A View From The Overlook: A Few Days In Yellowstone

The Museum of the National Park Ranger in Yellowstone traces the history of rangering. Mike Watson photo.

You owe it to yourself to spend a few days working with Harry Yount in Yellowstone National Park.

“Who was Harry Yount?” you ask. “The name sounds familiar.” You remember Harry. He is regarded as the very first ranger in the very first national park, Yellowstone, way back in 1872.

“But isn’t he, um, dead?” you inquire.

Technically, yes, but like John Brown, his spirit goes marching on. You see, national parks are not established and protected by Towering Trees and Thundering Waterfalls, but by men and women like you and me.

The National Park Service came up with the idea of somehow memorializing that American Icon, the National Park Ranger. But where and how? The “where” was the easy part: It would have to be somewhere in Yellowstone, the world’s first national park (We will disregard the tiresome whining of nitpickers from Yosemite who cite the creation of a California state park in 1864, or the polite dissent of Parks Canada who point out that their Banff National Park was fully operational --Wardens and naturalists-- long before Yellowstone).

The “How” was the complicated part. Should there be a heroic statue of a park ranger in action? Perhaps a bronze plaque describing the history and evolution of the park ranger? Perhaps some exhibits in a park visitor center describing the work of the park ranger?

Close, but no cigar: The NPS would have to think outside the box. Fortunately, that is exactly what the NPS did. A wise individual or wise committee (Can there be such a creature?) came to the conclusion that even the most earnest and conscientious seasonal interpreter could not know and interpret the vast degree of protective and interpretive ranger experience throughout not only Yellowstone but the rest of the now 401 units of the National Park System.

So why not take a historic Yellowstone structure associated with rangers, furnish It with Harpers Ferry quality exhibitry on the U.S. Park Ranger and staff it with retired NPS volunteers?

Brilliant!

The retired NPS volunteer would be a “Living exhibit” who could answer questions on what it was like being a park ranger for 30 and more years. All that would be necessary would be providing seasonal housing for the retired NPS volunteer. The building in question that became the Museum of the National Park Ranger was the Norris Soldier Station, built in 1908 and currently on the National Register of Historic Places. This spacious, multi-room log structure housed a detachment of U.S. Cavalry.

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You can learn about Harry Yount, the first ranger in Yellowstone, at the museum. NPS files.

The Cavalry Furnished Law & Order (and Roads & Trails)

The cavalry ran Yellowstone from 1886 until 1916, when the newly created National Park Service took over. (The cavalry assignment was not exactly a sinecure; after patrolling Yellowstone for the summer and fall, some units were shipped to the Philippines where they whiled away the winter fighting Moslem insurgents before returning to Yellowstone for the summer season.)

The soldier station was transmogrified into a ranger station and underwent several room alterations before it finally became the Ranger Museum in the 1990s.

The next question was how to house these retired NPS volunteers. Now, housing NPS seasonals has always been a bit problematical. You may remember a psychopath by the name of Ted Kaczynski, who was given the name “The Unabomber” for his propensity to mail bombs to university professors and corporate executives whom Ted believed were a threat to the environment. His defense lawyer tried for an insanity defense, pointing out that Ted lived in a plywood shack in the woods without plumbing for months at a time, indicating that his client was plumb crazy. The prosecution successfully countered that argument by pointing out that NPS employees lived in such conditions with no damage to their psyches. Ted went to the Slammer. The NPS continued its seasonal housing practices.

However, many a solstice had come and gone since a retiree (or spouse) considered a platform tent or an aluminum and wood trailer as a “romantic” residence. The NPS was going to have to do better. And they did. The seasonal quarters for the volunteers at the Ranger Museum are the best in Yellowstone and probably the best in the NPS. The quarters consist of a modern, well-appointed two story, two-bedroom house (each bedroom with its own bathroom/shower) in the woods near the maintenance division at Norris Geyser Basin, about a mile from your duty station, the Ranger Museum.

The house is completely furnished with bedding, crockery, cutlery, stove (electric) refrigerator, and laundry (detached, but only a short walk away). In addition to the kitchen and dining room, there is a comfortable living room where you can have a drink and tell stories. There is no television (It lowers your IQ), there is also no Wi-Fi unless you have friends that I don’t have. For those with a real computer addiction, Wi-Fi is available at the Canyon Lodge about 12 miles away for $5 an hour, which is all you need unless you are taking over the Universe.

All you have to do is show up with two pair of brown pants and a pair of brown shoes. The NPS supplies and does the rest. Simple, no?

Your Life As Interpreter Of Rangering

So what do you do? Well, you are going to serve as a living exhibit and explainer of The Ranger Career. In short, be yourself.

Here’s how it works: You contact Ranger Brian Suderman by email (Brian_Suderman@nps.gov) and tell him you are interested in being a volunteer at the Ranger Museum. He will send you information and ask for a short resume of your NPS experience and ask what period of approximately two weeks during the season (May-October) that you would prefer.

If selected, you will have one day to leisurely arrive and move yourself and spouse into the VIP quarters. The next morning will be orientation/training. The training will be done by your retiree predecessor, who will be a salty veteran of four days or more. You will probably know him or her, or at least heard of them. A member of the interpretive staff will brief you on policy. That doesn’t take long and you will have the remainder of the morning and the afternoon off to run any errands or buy stuff you forgot.

It is important that you pay attention, because the very next day, TOMORROW, you will be entirely on your own, in charge of the museum with nobody on hand to help you. So listen to your mentor.

My mentor was none other than Mike Watson, former Chief of Interpretation for the NPS; a jolly, bearded, bear of man, he taught me to detect those half-ton landmines, bison, who like to bed down in the brush next to the Ranger Museum or use the flagpole as an itching post.

“Do not attempt to raise the flag if a bison is anywhere near the flag pole; patriotism is important, but not that important!” Bison have amazing agility. These apparently amiable piles of brown wool and sphinx-like demeanor can leap to their feet and morph into killing machines faster than Clark Kent could change into Superman.

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Mike Watson, left, and PJ Ryan at the Ranger Museum.

Last year at the Ranger Museum a bison gored a visitor in the front yard of the museum. The visitor had done nothing to provoke the bison, in fact, did not see him coming. Visitor lost a few feet of intestine and his left testicle. (I found that last part useful in counseling young male visitors on bison avoidance!) Who knows, you may get a chance to be a hero again!

You will then staff the museum for the next three days answering questions about rangers, the park, the Park Service and your career (Your resume will be posted on an easel to prompt questions.) A ranger will relieve you for lunch, just as Brian promised. At the end of the three days, you are a crusty, battle-hardened veteran, and you will get the next four days off to see and explore Yellowstone.

This brings us to the question of what month is best to VIP. Depends on your preference. In July, you get daylight from 6 a.m. to 8:30 p.m., thus wildlife viewing is practicable, even after workdays. The downside is the traffic. In the fall, you get fewer people and more elk bugling, but more darkness. You choose.

After your halcyon four-day weekend exploring the wonders of Yellowstone, you will return to your final four days at the Ranger Museum. After you have completed the four days (and turned in the contact statistics) the next day will be your “Moving Out” day. (No, you may not linger. No homesteading! The next retiree will need your room!)

So, what do you get out of it, aside from the proverbial sunsets and a chance to savor Yellowstone? Well, you get a chance to tell your favorite stories over and over (Your spouse who has heard them over and over, will not be present.) People will want to shake your hand and congratulate you on your service to the nation and the environment. Pretty girls will want to be photographed with the wholesome old ranger (Note; brush up on your wholesomeness before applying!)

So, do you have to be Chief Ranger or something to be selected? Not at all! Ranger Suderman and associates are not grade or position snobs. They seem desirous of interesting stories and of course, accept long-term seasonals as well as permanent staff members.

Indeed, the “overlap”at the end of my stint was the very remarkable 84-year-old Rod Post, who retired after a career as an aerospace engineer and then did 15 seasons as a GS-5 interpretive ranger at Old Faithful, specializing in the interpretation of wolf reintroduction.

So what are you waiting for?

Comments

PJ is absolutely correct. I volunteered at the Ranger Museum twice. It is a fun gig, meeting lots of interesting visitors with lots of interesting questions. A side benefit is that the Norris evening campfire program site is one of the few in Yellowstone without electricity (at least when I was last there). The interpreters there have to be creative and not rely on power point or slide shows to illustrate the theme about which they are speaking. One of the most creative programs that I saw there came from a seasonal ranger who was also a classical violinist. His topic was the history of Yellowstone. From time to time, he would say something like "the army always had a fiddler in the ranks. This is what it would have sounded like when the army patrolled Yellowstone." He then broke out his violin and played an old-time fiddler tune. He did this three or four times more during his program to illustrate the points he was making. The audience loved it; so did I.

Rick

You ranger guys and gals have it made let me tell you!! The rest of us have read about all the fun and just dream--- if only I had been a Park Ranger instead of listening to my mom....LOL

We visited the museum the last time we were there, and enjoyed the richness of experience of the volunteers on duty. Out front was our encounter with the bison we dubbed "Don Quixote" - he was limping by, one horn broken, covered in mud and grass he had rolled in, still proudly moving on despite obviously having lost a battle of some sort.

Thank you for another outstanding article.

Your experience as a volunteer at the Norris Ranger Museum, reminds me of 1996 and my first visit there. I went to see if I could run into Howard Chapman, who I thought might be working there, since I had heard via the internet grapevine that he was volunteering there as well.

The uniformed volunteer I did meet, who was in the process of telling me that I had arrived too early and that Howard Chapman was to come on duty in the following weeks, looked awfully familiar. I looked more closely, my goodness, it was Dale Smith, my former supervisory naturalist at Zion National Park (summer 1969)! I had not seen him in 27 years.

We then visited together and got caught up on life in the upscale volunteer resident quarters you described. I agree, it's perhaps the best housing for volunteers in the entire NPS.

Then, just two years ago, I was at home in east TN when I received an instant message on my iPhone from my nephew who was visiting Yellowstone and who had just entered the Norris Ranger Museum. "Hey, Uncle Owen, the retired ranger here, Mark Forbes, says he knows you!" It made my day.

I wonder what he would have thought had he run into you at Norris during a follow-up visit?

[sigh] No wonder the staff at the ranger museum always look like they're having such a good time. It's because they are.

I wanted to be a ranger when I was a little girl (along with a laundry list of other career options).

We spent a wonderful few hours at the Museum in 2008. It was educational and entertaining. The retired ranger & I swapped a few 'fellow fed' stories of working in a bureaucracy as well as hearing his tales of derring-do and humorous anecdotes. I look forward to returning to the Museum when we're there in September.