.