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By Gerry Smith

Sitting in a white pickup truck before dawn, Gordey Reimann is going over records of sea turtle nests on the beaches of Talbot Island State Park. Reimann, a retired Naval officer who worked as ground personnel for Delta from 1977 to 2000, is a part-time OPS and is about to begin daily "turtle patrol," where he will record any new nests that have formed or current nests that have hatched overnight.

Loggerhead sea turtles are an endangered species and protected by the state. Each nest is marked in the sand with three stakes and a sign that says "Do Not Disturb." Rangers are doing the best they can to protect them, Reimann said, but are also careful to let nature run its course. Ghost crabs, which scatter in every direction to avoid Reimann's truck, prey on the nests of sea turtle.

The four-wheel drive pickup truck fishtails in the thick sand as Reimann patrols the five miles of beach on Little Talbot Island. It's 6:30 a.m., and except for the moon and a few stars, Reimann's headlights are the only light for miles. This is imperative for protecting the turtles, which instinctively head toward the first light they see after hatching. If any light from the dunes outshines the moonlit ocean, newborn turtles may head in the wrong direction and die before ever taking their first swim.

Sea turtle nesting season lasts from May 15 to Aug 30, during which female turtles can lay between 80 to 120 eggs. After a ranger finds a new nest, he projects 55 days ahead to get an idea of when they will hatch. The rangers have marked off the beach in zones A through I to organize the 42 nests that have been recorded this season. On this morning in late August, as the sun begins to rise over the horizon and the sky takes an orange glow, Reimann doesn't seem to mind that there has not been any turtle activity overnight.

"I consider this a privilege," Reimann said of dawn turtle patrol. "People would kill to have a working environment like this."

As Reimann drives along the shoreline, he is looking for "turtle crawls," which are small turtle tracks in the sand that begin at the dunes, where most nests are made, and head toward the ocean. But today's patrol is more difficult after a squall hits the beach at 7:30 a.m. The rain lasts only a few minutes, but obliterates any tracks that might have been made overnight. Now, Reimann can only identify a hatched nest by walking up to each nest and looking for a crater in the sand where the eggs were once buried.

Although the morning was uneventful, Reimann remembers another time when he and Aaron Rodriguez, an assistant park manager, found a newborn turtle, the size of a silver dollar, lying on its shell. The baby turtle, Reimann said, was disoriented, dried out, and exhausted from struggling to get up. After he and Rodriguez carried it across the dunes and got it back on its feet, the turtle's biological instincts took over. Reimann remembers how it headed straight for the water, came up once for air, then disappeared into the surf.

Reimann is one of seven OPS at the park, a position that has similar duties to a park ranger, but does not receive benefits. Often, an OPS will use his immersion experience in the field as a stepping stone to becoming a park ranger.

The park rangers' mission statement is "to provide resource-based recreation while preserving, interpreting, and restoring natural and cultural resources." Interpretation, most rangers agree, is perhaps the most important aspect of their job. They see it as an integral part of the visitor's experience, with the theory that an educated park visitor will also be a respectful one.

"It's all about creating stewardship with the visitors," said Nathan Rezeau, a park services specialist. "If you can get people on your side, they'll help protect the park for you."

There are eight full-time rangers, who provide various visitor programs that they create based on their own initiative and passions.

"The programs reflect the special interests of our staff," Rezeau said.

Rezeau, an avid surfer, occasionally gives a program on sharks. He said he tries to adapt the style of his program to fit his audience, limiting the scientific information in his talks with children, he said, whose short attention spans are best kept with "oohs and ahhs." Other programs range from kayaking and fishing skills to an outdoor gourmet cooking program. The rangers post flyers about the programs, which take place every weekend during the year and on Wednesdays during the school year.

Aaron Rodriguez, an assistant park manager, said that the park's programs are as diverse as the people who work there, and that rangers are encouraged to be creative in developing programs.

"I always tell them that anything from the moon to the marsh, if you can connect it to the park, it would make a great program," Rodriguez said.

On the road to Ribault Club, located near the Kingsley Plantation, the rangers have recently developed an interactive audio CD that visitors can play in their car. Signs along the road mark each tour stop on the CD, called "Virtual Ranger," which details the 6,000 year history of Ft. George Island.

The rangers take great pride in keeping the park open 365 days a year, but to do so, they spend a great deal of time behind the scenes. Park maintenance is constant and sometimes tedious. Rangers are responsible for almost everything at the park, from monitoring the chlorine and pH level of the park's nine Artesian wells to troubleshooting during frequent power outages. They maintain the more than 60 cultural sites, 40 campground sites, and 13 picnic pavilions. Sometimes, rangers serve as carpenters, as wood from the five ΒΌ-mile long boardwalks deteriorates over time and needs replacing. Other times, they serve as janitors, a job often undesirable, but also the most noticeable.

"Bathrooms are actually the No. 1 thing we get comments on," said Kathleen Kelso, an assistant park manager.

Most rangers are drawn to the field because of a love for science and the outdoors, which Kelso found at an early age visiting parks in the summer with her family in Canada. She remembers lining up at night with other campers, flashlight in hand, to listen to the park ranger give a talk. Kelso said she can see the same feeling of awe on the faces of children she meets today, who like to ask her how many snakes she sees each year.

Kelso, who has a degree in environmental science and geography, moved from Canada to become a ranger at Talbot Islands State Park three years ago, and was recently promoted to assistant park manager. She is part of a panel that selects new park rangers, and said she looks for people who have skills in visitor service, interpretation, park protection, administration, and maintenance, as well as a college degree and CPR training. On average, the park receives about 100 applications per vacancy, and most positions are filled by candidates with degrees, or by those with a prior experience in the field of natural resource management. But certain intangibles, like the ability to adapt quickly, Kelso said, are invaluable.

"Sometimes, as a ranger, you have to figure out the parameters when parameters aren't given," she said. "I'm looking for someone who doesn't just solve problems on a case by case basis, but can suggest long-term improvements to get rid of that problem before it happens again."

At 8 a.m., on the way back from turtle patrol, Reimann raises the American flag and the state flag of Florida outside the park gate. Then he goes to various other park access points to unlock the gates and collect visitor fees from "honor boxes."

Driving along A1A, he spots a dead armadillo and pulls over. Road kill, he said, is inevitable in a park divided by a highway. Sometimes, if a rare animal is found, they are restored and used in illustrated talks called "Talbot Critters," which rangers give to show visitors the diversity of the park's wildlife and the impact human beings can have on the animals' habitat. *

A thick booklet serves as the park's operation manual, but rangers try not to enforce the rules in a heavy-handed way. Instead, by explaining the reason why a rule exists, rangers try to show visitors why walking on the dunes can cause erosion; that picking plants causes them to lose their archaeological meaning; or that turtles and whales can die if they mistake floating trash bags for jellyfish.

Occasionally, the menial routine of park preservation and maintenance is interrupted by an extraordinary event. Kelso remembers one day when she spent two hours keeping water out of the blowhole of a beached Pygmy Sperm Whale.

"Those are the gems along a career that don't happen every day," Kelso said. "Those moments pull you through the 6,000 twilights."

In January 2005, a Northern Right Whale beached itself on Little Talbot Island, but could not be saved and was buried near the dunes. Sometimes, lightning strikes in the woods and starts a fire, which most rangers are trained to handle.

But stranger things have happened at the park that have nothing to do with Mother Nature. Ever since a site on the Internet falsely declared Big Talbot Island a nudist beach, rangers have occasionally had to tell nude sunbather to put their clothes back on. A local gang used to steal cars and then discard them on the park's beaches. There have been two suicides at the park, and a man once killed his wife and buried her on a deserted golf course near the park.

The unusual is part of what drew Ed Strickland to become a park ranger. Strickland, who has been a range at Talbot since 1993 and in the Florida State Park Service since 1989, said that "no two days are alike."

Strickland said he was living "paycheck to paycheck" as a ranger before making some profitable real-estate investments. (A recent job posting for a ranger position offered a monthly income of $1931.81.) But he still echoed the sentiments of every ranger I spoke with, insisting that the diversity of the job outweighs any financial hardship.

On the day we met, he was sitting at the front desk of the Ribault Club, staying cool on a hot August afternoon. He had just finished putting another coat of paint on the outside shutters of the building the day before, and as he began listing the many different roles he has played in his job, I began to think that MacGyver would have made a good park ranger. From carpenter to plumber to electrician, Strickland said that his job description gets longer every day. And with each new assignment, he still takes a moment to pinch himself.

"My office is a 4-wheel drive truck and I work on 6,000 of the prettiest acres God ever put on this earth," he said. "Sometimes I think, 'Wow, I'm actually getting paid for this.'"