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13 Behind-the-Scenes Secrets of Park Rangers

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The National Park Service is over 100 years old, and while we could wax poetic for days about the splendor of the parks themselves, we decided instead to find out more about the people who help preserve them on a daily basis—not to mention keep us from getting lost. Here are a few insights about what life is like as a park ranger for the NPS and other agencies, from their biggest perils to some of their most special moments.

1. THEY DO (A LOT) MORE THAN ANSWER YOUR QUESTIONS. 

The job of a ranger is more multifaceted than it may seem. “As seasonal employees we essentially have to get a year of work done in three months or so,” said Alex Miller, a Lead Park Ranger for the US Forest Service at the National Grasslands Visitor Center in South Dakota. Ranger duties may include giving tours, staffing the visitor center, collecting fees, fielding questions, patrolling the park, enforcing park regulations, doing demonstrations, coordinating education programs, tidying up park areas, conducting interviews for oral history projects, running outreach programs, serving as a first responder, fighting wildfires, and even manning social media accounts (phew).

Steve Gifford, who has worked as a ranger at the Lincoln Home National Historic Site in Springfield, Illinois, as well as other NPS sites, told us: “People think that it is an easy job, that all you do is answer some questions and offer a few tours. But it is much more than that; you do the general things people see, but also the behind-the-scenes work is varied and intense.”

Despite all that hard work, many rangers told us that the hands-on, unpredictable nature of the job was all part of its appeal. The life of a ranger never looks the same from one day to the next—in part because the tasks are so varied, and in part because the rangers never know what sort of things might come their way. 

2. THEY'RE NOT NECESSARILY NATURE PEOPLE.

An NPS uniform doesn’t automatically mean your park ranger is a wildlife expert or skilled mountaineer. After all, not all locations under the National Park Service are nature preserves. There are also historic sites, national monuments, battlefields, and other conservation sites [PDF]—which could mean your ranger is more of a history buff.

Perhaps surprisingly, not all rangers are technically "rangers" either. There are also Park Guides, who are typically on a lower tier within the specialization of interpretation and education and have less potential for promotion. Still, even these guides sometimes go by "ranger" informally or wear a badge that reads "National Park Ranger." Other ranger specializations include law enforcement, emergency response, maintenance, administration, and more. Additionally, while every agency is different, there are distinctions that come with rank—like District Ranger and Supervisory Park Ranger.

3. THERE’S SOME SECRET LINGO.

Since the NPS is a government organization, acronyms are everywhere. Miller told mental_floss: “We do the GARS and GOHP projects as the USFS under the USDA in partnership with the BHPFA, VBJ and NPS, but for UNL have to be CITI certified with IRBs. All perfectly clear, right?” 

Aside from the ubiquitous acronyms, other slang terms includes "clustering," which occurs when there are too many rangers and/or volunteers at the front desk at one time, and which can give the impression that the park service employees have nothing to do. A "Furniture Tour" is when a ranger does a historic house tour but talks about the furniture or architecture of the house without talking about the people who lived there. While those tours are sometimes intentional, they’re also sometimes a byproduct of visitors who steer a tour through their persistent questions (you know the type).

Yellowstone in particular has its own set of lingo, where the rangers and other seasonal employees refer to themselves as “Savages," the exact origin of which is unknown. Then there's a "Code W" tourist—a wimpy hiker who requests emergency help when they don't really need it.

4. IT CAN BE A SCARY GIG ...

Rangers are incredibly well-prepared, skilled, and knowledgeable—both in their background and the education they receive on the job—but you can’t prepare for everything. The parks employees we talked to mentioned everything from bison to rattlesnakes to mountain lions, though nearly all of them also talked about how easy it was to avoid getting into trouble with wildlife if you take the right precautions. Basic rules, like not getting too close or moving too quickly, will generally keep you out of harm's way: "They give plenty of indicators when their territory is being encroached," Miller told us. It's also a good idea to properly stow your food items and trash, as those will attract all kinds of creatures. 

The elements can become an issue too; severe storms, tornados, and other surprise weather events all come into play from time to time. As does the paranormal, in some cases. Nick Sacco, a ranger at Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site in St. Louis, Missouri, joked, “Some visitors talk about seeing ghosts in the basement of White Haven [another name for the Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site] but I haven't seen any yet!”

5. … BUT THERE’S PLENTY OF ADORABLE TOO.

Yellowstone National Park via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The laws of nature state: Where there are big scary animals, there are little, enchanting ones too. You’ll probably be happy to know that multiple rangers mentioned cuddly creatures; perhaps surprisingly, porcupines got a few shout-outs (not necessarily first critter that comes to mind when conjuring “cute”), in addition to other furry, park-dwelling friends who’ve crossed paths with rangers and visitors over the years. It's just one of the perks of the job.

6. MOST OF THEIR EXPERIENCES WITH PEOPLE ARE GREAT.

When we set out to discover what the life of a park ranger was like, we expected to hear a lot of horror stories about ridiculous tourists. While those do exist, the rangers we spoke with were overwhelmingly positive about visitors. They love talking to people, and not just about the parks. They like finding out what brings people out and what experiences they’ve had, which sometimes even leads to lasting connections. Sacco recounted this story:

I'll never forget this family of three that visited the site—a grandfather, a father, and a boy with autism. It was just the three of them during the tour and I tried to give them a personalized experience showing them around the house. The grandfather bought three pocket watches from our gift shop, but he came back another month later and showed me a plaque he had bought with one of the watches glued on top and a personalized engraving stating the date in which they had visited the park. He told me that the boy absolutely loved the site and couldn't stop talking about it for days with his family, friends, and classmates, and that the experience had brought the three of them together. That was really special to hear.

Rangers also told us that visitors are generally pretty well-prepared on a practical level—camping etiquette is on-point!—and said that occasionally visitors will even have teach park employees things about the great outdoors.

7. BUT PEOPLE STILL DO STUPID THINGS SOMETIMES.

From dangerous selfies to not reading signs to starting fires when they shouldn’t (there’s a reason Smokey Bear is still around), park visitors do occasionally do things that put themselves and the land in danger. Other common issues include people who want to argue about historical facts or who want to interact with places or things that are off-limits. Rangers also told us that they’re commonly mistaken for law enforcement—so let this be a reminder that not all uniforms are created equal.

8. IT TAKES A LOT OF WORK TO BECOME A RANGER.

Anyone who dreams of being a park ranger should know it doesn’t just happen overnight. But the good news is, there are a lot of roads that lead there, most of which involve a relevant degree and volunteer work (usually a lot of volunteer work). 

One of the rangers we spoke to volunteered through a Forest Service program called Passport in Time before becoming a ranger, while another went through a program now known as Pathways, which allows undergraduate and graduate students to work for the NPS while also working on their degrees. Sacco got his start at the park as an undergrad through an internship with a predecessor to Pathways called the STEP program. “The plan all along had been for me to become a high school social studies teacher," he says, "but when I started working at the Park Service it was real revelation for me. Learning about and teaching history became something that went far beyond the confines of the classroom and history textbook, and I loved how people of all ages relished the chance to interact with NPS staff and see historical homes and artifacts in person,” he told us. 

9. THE FIELD IS HIGHLY COMPETITIVE.

Even those who put in the hard work to become a ranger might not get a job or get placed where they want to be. According to Gifford, “There is so much competition for every single position within the agency. One of my coworkers applied to 90 different jobs before getting on with us.”

As far as compensation goes, it varies quite a bit based on the location and scope of the park, the position itself, and the employee's education history. Most NPS jobs—like other government jobs—have their pay based on the General Schedule pay scale [PDF]. But while most on the GS pay scale are full-time workers, many parks employees are seasonal, meaning they have to find work in other areas during the off-season. For a few specific examples of jobs (and their pay brackets) check out the USAJOBS site; some positions are hourly while others are salaried.

10. A PARK RANGER DOESN’T NECESSARILY WORK FOR THE NATIONAL PARK SERVICE.

Of course, not every park with a ranger falls under the umbrella of the NPS. There’s also the U.S. Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management, the National Wildlife Refuge System, and other state agencies that employ the term “park ranger.” It might seem like a small distinction, but the agencies have different approaches and missions, which means their rangers can have different roles and responsibilities. For example, while national parks emphasize preservation and work under the Department of Interior, the US Forest Service is under the Department of Agriculture and is focused on both preservation and uses—such as lumber, cattle grazing, and mining.

11. THEY ADVOCATE R-E-S-P-E-C-T.

Since every park is so different, it’s tricky to come up with a hard-and-fast rule of behavior to encompass them all, but one thing a few rangers mentioned was plain old respect. If visitors all went in to the parks with a spirit of respect—for nature, wildlife, history, and other people—a lot of park problems, like trash and fires, could be avoided.

12. THEY WANT TO HELP YOU.

Another thing rangers strongly advised was planning ahead—and asking them for help when you arrive. Many parks offer varied experiences, from hikes to horseback riding, and knowing what you want to do ahead of time is useful for both you and parks officials, who are trying to serve the needs of a lot of people (over 10 million annually at the most popular location, Great Smoky Mountains National Park). Many of the parks have extensive online resources to help you plan your park experience.

The whole asking questions thing isn’t just about planning, though—rangers also want you to talk to them if you have concerns or need help. It’s what they’re there for, and many say that people don’t do it enough. 

13. THEY’RE NOT ALLOWED TO SPILL ALL THEIR SECRETS.

As active government employees, many rangers aren’t allowed to speak about the job—we talked to mostly former rangers, or current rangers who were given approval from above, and they couldn't share all the details of their work. (We should also note that the views expressed here are personal opinions that don't necessarily reflect the views of the National Park Service). Many rangers have great stories—there was some off-the-record talk of finding visitor underwear and other misadventures—but for the most part, the rangers had to be tight-lipped. Yet another good reason to take one out for a drink, and ask to be regaled with some anonymous tall tales.

Know of something you think we should cover? Email us at tips@mentalfloss.com.

All photos provided by iStock unless otherwise noted.
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13 Secrets of Roller Derby
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MARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty Images

When sports promoter Leo Seltzer got the idea to organize a roller skating marathon in 1935, he probably didn’t expect that his event would provide the basis for a fledgling sport known as roller derby. Those early contests had skaters circling a track for thousands of miles over a period of a month to test their endurance; the current incarnation is more of a contact sport that involves players protecting—or blocking—a player known as a "jammer" who is trying to skate past the opposing team for points.

A popular sport through the 1950s and 1960s, derby briefly lost some of its luster when a bit of the theatricality usually found in pro wrestling made its way to the tracks to bolster television ratings in the 1970s. While today's derby still maintains some of that showmanship—players often compete under pseudonyms like H.P. Shovecraft—you’d be wrong to characterize its players as anything less than serious and determined athletes. Mental Floss asked several competitors about the game, the hazards of Velcro, and the etiquette of sending get-well cards to opponents with broken bones.

1. THERE’S A GOOD REASON THEY USE ALTER EGOS.

Derby players looking to erase the image of the scantily-clad events of the ‘70s sometimes bemoan the continued use of aliases, but there’s a practical reason for keeping that tradition going. According to Elektra-Q-Tion, a player in Raleigh, North Carolina, pseudonyms can help athletes remain safe from overzealous fans. “It’s kind of like being a C-level celebrity,” she says. “Some players can have stalkers. I have a couple of fans that can be a little aggressive. Using 'Elektra-Q-Tion' helps keep a separation there. If they know my real name, they can find out where I live or work.”

2. THEY CAN’T ALWAYS RECOGNIZE OTHER PLAYERS OFF THE TRACK.

For many players, derby is as much a social outlet as a physical one—but meetings outside of the track can sometimes be awkward. Because of the equipment and constant motion, it can be hard to register facial features for later reference. “You don’t really get the opportunity to see them move like a normal person,” Elektra-Q-Tion says. “People can identify me because I’m really tall, but if someone comes up and says we’ve played, I have to do that thing where I hold my hand up over their head [to mimic their helmet] and go, ‘Oh, it’s you.’”

3. THEY SUFFER FROM “DERBY FACE.”

Extreme concentration, core engagement, and other aspects of the game often conspire to make players somewhat less than photogenic. “'Derby face' is common,” says Barbie O’Havoc, a player from the J-Town Roller Girls in Johnstown, Pennsylvania. “You’re pretty focused on trying not to fall over or get beat up.”

4. THEY CAN KISS THEIR FEET GOODBYE.

Hours of practice in skates usually precedes an unfortunate fate for feet. “Your feet become pretty gross,” Elektra-Q-Tion says. “People sometimes say it’s because skates don’t fit right, but it can happen with custom skates. You get calluses, your toenails get worn and fall off, your bones shift, you get fallen arches. One time a doctor thought I had MRSA. He actually recoiled from my foot. I had a blister on my blister.”

5. THEY HAVE TO CONVINCE DOCTORS THEY’RE NOT BEING ABUSED.

Flying, crashing bodies skating at velocity will become heavily bruised, with players sporting black eyes and large-scale blemishes. If they need to seek medical attention when something is broken, those superficial marks often raise suspicion. “The first question people will ask is, ‘Are you okay?’” says Elektra-Q-Tion. “Once, my husband took me to the emergency room because I had broken my hand. The nurse asked him to leave the room and asked me, ‘Did he do this to you?’”

6. THEIR GEAR SMELLS PRETTY BAD.

“Derby stink is very much real,” says Barbie O’Havoc. “It comes down to body chemistry. Some players don’t have a problem. Others can wash their gear all the time and it still stinks. After I sold my car that I used to haul my gear in for years, my sister told me it smelled awful. The entire car.”

7. NO PLAYER WEARS A “1” JERSEY—AND FOR GOOD REASON.

Attend a derby bout and it’s unlikely you’ll see any player sporting a “1” on their jersey. “I've always heard you shouldn't use the number 1,” says Cyan Eyed, a player for Gem City Roller Derby in Ohio. “But not everyone is aware of the 1937 bus crash.” On March 24 of that year, a bus carrying 14 skaters and 9 support staff was driving from St. Louis to Cincinnati when it crashed, killing 21 passengers. Joe Kleats, a veteran player who was riding on the bus, wore the number; when he and the others died, the sport retired it in memory of the tragedy.

8. THEY HAVE SKATE MECHANICS.

The pounding endured by skates, wheels, and bearings often requires attention from someone versed in repair and maintenance work. Enter the skate mechanic, typically an official or significant other of a player who doubles as the team’s wheel-person. “Players are afraid of taking their expensive skates apart,” Elektra-Q-Tion says. But she'd prefer that skaters know how to care for their own wheels. “I don’t like the idea of someone not understanding how they work. What happens if the ref retires?”

9. VELCRO IS THEIR ENEMY.

Much of a derby player’s gear, such as knee and elbow pads, is held in place with Velcro, that useful-but-dangerous adhesion system. “The problem with Velcro is the close contact,” Elektra-Q-Tion says. “If people don’t have it on correctly or part of it is peeling off, they’ll scrape you with it and you won’t realize it until you’re in the shower later and the water hits it, which is a miserable feeling.”

10. THEY TRY TO BE POLITE EVEN AFTER SMASHING SOMEONE.

Injuries are expected in derby, but if you unwittingly broke someone’s nose, it’s considered polite track manners to check up on them later. “I remember seeing a nasty injury and our league sent her flowers and a card,” Barbie O’Havoc says.

11. THEY CAN WATCH OTHER TEAMS PRACTICE.

Good luck allowing members of an NFL team to drop in on an opposing team’s practice. Derby, which prides itself on a communal atmosphere, doesn’t mind opening its doors for visiting rivals. “If I go to, say, San Diego and ask to practice with the local team there, most of the time they would say yes,” Elektra-Q-Tion says.

12. A PENNY CAN SPELL DOOM.

It’s not often something as tiny as a coin can bring a sporting event to a complete halt, but that’s what happens when you’re dependent on skate mobility. Barbie O’Havoc says that although tracks are swept and cleaned before bouts, the odd foreign object can still pop up, causing wheels (and feet) to go flying. “There’s a washer on the toe stop that can fall off,” she says. “And I’ve seen people lose their wedding rings.” Pebbles and other tiny hazards will prompt a time-out until they're found and disposed of.

13. THEY DISLIKE HOLLYWOOD.

Whenever television crime dramas depict derby, it’s typically presented as a bunch of “bad girls” with sour attitudes and a thirst for blood on the track. “That seems to be very attractive to movie and television people,” Elektra-Q-Tion says. “Usually someone gets murdered.” 2009’s Whip It, a comedy-drama starring Ellen Page and directed by Drew Barrymore, didn’t fare much better in terms of believability—but players will give that one a pass. “Whip It was great press for us. That’s when we had most of our new audience and skaters come in.”

All images courtesy of Getty.

A version of this story ran in 2016.

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15 Behind-the-Scenes Secrets of Pool Lifeguards
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Pool lifeguards do far more than just work on their tan: These trained professionals can detect sometimes-subtle indications of distress, shut down dangerous water activities, and keep visitors safe from harm.

But jumping to the rescue is only a minor part of their routine. To get a better idea of what their job entails, we asked several career pool lifeguards about their duties, from working with dangerous chemicals to dealing with poop emergencies. Here's what we learned.

1. THEY CAN TELL HOW WELL YOU SWIM BY HOW YOU GET INTO THE WATER.

Paul, a lifeguard at a private pool facility in Reno, Nevada, says that he can usually evaluate a person’s swimming abilities by how they enter the water. “People who are less skilled and experienced typically lower themselves into the pool or use the stairs or ladders,” he says. “More skilled swimmers do this thing where they jump into the pool, fully submerge, then push off the bottom and start swimming immediately. It's surprisingly common.”

2. THEY SEE A LOT OF CRACK.

Swimming trunks may be some of the least-intuitive apparel items of the modern world: Get them wet and they’re likely to make for an anatomy lesson no one asked for. “Kids, especially boys, have the strangest inability to notice when their trunks are falling off,” says Marek, an indoor lifeguard in Washington state. “It's usually not a big deal and gets handled when the kid's parent notices and scolds them."

3. THEY’RE AMATEUR CHEMISTS.

Responsibility for maintaining the pH balance of a pool and adding or reducing chemicals to preserve a clean environment is usually the duty of head lifeguards. According to Darrell, a 10-year veteran of indoor pools, handling these substances requires additional training. “This is done at the end of the day and I typically add chemicals twice or sometimes three times a week,” he says. “I add either calcium chloride to control the hardness of the water or sodium bicarbonate, baking soda, to control the alkalinity.” For germ-killing, chlorine and muriatic acid are delivered to the water through a computer-controlled delivery system.

4. SOME VERY GROSS THINGS LURK AT THE BOTTOM OF POOLS.

Some lifeguards are charged with vacuuming the bottom surfaces of pools, which usually produces a composite muck in the canister that Marek refers to as a “diaper”: It’s typically full of hair and gray sludge. But things can get worse. Much worse. “At the summer camp I work at, I've had the pleasure of fishing dead things out of the strainer baskets,” he says. “Frogs and rats. Having seen what comes out of those pools, let's just say that I'm not a big fan of recreation swimming anymore.”

5. THEY DISLIKE LANE HOGS.

Some regulars who use private pools as part of their fitness routine can get a little too self-confident in their skills. “Narcissistic lap swimmers” are a pet peeve of Paul’s. “They can't share lanes and always brag about how they're the best damn person in the pool. It's like, man, I've seen 5-year-olds with a better breast stroke.” (Another way to get on a guard’s bad side: sitting over a lane and dangling your legs in.)

6. THEY’RE NOT ABOVE PEEING IN THE POOL.

It’s a testament to how potent the chemicals are in pools that some lifeguards offering swim lessons don’t mind relieving themselves when nature calls and they don’t feel like getting out. “I know plenty of swim instructors who will relieve themselves in the pool because they don't have much time between lessons and they might be stuck in the water several hours,” Marek says. “One of my former coworkers, and a good friend, has always said that there are two kinds of people in the world. Those that pee in the pool, and those that deny it."

7. IT'S HARD TO PREDICT WHEN TROUBLE WILL STRIKE.

While some lifeguards subscribe to a 15-minute rule—most questionable swimmers are going to get themselves into trouble within 15 minutes of entering the water—Paul cautions that there are always exceptions. “If you're a weak enough swimmer that you would have a problem, you're going to have that problem pretty quickly,” he says. “Though that is only most of the time. Some people get tired and get into trouble later on and some people have heart attacks halfway through their swim. You've got to be ready for anything.”

8. NOSEBLEEDS ARE COMMON.

Irritated nasal passages can be a problem at pools, which means that lifeguards are frequently charged with handling biohazards on or near the deck. “We see a lot of nosebleeds,” Darrell says. “We cover the areas with signage. Hopefully the patron has found a guard quickly if we didn't see it and hasn't left a 50-foot trail of blood on the deck. We then spray the blood with a disinfectant solution designed to kill blood-borne pathogens, wait 10 minutes, then hose directly with water.”

9. THERE’S A PROTOCOL FOR POOP.

It’s the emergency every lifeguard dreads: a fecal deposit in a pool full of swimmers. When that happens, it’s time to “shock” the pool by turning it into a chemical bath. According to Darrell, who considers himself a “poop whisperer,” solids come out first. “Dispersed poop? Everyone out. Scoop and vacuum. The pool is closed for a minimum of eight hours as we now have to chemically burn the water. [That means] basically bringing the chlorine levels up to where even cockroaches would die.” Vomit is slightly less dire: the pool is closed for 30 minutes while the chlorine goes to work.

10. A CROWDED POOL CAN BE SAFER.

The more patrons in the water, the harder it might be for a lifeguard to keep track of everyone. But, Marek says, having too few people can be just as much of a problem. “Crowded pools have the benefit of holding your attention better. If you've got two patrons in the water, it's easy to get bored and zone out."

11. ARM BANDS REALLY ANNOY THEM.

Those inflatable arm bands worn by children? Lifeguards hate them. “They may pop, which would probably be unusual, or they may leak slowly,” Darrell says. “But that's not the real danger. Although they will keep a small child afloat, this is assuming the child has the strength to keep their arms down in order to keep their head above water.”

12. THEY DOUBLE AS JANITORS.

At Paul’s private pool, lifeguards are expected to perform tasks that would usually be reserved for a maintenance crew. “Cleaning is a part of the job,” he says. “Many pools don't have janitors so the bulk of making sure the pool looks presentable is up to the lifeguards.” They’ll even set up tables for parties and clean the bathrooms.

13. THEY HAVE STRATEGIES TO KEEP FROM ZONING OUT.

Guards have all kinds of tricks for not letting their attention wander from swimmers: they keep their shoulders square with the pool, they count how many times a song plays on the radio, and they rotate positions every 15 minutes. “A wandering mind is a dangerous thing to have while actively guarding,” Darrell says. “I count patrons. I go through scenarios in my mind.” Cell phones are usually prohibited: getting caught with one can be grounds for termination.

14. POOL NOODLES ARE THE BANE OF THEIR EXISTENCE.

While people are welcome to bring their own noodles to public pools, Darrell prefers they didn’t. Instead of being used as flotation aids, they wind up getting used as chew toys. “They end up with bite marks and chunks ripped out of them,” he says. “I often wish we could purchase noodles made out of foam that tastes like something rotten to discourage this.” Darrell will not directly seize a noodle from a tiny guest, but if he happens to see one abandoned, he will grab it. And he will not be sorry.

15. THEY’RE NOT BABYSITTERS.

“I think my single biggest peeve when it comes to guarding is parents who assume that we are there to babysit their children for them,” Marek says. “Nothing could be further from the truth. Lifeguards are there to supervise and ensure a safe, and hopefully fun, environment for all. It's incredibly selfish and irresponsible to assume that we are there to watch your one child when we've got hundreds of other people to keep track of. We are there to mitigate risk and respond if something does happen, not to babysit.”

All images courtesy of iStock.

This story originally ran in 2016.

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