This is an exciting time of year at Colorado Parks and Wildlife when a new class of trainees is sworn in as rangers and get their park assignments.

It’s kind of like speed dating. CPW park managers like me try to find newly minted rangers who expressed a preference for working in their parks. I went through this match-making process 11 years ago and ended up starting my career at Lake Pueblo State Park. I chose it because it was home and I had family in the area.

Others base their choices on geography or on the parks that have activities that interest them. With 41 state parks in Colorado, there’s an awful lot to offer prospective park rangers.

If they like water, they might choose Cherry Creek, Lathrop, Barr Lake or John Martin Reservoir. If they like whitewater, the Arkansas Headwaters is the obvious choice.

If they prefer the serenity of the high country, they might opt for more out-of-the-way places like Mueller near Divide or my parks, Eleven Mile and Spinney Mountain in Park County.

Or they may prefer the excitement of parks in urban settings and choose parks like Cheyenne Mountain outside Colorado Springs, where I last worked, or Chatfield and Cherry Creek in Denver.

If you are wondering whether there’s really that much difference in the different parks, trust me. A busy weekend, such as Labor Day, is much different at Lake Pueblo, Chatfield or Cherry Creek as compared to Eleven Mile.

I compared notes with my friend Jason Trujillo, park manager at Cherry Creek State Park. The contrast of our last Labor Day weekends really illustrates the variety of assignments available to prospective park rangers.

Both Eleven Mile and Cherry Creek have lakes and campgrounds. But that’s about where the similarities end. Eleven Mile is an isolated, high-country park in a rural setting, while Cherry Creek is part of a bustling metropolis that ranks among our most-visited parks each year.

Due to the crush of visitors at Cherry Creek, Jason has a staff three times bigger than my staff at Eleven Mile.

My Labor Day involved full campgrounds, fire restrictions and a lake full of boaters. But most of our activity ended by mid-afternoon as visitors left for home. We made no arrests all weekend and only wrote a few tickets for rules violations. I worked my normal shift and was home at a normal time.

There was little “normal” about Jason’s Labor Day weekend.

Record heat seemed to bring everyone in Denver out to the water. Park trash Dumpsters were so full that park technicians used a backhoe to smash and compress the trash in them until they could be emptied.

Early on there was a 911 call for a visitor who suffered a compound fracture while hiking on a park trail, requiring first responders to respond and take him away.

The incident caused Jason to put his staff on alert, or “DEFCON 4” as he calls it, referring to the military’s scale for disaster readiness with DEFCON 1 as the highest threat level.

Visitation climbed steadily all day, and by 3:30 p.m. – the time Eleven Mile was emptying and I was headed home – Jason’s park was still filling with guests.

“I could see that we were teetering on the edge of park capacity,” Jason told me, noting he was scheduled to get off work at 3:30 p.m. “But just before my shift was to end, the park reached capacity. So my ranger staff rushed around to close gates and organize our capacity traffic plan.”

Confident his staff was in control and with things relatively calm, Jason said he contemplated heading home.

“I had a silly thought that maybe I could end my shift,” he said.

But before he could call it a day, another 911 call came in reporting 30 people fighting at the swim beach with chairs being thrown. Suddenly, everything had changed.

“DEFCON 1 activated,” Jason said, describing how he turned his SUV toward the swim beach, activated his emergency signals and made his way through park traffic to the scene.

Jason decided to make a dramatic entrance, roaring up to the beach with his lights flashing and sirens blaring in hopes of intimidating and distracting the brawling guests. It worked.

“I could see that all visitors put their attention on me for a brief moment,” he said. “Maybe they thought I was crazier than the people they were fighting. The fighting stopped.”

Quickly, however, the combatants resumed yelling at each other so Jason grabbed his loudspeaker and ordered them to back away from each other. Then he began scanning for a victim and instigator and saw cellphone cameras pointing at him from all around. Would this be his viral YouTube moment?

To his relief, Jason also quickly saw the arrival of park rangers in tan shirts and gold badges behind the crowd, taking up tactical positions.

At that point, Jason went from first responder to teacher. Remember those park trainees I mentioned earlier? This was a perfect time, Jason said, to let his trainees learn about crowd control.

“What a great live scenario to receive as a trainee, right?” he said, describing how his rangers separated the fighting parties and calmed the crowd.

“I began to enjoy the moment as I observed staff develop rapport with both parties, tend to minor injuries, speak with witnesses and lighten the mood,” he said. “I was more than proud of how the scene was being handled.”

He was particularly proud when one of his ranger trainees stepped up and convinced the two groups to leave the park rather than face potential criminal charges.

But Jason’s Labor Day excitement wasn’t done. Within 10 minutes of diffusing the fight, a disturbance erupted at the marina with intoxicated boaters. Next, a DUI stop was initiated and a protection order violation came in almost simultaneously.

Eventually, things calmed down and Jason was able to end his long Labor Day, which was admittedly more exciting than normal. It reminded me of my time at Lake Pueblo, which experiences similar crowds and craziness at times. Those days were fun, actually, when I was younger and had a fresh shine on my own badge.

These days I’m happy with the serenity of Eleven Mile and Spinney Mountain. And it shows that with 41 parks, you can usually find what interests you.

As for Jason, he is content with his exciting park, even when it hits DEFCON 1. He better be because I am sure he will see it again, and again.

It made me wonder what the DEFCON level was at his home when he finally arrived. He had been too busy to let his wife know he was going to be late, so her mind must have been racing with possibilities.

Law enforcement spouses have their own DEFCON levels, I don’t know which one is easier. Just one more thing for our new park rangers to learn.

If you have general questions about Colorado Parks and Wildlife, email Darcy at AskARanger@state.co.us. Darcy may answer it in a future column.

But if you have an immediate question about wildlife or a state park, call the nearest CPW office in your community. For CPW office locations and contact information, visit cpw.state.co.us/aboutus/Pages/ContactUs.aspx.

Darcy Mount is park manager at Eleven Mile State Park in Lake George.

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