BAR HARBOR, Maine — Chris Wiebusch’s workdays are often full of ice skating, snowmobiling, hiking, boating or cross-country skiing through Acadia National Park. But on temperate days like Saturday when the sky spits wet, sloppy snow, there aren’t many transportation options for park rangers to choose from aside from driving around in his SUV.
“It’s slushy today. I won’t get anywhere,” Wiebusch said, contemplating his ice skates while looking through his windshield at Eagle Lake.
“Yesterday I skated the whole lake and back.”
As he watched, a man pulled a mint green shack onto the ice. The ice on Eagle Lake just recently thickened enough to attract the fishermen.
Without the possibility of skating, the 45-year-old man with bright blue eyes and a tawny beard counted up the ice shacks — seven — and moved on to check on the rest of the park.
“It’s really quiet in the winter — especially with no snow.”
In the summer, Acadia gets about 2.5 million visitors. So many that the park hires 22 park rangers. But in the off season, Wiebusch is one of seven rangers patrolling the park — essentially a tiny police department. It’s not clear how many people visit the park in the winter, but as of Saturday morning, they were few and far between. It’s been like that all winter, according to Wiebusch.
“Usually the carriage roads would be groomed for cross-country skiing,” he said at the bottom of Parkman Mountain, a popular entry point to the trails. “This parking lot would be packed. There are only two walkers today.”
Indeed, two sets of footprints in the blotchy snow led from a single car to a path labeled as a cross-country trail.
“No dog,” Wiebusch said.
Dog-off-leash violations are a lot of Wiebusch’s job. He also must make sure all gates to closed roads are in place, that the park’s buildings are not vandalized and he is on-call for any emergencies within the park, such as when a woman who fell and injured herself on Mansell Mountain last Wednesday . That woman crawled down the mountain for seven hours before the park rangers were notified by her friends that she might be in trouble. Once they were told, they found the woman in about 10 minutes.
“She was two-tenths of a mile from the parking lot,” Wiebusch said. “Yeah. This job can go from very stressful to quiet. You go from not seeing anybody in the winter to being so busy in the summer. I like winter better. I like winter activities.”
In the park, on snowy years, he sees dog sleds, skiers, fishermen and horse-drawn sleighs. And, at Sand Beach, an occasional surfer — surfing is only allowed in the park in the off-season.
When he pulled into the parking lot at Sand Beach on Saturday he slowed down to look at the license plate on the single car in a lot.
“You get to know people by their cars. This person is from Massachusetts,” he said, pausing. “We better go check on them.”
On the beach two sets of footprints led to the Great Head trail.
“No dog,” he said.
With that, Wiebusch headed to the bathrooms to make sure they had toilet paper and no graffiti. Check and check.
Part of Wiebusch’s job is a lot like being a nosey — albeit helpful — neighbor. He notices what people are wearing, if they have backpacks and water and boots. He will note their car and where they are going. He knows if a visitor has a dog, if it’s on a leash and if they plan on camping in the park. When tourists have questions, such as which trail they should hike or the history of a particular spot, he answers them.
Saturday, as Wiebusch pulled his SUV into a parking lot at Jordan Pond a deer looked at him and shook its tail. Wiebusch got out of the truck and followed a snow-covered trail to the pond, wondering whose pickup was in the parking lot. When he reached the ice the only thing he could see through the snow was a blurry outline of a man in dark clothes.
“Oh yup, he’s out there ice fishing. Looks like he is jigging on a bucket,” Wiebusch said. Most of the fishermen who jig sit on buckets or plastic chairs for hours, he said. “I could go check his license, but people are pretty good about it.” The ice looked dark and the pond wasn’t totally frozen. “He’s safe out there. But I wouldn’t go further.”
Wiebusch teaches ice safety classes to other rangers. He carries ice picks in his belt just in case he ever falls through. He doesn’t fish anymore, but he used to when he was a little boy.
“I was a Boy Scout. I worked at Boy Scout camp for seven years in a row. I’ve always been outside. I don’t have a computer at home,” he said.
When he isn’t at work, ice skating around ponds checking on the environment and fishermen, he and his wife go ice skating in Acadia. Or they kayak a little closer to their home in Franklin if it’s nice enough weather.
“I get to live my dream job. Not many people get to do that. Especially these days.”