Postcard From The Backbone Of The Continent: Days Of Discovery At Glacier National Park

During three months in Glacier National Park, Ashley Alvarez, a Floridian, discovered the beauty of the park system and the pleasure of educating visitors to the system. Kurt Repanshek photo of mountain goats on Logan Pass.

Editor's note: Ashley Alvarez an intern with the Student Conservation Association, spent her summer working in Glacier National Park in Montana. Through the SCA, high school and college students get to work in national parks and on other public lands in various roles. For Ms. Alvarez, her assignment at Glacier was interpretation. Here's her story.

My heart nearly stopped when I received the internship offer from the lead interpretive ranger at Glacier National Park. My first question, of course, was “Where’s that?”

As a Floridian, I had never heard of this Glacier and could not believe I would be heading to Montana. Beyond that, I had no idea what an interpretive ranger was. I had never taken any related courses beyond public speaking and I wasn’t exactly fond of talking to large groups of people. However, there was no way that I was going to turn down the offer of a lifetime, so I packed up my bags and headed north to the “Backbone of the Continent” to begin my internship with the Student Conservation Association.

Before I knew it, training was in full swing and I was getting to know not only the beauty of Glacier Park, but all the wonderful people who I’d work with through the summer. Friendships were made very quickly and weekend hiking groups were formed within days. My first few weeks consisted of this: training and hiking.

Then things got a bit more serious in terms of creating outlines and programs that would ultimately become our ranger talks. I was responsible for developing a series of interpretive programs, ranging from 15 to 45 minutes in length. The first was for a boat tour along upper St. Mary Lake, the second-largest lake in the park, and I decided on a theme of natural beauty and power which allowed me to cover a broad range of topics, from the glacially-carved mountains to the burnt forests.

From Boats To Hikes

After docking at Baring Falls, I started my next program: a three-mile guided hike to St. Mary Falls, a beautiful, glacially-fed waterfall. On this tour, I also concentrated on natural beauty, but more along the lines of “here’s what you’re seeing.” I would make periodic stops along the route to focus on topics such as glaciers, wildflowers, wildlife, and geological features. Out of all the programs, this was my favorite. I was able to talk more one-on-one with visitors and truly create those emotional and intellectual connections expected of interpretive rangers.

My next, and most important, program was an evening campfire ranger talk that took place at a campground called Rising Sun. I talked about the diversity of Glacier’s habitats as well as some of the more celebrated wildlife that call those habitats home. This talk was the most challenging, but also the most rewarding. I found that I could effectively speak to a large group of people, keep their attention and at the same time educate them on important issues such as climate change, wildlife safety, and natural history. And having Junior Rangers in the audience always made my night!

In addition to presenting these programs, I also worked in the visitor centers at both St. Mary and Logan Pass. I believe that rangers play a crucial role in these posts, as most visitors head straight in from the parking lot to ask about popular day hikes, camping spots, where to drive, where to eat, how to see wildlife, etc. And although it may become tiring answering the same questions hundreds of times a day with a smile, it is essential to understand that for the visitor, it’s their first time asking it.

Remember, We're Just Renting The Earth

I was surprised at how easy it was relating to park visitors. Being from the outskirts of Orlando and seeing Glacier for the first time myself, I was able to connect with many people on their level as “first timers.” That bond was awesome for sharing the natural wonders of the park as not just beautiful landscapes for photographs, but significant habitats for endangered and protected wildlife. Using interpretive tools such as stories, props, pictures, and firsthand experiences, I hope that I was able to fulfill my duty and send a few folks back home with something to think about.

As a child, I was always instilled with the idea that we are merely renters of this Earth. That though we have the capabilities to build, create, and expand, we must set aside and conserve as much wilderness as possible for the wildlife and for future generations to appreciate. Therefore, wearing the National Park Service arrowhead logo on my sleeve was an honor and a role that I took very seriously. Serving as an interpretive ranger was a defining event in my life. I could not have imagined that I would grow as much as I did both professionally and personally.

My SCA internship will always hold a dear place in my memories and Glacier National Park will always have a piece of my heart. Even if just for three short months, I was part of something far bigger than myself; I was part of a 100-year-old tradition in educating people from all around the world of the importance of our National Park System and the preservation of our last remaining wild lands.

Comments

A wonderful story! Thanks for sharing it, Ashley. I hope you'll be heading back there next summer.

And I wonder . . . just how many permanent and seasonal rangers now working in our parks obtained their foot in the door through SCA? Does anyone know?

Lee, NPS says 12 percent of their workforce has SCA roots.

This story is one of the reasons my wife and I are glad that we support SCA. They do a great job of bring young people from the city and introducing them to the outdoors and parks. They are also very good stewards of their money and do not flood you with repeated requests for donations.

Sounds like a program with an excellent, albeit intangible, return on investment.

Ashley you were given a wonderful experience. Thanks to The special program they have to train future rangers. Thanks for sharing....

What a totally delightful article. Sounds like it was given to (you, Ashley) a very deserving person who enhanced the park experience for many visitors. And to put the icing on the cake - you were given the duty of performing this in Glacier National Park, a true gem. Thank you.

Loved the blog Ashley! I'm so glad you experienced such a wonderful opportunity. Definitely sounds like it was a blast, and I'm proud of the way you made the most of it. I always remember you being so in love with nature and animals so I'm sure it was a dream come true. Hope all is well!

Your story made me feel that I was right there, in your shoes, all the way through. Thank you taking "taking me along" on such a wonderful adventure!

Ashley, thanks for this wonderful article about your experience at Glacier this summer. We enjoyed having you on our staff as much as you enjoyed being at the park. Your energy and positive attitude made a big difference with both coworkers and visitors - you were a top notch ambassasor for SCA an the National park Service. I hope to see you back next summer, so keep in touch.

As the person who hired Ashley, I can confirm that she indeed did a wonderful job this past summer representing SCA and the National Park Service. Ashley brought the best kind of newness to the Glacier experience and she was able to share her enthusiasm and every-day learning with coworkers and park visitors. We ask a lot of our summer volunteer interpreters and Ashley put a lot of time and effort into her programs and visitor contacts. I believe she made a real difference in the experiences of many visitors and I hope she can return as a full NPS ranger-interpreter. Many thanks for this wonderful article.

Mark Wagner, Hudson Bay District Interpreter, Glacier National Park; SCA - Isle Royale (1975) and Canyonlands (1980)

Great story Ashley. It's wonderful that young people can get the opportunity to be a part of our great country by serving our parks program. As I read your story, I could feel your enthusiasm for your work. I think you should pursue a career with the National Parks and Recreations as a representative to encourage others to visit our parks. You are quite gifted with your writing skills and the fact that you created outlines for the tours indicates your extraordinary personality and gift for this work.

Thanks again for sharing!

Mark, clearly her enthusiasm has stuck with her after long after her departure, but that is understandable, Glacier National Park is one of the few places I'd happily hang my hat :D