Career Reflections by Ranger Pete Sweger

"Keep Your Boots Waxed!"


By Pete Sweger, Voyageurs National Park Ranger

I was working a wildland fire in the Boundary Waters in the summer of 2006. My crew arrived late in the fire and was responsible for a lot of mop-up operations. One day during a break I was sitting on the steps waxing my boots to keep them water-proof. The incident commander walked by and paused as he saw what I was doing. During that pause I briefly wondered if I was in trouble.

He then said, "A lot of times it is not about what we've done as what we are prepared to do," and then he walked off. That comment has stuck with me for the last 12 years because it captures the essence of my job.

I am a park ranger in the Visitor and Resource Protection Division which means emergency response, among other things. Emergencies have included wildland fires, snowmobile crashes, broken arms, lost boaters, capsized boats, hazardous material spills and a variety of law enforcement situations. Nobody wants an emergency to happen. Nobody can predict when an emergency will happen. The best we can hope for is that we are available and ready to respond when the call comes.

That comment from 12 years ago means that you are ready to respond. Whether or not a call comes, being ready is a mark of doing the job right. You must prepare your mind, your body and your gear. Getting adequate rest is critical for alertness and good decision making. Proper nutrition gives you the energy you need and lends to good health. Appropriate and regular training keeps your skills sharp and your confidence high. Keeping your boots waxed makes them waterproof so you are ready to hustle down the trail no matter what puddles lie ahead. Of course, there is more than just boots to take care of.

You never know when the next call will come. It might happen before you've finished the paperwork from the first emergency. Equipments is always made ready immediately after being used. Make sure the snowmobile is fueled up, the truck tires are inflated, the medical bad is re-stocked, the tow line is dried and neatly coiled, put fresh batteries in the flashlight and sharpen that knife. Or, it could be several weeks before the next big emergency. Emergencies don't happen every day and a break can be nice. This gives you chance to congratulate the sportsman on their trophy fish or hear the camper's tale of a visiting bear. But, there is a challenge to remaining vigilant as time goes by. The need for training seems less urgent, and you get assigned other tasks to keep you busy. Pretty soon you are so bogged down with chores that you failed to stay ready. you feel interrupted when the emergency call comes.

As a ranger, I routinely hear visitors say "Boy, you've got a great job! I always wanted to be a park ranger!" I'm sure other rangers hear this too. I wonder how many of them just nod and smile like I do. I wonder if the visitor realizes just how much time and effort it takes to stay response ready. Being reading isn't only about getting your chores done on time. It is a state of mind. It's a way of life. I guess visitors are right, because it is a great life. For all of those who wanted to be a ranger but never did, "Keep your boots waxed!"