700 Square miles.
275 miles of trails.
60 Official access points.
1.3 Million Annual Visitors.
4 State Park Rangers.
Chugach State Park is the third largest state park in the United States and sits right in our backyard.
On August 6, 1970, then Governor Keith Miller, signed legislation creating the park. Among other things, the park was established to provide recreational opportunities, protect the scenic value of the Chugach Mountains, and ensure a water supply for Anchorage and the surrounding area.
Thousands of visitors and residents alike use the park in both the summer and winter. Activities in the park are very accessible like berry picking, recreational gold panning, hiking, rafting, horseback riding, snow machining and camping to name a few, all with little or no cost. This expansive area with rugged mountains, lakes, glaciers, and abundant wildlife, are patrolled by only four Alaska State Park Rangers, one of them is Ranger Tom Crockett.
Crockett has a vast knowledge of the park and is a 23-year veteran Alaska State Park Ranger. His time of service has been divided into two stints of duty. Crockett has an interesting background. He has been a journalist, carpenter, tour guide, worked in agricultural research, and also obtained a degree in Archaeology, along the way. All of which has helped him succeed in working with the public and his job as a park ranger.
Soft-spoken and humble, Crockett expressed his love of his job this way, “This has been probably one of the few jobs that could really fulfill some of my needs to be out in the open space and to have a constant flow of changing tasks.”
Aside for the straightforward duties of a park ranger, such as enforcing park rules and laws, initiating and coordinating search and rescue operations, and maintaining order in state campgrounds; there are many less obvious tasks and duties Crockett does. He explained, “I’m very much a generalist. If something needs to be replaced or fixed, I’m usually the one on my beat to spot it. Sometimes it’s an epic of trying to rig something, so it’s safe for the public. That can be anything from fixing a door on a latrine to cutting hazard trees from a campground. I’ve taken on a few new tasks. One of them is trying to control some invasive weeds on Turnagain Arm.” Continuing, Crockett said with a smile, “That’s one of those things that when you tug on the spider web, and everything shifts, and then you realize how large the extent of the problem really is. The second part is trying to get some management impetus behind something like that and at the same time doing all my other tasks.”
FIRST DAY ON THE JOB IN CHUGACH STATE PARK
Having worked as a commissioned park tech for a couple of seasons, first in Tok, and then on the Kenai Peninsula, Crockett had a little time under his belt when he arrived at the district station for his first day on the job as a park ranger. At 24 years old, on his first day on the job, he wanted to make a good impression with his co-workers who he described as, “Salty old dogs.” It was a snowy cold day as he recalled and things started off slowly. His supervisor was not present that day, and he had not been assigned all his equipment, including his vehicle. When he asked what he was to do, he was told to read some old mission and crime reports. At about lunchtime, Crockett asked, “Isn’t there something I can do here; this is really boring.” His inquiry set off a response he was not expecting. “They looked at me with expressions of horror and said, ‘Never speak those words again. Go back to your hole.’”
TEN MINUTES LATER
“The phone rang,” Crockett recalled. “Shortly later, the Chief Ranger came dashing in the Ranger 1 offices and told us we had a search and rescue mission. Ten minutes after that, we were all headed to the Eagle River Nature Center where a really tough mission was waiting for us.” Crockett described the situation, “There were three climbers who were attempting their first route accent on Eagle Peak, which is quite a challenging climb, and still is today.”
The rangers faced a difficult mission. Climbers high up on the mountain encountered an avalanche. One climber escaped uninjured and was able to get back to the Nature Center and call for help; Steven Campbell, the second climber was killed, and a third climber was still up on the mountain badly injured and needed to be rescued.
With the help from an Alaska State Trooper helicopter piloted by Trooper Bob Larsen, Crockett, and fellow Ranger Mike Goodwin, flew in the helicopter to execute the rescue and recovery. The helicopter had to land below the climbers on a little mountain pass. Crockett and Goodwin were able to rescue the injured climber and get him to medical care. Then they returned to the site to recover Campbell. Crockett vividly recalled the recovery, “It was a really steep situation, the helicopter was parked on a little mountain pass down below us. We had to bag up Steven and bring him down. The temperatures are going down. Things are getting cold. We’re not dressed for an overnight. This is: get it done and get back quickly. In the midst of all this, one of those events occurs that really sticks in your mind. Mike, who is a very precise guy, was trying and was not able to complete a clove hitch in the middle of the rope. It’s getting colder and the snow is starting to blow. I said, ‘M I K E! It’s time for us to be outta here.’”
Drawing Goodwin’s first name out to add emphasis, then continuing with the story with urgency in his voice, Crockett recalled the situation. “Mike said, ‘No if I don’t get it right now, I’ll never get it right.'”
“Eventually, my impatience and freezing hands took over and I said, ‘Here’s how you do it!!’” Demonstrating with his hands making circles in the air, Crockett said with a chuckle, “You throw a loop over here like this, and a loop under like this and you pull it tight, and you call for the helicopter!” Finally, with a hardy laugh, “And that was my first day in Chugach State Park.”
When it comes to search and rescue, Crockett takes it very personally saying, “Your drama is someone else’s tragedy. Further explaining, “There are consequences for everyone involved. If I were to crystallize that experience of being intimately involved in many, many search and rescues, some of them life critical, some of them just more of a bump in the road. It’s when you get that call, and you feel that weight descend on your shoulders.”
ENJOY THE PARK
While talking to Crockett, it’s very apparent that he loves the park and wants nothing more than for everyone to enjoy it as much as he does. He feels that most of his frequent interactions with park users out on the trails are not with violators. Enforcing park rules and getting voluntary compliance while keeping everyone safe is a balancing act he readily accepts. Crockett explains his position on this, “I typically tread fairly lightly on minor violations on the theory, that my customers, as it were, my visitors, they will be back again. A lot of our long-term relationship with the park depends on whether or not I present myself as fair and open to impute and decent.” Adding, “I have written a lot of warnings that seem to have taken effect, and I’ve written quite a few citations to folks that don’t seem to be getting the message.”
To illustrate the point Crockett related a situation at Indian trailhead at Christmas time where he observed two men one of them carrying a battery powered reciprocating saw. Tom was sensing this might be a Christmas tree poaching situation. They spotted each other and Tom decided to question the man regarding the saw. Tom shared the conversation, “They spotted me, and I spotted them and thought, might as well have the conversation.” Crockett told the man with the saw, “I think I know why you’re here and I see you’re hiding a Sawzall behind your back. Can we talk about how I can save you a $300.00 citation for a resource violation?”
The young man replied, “I don’t have a Sawzall behind my back.”
Pressing on Crockett countered, “Sir, I saw it.”
The man said, “Nu-uh.”
Then Crockett said, “C’mon, just show it to me. And he did saying, ‘It’s a Dewalt!’” Wrapping up the story with a bit of laughter, Crockett summed up the conversation, “When people choose to lie to law enforcement, they lie with specificity.”
WINTER vs. SUMMER DUTIES
“It’s an amazing difference,” said Crockett. “I really look forward to winter because I can actually step away from the campgrounds, rental cabins and all the other things that require intimate daily management. I can start just ranging a little bit.” Continuing with his thought, “I will spend a lot of time looking for illegal traplines. I might also add, legal traplines. One of the joys of this job is, I get to catch people doing something right every once in a while.”
The topic of trapping has been one of Crockett’s initiatives for the past five or six years and he feels strongly about the issue. According to him, one of the difficulties of trapping is communicating to the non-trapping public what is legal and what is not. There are several park rules regarding when, where and what species of animals can be trapped. Part of the goal of the regulations is aimed so that people’s pets are not caught. “About six or seven years ago we had a flurry of dogs getting caught in traps and snares. Several of them were fatal, and the others, the dogs were rescued by their owners,” Crockett said. In part due to his passion on this issue, and a cooperative effort between the park system, Fish and Game, and the Trapper’s Association, there has been some regulation on trapping in the Chugach State Park. Crockett is happy to report, “Since I’ve been working this, we’ve gone, from that one year when we had about five instances, to zero. It’s become a very compelling part of my winter task list.”
A BIT OF ADVICE
“One of the things I would ask the public is, just be aware that the forces of gravity, thermodynamics, and fatigue are always working and not in your favor,” explained Crockett when asked about advice to park users. “With that lodged in your subconscious, go out and enjoy the park.”
He encourages people to respect the park and its resources and that it’s here for everyone to enjoy. He urges people to have a plan and to be prepared should something go wrong, even if it’s only for that half hour ski. It might just mean the difference in life or death.
“Chugach State Park is a gem,” Crockett said with a bit of enthusiasm in his voice. “There’s not many places in the world that have a wilderness park immediately adjacent to a huge regional hub of population. We’re very fortunate to have it,” he said affectionately.
Reflecting on his career and years as a ranger, Crockett said, “I don’t know that I intended for this specific career. I was very fortunate to be brought into it by some very inspiring folks. I was mentored by people that had a very great skill set. I’m the last of that group now. I hope that some of that DNA has been passed onto the folks in their 20s and 30s, and just launching off in this career.”
Retirement is not in the near future for Crockett. But when that time comes, he says he will always have a love for the Chugach State Park. Crockett sums it up this way, “So when I retire from this, I’ll probably still be involved to the extent of throwing a pair of loppers in my pack when going out for a hike. If there is an alder that needs trimming, I’ll do it. If there’s stories to be told, I’ll see if I can tell ‘em. This has definitely become not just a place I spent my career, but a place I came back to after venturing out elsewhere in the world. I was very happy to be able to come back to the Chugach State Park. It has definitely turned into a lifetime commitment!”