By K.T. Garner
A juvenile black bear looks out from the shelter of trees at the row of campsites. His nose twitches as he catches the aroma of cooking hamburgers on the breeze, and he walks closer, his head tossing from side to side to pinpoint the exact campsite from which this delectable odor is emanating. Ah, yes, he thinks. Site 18. He broke into their cooler yesterday. Such generous humans, to leave food out like that.
He hesitates behind the tent. The humans are there, but he has learned that they pose little threat, so he proceeds. The humans make high-pitched sounds and back away from the sizzling hamburgers on the fire. Excellent, the bear thinks. Medium rare, just the way he likes them.
This was usually the place where I came in. I held the title of “Night Ranger,” which is not to be confused with an actual police officer. Basically, I was an outdoor security guard.
The “outdoor” part of that job description was the main reason I applied for it. I had spent years sitting behind a desk answering phones, and I was determined to find a job that would allow me to work outside. Ever since I was a child, I have loved immersing myself in nature and observing it. I’d go on camping trips every summer and run wild through the woods. Even at home, I would spend nearly all of my free time outdoors. In college, I volunteered as a student trail guide for the Outdoor Recreation Club and went camping and hiking every weekend I could. So when I got the opportunity to be paid to be outside, I took it.
Which is not to say that this job came naturally to me. Trying to get people to comply with rules and regulations was not one of my innate skills. Although I was in uniform and I did my best to convince the patrons of my campground that I was the ultimate authority, most people weren’t too impressed when I showed up on their site at night, asking them to please stop singing “The Joker” and informing them that, incidentally, two in the morning is not an appropriate time to play bongo drums.
However, people were usually pretty impressed when I showed up in response to a report of a bear at a campsite. Little did the campers know when they rented a spot in our campground that they would get dinner and a show. The bear handling procedure that I developed after careful study and by trial and error was to leap out of my vehicle and launch myself after the animal. As I bounded into the forest shouting nonsense, I even got applause once or twice.
The bears were actually the easy part of my job. On a typical weekend, my two partners and I were in charge of over a thousand people. Our job, which I half-seriously referred to as “underpaid babysitting,” included patrolling the campground on foot at night and ensuring that no one was breaking the law or campground policies, and if they were, that they would be brought to justice.
That was the idea, anyway.
The reality was quite different. During my time as a Night Ranger, I met wonderful people whose love of nature matched my own, but I was also called every derogatory name in existence and a few that were specially made up for the occasion by irate, mostly inebriated patrons. I witnessed behavior that made me ashamed of my species: lying, stealing, domestic abuse… The terrible things that human beings do to one another are magnified when there are so many people in one place.
I realized early on that I had to put on an act. Most people were not intimidated by someone in my position, so I had to figure out how to shape my body language and tone to convey authority. Week after week, the same issues arose, and I became adept at picking out the people who were destined to become my “problem children” for the duration of their stay. I had to move beyond my comfort zone and become the “bad guy.” I had to put myself into situations where I would be mocked, screamed at, and cursed. And then there was the paperwork.
However, working the night shift also gave me opportunities that I never would have imagined before I got the job. I learned how to do sound police work; I learned to think like a cop. I had been terrified of the dark for many years before working as a Night Ranger. Now I know I can patrol alone in the darkness; I spent many nights walking under stars bright enough to light my way. I saw wildlife that I had never seen before, such as owls and flying squirrels. I developed a new, deep-seated sense of confidence, and I overcame my fears of confrontation with other people. And because of my experience with this job, I gained a career goal: to become a Forest Ranger, which is essentially a police officer in a wilderness setting.
Forest Rangers are each assigned a specific area that they patrol. They handle all of the wildfires, searches and rescues, and trail maintenance; they also carry out public education activities and address any illegal activities that take place within their area. They are sworn law enforcement officers who carry sidearms after taking a civil service exam and going through a six-month academy. I know that I would never have considered such a career path for myself had it not been for the Night Ranger job.
Being a Night Ranger wasn’t easy. However, it revealed to me my weaknesses and gave me new strengths. It helped prepare me to go into law enforcement, and it laid the foundation of confidence upon which I can build a career.
Besides, after spending years chasing bears through the woods, everything else just seems easier.
Photo provided by K.T. Garner.