Paid to play

Lynda Doucette is the South District supervisor for resource education at the Oconaluftee Visitor Center in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. I sat down with her recently to learn more about her career in the National Park Service and her experiences in the nation’s most-visited park.

On the job: Great Smokies ranger Linda Doucette outside the park’s Oconaluftee Visitor Center Photo by danny bernstein

Mountain Xpress: How did you become a ranger?
Lynda Doucette: I became a park ranger in my late 20s, which is late for most people. I didn’t go to college straight from high school. I was a seasonal ranger as part of an internship on Cape Cod National Seashore in 1987. Then I worked as recreation director in Sandwich, Mass., until I got a permanent position.

My first job as a park ranger was at the John F. Kennedy National Historic Site. I took visitors on tours of the house and the neighborhood where J.F.K. grew up. I worked in several parks—Lake Mead [National Recreation Area] in Arizona, Yosemite National Park, and Point Reyes National Seashore in California—before I came to the Smokies.

What do you actually do?
I’m an interpretive ranger, so I don’t carry a gun. … I concentrate on education and having visitors appreciate the [park’s] resources. Though I supervise, do budgets and scheduling, I still get a chance to work at the visitor center. … I look to see what works well. For example, are people looking at the exhibits? But I do get outside and in the field. I do events at the Mountain Farm Museum and Junior Ranger programs.

I also get to play. For fun, I hike with the Haywood Hikers in Waynesville. I backpack and play disc golf. Basically I enjoy the outdoors.

Have you ever had a confrontation with an animal?
The closest was a badger that hissed and pissed at me at Point Reyes. You need to give animals their space; I’ve seen bears at a distance and also rattlesnakes. At Point Reyes, I participated in elephant-seal research. I went with the researchers as they tried to tag an animal on its back flipper—that’s a 1,000-pound creature. The seal whipped her head back, and the researcher told me to freeze and not move. My reaction was, “You want me to do what?”

In the Smokies, I’ve gone out with bear researchers as they use aversion techniques to convince a bear that it wants to relocate, usually when it’s gotten too close to people.

How about confrontations with people?
At Lake Mead, one guy tried to run me over when I was directing traffic, so I called law enforcement. I’ve learned when I need backup. When I see someone doing something wrong—with their dog off-leash in the campgrounds, for example—I may greet them with, “This is your lucky day, because I’m not law enforcement.” But we have drug dealers, meth labs, marijuana and even major crimes in the park. A Smokies ranger was killed in 1998 on the Blue Ridge Parkway.

The majority of visitors are happy to be in the park—even if some miss the turn to Cades Cove from Gatlinburg and end up at Oconaluftee (over an hour away).

Our major issue in the Smokies is still road safety, especially in the winter when there’s ice and snow at the higher elevations. Another is unprepared hikers going to the backcountry. We had a couple from Europe who thought they were going on a day hike. They didn’t have a trail map. They started out at Mingus Mill and came out two days later on the Clingmans Dome Road (miles away).

A lot of people want to know why dogs aren’t allowed on trails in the park. Can you explain?
Dogs are predators. Their scent changes the behavior of the wildlife; therefore it changes the park. Parks were meant for preservation; they’re different from national forests. Designated national parks do not allow dogs—it’s a federal law.

But horses are OK?
A horse is not a predator; it doesn’t affect the behavior of the wildlife. Yes, they impact trails. Horses are a traditional use in the Smokies, so their use is protected in the enabling legislation, though they’re only allowed on certain trails. Horse people donate thousands of hours in trail maintenance to the park.

How about the park’s volunteer program?
We have close to 4,000 volunteers in the park. Some do trail maintenance; we’d still be working on opening trails from the April storm if we didn’t have the volunteer cadres. You can apply online to be a volunteer. We treat volunteers like employees—we count on you to do the job. There are lots of perks, including the opportunity to participate with researchers on bear workups.

What do you think of Nevada Barr’s mysteries [whose protagonist, Anna Pigeon, is a park ranger]? And why is she so sarcastic about visitors?
Nevada Barr truly is Anna Pigeon. I love her books, and she gets it right. The National Park Service is a small service; she wrote a book about Yosemite, and I knew some of the characters. Her sarcasm about the visiting public is a defense mechanism. Law enforcement—and Barr was a law-enforcement park ranger—is always looking for what’s wrong, not what’s right.

We get our share of stupid questions, such as how many undiscovered rooms are there in this cave, or what time does the 3 o’clock program start?

Park rangers are constantly out in the public, so you have to watch what you say. On the North Shore Road controversy, before the park came out with a final Environmental Impact Statement, I had no opinion on the issue. Now my opinion has been given to me.

What makes you get up in the morning, put on your uniform, and go to work?
The place where I work. I get to work in a 1930s stone building. I go into a national park every day. I love sharing the park with visitors. Even when I have to go to the headquarters building, just outside of Gatlinburg, I get to drive through the park. And I think, “They’re paying me to do this.” I want to make sure that the park is here for future generations.

I want to see the world—new cultures, new people. Moving to another park is the way to move up in the system. My husband, Curt, has relocated as I move through the National Park System. He’s what holds me together. I don’t think I could do what I do without him.

The NPS is one of the few truly American things we have. We had the first park, Yellowstone, in 1872. We are called on by other countries to help get their park systems started. The system shows our values, our heritage. It’s the best representation we have of America.

[Hike leader and outdoors writer Danny Bernstein is the author of Hiking the Carolina Mountains. She can be reached at danny@hikertohiker.com]

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