In this interview series, I’m going to introduce you to park rangers across the United States. Today’s post features Roberta Andruska, a climbing ranger at City of Rocks National Reserve and Castle Rocks State Park.

Park ranger Roberta teaches a young student how to climb.

What is your name and job title?

My name is Roberta Andruska. I’m the Climbing Ranger at City of Rocks National Reserve and Castle Rocks State Park near Almo, Idaho.

Is this the first National Park you’ve worked at? If not, tell me what other parks/nature centers you’ve worked at. 

I’ve worked within the National Park Service since 2000, but I had my first experience living in a National Park at 13 years old. My dad retired from his career in water treatment and moved our family to Isle Royale National Park, an island in Lake Superior closest to Canada and Minnesota.

No cars or pets are allowed on the island. As a result, we got around by walking, kayaking, canoeing, sailing or motor boating. And there were no cell phone service at that time unless I hiked four miles one way to the top of a ridge. It usually hit a Canada tower and that ended up being quite a bill … sorry, mom! There was one party line shared among 20 employees as long as you had a calling card and it had to be after visitor center hours.

Food arrived every two weeks by boat that was ordered from Houghton, Michigan. My parents learned to order specific things like milk, cheese and meat to come frozen. Otherwise, we ended up with a few rotten things. Besides the learning curve of living on an isolated island, living my teen years on Isle Royale was the best thing that happened to me. It gave me such an appreciation for wilderness and its untouched beauty.

I remember sitting at one of the amphitheaters in the woods with 20-foot ferns around me and soaking my feet in a small creek. I journaled and drew everything I saw in my little book. While there, I worked at the Windigo Store and Visitor Center and gave talks about the Artist-in-Residence Program that featured our current artist. Campers hiked the two miles from the campground in the evening to attend the program at the visitor center. We watched the sun set over the Windigo Harbor together as our evening entertainment. Sometimes the moose, with her calf, would be there for us to watch. This is where my love for moose began.

My brother and I had some great adventures kayaking around the harbor and fishing for lake trout. We would often catch a ride on one of the park boats around to the other end of the island and stay with other park families with kids. Then, we would catch another boat home in a week or two. Oftentimes, we would hear that a boat was coming so we only had an hour or two to get packed up for an unknown.

In 2006, we moved to Rocky Mountain National Park in Estes Park, Colorado, and this was our first time to the mountains. What a sight it was to drive up the Big Thompson Canyon and then have the Rocky Mountain range standing there with those snow-capped peaks before us. My brother and I really picked up hiking and rock climbing during the six years we lived in Estes Park. My most memorable hike in Rocky Mountain was the summer of 2009 that involved a stay at Thunder Lake. I hiked with two girls I grew up with from Illinois who had road tripped out west to come to visit me.

Before the hike, I allowed a few days to let them get use to the altitude. The following morning, we hiked/scrambled over the Boulder-Grand Divide then dropped down to the west side of the park to Grand Lake. The weather was right so we went for it. I had friends working on the other side of the park so we got a ride from the Kawuneeche Visitor Center over Trail Ridge Road to Alpine Visitor Center where my parents picked us up and took us back to Wild Basin. We hiked a total of about 30 miles in two days!

There are tons of amazing climbing around Estes Park and I really had the chance to grow my skills climbing outdoors. In 2011, I took a job at Grand Teton National Park working at the Moran entrance gate. I lived in the old ranger cabin at Willow Flats Overlook and had the best view of Mount Moran out my kitchen window. The grizzly bear, 610, had her den somewhere behind my cabin that year. I watched her and her three cubs safely from the kitchen as they passed by in the morning on their way down to Jackson Lake. That was the summer my best friend proposed to me at Morning Glory Spire in Yellowstone. We bought an Airstream to live in and moved back to Rocky Mountain to get married in 2012.

I worked at Moraine Park Campground and Aspenglen Campground for the next two years. My brother landed a job on the roads crew at Rocky Mountain and is still there. In 2014, my husband took a job in Idaho and I landed a seasonal park ranger position at City of Rocks. In the spring of 2016, the year of the National Park Service Centennial, I applied and was offered a dream job as the Climbing Ranger for City of Rocks National Reserve and Castle Rocks State Park.

Where did you grow up? In the country, a city or a suburb? 

I grew up in Galesburg, Illinois, in a neighborhood named after national parks. My family owned 100 acres of woods. It was a walnut tree farm with a pond and a creek north of town. My brother and I would visit with our parents to hunt, fish, camp and explore. My parents planted a series of trees in a few rows as a wind break at the edge of our property. As a result, leaves couldn’t grow in the center without sunlight and so “The Tunnels” was created. My brother and I used this area as a fort and had epic adventures together.

When we were in junior high and into high school, we had a climbing wall that my dad helped us build in the backyard. Consequently, it took a life of its own as the wall grew up the side of our tree fort and spread out on to other nearby trees. Our parents always knew where to find us. If we weren’t in bed, we were sleeping outside under the climbing wall, exhausted after working a new route.

What did you love about the outdoors as a child? 

I loved the sounds, smells and the quiet peace I felt as the birds and deer grew used to my presence. It was amazing to watch them go about their day and allow me to watch their natural behavior. And I loved to catch tadpoles, name them and bring them home to watch them grow legs in an aquarium. Then, we would take them back to the tree farm and release them.

When did you know you wanted to work in outdoor education? 

I don’t know if I ever realized I wanted to work in the outdoor industry. I just always enjoyed being outside. One winter, I worked for a medical supply company entering product data into a spreadsheet. I sat in a cubical for three months and at the end of my probation period, they let me go. I thanked them for the opportunity for me to learn that I’m not very good at a desk job!

Who encouraged you to pursue a career in outdoor education? 

My parents always told me growing up I could be whatever I wanted to be. I just needed to be honest, hardworking, reliable and never give up. Admitting when you’re wrong has been the biggest growth in my life. You don’t have to always be right … just humble enough to admit it. Being outdoors has lots of opportunities to get you hurt or killed. Recognizing the risk and acting accordingly has prevented me from entering many dangerous situations.

Park ranger Roberta smiles with her family.

What is the most common question you get from park visitors? 

Park visitors ask most where the great places are to take their kids climbing. I love this question! I try to feel out what level of climbing the parents are before responding. There are many places to set up a top rope if the adult knows how to build an anchor.  And there are many more places if the adults can lead climb and are willing to walk a bit further away from the road. I love the memory that this family activity grows in children. It’s giving them an appreciation for wild places from an early age.

How can parents raise kids to love the outdoors? 

Parents don’t need to travel long distances to teach their kids about the outdoors. Start in your backyard. Plant native plants in your landscaping and watch them grow. Living in Illinois, my brother and I had our own 10-foot-by-10-foot native prairie that we burned every spring. Since we lived within the city limits, the fire department came over to keep an eye on things, and the neighbors would come over for “The Big Burn.” Get a reference book and see what native butterflies and insects live in your yard. Have a fish tank. I think adding the small things that children can see every day starts their curiosity for what’s beyond their own backyard.

Anything else you want to share about your job or what you love about nature/being outside? 

I love meeting new people; many are visiting our area for the first time. It’s great to see people get outside with their families and see what our country has to offer. There are many beautiful places around the world to visit but we truly have quite the variety of natural, cultural and historical sites right here at home. There’s something that everyone can connect with.

In addition, I’d recommend keeping safety as a first concern in the outdoors. You ask your children to buckle up and know what to do in case the house catches on fire; likewise, make an emergency plan if you get separated on the trail. If someone gets a cut, make sure everyone knows where the first aid kit is or let everyone have a small kit of their own. Dress in layers. Weather can change dramatically in a short period of time. There are still many places that cell phones won’t work. Take a wilderness first aid class to be prepared in the event of an emergency.

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