Friday, January 14, 2011

The Fine Line Between Work and Play

Work or Play?
Standing in front of the Warming Hut today I watched four bull Bison slowly meander down the road. Joining me for the show were about 30 visitors. After answering a variety of questions related to both Bison physiology and behavior I couldn't help overhear one of the visitors proclaim:
" Man, if I had a job like this, I'd never leave it!"
I turned around, smiled and nodded in agreement. Comments such as this one are not uncommon in a Park Ranger's life; each day we are greeted by a visitor who either wanted to be a Park Ranger or who wants to become one. This week, in addition to this comment, two comments were also made to whether Park Ranger's work or play!

For the average American there is a clear distinction between work and play. I think of my mother who works in the ER of a hospital- for her, work is absolutely WORK. Work in America is a very serious matter.It is our culture to take pride in our work, regardless of the job, and to work hard. Two continuous weeks off for a vacation is considered a lengthy amount of time off in America however if you are from Australia your "holiday" is often times 4 weeks. But, our culture dictates that by working excessively hard in our younger years we are promised, hypothetically speaking, a luxurious, stress-free retirement at 55. Well, at least that's what the commercials say. I wish I could say that I buy into this cultural notion, but I don't.

For me, there is a fine line between work and play, and that's just how I like it! There is one sure distinction to know if I am working or playing: the uniform! When I am in the green and grey, I'm working and when I'm not, well, I'm playing! However for the most part the activities are often quite the same. 

This week after work I headed to Old Faithful to watch a special presentation by Dr. Jim Halfpenny. Jim, is a renowned animal tracker who was going to be giving a presentation on Canada Lynx and Grey Wolves. The weather prediction was -20'F for that particular night but I didn't let the cold or the nighttime snowmobiling deter me, and thankfully so, the presentation was fascinating and I was quite pleased that I had spent my evening going to see it. The next day, while at work, I was able to engage in two detailed conversations with visitors whereby I was able to share my new found knowledge from the previous nights lecture. You see, my personal interests are deeply connected to my profession making work feel a little more like play.  

The following evening, a girls night had been planned on my day off. By 7pm three girls were skiing in the dark towards West Thumb Geyser Basin. After the three mile ski we had arrived at the same warming hut which we work at every day. But tonight, instead of it being the "office" it was the destination of our girls night! We walked around the same geyser basin that we have each walked one hundred times for work but tonight it was all ours with no visitors for miles! After our walk we returned to the warming hut where Darlene stoked the fire, I got the TV set up for a movie and Mel was busy setting up the snacks! During the daytime the wood stove usually has cold visitors huddled around it but on this night it was heating up water for hot cocoa while three girls, snug in our sleeping bags, watched movies and camped out! 

While on duty today I drove to the Fishing Bridge Warming Hut to start the fire, shovel the walkways and chat with the visitors. I was the first one on the road and the light snowfall from last night left a smooth powdery surface for my snowmobile to glide upon. About 20 minutes into my drive I came around a densely wooded corner and found myself 50 yards away from a beautiful Gray Wolf who had been walking the quiet road. Startled, the wolf jumped into the snow and ran into the woods. For a few minutes I sat just there in awe as I watched him as he disappear into the tall Lodgepole Pines. I was soon joined by a group of visitors who didn't see the wolf but who were enthralled by my story just the same. I was on work time and they were on play time but really the only thing that distinguished me from them was my uniform.

Fishing Bridge Warming Hut
Winter in Yellowstone is altogether a different sort of job. There is more time to ski, watch wildlife and chat with visitors however the day to day challenges are more extreme. For example snowmobiling 20 miles to Fishing Bridge in -20 'F weather so that we can start the fire in the warming hut. Or passing a herd of Bison
with only a snowmobile between you and them. Then there is the daily "Are you warm enough?" question that we ask every visitor we see to ensure that they will not get frostbite while touring the park. The job becomes so ingrained in your blood that even on my lieu days I find myself counting how many swans are on the lake, warning people to back away from the Bison and yes, on occasion asking people "Are you warm enough?"
When the day is over and I head home my daily commute has me passing Bison, watching Bald Eagles and looking out onto the frozen Yellowstone Lake. As I pull into the employee housing area I pass a hundred more Lodgepole Pine trees- the same trees which make up 80 % of Yellowstone's forest. The same forest that earlier today a Wolf had run into. But best of all as I think back on my favorite "Yellowstone Moments" I realize that I have no recollection to whether they occurred on work time or play time.


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