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Yarn Registry – I am a Grand Canyon park ranger, part 2

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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.

This is part 2 of our interview. When we left off, Sarah was talking about working with students of all age groups, and how she captivates their attention.

“At the beginning of my program, I make a point not to raise my voice to get everyone’s attention,” she said. “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.”

Photos courtesy of Sarah Acomb and Claire Luce Baldwin.

Working with kids like this is obviously a lot of responsibility, so is there any training or licensure you have to do?

Oh yes, but it’s not that simple, a lot of the training is learned on the job. But you do have to obtain at least wilderness first aid and CPR certifications. I went through a NOLS course as well as an American Red Cross class before I started working for the National Park Service. And there are also trainings that the parks do to prepare you for the job. People come from all walks of life though to be park rangers so they don’t all have the same credentials at the start. I studied plants in college, which is tangentially related because I know enough about scientific topics to explain complex ideas in a way more people can understand and relate to, but you could just as easily begin with a background in history and work from there. New rangers learn about the basics of interpretation and also will go out into the park and learn about the resources there. Each park generally has its own training strategies, and that could be anything from a crash course in learning about the curriculum used to emergency procedures to where all the radio towers are. I have found that rangers as a community are very open about sharing information and sources. Supervisors and experienced coworkers suggest books to read or tips and tricks to know about that specific park. We also go through federal background checks in order to work for the Department of the Interior, which is how the National Park Service fits into the federal government.

On the surface it may seem easy to take some kids out in nature and tell them the names of trees or about historic people who lived in the area. But there are so many variables like science standards, which change by state and grade level, and the weather that day or the particular group of students. The variables always keep you on your toes. I started [at Arches National Park] with curriculum-based programs that were already made, and once I became accustomed to the layout and strategies used in those programs, I practiced building my own. If a class is studying geology and fourth grade, we have a geology program that we give everyone. Sometimes we create our own programs. It’s a little less common as an educational park ranger because it takes so much more to make sure that the programs are in line with education standards. A lot of them are really in depth. We had a GPS program in Rocky Mountain National Park called “Ecosystem Adventure” where kids would find these cards hidden in different places in the woods. Each card has a riddle about the ecosystem. You go out with them into the woods to learn the answer to the riddle and the answers lead you to new cards by entering the answer into the GPS system.

At Grand Canyon we hosted summer camp programs for middle and high schoolers. Teaching school children on a field trip is very different from summer camp teaching. The lessons are still essential but they’re on summer break, it’s also important to be having fun and bonding, because you’re all together for an extended time and they need a break. The camps are enrollment-based, and none of the campers know each other before they come unless siblings or best friends sign up together. The high-schoolers hike 14 miles up to the North Rim from the river, after having been on the river for four and a half days. The middle-schoolers go down to Indian Garden campground from the South Rim. They hike 4.5 miles in and then 4.5 miles back out again. Two rangers and nine to eleven kids would go on the trips.

There are some other groups through Boys and Girls Club who come for a photography camp called Grand Canyon in Focus. The campers on these trips are from Arizona and often this is the first Grand Canyon experience for them. We give them a camera, just a Canon digital point-and-shoot, but you’d be amazed at what kinds of shots you can get with that with the right techniques, which we teach. For many of them, this is their first experience camping and being outdoors for so long; the camp exposes them to that in a way that’s safe for them by putting this piece of technology in their hands. It’s like a barrier and a window for them. They can enjoy the experience because they’re really getting into taking photos. They have something to focus on rather than “oh my gosh! I’m in this crazy place away from my parents and I’m camping on the ground in a tent with kids I don’t know well.” At the end, they get access to their photos online so they can print any of them. They’re so proud and excited to show their parents the shots they’ve captured.

After spending so much time with a group and seeing areas of the canyon that make the whole group fall silent because it’s just so beautiful, it firmly bonds these former strangers together. Sharing meals and sleeping in tents or under the stars for a week or two, working hard to hike some pretty tough terrain, and learning about the layers that build the landscape around you, there’s just nothing else like it. It’s bittersweet to see them go, you’ve bonded with a whole group and built a culture over the course of a trip. You all have shared scenery that no photograph or description is going to adequately capture to someone who wasn’t there. And you have to train yourself how to let go of them at the end, there’s no certification for that.

Do people think the Grand Canyon is just too big to delve into?

The average visitor in the early 1900s visited for a couple of weeks. Now the average stay is less than three hours. In this day and age, they come to the Grand Canyon, maybe look at it, take a little walk, eat some lunch and leave. When I was 14 and went to the Grand Canyon for the first time, I didn’t do anything either. I went less than half a mile roundtrip on a hike down the Bright Angel trail. We camped in the campground there at the top and ate in the main village area. I don’t think we saw a program, and that was it. But now I work at Grand Canyon. Sometimes it takes a few times to really see it. There’s a lot to take in.

I think visitors can be intimidated by it. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, the canyon is a big place and it’s important to be prepared. It’s also good to have a healthy respect for the vastness of such a place, that’s a part of the magic. I see the canyon every day and have gone on many trips to areas 90% or more of visitors don’t see. But I still haven’t even seen half of it. There are side canyons with little waterfalls and little meadows where the presence of water and the protection of the steep canyon walls provide a safe haven for micro-ecosystems. Each side canyon is different and there are hundreds if not thousands along the main canyon of Grand Canyon. I don’t think the average visitor realizes just how different the top is from the bottom. You can see the bottom from many places so you think you have an idea of what it’s like down there, but once you get down to the river, it’s so different, it’s filled with plant life. Everything’s quieter and there’s no one else around you until you get back to the top of the rim. The river is just coursing through. You can’t tell from above, but the river is over 40 feet deep in some places. But it’s not very wide and the water churns the sediment, making the turbidity similar to chocolate milk so it doesn’t look that deep from the surface. Going on river trips take multiple days and lots of ahead of time planning. A lot of people who come to the Grand Canyon come to it on the way to other things and so they don’t have a lot of time for it. Many don’t understand and will often ask about half day boat rides (they have those up in Page, Arizona, but they don’t go through Grand Canyon National Park) or if they can go down to the river to swim and come back up in a day. These activities are very difficult and can be dangerous to attempt in a single day. Hiking to the river from the south rim is at least 7 miles one way and you go down a vertical mile over that span. Climbing back up is like hiking upstairs for 7 miles. It’s gorgeous though, and with the right preparation it’s worth the effort. At the bottom you get to see a completely different world. You’re miles away from cars and cell phone service, fast food ads blaring at you, and anyone else you see is also getting away from that. You may not even talk to anyone else on the trail but there’s a connection between hikers. You don’t have to say a word; you’re sharing in a common individual experience.

One of the harder aspects of the job is taking care of frustrated visitors. Sometimes you have to do parking shifts when it’s really busy and encourage people not to park in the grass, because it’s actually a wildlife restoration area. They’ll get frustrated in the parking lot because they paid $30 and they can’t find anywhere to park their car. They can park outside the entrance in the gateway town and take the free shuttle bus but they often only realize this after they come through the fee station. And it’s hot, and they’ve been in the car for at least an hour and a half if not five hours or more, if they’re coming from Vegas. And they’ll want to know where the skywalk is, which I unfortunately have to tell them is five hours back the way they came, outside of Vegas, and it’s $80, and it’s not in Grand Canyon National Park. So you have to deal with pissed off customers. [Laughs] Empathy is key in this line of work. Understanding that they had an expectation and will be disappointed when they find out that’s not the reality. That expectation was part of the excitement for them. It’s difficult to be yelled at no matter what, but understanding where they’re coming from helps a lot when you have to help them move past that. They’ll still see the amazing Grand Canyon, it just may take a bit more time or planning than they’d thought.

A lot of rangers don’t like the desk shifts, where they’re getting asked the same question over and over again. “How do I get to the Grand Canyon?” “It’s five minutes that way; just follow the signs.” Or like, “What do I do? I have three or four hours.” It’s your job to help [get them engaged], and meet them where they are. So even though they’re the umpteenth person to ask you that, that doesn’t make them any less valid than the first person to ask you that. They might come back and do something amazing after that initial four hours and want to come back and really start to care about the resource. Everybody starts from the beginning; everybody sees Grand Canyon for the first time at some point, and it only happens once. So being the ranger that helps them and is excited they’re about to have this once-in-a-lifetime experience is important in how they initially perceive it.

I try to stay away from the idea that there are any “bad” patrons. There are people who do frustrating things. They throw their glass soda bottle over the Grand Canyon. They’re not even thinking about it; they just want to see if they can hear the glass make noise at the bottom. It never crosses their mind that there’s a trail below and they may hit someone with their glass bottle or that a condor might think the shards are pieces of bone and swallow it. Or that they’re just littering. It’s not that they necessarily have any malice toward these resources, they just don’t have any sense of the ramifications behind their actions. But it’s interesting because you see where people are, you see that there’s this visitor that never experienced why that’s bad. They just may not know. Their parents littered out the window of a car when they were kids and nobody ever told them why it was wrong to do it. Maybe they’ll learn why when they visit and a friendly ranger tells them about their actions having impacts. You never know what a visitor is going to take away from an interaction. There’s a certain way you can come at it in a way that doesn’t make them feel uncomfortable. I’ll say, “Oh, you found something really cool, you should leave it here for the next visitor to see because it’s so cool.” That way they don’t leave feeling like they had done something wrong or got in trouble. They feel like they contributed to the park.

Or there are kids who only want to go to the Grand Canyon because they heard there are really rare Pokémon there. It’s hard not to think “you’re doing it wrong! You should hike and leave your cell phone behind!” but they’re not. They’re just doing it differently than I would. You have to shift your perspective all the time. Maybe when they were waiting for the game to load, they read the sign next to them. Maybe they learned something new and maybe they’d come back without the game next time. Hopefully someone will teach the other guy not to litter.

But I would totally take the challenges of this job any day over doing something mundane. It’s still cool. You’re still getting to explain that this natural world wonder is five minutes away down that sidewalk. You’re about to experience something so fantastic. Seeing the Grand Canyon is that thing that makes everyone who sees it gasp and their jaw falls open. It’s worth it.

I feel a little spoiled by the career I’ve chosen because any normal job now seems completely inadequate. It’s ruined me [laughs]. It’s helped me realize my privilege a little bit more, too. Neither of my parents went to college. They did jobs to make money and keep the family going. They didn’t ever really enjoy their jobs. I realize how much the day-to-day monotony of a job you don’t like can weigh on you because I saw them do that. They did that for so long. And they did it for me, so I could have a better life. I’m so grateful and indebted to them for giving me that opportunity. Now I get to do something I really love for the rest of my life. I get to be outside, my job is exercise, and it’s generally pretty stable once you get permanent status. I get to work with people that have a similar mindset about nature and protecting resources but who also come from all walks of life. I meet the guest who got on a plane for the first time in their life because seeing the Grand Canyon was worth the risk of flying. I meet people from all over the world. They tell you these amazing stories of how they got there and what it means to them. Many people don’t get to realize their dream job. I feel really fortunate to have been guided into something I enjoy that so many find value in as well. I hope many generations into the future can explore and love the parks as much as I do and I hope we continue to protect these places. They belong to every single American, and it’s everyone’s job to preserve and protect but also love them.


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