State Park Ranger
Stories of the Working West Return to contest page »
A much too brief story about being a ranger in Northern California State Parks; they don't make rangers that way anymore.
I talked to him all the way up the hill, my eyes scanning the familiar landmarks along the trail- passed the place where the canyon wren sings, notes falling down the scale into the rocky depths below; over to Indian Springs where I drank from water gushing out of granite rocks, describing for him the dense foliage, thick moss and lacy ferns.
Near the end of the trail, the path winds through dense manzanita, and Mt. Shasta is visible to the north. Skirting granite spires and outcroppings I bent low to go through a small opening. Here, a chain is all that lies between the hiker and rugged Root Creek Canyon. I said my farewells and gently shook the bag. Updrafts brought some of the ashes drifting back. My eyes teared as I wiped ash and bone grit from my face.
My father was five feet seven inches tall; green eyes topped by dark, bushy eyebrows; and a big smile. From the fifties on, his black hair was in a crew cut. His value of a man was how hard he could work physically and, as the the years went by, he loved to tell stories of how he outworked that “big guy”. Ben (we called our parents by their first names) was born in 1910 in Lewiston, Idaho. Later the family moved to California. He met my mother at a party, got her date drunk, and drove her home. My mother was born in Florida and lived there during her early childhood.
Ben worked in a service station in the Riverside area and for a winery in the Napa Valley with his father and older brother. But when he went to work for California State Parks, he found his calling. My two older brothers were born in Riverside. I was born in the Napa Valley but remember living only in parks. My younger brother was born in Reno when our family lived at Lake Tahoe.
State park rangers like my father don’t exist anymore or ranger’s wives like my mother. He started working for parks when there were about 100 rangers in the entire state. For many years the park ranger did everything: cleaned restrooms, hauled garbage, painted buildings, greeted visitors, patrolled campgrounds, protected plants and wildlife, chopped fire wood for the campgrounds. Ben was known as an SOB to work for as he set high standards for the crews in his beloved parks.
We loved him but were afraid of him I think. Fathers in those years didn’t play with their children much but occasionally he would throw a ball with my brothers and took part in toboggan runs on a snow-covered meadow. Sometimes we lined up for a spanking. We were told we represented the park and to behave accordingly.
In those days, park families usually moved from high elevation parks to a lower elevation for the winter and then went back to the mountains. Moves were frequent. We lived at Carpenteria for a short time during W.W.II, then Lake Tahoe, Burney Falls, Van Damme Beach, and Calaveras before moving to Castle Crags for 10 years.
We all loved it when he’d let one of us ride with him on evening campground checks. At Castle Crags he was the supervisory ranger so had a certain amount of required paperwork, which he disliked with a passion. He wanted to be outside. During the winter he put a plow on the park power wagon and plowed roads. He figured out how to run a bulldozer and used one to carve out a flat area for two big concrete water tanks and installed a new water system. Previously household and campground water ran from a distant creek through an open ditch.
Ben was very social and loved talking to the park visitors. One summer he plunged into the Sacramento River where it ran through the campground/picnic area and rescued a small child who had fallen in and was floating downstream. We moved to Castle Crags soon after W.W.II and for many years the park had been unsupervised. He had to deal with poachers when we first moved there as well as dogs running deer and one night marched a man, who was trapping bears in the park, at gunpoint back to where a sheriff could be called.
Our mother, Mary, loved to read and instilled that virtue in all of us. We always lived outside of town and the library offered our main source of books. She identified plants and made plant and animal lists for parks where we lived. Unlike many park wives she enjoyed solitude and didn’t get bored when all of us were away from home during the school year. An entomologist visitor and his wife camped at the park yearly. One summer she took him to one of the pitcher plant (Darlingtonia) bogs where he found a new species of cranefly and named it after her. Her story would require its own essay.
My father turned down numerous promotions because he loved the park and because he wanted us to be able to finish high school there. But when the supervisory status was downgraded he couldn’t afford to stay. By then the local people loved “their” park and took great pride in it. Several local businesses thrived as the park filled each summer.
Their final park before retirement was D.L. Bliss near Lake Tahoe.