It is 11 p.m. and I am preparing for work. I am toting a backpack, a large flashlight, and a canister marked “bear spray” in large red letters. Thus began my summer working in Glacier National Park.
I have always been interested in adventures that provide unique and personal memories. Having traveled throughout the world, I am now more interested in getting paid to escape Naples’ summers and, as the railroads use to say, “See America first.”
This was my third summer working in a national park. For two summers I worked in Yellowstone, the first and the “granddaddy” of all parks. It is a volcanic caldera with thermal features erupting in rainbow splendor. You learn quickly to watch where you walk. Equal caution is advised near the herds of bison and elk. Once chased by an elk, I can attest to how incredibly fast they run. Watching a wolf pack pursue an elk, with a grizzly bear waiting for the kill, equals any “survival of the fittest” African scene.
Glacier offers its own unique adventures. The scenery created by the presence and retreat of the glaciers is spectacular. Winter snows often linger until July when beautiful wildflowers border every trail. However, don’t be too distracted, this is bear country!
In order to fully experience Yellowstone or Glacier you must get out of the car and hike a trail. For most employees, hiking is a big part of the adventure. Although my only hiking experience was two miles at sea level, i was able to hike more than 100 miles each summer, often with a knowledgeable ranger.
So, what did i learn about hiking in bear country? Know the difference between a black bear and a grizzly. This can be tricky since it has nothing to do with color and you don’t always have much time to think. You can spook a black bear by waving your arms, yelling and, in one case, squirting his nose with a water bottle. However, any of the above will encourage a grizzly bear to attack. Faced with a grizzly, stop, back away quietly and don’t look at him directly. My reaction was to back to the nearest tree, hold my breath and hope that if I couldn’t see him, he couldn’t see me.
Getting between a mother bear and her cub is the worst scenario. On a June hike people behind us started screaming “Bears, bears, bears,” pointing in our direction. Not knowing whether the bears were in front or behind, I yelled at a mother to grab her two children. Spotting a sow and two cubs walking toward us, we stayed in place until the threesome slowly moved up the mountain. Later in the season, hikers had to spray one of these cubs with a whole can of bear spray to fend him off. However, potential danger should not deter hiking. Not hiking alone, being aware of your surroundings, and carrying bear spray are wise choices.
Not all bears are found on the trail. I worked as a front desk agent at Glacier Park Lodge, one of the “great lodges of the west.” The complex consists of a hotel, pool and golf course. Vacant eight months of the year, the property is inhabited by wildlife in winter who are reluctant to leave. Early in the season we received a call from a foursome on the 5th tee complaining about a black bear on the green. This bear, nicknamed “Cinnamon bun,” continued to lay claim to his territory and was eventually put to sleep. As they say, “a fed bear is a dead bear.”
People often ask me about working at the national parks. We are not park service employees. We are hired by the concessionaires who manage park hotels and food services. At Yellowstone i worked as a reservation agent for Yellowstone’s nine hotels, four campgrounds and an RV park. I talked with 100-plus callers a day, making lodging and activity reservations and preparing guests’ for their visit. A national park is not Disney World or a zoo. This is the animals’ home and you are the guest. Park rules are for the protection of both. Also, each hotel is unique. Most are wooden, old, have no air conditioning, TV, pool, Internet/cell phone service, or elevators; in some cases, no bathrooms. On the positive side, guests are surrounded by an environment unmatched by any Holiday Inn.
Maintaining a sense of humor is helpful. Guests, with limited park experience, ask many questions. My Yellowstone favorites are, “What time do they turn off Old Faithful?” And, “When do they put the animals back in their cages?” Then, there is everyone’s favorite, “At what elevation does an elk turn into a bear?”
Glacier Park Lodge, constructed of 500-year-old Douglas fir trees, is located on the Blackfeet indian reservation and operated by Glacier Park Inc. Amtrak’s empire builder stops twice each day, delivering guests right to the front door. The company also operates four other Glacier hotels and one at Waterton Park in Canada.
In addition to Xanterra and Glacier Park Inc., Delaware North and Aramark are large concessionaires. Many park jobs are posted on coolworks.com. The majority of seasonal park employees are students under age 30 and retirees over 60. They work front desk, retail, food service, housekeeping, accounting, security and maintenance. Housing is a shared dorm room with a bathroom down the hall.
“At least I didn’t have to cook it” often reflects the quality of employee dining. The most successful park employees enjoy new adventures and new people. With a minimum three-month contract, there is adequate time to also explore areas outside the park.
There is one caveat for anyone considering park employment. This is work. All jobs are full-time, close to minimum wage, and you pay a nominal amount for room and board.
On the other hand, I am standing on a trail at 8,000 feet, surrounded by mountains and a rainbow of wildflowers, with a mountain goat trailing me and a bear on the ridge. I turn to my companion and say, “There is no reason to climb Mount Everest. This is the top of the world and as good as it gets.”
If you know of other summer employment adventures, I would love to hear from you at firstname.lastname@example.org.