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Yarn Registry – I am a Grand Canyon park ranger, part 1

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Sarah Acomb grew up in Yellow Springs but now calls the Grand Canyon home. She is a park ranger with the National Park Service, helping visitors understand the multifaceted majesty of one of the world’s great natural wonders. She didn’t set out to be a park ranger but has come to identify with the job in a way that transcends mere employment or as a way to channel her interest in the sciences. Her job offers the chance to not only be in a place of unparalleled beauty every single day, but to teach and live among a community of like-minded people who are just as enthralled with what they’re doing.

She has been on a great many adventures during her time as a park ranger and is eager to return to Arizona as the season gets back into full swing. In the meantime, she sat down with me and was able to enlighten me about the ins and outs of the parks service, her experiences, and why she loves doing what she does.

Photos courtesy of Sarah Acomb and Claire Luce Baldwin.

I’ve worked in the Grand Canyon for about eight months, and I’ve been with the park service for three years now. So far I’ve worked at Arches, Rocky, and Grand Canyon, and I’ve also done interpreting at Glen Helen Nature Preserve.

There are 417 National Park sites currently, all operated under the National Park Service. There are 59 national parks, but then there are national historic sites, national seashores, national memorials, things like that. Even the memorials at the national mall are run by the parks service. We get people all the time who are trying to see all 59 national parks. The statistic is that every American is no more than two hours away from a national park site. Maybe some people are a little further than two hours, but most people are close to one, close enough that most kids in the U.S. could get a field trip to a national park site at some point in their schooling.

My position I’ll be going back to is as an interpretive park ranger. They’re the people that generally get recognized as park rangers, even though the facilities management guy who’s fixing the burned out light bulb is also a park ranger just as much I am, we just have different tasks that keep the parks running. Visitors think we’re these experts in everything, but really, when you become a park ranger, you realize how little you actually know in the grand scheme of things. But that’s still so much to the visitor who comes for two or three hours and catches that program. If they learn about a condor’s wingspan being 9.5 feet and that they almost went extinct, that’s great, and suddenly they’re into birding. (If they’re lucky, they’ll have a condor fly over while I’m giving the program. That’s happened to me once.) It’s amazing what people take away from your program, and I helped create that space for visitors to be excited about a park in a way they didn’t expect to when they came.

All rangers help visitors in some way, but interpretive rangers answer questions, educate visitors on the resources, and help facilitate a connection to the site by giving information in an interesting and engaging way. If people care about something, they’re more likely to want to protect and preserve it. Interp rangers are on the frontline of visitor service. We are at the front desks, out on the trails, and leading programs for the general public. We get recognized and seen quite a bit by the visitors along with fees rangers, who, among many other behind the scenes tasks, operate the entrance stations. Within the division of interpretation there’s a subdivision between resource education and interpretation. The education rangers perform curriculum-based lessons and activities for student groups or other youth on field trips and things like that. I’ve done mostly education interpretation for children, but this summer I’m going to switch over to general interpretation and round out my work experience a bit more. Both have an educational and preservation message but the audiences are different and so delivery techniques also change. It seems like a small difference but it takes a completely new approach.

A friend of mine really wanted to be a park ranger since he was in eighth grade. He knew he really wanted to do this job his whole life. I had no idea I’d end up as a park ranger when I was that age. I sort of fell into it. and thank goodness I did, because I love this job. My grandfather, my mom’s dad, was in the Civilian Conservation Corps. He was a conscientious objector and as his punishment, he had to join the CCC. He fought fires out in Yosemite Valley, I believe. That’s kind of what a fire operations park ranger does day to day, so it’s different from what I do. But that’s not really why I became a ranger anyway. It’s just cool that I have that family history. [Laughs]

I went to college for plant biology and ended up also interested in environmental geography. When I was a little kid I wanted to be a marine biologist who worked with dolphins. [Laughs] Then I wanted to be a vet; even when I was in college, I thought I wanted to be an organic farmer and then a plant geneticist as my classes progressed. There was a professor in the environmental geography department where I went to college – he’s awesome and we’re still friends – and he was my advisor when I was there. I went to Scotland on a study abroad through one of his classes, and he suggested toward the end of my career that I should check out the Student Conservation Association. I didn’t want to just be in a lab studying plants like I’d done with internships and work study jobs in school. It was lonely. So I checked out the SCA and I found a program at Moab, in Arches National Park, as an education technician intern. Basically I taught the same things the rangers do, with just a little bit less responsibility of developing the curriculum. I didn’t have to develop my own curriculum until toward the end of the internship when I got to learn how that was done. So I got to teach kids, be outside, and explore my backyard, which was Arches. I literally lived right by the entrance gate, and if I walked up the hill, I would be in the park. Sometimes there would be waterfalls that would fall in my yard when the monsoons came. It was great; it was so cool.

We rangers are sometimes called the “green and grays” because of the uniform. You’re universally recognized. You buy your uniforms from one supplier, so they all look the same. The parks give you a stipend to use at the beginning of your seasons to purchase gear you’ll need for the job. We get our uniforms from the same company that makes many police uniforms. Because I’m an interpretative park ranger, I wear the Class A uniform.

[According to National Parks website, the “Class A dress uniform is the basic uniform. It shall be worn for all formal and semiformal occasions, at social functions, for all official contacts outside the area, and on other occasions as prescribed by the Superintendent. (Note: Discretion is urged in determining the use of the hat. It is not recommended for indoor use.)”]

My uniform has to be ironed all the time because I’m a frontline person and professionalism is key. They see that uniform first. There are certain rules for how to wear the uniform like keeping a nickel’s worth of space between your name badge and the seam of the chest pocket. My flat hat has to be perfectly flat. If it gets a bend in it because it gets wet – they don’t make them waterproof but we do have covers for them– I have to get a new one. You represent a standard and a tradition. Rangers have been wearing a similar uniform for 100 years now, it’s a symbol and an honor to put it on every day and it holds important meaning. You’re the person guests see and want to take a picture with. You’re a like a Disney character to some and at the same time you might talk someone out of jumping over the edge or making a fatal mistake. We do get suicide attempts from time to time at the Grand Canyon. Another ranger, a friend of mine, had that experience this past summer. You wear the uniform as a sign of your pledge to keep people safe and protecting the resources through education.

My schedule is different every day as an interpretive ranger– one day I’ll have the geology talk and then I have a visitor center shift, and then maybe I have office work in the afternoon, where I could be researching my program that I’m working on or a meeting that I have to go to. The next day could be completely different – the next day I open the visitor center and do a program in the afternoon, like the critter chat. No day is the same, ever. The visitors will always keep this job fresh and exciting. Many ask the same question as the previous person, but sometimes you get very unusual or interesting interactions. Once someone brought their pet bird into the visitor center with them. I think it was a love bird. The man let us hold her, it was really fun and totally unexpected. The couple was retired and traveling cross-country in an RV and the bird went wherever they did. How cool is that? You meet such fascinating people in this line of work.

As an education ranger at Rocky Mountain National Park and also at Arches, I had a more set schedule. We generally had a Monday through Friday schedule because that’s when kids are in school, and that’s when they’ll come for their field trips. I would generally be doing the same lesson plan all week for a group of students, and then I’d switch to something new the next week. Maybe I’d have all second graders for a week who learned about etymology and then I’d switch my curriculum to the rock cycle and geology and work with fourth graders. We get them from anywhere from an hour to five hours, depending on what program they choose. At the Grand Canyon, field trips are mostly from within the state, but the camps we do in the summer, those kids are from all over. We get kids from DC, Germany, France, but mostly within the United States. We led summer camp programs through the canyon and down on the Colorado River. They learned about art, backcountry hiking and backpacking skills, river anatomy, scorpions, you name it. I think these camps are fantastic experiences for kids. I wish every child could see the parks like they did, I think we’d have a generation with much stronger values on protecting the planet if they had that experience.

It’s hard to get your start in the National Park Service. Once you have your first green and gray position, as long as you do relatively well, you can stay in it. But the seasonal lifestyle is hard for a lot of people. Picking up and moving every six months, and not knowing where you’re going until a month before your next job. Or if you’re going to have another job. It can be really unstable. It makes it pretty difficult for people who aren’t financially stable to get into [the routine]. You have your heart set on going to a certain park, because it was a dream since you were a kid – waiting to hear back, a month before the job is scheduled to start, you find out you didn’t get it. Or because you had to wait so long, you had to take another job and now you can’t take the one you really want. That can be really disheartening for a lot of people.

At the park service right now, we’re discussing why we don’t have more diversity in the parks, from visitors to parks service staff. I think a part of that reason could be that, if I hadn’t had a place to come home to in the winter, I don’t know if I could have continued to be a park ranger. I’m really lucky in that I could afford to do that, and that I found [my seasonal] job at this nonprofit who lets me come back every time I’m home for three months. A lot of people have to have a backup job – a bartender or ski bum in the winter, or just be poor and unemployed for the season. [Laughs] That can be pretty stressful sometimes. But if you’re resourceful and you might be able to make it work. Like if you’re willing to sublet someone’s apartment around a college because they went abroad for six months and only eat potatoes – you can make it work because the job is worth it to you and you’ll do whatever it takes to stay with it. It’s a dream job. You don’t necessarily get it just because you studied to do this in college, sometimes you have to put in more effort to live the lifestyle. But for me, I’ll continue to figure out a way forever. I’d rather struggle to do this than easily succeed at anything else.

While it does make it difficult for people who aren’t from higher-income families – which may make up a part of our diversity problem, I think – it also breeds a culture of people who really, really love what they do. It’s really cool to go to work every day with people who love this stuff as much as you do. It makes all of the pain and uncertainty of the last several months of waiting worth it.

Most rangers like being outdoors, but that’s kind of a requisite, because you’re going to be working out in it a lot. They don’t mind the slight isolation that sometimes comes with it. At Rocky, it wasn’t so bad because I was 40 minutes from Boulder. But Grand Canyon is just this little pod of people and then an hour and a half away is Flagstaff. If you want to go to a concert or movie, you have to drive that far to see it. Or take a yoga class, unless someone offers to do yoga to a video together. [Laughs] It’s like being back in college on another planet almost, but with people from all walks of life and ages.

For instance, I work with people who have worked for the parks for 25 years to people from the Midwest just out of college who are eager to get out of their small towns to people who volunteer after they’ve retired from a separate amazing life outside of the park. And everybody admits right out front that it’s OK to be nerdy, so we are all perpetual academics. Everyone’s all, “Oh! I just found out about this really cool nebula,” or “I just learned all about this plant and I’m going to practice the pigment that Hopis use in pottery glazes.” That last one was me. [Laughs] They learn all this new stuff and want to share it with everyone because they know all of the other rangers and visitors will be like, “that’s so cool!” And so you’re always learning new stuff and you get to share it and geek out with all the visitors. It’s such a positive feedback loop.

The community I have with the rangers and the people I work with every day is awesome. Grand Canyon has a little town in it- just called Grand Canyon- that’s just made up of staff and families. It’s the only national park with a town inside. Usually, there’s a gateway town – we have one of those too – but our school is in the inside town, our library is there, the fire fighters who work for the park also put out house fires. Because of that, there really is an extra sense of community. It’s made up of national park service staff but also people who work in the restaurants and bars and bookstores. So you get a lot of different kinds of people, and they all come from all over the place. There are a bunch of native people who live there because they work in the park, or because it’s their native land. There are about 3,000-4,000 people living in Grand Canyon the town. There are people there for their summer job and there are people there with grown kids. There are about 350 students in the K-12 school. It’s really fun to live there day to day. Your work feels less like work, because the people you hang out with are the people that you work with at the visitor’s center desk or saw loading up the mules at the end of the day’s ride. You’re going to go get a beer with them after work, which didn’t seem like work [in the first place].

As a ranger, there are so many things day to day that you have to be flexible around. You can’t plan your day 100 percent – you have to build in some flexibility. You’ll leave fifteen minutes early to do a program that’s only five minutes away, but actually that’s not enough time because there’s an elk in the way you have to go around, and it’s stomping its hoof and raising its head like it’s going to charge you because she’s trying to protect her calf, hidden in the bushes. Or, you walk on the trail to get to your program and 30 people stop you and ask you questions. But it’s also really cool because people look at you like you’re the expert. And even though you’re not, you still get to help them have a better experience because someone was there to answer their curiosities or relieve their worry that they missed the shuttle bus.

Recently, I was trying to come up with a new way to explain the layers of the Grand Canyon, and I thought it kind of looks like a layer of books. I didn’t have a lot of time, so I just took a bunch of books off my desk and wrapped them each in different colored construction paper according to the layer they’re going to be. I stacked them up and carried them two miles to where my program was going to be. [Laughs] Everyone thought it was hilarious that I carried a sack full of books to my program. There were like fourteen of those in there. [Laughs] But even such a haphazard prop – books wrapped in construction paper – people can walk away from that and really understand. They can look out at the Canyon and see where the colors correspond. Next time I’m wrapping empty boxes or old VHS tape cases, so I can slide the construction paper around them and it won’t get wet when it rains. You’ve always got to be thinking of how to update and improve your delivery so people can get the most out of the short program possible.

How do I make a program if someone’s first language isn’t English? Or there’s only one visitor attending? Or there’s a bunch of children? How do you make it exciting for a four year-old and an 80 year-old. It’s like theater meets storytelling meets education meets entertainment meets super resourceful, last minute planning. And then you throw in the weather and who knows what visitors you’ll get.

Two hundred people is probably the most I’ve given a program to, and the least, I had a program with a family of four – two kids and two parents. We did a fossil walk together on a pretty cold day. Because it was just them, I got to talk to them more informally. They asked me questions throughout, and it was more like they got a ranger for an hour. We generally talked about fossils and went on the course I usually take, but it was more loosely structured. You have to be ready to go to two hundred people or four. Or one: if there’s one person, you do the program. I’ve never not had anyone show up and there’s been some pretty crappy weather. Ten people showed up for my history program – it’s an hour long and completely outside. It was snowing sideways and then it turned into rain, and they’re like, “Yeah! That was fun! I’m game if you are!”

As environmental education is more familiar to me, I’m noticing the difference between it and general interpretation. I think it’s almost harder to interpret to kids. Unless you have a bunch of experience with group and behavior management, it’s hard to corral a bunch of 9 year olds. Large mixed audiences will generally be pretty polite to you, even if it’s pretty boring. But kids, they’ll come up and tell you they’re bored, or they’ll just get up and walk off, distracted. Or you’ll ask them to do a task you think is going to be fun but they don’t. You have to develop these ways of tricking them into wanting to learn. You make it a like a secret or make it a game.

I know how to teach that to kids because I learned that way when I was young. My mom would do things like that. She would teach me the best way to find a salamander – the nice round rocks with other rocks underneath it so there’s a little space and the right mud. And then we’d go and hunt for them. At the same time, she’s teaching me how the creek runs and the ecology around it. And my dad would teach me about trees and we’d collect leaves on long walks, comparing the shapes. I try to do that with students as well. By the end, they’re just playing a game – they don’t realize that they’re learning because they’re laughing and running. I feel like I won the real game because I taught them something. And then kids will tell their parents or friends, speaking at a million miles per hour about what they learned because they’re excited about it. So they won too.

That’s the most fun way you can teach it, too. Nobody wants to teach a bored kid. You can build off of kid energy and keep it going. I can do similar stuff for adults, just maybe not quite as obvious. You get people to look at something by pointing at something while with your other hand you’re getting a skull out. [Laughs] Adults don’t like to admit it, but they like to learn through fun too. You still want to have that connection that something is fun or hilarious or emotionally thought provoking.

At the beginning of my program, I make a point not to raise my voice to get everyone’s attention. I just say in a normal voice, “OK, I’m going to start my program, for those of you joining me today, you can move a little bit closer and come one over here.” You build this little pod around you and the others notice everyone is moving. You don’t have to strain your voice and they feel like they’re being let in on a secret, which is true…

Part 2 of this interview will be posted next week.


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