Petting a grizzly bear isn’t something everyone gets to check off their bucket list. But my father, Frank Wesser, a park ranger in the mountains of Chugach State Park, got that opportunity. A biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADF&G) was researching black bears in the park—setting up snare traps so he could collar the bears and keep track of their population and movements. One day the ADF&G biologist called and said, “Frank, I’m very, very nervous. I think I don’t have a black bear in one of my traps, but a grizzly bear!” Immediately, Frank took action. He brought in the chief ranger, his boss, and together they went to the scene, darted the bear with a tranquilizer, freed it from the trap, and got far away before it woke up. But first, while the bear was still subdued, my father was able to pet a live grizzly bear.
My father’s career path began with an offer from his oldest brother, Ralph. Years ago they embarked on a 10-day backpacking trip through Glacier National Park, on the border of Canada and Montana. The trip galvanized my father’s ambition to pursue being a land steward, and eventually a park ranger. He learned this was a career meant to be experienced—not simply read about inside the confines of his Illinois University lecture halls.
Several years later, in 1984, my dad moved to Alaska with my mom, Sara. He began searching for a job with the Alaska State Parks and was offered a position as a seasonal park technician in Chugach State Park. According to Mom, there wasn’t even the slightest hesitation when he accepted. For the next ten years he experienced first-hand a world of grizzly bear sightings, surprises from the local inmates he oversaw, covert operations on the Kenai River, a 24-hour search for a missing girl, boating through the oil sodden waters of Kachemak Bay, and much, much more. I’ve heard several of these stories more than once, and every time I’m reminded of the courage and character my father, the park ranger, possesses.
As a seasonal park technician with Chugach State Park, my father was celebrated for his work on the Chugach trail system. According to the director of Alaska State Parks at the time, “To those intimately knowledgeable about Chugach’s trails, they know about Frank. At the lead of each of these projects was Frank.” He led others in the construction of the trails, people who were not always fellow park technicians or volunteers. Sometimes he led inmates serving their community service hours from a local correctional facility. In the summer of 1985, a typical day at work for my father was to drive the state van to the prison, pick up a dozen or so inmates, and take them into the park to clean up the trails. My father recalls how the inmates often put in a lot of hard work and deserved recognition from the staff at the correctional facility for good behavior. Of course, the task required a willingness on their part to contribute, and he admitted to me, “If I didn’t like any particular one of them, I’d scratch ‘em off the list!”
My father remembers one interesting day on the trails with the inmates when he decided to give one of the men a chance at redemption. He was a very tall Swedish man serving time for a DUI offense. He seemed to know an awful lot about laying out trails and furthermore, he knew about recreational policy in state parks. The man told my father he had worked in the Washington State Park system. His story seemed credible because he clearly knew parks and how to manage them. Sometime during the day my father decided to give the inmate more responsibility for the project. After letting him take charge my father was surprised to find that under the influence of the Swede the men were working double-time. When my father first told me this story I must admit I found myself predicting the worst. As I listened to the end of the story, it dawned on me that his ability to trust is part of what made him such a great leader on the trails. He was willing to overlook this man’s past and provide him an opportunity to prove his trustworthiness, regardless of previous mistakes in life.
After a couple summers as a park technician in Chugach State Park, my father was ready for the next step. He briefly returned to lecture halls and textbooks at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, but, again without hesitation, he transitioned into a permanent position as a park ranger with Kenai River State Parks when the opportunity was offered. He traveled to Sitka where he attended the Sitka Trooper Academy and learned about law enforcement. He often mentions to my sister and me how he was forced to feel the burn of pepper spray in his eyes while attending the academy—all part of the training process. While working on the Kenai River, my father’s duties involved enforcing rules at campgrounds, running the river with patrol boats, enforcing regulations on sport fishing, horsepower, boating safety and guiding trips. Essentially he was protecting the park and ensuring that the natural resources of the park weren’t being damaged by anyone or anything.
My father is not only known in the Alaska State Park’s community as a trailblazer, but he is also recognized as the ranger who went undercover to tackle an illegal guiding operation on the Kenai River. He described how a situation came up one day at a company picnic. The topic of discussion involved a fraudulent fishing guide who was scamming visitors to the park with his operation. My father and his coworkers were angered by this and conceived a plan to thwart the operation and get the illegal guide out of the park for good. Since my father was a new ranger in the area they decided it would be best for him to go undercover for the mission. So he booked a trip with the guide and the plan quickly unfolded. “I’m looking for some fun on the river and I wanna catch a King!” he fibbed to the illegal guide. He soon collected all the evidence necessary so his team of rangers could shut down the whole operation and seize the illegal guide’s boats. Other legal guides on the Kenai River came to know my father by his first name and he earned a reputation as a dedicated protector of the park.
More adventure ensued during my father’s ranger days at the Kenai River when his boss announced one day, “Well, we’ve got a big tanker releasing millions of gallons of crude oil and it’s starting to impact state shorelines!” The monumental Exxon Valdez spill was unleashing its devastating impact on the environment of Alaska. He asked for volunteers to help and once again my father stepped up to the plate. Being an employee of the Department of Natural Resources, he and his coworkers were in charge of overseeing cleanup activities and dealing with wildlife affected by the spill.
Frank recalls crashing through the high seas of Kachemak Bay State Park and Wilderness Park in a 14-foot Achilles raft with his coworkers. Another day he was flying over the Barren Islands with a team of researchers, ADF&G employees, and a representative from Exxon. They were evaluating the damage caused to an important seal haul-out to create an assessment report for Exxon. My father told me how, “Before the damage, these were pristine areas that no one had probably ever been to before. All of a sudden it was covered with tons and tons of crude oil and clean-up crews. Everything was just natural before.” This year is the 26th anniversary of the infamous Exxon Valdez spill. Along with many Alaskans, my father, Frank, recalls the historical event vividly.
Another event which marked my father’s career was when an 11-year-old girl went missing in Chugach State Park. The young girl was on a summer day hike by O’Malley Peak with her parents when the fog rolled in and she became separated from her family, sending the Anchorage community on an emotional whirlwind for the next 24 hours. The Alaska State Troopers flew overhead with a helicopter and found no sign of the girl. An incident command post was set up at the trailhead, including my father who was part of the planning. The search and rescue mission was in full swing when my father conducted the first grid search based on lost party profiling for a child of her age and their habits when lost. “They can cover a lot of ground at that age. They won’t stay in one place. If they see signs of civilization they will typically go towards them no matter what stands in the way,” my father said. The search continued on with volunteers from the community, search and rescue teams, rangers, and troopers, while the girl’s parents were anxiously waiting.
Frank remembers worrying about the young girl catching hypothermia as the hours ticked on, and he thought to himself, Man, we gotta work faster on this! Everyone regrouped again and began to refine the search pattern, realizing that by now she would likely be much further downhill than several hours earlier. As the 24-hour mark approached, Frank and his cohorts were exhausted, stressed out, and barely hanging on to the last strands of hope for the survival of the young girl. Just before dread could clench the hearts of my father and his team, they found her huddled and shivering in a creek bed. My father embraced his fellow park rangers with tears in his eyes. My mom remembers the minute she heard the good news. After 24 hours of no rest and worry for the girl and her family, Dad called Mom and she leapt out of her chair at work, announcing to everyone the girl had been rescued. It was not just another day in June of 1996 for my father when he helped reunite the girl with her parents. And 19 years later, as he recounted the story to me, I’m the one with tears bubbling up in my eyes. This is my favorite memory of my father’s ranger days and just one of the reasons I think he’s a hero.
My father always says that a park ranger is basically a steward of the land. When I asked him to describe what that means in more detail he said, “Being a steward of the land, it was a responsibility. I was entrusted by the people of the state to protect and take care of the land. I was it! That was a part I really enjoyed.” My father was trusted to make the right calls in protecting the natural resources of the great parks of Alaska and that is exactly what he did.
After a decade of serving as a park ranger, working weekends and long hours, it became clear to him as a father of two daughters, that this career, although it had been his dream job since he was a young teen, was at its ending point. He transitioned into a position at the Department of Environmental Conservation as an oil spill responder. Here he was still a steward of the land, but he would not have to work so many weekends and holidays and he could spend more time with our family.
For the past several years my father and I have made it a goal to climb at least one mountain together every summer; most of the time these mountains are part of Chugach State Park. As we embark on these trips it is clear his passion for being a park ranger is deeply instilled in his fundamental makeup. After listening to some of my father’s most enduring memories as a park ranger I’m reminded of his sense of adventure and courage yet again. I’m inspired by my father’s strong commitment to pursuing his dream. Even though he has since moved on from the parks job, his stories will be passed down for generations, and as my mom teases, “Once a park ranger, always a park ranger!”
Article by Shelley Wesser