There are more than a few new books out this year revolving around national parks, and the one that has provided the most wonderment and joy tied to rangering has been Yellowstone Ranger by Jerry Mernin, who spent more than three decades patrolling the front and backcountry of Yellowstone National Park and left us with insights, hardships, humor, and great satisfaction from a career that left him wishing he could have had "another 32 years to work in Yellowstone."
Through page after page after page of this more than 350-page book we're given a peek into the life of a national park ranger who only wanted to do the best job he could. Against today's headlines of sexual harassment, mismanagement, and budget shortfalls sullying the National Park Service, Ranger Mernin's book left me with pride in his career and no small measure of certainty that while he was exceptional at that job, he was not the exception.
Though Ranger Mernin passed away five years ago from a cerebral hemorrhage, he had long worked on an autobiography of his career that started out in Yellowstone and included stints in Yosemite, Bryce Canyon, and Glacier national parks before he returned to Yellowstone for good in 1964. He had shared chapter drafts with friends for edits, suggestions, and fact-checking. At the time of his death, there was a stack of chapters and an outline for the book he envisioned. After his death, a friend helped organize the chapters into book form over a period of two years, and a journalist and author did the final copyediting to prepare the manuscript for a publisher.
The result is a book that provides behind-the-scene insights into the life of a National Park Service ranger. We're treated to explorations into the backcountry of Yosemite and Yellowstone national parks by a ranger both on duty and off, one who loved the land, the wildlife, the job. We're privy to what goes on when park visitors are sleeping, when rangers are dealing with trouble bears, when they're risking their lives on rescues, when visitors seem over-their-heads in nature.
For instance, this story from 1964 when Mernin was assigned to the Canyon area of Yellowstone and one of his tasks was to minimize bear problems:
One day during this era I counted seven different grizzlies and five different black bears in the Canyon Campground over a four-hour span of time (late afternoon to dark). If this were to happen today, it would make the front page of most major newspapers. The majority of activity was nocturnal, but daylight raids, especially by black bears, were not uncommon. Blacks caused most of the damage and tended to be bolder. Grizzlies tended to be shyer and more secretive, but both species ate well in the campground.
During this time period, on-duty rangers showed up at the ranger station first thing in the morning to fill out bear damage reports from the previous night's activity in the campground. The visitors' attitudes varied widely from extreme ire to good humor. Some felt the story they had to tell was well worth the loss. Others wanted immediate compensation and/or wanted to sue the government and/or wanted to punch someone out.
One lady was apologetic for bothering us when she reported a slight tear from a tooth bite in a sleeping bag. Her three-year-old daughter had been sleeping on the ground in the bag when the lady and her husband, awakened by their daughter's crying, saw a bear dragging away the sleeping bag with their daughter in it. They scared the bear away by banging on pots and pans. The daughter was uninjured and went right back to sleep. The lady thought the tear was hardly worth mentioning, but she thought she should let us know about it anyway. Didn't she know that her daughter could have been killed?
Mernin didn't have to be a ranger. He had both an economics degree and a law degree. But his love for the parks kept him in the fold, one he was born into: His father was a district ranger in Yosemite.
I was a permanent park ranger for 36 years, during which I had a few outstanding supervisors, some good supervisors, a few so-so, and one or two really piss-poor supervisors. Through it all, the only guidance I ever really needed was simply wanting to be like Dad and trying to to the kind of job he would have done. Dad was thoughtful and assured in his dealings with all varieties of people and gained cooperation through a combination of quiet presence and the application of practical psychology. However, he was not slow to use demonstrative action when it was appropriate.
Yellowstone Ranger is an enjoyable book for park visitors, and perhaps not a bad one to be required reading for newcomers to the National Park Service.