From commemorative stamps and coins to ubiquitous hashtags and special events at the parks, 2016 has been the year to acknowledge the National Park Service centennial. On Aug. 25, 1916, President Woodrow Wilson signed the parks into being. Today, the Park Service consists of 410 sites with 28 different designations, from parks to monuments to seashores. With that, we introduce some of the people who give voice to the history, importance and future of Minnesota’s part in the parks system: rangers representing each of the state’s six units, from Voyageurs National Park in the wooded far north to the quarries of Pipestone in the far southwest.
(Illustrations by Anthony Hary, Special to the Star Tribune)
Brian Valentine, Mississippi National River and Recreation Area
‘We need stewards to care’ for the parks
My role is to coordinate the public programs, special events, staff and volunteers who connect visitors to the Mississippi River and each other. Working in an urban national park offers unlimited opportunities to introduce the ideas and values of the National Park Service to new people and old friends.
To me, the Mississippi River is a dynamic and versatile resource that reflects our changing values, attitudes and preferences. It’s a recreational resource, a laboratory, a classroom, a refuge and a historic landscape. It’s a microcosm of the national park system.
What I love about this park, why I think it matters, is the location. It’s a national park nested among 3 million people, many of whom have no idea that we exist. We have the opportunity to partner with dozens of organizations and untold numbers of communities to protect and interpret the river.
One of my favorite park experiences was watching a hundred people from two dozen countries become naturalized citizens on the banks of the river at Harriet Island in St. Paul. It was a sunny, blue-skied June morning. Two paddleboats in the background. A bald eagle in the tree. A barge going downstream. A hundred new people who added the Mississippi to their life’s story. It was a once-in-a-career experience that makes Harriet Island one of my favorite places in the park.
The National Park Service is 100 years old. If we want to endure and be successful through a second century, then we need to stay busy connecting people, especially our urban youth, to the idea of national parks. We have built an extraordinary collection of places that speak to our successes, our struggles, and who we aspire to be as a nation. Now, we need stewards to care for them and help them thrive under their affection, creativity and cooperation.
(Valentine, 39, has been with the National Park Service for 10 years.)
Beth Drost, Grand Portage National Monument
‘It is the home of my ancestors’
I grew up with a national park in my backyard, and I didn’t even know it! Growing up in Grand Portage, Minn., home of a national monument, I never thought of it as a park. I spent hours fishing in Grand Portage Creek, climbing Mount Rose, and hiking on the Grand Portage. I remember talking with the rangers and watching the short films that were shown on-site.
Grand Portage is more than a great place to work; it is the home of my ancestors. I am a member of the Grand Portage Band of Ojibwe; this place is our homeland. My uncle is the chief of maintenance at the park, like his father before him. My brother has worked at the historic site. I never thought I would, but I’m so glad I do. As an interpretive ranger at Grand Portage, I feel as though I welcome people into my home. I am proud to teach others about preserving and protecting this place. I especially love to learn and pass on some of the handicraft traditions of my ancestors.
My main job is to talk to people, but my favorite day is when we walk into the woods. On rare occasions, we must gather raw materials for the living history demonstrations. We build birch bark canoes, wigwams, and baskets that require harvesting birch bark, cedar wood and spruce roots. My favorite thing is to gather birch bark to make baskets. I enjoy envisioning what each piece of bark will be and thinking about how to make it into something useful and beautiful. These are good skills to pass on.
Grand Portage was a destination long before Minnesota was a state, long before the line between the United States and Canada was drawn. The Ojibwe have called this region home for “time beyond memory.” For generations, the Grand Portage Ojibwe have survived on what the land and water provide; we have lived here for more than 500 years. For thousands of years, First Nations groups — indigenous people of North America — gathered here. We may never know fully how many came before us or exactly who they were, but I know my family was here.
(Drost, 38, has been with the National Park Service for nine years.)
Ben Welch, Voyageurs National Park
‘This park will always be special for me’
It was there, on the Chain of Lakes Snowmobile Trail , that the realization hit me. “This is a beautiful park, and I’m thrilled to be here,” I thought. I was giddy; I was happy to be outside; it was fun to patrol with another ranger.
It was February 2015, and I had just started work at Voyageurs National Park. I had just arrived to my first chief ranger job from Big Bend National Park on the border between far west Texas and Mexico. Needless to say, Voyageurs was a bit different than the desert I had just left. But change of scenery was a natural part of me. I was raised in a military family, attended college overseas, and had worked in a number of national parks throughout the country. But it was on the Chain of Lakes Snowmobile Trail where I thought, “This is home.” The green trees, the white snow, the moose and deer tracks ... “the bush” of Northern Minnesota is the place for me.
This park will always be a special place for me. Various recreational pursuits abound, the people are good and kind, and for once in my life I can truly call a place home. Maybe I’m extra-sentimental because I enjoy raising two small girls, maybe it’s because we are close to family and friends, and just maybe it’s because I’m in love with this park.
I already fell in love with the mission of the park service. Now I’m just falling for a park that I’m committed to protect. Whether it’s protecting the park from the people, the people from the park, or the people from the people, I have always enjoyed law enforcement, emergency medical services, firefighting, and search and rescue.
Come visit us.
(Welch, 36, has been with the National Park Service for 13 years.)
Jean Van Tatenhove, St. Croix National Scenic Riverway
‘How lucky I am to work in parks’
In this centennial year for the National Park Service, I have found myself looking back at my career as a park ranger (which included Channel Islands National Park), marveling at how lucky I am to work in parks. For many years I worked as park ranger interpreter/educator in the middle part of the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway on the border of Minnesota and Wisconsin — a dream job.
I was able to connect with people and help them discover the greatness of the St. Croix River. I remember watching a dragonfly emerge from its aquatic life-form with a young urban camp leader who had never seen anything like it. I was “Ranger Jean” to thousands and thousands of schoolchildren who came to the river with dip nets to see underwater life. I’ve held an eagle, talked to a bear and watched the sun rise over a misty river where the calls of birds were overwhelming.
After 17 years in the job I switched my role at the riverway to a graphic design focus. I love using my artistic talents and river knowledge to create materials that other employees and visitors can use to help them understand the park. Making maps, displays, posters, digital media posts, webpages, photographs, and signs now fill my workdays. But I still get to paddle once in a while.
My favorite stretch of the riverway continues to be between Nelsons Landing and Highway 70 on the St. Croix. The rapids are fun, the scenery spectacular, and I love that I can go for hours without hearing the noise of civilization. Few people paddle the Kettle River Slough (downriver from Nelsons Landing), so if I take that paddling option, wildlife is always to be seen and quiet is the norm. Stopping at Seven Islands gives me a chance to reflect on how lucky I am to work on such a natural beauty. You’ve got to get out there.
(Van Tatenhove, 59, has been with the National Park Service for nearly 30 years.)
Cody Goraczkowski, Pipestone National Monument
‘Unlike any site I have ever worked at’
My job is to provide law enforcement operations at Pipestone National Monument as well as interpretive services. The combination of these responsibilities provides a good variety of duties to keep me engaged and challenged.
Pipestone National Monument is one of the most unusual National Park Service sites due to the management of the sacred pipestone quarries. The monument was established to protect the tallgrass prairie ecosystem and the pipestone resource, but the pipestone still is quarried today by American Indians. It has been for thousands of years. This combination of protecting a resource but allowing it to be actively removed from the site is unlike at any other NPS site I have ever worked at.
One of the things I enjoy about this site is the solitude that can be had in a small 300-acre site. We are definitely busy with visitors from May to September, but if you get out on our Circle Trail in the fall or winter, you may be the only one there. Doing so provides a great opportunity to enjoy nature and let any of life’s struggles slip away at least for a moment.
One of my favorite experiences here is observing the many Indian ceremonies and events because we are a sacred site to many. These ceremonies and events have their own unique significance, but what I especially appreciate about them is the traditional nature of them. I think it is important for all of us to understand and respect where we come from so we can move forward with knowledge of our past.
(Goraczkowski, 32, has been with the National Park Service for eight years.)
Matthew Davis, North Country Scenic Trail
Favorite park is ‘fantastic volunteers’
I have worked as the North Dakota and Minnesota regional trail coordinator for the North Country Trail (NCT) Association since 2006. The association’s mission is to build, maintain, promote and protect the trail. The association is a nonprofit partner of the National Park Service, the trail’s administering agency. Our organization’s role is to support the volunteers that do the on-the-ground work on the trail. My favorite part of working on the trail is the fantastic volunteers. They are so dedicated and giving of their time. Their work can range from talking to people at events to flagging new routes in the depths of winter, to maintaining sections by cutting back brush and mowing. One annual highlight is a volunteer vacation trail-clearing trip on the Kekekabic Trail portion in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. Canoeing in and then clearing trail for five days with a crew of strangers is a great experience. It’s truly an honor to work beside them (and also volunteer) building and maintaining this recreational treasure.
The trail matters to me because it affords a unique opportunity to experience a lot (a weeklong hike) or a little bit (a day hike) of nature in a very intimate way. The NCT is a 2-foot-wide primitive footpath in a cleared 4-foot-wide corridor, so nature surrounds hikers. My favorite spot along the NCT is by DeSoto Lake in Itasca State Park. The trail is surrounded by old growth pines. I’ve been out there in all the seasons and its beauty never fails to inspire me. I am thankful that folks such as Jacob V. Brower, a champion of the Mississippi River headwaters, and Mary Gibbs, a former Itasca park superintendent and the only woman in such a position at the time, fought to protect the park 125 years ago.
(Davis, 40, has worked as a North Country Trail Association coordinator since 2006.)