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Gull Lake park rangers use teamwork to prepare for summer

Published Feb. 15, 2012
The Gull Lake Recreation Area, just north of Brainerd, Minn., has served as a district flood control project for the past 100 years. 

While the dam regulates the water levels on the chain of lakes, the park rangers that oversee the dam’s operations and maintenance take care of more than just the gate adjustments. 

“We are responsible for all of the facilities on the grounds to include the Brainerd Regulatory Office,” said Mary Kay Larson, operations and Gull Lake site manager. From developing and maintaining hiking trails, camp sites other area facilities to managing people and resources, Larson and Brian Turner, operations and park ranger, work as a team to get the job done.

“Brian and I make a good team because we have the same customer focused mentality,” said Larson. 

Turner said the mindset of doing whatever needs to be done has him constantly learning. He said the job requires him to know a little bit about everything, but the one area that he needed to learn on the job was maintenance. In some of the Corps’ bigger parks, rangers specialize in specific programs; recreation, natural resources, interpretation and visitor assistance. The Gull Lake rangers don’t have the staff to specialize so they need to properly balance all the program areas to ensure what is best for the Corps, the natural resources and the public.

Larson said the challenging part is trying to learn enough about all of the tasks because, “If someone is gone, we have to fill in to do it all.” 

The work also involves working very closely with the district’s water control section. Brian Johnson, headwaters water regulator in engineering and construction, said, Gull Lake is regulated within a 3.6-inch level during the summer, or an elevation of 1193.85 feet to 1194.15.

The tight regulations keep the lake elevation constant for much of the summer, but Larson said the shallow shoreline slopes make it appear that the water level is fluctuating more than it actually is. The staff works hard to try and explain the water management process to everyone that asks. “We invite them in,” she said. “We show them how the readings are taken and explain the process on how we regulate to achieve the desired results.” The Gull Lake staff tries to inform the local citizens through the lake association newsletter, too.

Despite the rangers’ willingness to explain the water management, they said some lake and river residents still get frustrated from time to time. To diffuse these situations, Larson said, she sometimes uses tactful humor, and it tends to work well. She said she remembers her old boss always saying that “you can’t have a bad day with the public.”

Bad days aside, the Gull Lake Recreation Area is enjoyed by a large number of visitors annually for just two full time park rangers to manage. Larson said she relies heavily on the college intern program and volunteers. “If we didn’t have them,” she said, “we couldn’t survive.” While the site has a contractor that works half-days cleaning, Larson said the park rangers have developed a lot of ideas to have the campers pitch in. These ideas include seasonal clean up events various and interpretive lessons. “We’ve actually empowered the campers to clean up their own trash,” said Larson. 

Turner said he’s seen a growing national trend toward having outdoor enthusiasts contribute to keeping the environment clean. “It’s actually worked really well for us,” he added.

While the rangers continue to assist visitors to get the most out of their recreational experience, Turner said he enjoys dealing with the public. “I like the variety,” he added. “Every day is something new and you are around people that are recreating, you’re helping people.”

Larson agreed. She said she doesn’t get to spend as much time with the campers as she used to because of her managerial duties, but she said she still enjoys working with people, even if it’s through different avenues such as partnerships and community outreach.
For more information about the Gull Lake Recreation Area or to make camping reservations, visit www.recreation.gov