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Dream job

by Nick Rotunno
| December 16, 2010 8:00 PM

photo

Ranger Larry Mink interacts with a young visitor at Logan Pass in Glacier National Park.

Thirty-nine years ago, during his freshman year at the University of Montana, Larry Mink traveled to Glacier National Park for the very first time.

He saw jagged, snow-capped peaks, summits that touched the clouds. He wandered along Going-to-the-Sun Road, and watched eagles soar over Lake McDonald.

The journey was awe-inspiring.

"Wow," said Mink, now 57. "Little did I know that almost 40 years later, I'd be working there."

Sitting at the kitchen table inside his Coeur d'Alene home, Mink told the story of his happy summer in Montana. From mid-May until mid-October of this year, he was employed as a full-time interpretive ranger at Glacier park, a friendly, bearded ambassador of the National Park Service.

"Every day was different," he recalled. "You're interacting with visitors every day from all over the world. Glacier's a destination park for world travelers, which is pretty cool."

The St. Mary entrance, on the eastern edge of the park, was Mink's home base. It's a remote outpost on the Glacier borderlands, where windswept Montana prairies meet the rugged spires of the Lewis Range. The vistas were stunning.

Visitors camped at nearby Rising Sun, or drove up the road toward famed Logan Pass. Some went for a day hike, or enjoyed a boat trip on choppy St. Mary Lake. The more adventurous, the explorers, loaded their packs and headed for the high country.

Whatever their plans, Mink was there to guide them. Wearing a broad-brimmed hat, forest green pants and a beige NPS shirt - the classic outfit of park rangers everywhere - he led hikes, voyaged on boat tours, staffed visitor centers and talked to families. For four heady months, Glacier was home.

"The best part about being a naturalist," he said, "is being able to share your knowledge with people in an environment like that."

He had a dark, unruly beard, a warm manner and a low-key personality. His co-workers, mostly college-aged kids working the summer season, called him "Papa."

"I was kind of the old guy there," Mink said with a smile. "My superior was 27 years old."

A Midwesterner by birth, Mink grew up in Elgin, Ill., a good-sized suburb on the outskirts of Chicago. When Larry was in junior high, the Mink family vacationed in Yellowstone National Park. They experienced the geysers, the scenery and the wildlife. At Mammoth Lodge they listened to a ranger presentation, an interpretive talk, and young Larry was quite inspired.

One day, he decided, he would work in a place like Yellowstone.

Then he returned to Elgin, where the landscape was flat as a billiard table. There were some grassy fields, sure, and maybe a few forest preserves, but eastern Illinois - and most of the state, for that matter - was no place for a mountain man.

"I couldn't wait to get out of the suburbs," he recalled, so after high school, "I went to the University of Montana in Missoula."

Mink graduated with a bachelor's degree in resource conservation. He went to work for North Dakota State Parks, first as a naturalist and then as chief of interpretation.

"To me my big break was when I just happened to apply for a job in Idaho, and I got that job," he said.

He packed up, moved to Boise and began running programs for Idaho State Parks and Recreation - it was essentially the same position he'd had in North Dakota, chief of interpretation. Fifteen years later he transferred to Coeur d'Alene, and then, in June 2009, his life took an unexpected turn.

"After 24 years in (Idaho State Parks), I was the first person to be laid off due to budget cuts," Mink said. "Well, I still had to do something, and working in a place like Yellowstone or Teton or Glacier would be the ultimate job. You could use the expression, 'When one door closes another one opens up.'"

Hoping to find a seasonal gig, he filled out a self-assessment application and submitted his resume to the National Park Service. The NPS had about 16 openings in Glacier and Yellowstone combined; Grand Teton was already full. Mink was one of 3,000 applicants.

Fortunately, after decades in the state park system, he was extremely qualified. Officials gave him a total score of 100, the highest possible, and he was bumped to the top of the list. Before long Mink was bound for St. Mary, a newly-minted ranger.

"I am really proud of him, because he got the job out of hundreds of people who wanted it," said Mink's wife, Sheryl, a teacher at Lakes Magnet Middle School.

2010 was a busy summer at Glacier. Celebrating its 100th anniversary, the park welcomed millions of visitors and hosted many special events. Mink encountered people from all over the world. He had a weekly routine, but the assignments changed every day - he led hikes, gave tours, chatted with youngsters in the Junior Ranger program; there was rarely a dull moment.

And he talked - about geology, ecology and history, about the sad decline of Glacier's glaciers (they might all be gone in 15 years) and about the park's most famous residents, grizzly bears.

"Just working in grizzly country was a challenge," Mink said. "You're always thinking about bears and bear safety."

Mountain weather could also be tricky. Once, while guiding a hike on the Highline Trail near Logan Pass, Mink encountered a vicious storm. Hail fell, lightning crashed. The wind whipped along the mountainside. It got a little sporty, but everyone made it back OK. All part of the job.

Mink's accommodations were less than plush. He lived in a creaky mobile home, and then a small cabin.

"He got really good at catching mice," Sheryl revealed.

Working so far away from his family, from Sheryl and his daughter, Destiny, was also tough, Mink said. Sheryl did come visit, though.

"I went on the boat tour, and the hike to (St. Mary) Falls," she said. "I was able to listen to him in all of his presentations once. You never get tired of (Glacier)."

Mink plans to work at Glacier next season. He enjoys the job, the scenery and the people. He decided long ago that he wanted to be a national park ranger, and now, finally, that dream has come true. Why go anyplace else?

"It was like the greatest job you can have," Mink said. "I hardly call it work."

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