Reflecting on a Park Service Career

By Geoffrey M. Smith, Aquatic Ecologist, Voyageurs National Park I began my National Park Service career volunteering for Joshua Tree National Monument in the fall of 1978. I was involved in putting together an innovative environmental education program which the Park was developing. I also had a chance to give my first interpretive star program under the Monument’s spectacular night skies. The next summer I was hired for my first paid NPS position as a seasonal for Fort Clatsop National Memorial. Here I got to dress up in buckskins, expound on the Lewis and Clark expedition, and give black powder rifle demonstrations.

The volunteering paid off because Joshua Tree NM hired me the next two winter seasons. As one of a team of three, I presented environmental education programs to local elementary school students during the fall and winter. We also developed overnight spring programs for junior high and senior high students, the latter involving rock climbing instruction. The next two summers I headed back to my home state of Michigan to work in Isle Royale as a backcountry ranger. The first summer I was stationed in a fire tower that also served as a visitor contact station and the following summer I managed Daisy Farm Campground where I gave interpretive programs, patrolled other campgrounds, and did minor law enforcement. I had a dream of wandering the Alaska backcountry after visiting the state in 1969, so instead of returning to Joshua Tree NM a third year, I enrolled in a seasonal law enforcement academy in Santa Rosa California.

After a brief stint in Boston National Historical Park, I was ecstatic to be hired by Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve, an area of over eight million acres of designated wilderness in Alaska’s Central Brooks Range. My law enforcement training qualified me to be a backcountry ranger there, but to my disappointment, I didn’t get into the backcountry very much that summer. Instead I worked mostly in Fairbanks, Alaska on land issues and developing a water quality monitoring program for the Park. It was very different the next summer when I took a position for Northwest Areas which included Noatak NP, Kobuk Valley NP, and Cape Krusenstern NM. I spent the entire summer in the Kobuk Valley NP backcountry.

The best part of the job was exploring the northern tributaries of the Kobuk River by ascending them as far as they were navigable and evaluating them for recreational potential. In 1984 I finally returned to a place I had profound life experiences in 1969. This was Katmai NPP. It is an expansive wilderness ecosystem fueled by the great Bristol Bay Salmon runs that concentrate large numbers of brown bears, bald eagles, and gulls to feed. Also abundant were wolves, moose, and caribou. My main job was to keep people separated from bears but I also led tours to the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes and gave interpretive evening programs on stream ecology.

I spent the entire next summer exploring the Brooks Range by canoe starting at the oil pipeline haul road just east of Gates of the Arctic and ending at Kotzebue on the Chukchi Sea (650 miles). This was a fateful trip. I had applied for a winter environmental education position in Everglades NP before beginning the expedition. In the middle of the Brooks Range wilderness, I ran into the man in charge of that program. He hired me that fall and that is where I met my future wife Kristi Link who was also hired for the EE team. I headed back to Alaska in the 1986 summer to work as a Law Enforcement ranger in Denali NP and returned in the winter to Everglades after marrying Kristi that fall. I traveled to Glacier Bay NPP the next summer where I worked as an interpretation ranger. I gave interpretive narrations on cruise ships, led ranger walks, and presented evening programs. During the winter of 1987-88 Kristi and I worked again in environmental education for Indiana Dunes NL. I took another break in 1988 to pursue another canoe expedition in Canada’s arctic barrenlands, while Kristi worked for Isle Royale NP. We traveled to West Virginia the next winter where I was a law enforcement ranger for New River Gorge NR.

The Exxon Valdez oil spill occurred that spring and Kenai Fjords NP hired us both to be backcountry rangers in the summer of 1989 to monitor oil spill damage and cleanup activities. After working a summer for Alaska State Parks I returned to the Northwest Areas as a seasonal biological technician in 1991. I did a variety of biological monitoring activities, including grizzly bear telemetry tracking, breeding bird surveys, and a Noatak River raptor survey. While floating the Noatak, our superintendent flew over me and radioed that I had been offered a permanent job in San Antonio Missions NHP. Kristi also had been offered a permanent position. We did not want to leave Alaska but reluctantly accepted the jobs.

Usantarc (1) I was not there long when I got into the Natural Resource Management Trainee program. This sent me to Capulin Volcano NM in Northeast New Mexico. I was now a career employee in Resource Management. Kristi followed me to the park about six months later and we stayed there for three years. Our next move was back to Lake Superior at Apostle Islands NL in northern Wisconsin. I was in charge of running the natural resource field monitoring program for the Lakeshore which I did for seven years. Then we got the chance to return to Alaska when I took the Biologist position at Sitka NHP. Most of my work there was supporting our Alaska Inventory and Monitoring Network that was just getting established and protecting the water quality and quantity of the Indian River that ran through the park, our intertidal zone, air quality, and monitoring migratory and birding birds.

After nine years there, Kristi and I returned to the "lower 48" and Minnesota’s northwoods when I accepted a job as an aquatic ecologist at Voyageurs National Park.  Here I have been involved with implementing and managing 19 studies to evaluate rule changes by the International Joint Commission that govern water levels on reservoirs created by the dams at International Falls (Rainy Lake) and Kettle and Squirrel Falls, effecting Namakan, Kabetogama, Sand Point, Crane, and Little Vermilion Lakes. Final evaluation of the rule changes based on these studies is scheduled to be completed in 2015. We plan to live in Michigan’s UP after I retire where I hope to pursue writing and photography interests.