A CHANGING OF THE RANGERS
By ANDREW MCGINN
Joe Allen was 12 or 13 when a park ranger in Colorado saw him chasing a lizard.
The ranger saw a teachable moment — kids from Iowa clearly never see lizards running wild — and told him all about it.
“I always remembered that,” Allen explained.
That’s the kind of park ranger he wants to be at Spring Lake.
As the park’s first new ranger in 40 years, Allen hopes to impart what wisdom he can on the younger generation — a statement that gave him pause recently.
“It’s hard to think about the younger generation,” he confessed with a chuckle, “because I’m not old yet.”
At 27, Allen is equally at home gaming — he sports two “Zelda” tattoos on his upper back — as he is hunting. He’s a digital native who loves to talk about native plant and animal life.
“I’m a nerd with nature,” he said.
This year marks Spring Lake’s 50th under county ownership, leaving Allen to position the county’s most popular park for the next 50.
“It’s always time for some new blood and new thoughts,” said Dan Towers, county conservation director.
A native of Marion, near Cedar Rapids, Allen succeeds Pat Soukup as Spring Lake’s resident park ranger. Soukup retired just shy of 40 years on the job.
Soukup cared for the 240-acre park northeast of Jefferson “like it was his own,” Towers said.
“It wasn’t just a job. That was his life,” Towers said. “He about never left the park.”
Spring Lake has since gone from a park with 30 campsites and only pit latrines to a place with 121 campsites, two cabins that can sleep eight people apiece and modern shower houses.
A disc golf course is in its second season.
The park now generates $160,000 annually for the county in camping revenue, Towers said, with the majority of campers (80 percent) coming from outside Greene County.
Built in recent years, the two cabins are booked a year in advance for weekends in the summer.
New this year is the park’s online reservation system, allowing visitors to reserve 20 of the campsites before they even roll in.
“Even for myself, you drag your feet,” Towers said of online reservations. “It’s something new.”
Towers, 63, said that Allen represents a new breed of park ranger — today’s park rangers are more like naturalists than his generation, most of whom were primarily just farm boys who grew up hunting and fishing.
“It’s a different type of person now,” he said.
Allen — who happens to be an avid duck hunter who grew up in the country — has ideas for programs at Spring Lake, from nature walks to movie nights.
“I’ve got some new ideas floating around,” Allen said.
Allen graduated from Iowa State University in 2014 with a degree in forestry, but with a focus on interpretation, which prepared him to teach others about nature. He even hopes to take Spring Lake out of Spring Lake and into local classrooms, if asked.
Soukup physically gave his all to Spring Lake for almost 40 years, but it’s entirely possible you never heard him speak two words.
“He was just the guy on the mower or the tractor,” Towers said.
Allen thinks back to the influence park rangers have had on him.
Growing up, his family camped nearly every weekend at Sugar Bottom, a campground in eastern Iowa managed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
Allen remembers a ranger with a tattoo of an oak leaf on his arm. When asked about it, the ranger made sure to point out that type of oak — a white oak — to Allen and explained how impossibly long (over 100 years) the tree had been standing.
It left an impression on a kid of 6.
“That made me want to go camping more,” he said.
“That’s why I’m sitting here,” he added.
However, Allen’s job goes far beyond just communing with nature.
Allen spent the first 15 weeks of his new job attending the Iowa Law Enforcement Academy at Camp Dodge in Johnston.
“It was very strict,” he observed.
He graduated April 19 as a certified peace officer, giving him the power to arrest and the right to carry weapons. Admittedly, his bulletproof vest isn’t real conducive to park maintenance.
But the bottom line is, at Spring Lake, Allen is the authority.
“I’m not out to ruin someone’s day,” he said. “I want to better protect the resources Greene County has for people to enjoy.”
Fishing these days at Spring Lake is just OK, according to Towers, as long as you’re not trying to fill the freezer. Bluegills, catfish and bass populate the lake, a former gravel pit.
When the park first opened back in 1924 as a privately owned summer resort, reports of northern pike weighing as much as 13 pounds were common.
In 1979, with aquatic vegetation threatening to choke off the beach, grass carp were added to the lake by the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, Towers said, resulting in fewer weeds. But other fish needed that same vegetation for habitat.
Allen resides at the park with girlfriend Corinne Wetzel, who found a job in the area as editor of the Ogden newspaper.
They met in Wyoming while working as wildland firefighters.
For Allen, who spent four years fighting wildfires in the high desert of southwest Wyoming, Spring Lake feels more like home than anything since he left Iowa.
Allen initially learned about fire management his senior year of college while working at the Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge east of Des Moines.
Not long after graduation, Allen was in Oregon on a 20-person hand crew during fire season.
That led to a job as a firefighter with the Bureau of Land Management in Rock Springs, Wyo.
Last summer, while still only in his mid-20s, he found that his knees were already starting to hurt from the days spent hiking with a fire pack and a chain saw.
Last summer alone, Allen worked 33 days in a row, working an average of 15-16 hours a day.
“Those are hard days,” he said. “You don’t have a life outside of fires.”
Weeks passed between showers.
“I gained a really hard work ethic because of it,” he said.
But at the end of the season, concerned that fighting wildfires was taking its toll, Allen decided to seek greener pastures.
Like, literally — he was thrilled to see morels growing in his front yard recently at Spring Lake.
Allen said he was sold on Spring Lake when he came for the job interview in October.
The notion that he could have a disc golf course in his backyard didn’t hurt.
“It was like, ‘I’m finally back. This is it,’” he said. “It felt right.”
He said he’s still familiarizing himself with the birds at Spring Lake.
So if you drive by and see him on his phone, don’t grumble about “millennials” — he has an Audubon app on his phone.
“Kids,” Allen explained, “are going to respond better to that than, ‘Here, let me show you this book, it’s 1,000 pages.’”