Park aides sign on for adventure, hard work

State Parks’ park aide jobs attract entry-level explorers, encore careerists and nature lovers

Screaming foxes, fin-slapping whales and creepy-crawlers can ruin a good night’s sleep at Lime Kiln Point, but park aide Elyse Woda didn’t mind.

“The foxes tried to get in my tent,” recalled Woda, who spent part of 2016 as an aide at the San Juan Island state park.

“When I’d chase them off, they’d make this screaming sound.”

Though Woda got used to the foxes, she woke one night to a cacophonic slapping noise on the water. She walked to the rocky shoreline and saw a pod of Gray whales flapping their fins on the water. “It was incredible,” she said.

She also handled a shark carcass and battled mice in the canvas tent she called home, but Woda, now an ecology student at The Evergreen State College, said the proximity to wildlife was the best part of her job.

Washington State Parks employs approximately 400 park aides and 45 senior park aides per season. They work in the desert, in forests, by rivers, lakes and the ocean and in historically significant locations. They tend trails, clean campgrounds, paint signs, staff offices and clean comfort stations. They help rangers and maintenance staff; they participate in interpretive and education programs; they do housekeeping for cabin, yurt and vacation house rentals, and they enforce Discover Pass compliance. Every day is different, and they rarely sit still for long.

Lake Sylvia State Park Aide Chelsea Sendzik had fewer wildlife encounters, but the environmental science grad credits her 2016 job with launching her new career.

“I had struggled to find work in Olympia,” said Sendzik, a former zookeeper and butterfly-rearing intern. Sendzik, a hiker who lives in a cabin, grew up in state parks, so the park aide position caught her eye.

During her eight-month stint at Lake Sylvia, her boss asked about her interests and plans. He also advised on career paths with Parks. “I realized I could become a ranger, do construction and maintenance or interpretive work,” said Sendzik.

When a group of planners arrived at Lake Sylvia to design a pavilion, Sendzik became intrigued. That fall, she accepted a training-level position with the Southwest Region’s environmental planning team, located at Parks’ Tumwater Headquarters.

The right stuff

Park aide jobs attract a diverse group of people, from recent college grads to encore careerists and those re-inventing themselves in midlife. Many park aides take winter jobs and return every spring to their park. Most park aides commute, though others live on-site, in park housing structures. A few choose to live in large tents or private RVs.

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Don Smith, senior park aide at Rockport State Park, lives in park housing with his wife. He is the only year-round employee at this upper Skagit River park known for its old-growth forest.

Smith, 62, has been at Rockport two years and worked as a graphic designer and artist for most of his career. His emotional connection to Rockport goes back more than 40 years, when he worked as Forest Service firefighter near the park to pay for college. In 1989 he and his wife were married at Rockport. “This is my last job,” he said.

He says successful park aides have a passion for parks and are comfortable working outdoors in all weather. They enjoy being active (his least favorite duty is paperwork) and they are quick to learn maintenance tasks using small machinery.

Sendzik and Woda add that good park aides are friendly, but they are not shy about enforcing park rules, and they’re not squeamish.

Sendzik and Woda cleaned restrooms every day at their parks, and they developed a stoic attitude toward their duty. Sendzik said bathroom detail was “pretty routine,” except for a few sewer backups. And one surprising revelation: “When I’m out in public and I go to a restroom now, I think about the person who cleaned it,” she said.

Woda encountered biting ants and wasp nests in the island composting bins, but otherwise said she was, “not grossed out,” by the three-year composting process. “The toilets were human litter boxes,” she said. Everything was recycled, and they smelled better than chemically-treated vault toilets.

In addition to a strong stomach, Sendzik and Woda said park aides need a strong work ethic, as they work independently, sometimes far from other staff (doing trail maintenance, for example).

Growth opportunities abound

While the park aide position is usually seasonal and does not pay a high wage, employees have opportunities to gain valuable skills and connections.

Not only did Sendzik learn the preliminaries of planning and make important contacts, she learned trail and facility maintenance and the ins and outs of customer service.

Woda learned to operate a 28- and 32-foot boats. Her job included caring for nine islands in the San Juan chain. “Luckily, aluminum boats are strong,” she said of her learning curve. By the end of her five-month assignment, she said, “I was zipping in and out.”

She also learned to read tides but did get stuck at least once. “The tide went out very fast that day, and we had to wait,” she recalled.

Smith has initiated several projects at Rockport. When he receives an email to fly the park flags at half-staff, he puts a sign by the flagpole, explaining which hero, victim, holiday or event is being honored. “Otherwise, it (flag lowering) doesn’t mean anything,” he said.

His biggest contribution to Rockport may be his interpretive activities. His community ties have brought in native, edible and medicinal plant specialists and eagle watching groups for in “Discovery” programs at Rockport.

Putting the fun in function

Sendzik remembers her park aide position as fun and, though she works a desk job right now, she says her planner-in-training work is, “very meaningful to me.” Otherwise, she said she would still be outside.

As an artist, Smith has offered to carve and paint a custom walking stick for anyone who hikes 100 miles at Rockport, a challenge, since the park has fewer than 6 miles of trails. “It’s an incentive to bring people back,” said Smith. He has eight “100- milers,” for whom he has made or is making sticks.

Woda recalled hiking up trails and wooden staircases on the islands, hauling supplies and bringing out trash. “I walked about 8 miles a day,” she said. While fall brought spiders into her tent, along with the mice, the experience will go down as a highlight of Woda’s career. She said, simply, “I miss it.”