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Rangers help keep visitors safe, teach nature, history in must-see parks

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IMAGE: CNS/Nancy Wiechec

By Nancy Wiechec

GRAND TETON NATIONAL PARK, Wyo. (CNS) — Kristen Dragoo came to Grand Teton National Park in 2002 for a college internship and never left.

Armed with a degree in natural resources and environmental management, Dragoo has worked her way up the ladder to become a park ranger, education coordinator and a lead interpreter for the park’s Moose district.

Dragoo, her husband and their 2-year-old daughter live in Jackson, an ideal location for their lifestyle. The Catholic wife and mother said her family loves to hike, camp, boat, cross-country ski and watch wildlife.

Catholic News Service spoke with her at the Craig Thomas Discovery and Visitor Center in Grand Teton in August. (Questions and answers have been edited for clarity and flow.)

Q: What does a ranger interpreter do?

A: We help visitors with what to do while they’re here in the park, let them know about the park resources and what makes Grand Teton special. We help them connect with the park on a larger level than they would if they were just on their own.

Q: What do you tell visitors?

A: One of the more important things is helping people understand how to be safe in the park, from letting them know to stay hydrated while hiking to keeping an appropriate distance from wildlife — at least 100 yards from bears and wolves, 25 yards from all other wildlife. We also tell the park’s history, and help visitors understand how wildlife interacts with each other and the plant life.

Q: How did you become interested in being a park ranger?

A: I grew up in Cincinnati, Ohio. I spent a lot of time outdoors and in nature. That was part of our family life. As I was looking at colleges, I knew I liked teaching, but I also really liked the outdoors and wildlife. I couldn’t quite figure out how I could combine those interests. I ended up working for county parks in Ohio doing interpretation and then realized I could get a degree in that and turn this really cool summer job into a career. During college, I came out to Grand Teton to do an internship in interpretation. I came here and basically never left.

Q: What makes this park special?

A. The combination of a lot of amazing things. We’ve got the amazing scenery, a huge diversity of wildlife and an almost complete ecosystem, which is fairly unique. And the types of recreation here are endless, from hiking and backpacking, to water sports like canoeing, kayaking and rafting. There’s horseback riding, and of course, the winter sports — downhill skiing, cross-country skiing, snowshoeing.

Q: What’s the most frequent question visitors ask?

A: At the visitors center, the most common question is, “Where can I see a moose?”

Q: Where can one see a moose?

A: I usually tell people to look near water — rivers, marshy areas, sometimes lakes. The timing of day is really important. The mornings and evenings give you your best chances for sightings.

Q: How does the National Park Service view stewardship?

A: It means that we’re preserving these places and the resources for future generations. It’s not just ours to have. It belongs to the young people and people who are not even here yet. It’s our job to help take care of these lands so that we can enjoy places like this and we can pass them on.

Q: With that in mind, what can visitors do to help?

A: There are basic things like staying on the trails, keeping your distance from wildlife and keeping food properly stored while in the park. We have grizzly bears and black bears. Making sure that those bears eat only their natural foods and not people food is important for their safety and ours. The other thing people can do is to tell other people about these special places, about their experiences here, and pass on that knowledge.

Q: Do you have a favorite spot in Grand Teton?

A: Gosh, that’s kind of hard to answer. There are a lot of very special places. I think that more than a favorite spot, I kind of have a favorite time of day in the park. Even though I’m not really a morning person, I love being out here in the early morning hours. It tends to be a little quieter and there’s lots of wildlife activity. The Tetons at sunrise is just such a beautiful thing to see.

Q: Any parting words?

A: Come out to Grand Teton National Park! Places like Grand Teton and Yellowstone are a must-see, even if it’s only a once-in-a-lifetime trip.

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Follow Wiechec on Twitter: @nancywiechec.

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