firefighting practice
DRILL - Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District ranger attend wildland firefighting exercises. (Chris Barresi / Midpen)

Just three miles south—or 11 minutes away—from downtown Los Gatos, we have Bear Creek Redwoods Open Space Preserve, nearly 1,500 acres of unbridled nature. It features six miles of hiking and equestrian trails that meander along perennial creeks. This acreage was acquired for us through Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District (Midpen), their nonprofit partner Peninsula Open Space Trust (POST), grassroot supporters and a coalition of environmental advocates. In 1999, POST purchased this property to protect it for us to enjoy.

Midpen’s motto is: “Together We Care for the Land that Cares for Us.” And they do care for us. It takes a strong belief in respecting the land to become a ranger with the organization. Rangers also educate the general population on caring for our open spaces.

Midpen ranger
AT THE PINNACLE – Midpeninsula Regional Open Space Preserve Lead Ranger Alex Hapke is passionate about environmental stewardship. (Dinah Cotton / Los Gatan)

Last week, I caught up with Lead Ranger Alex Hapke at Midpen’s Skyline Field Office, located just off State Route 35—also known as Skyline Road. It looks a bit like the Mash headquarters without tents. I head to the training and meeting building, where Rolo the pet gopher snake greets me in the lobby. Outside, a water tower stands next to some serious-looking trucks with tanks. There are mowers for maintaining trails next to equipment for repairs. Nearby, the Alpine Pond is a hands-on nature center, a popular school field trip destination.

Hapke, 44, first became interested in working outdoors at a young age. “Having hiked the John Muir Trail at 21 (located almost, entirely, in Yosemite National Park), I realized that I wanted to be a park ranger, and so I went through multiple colleges to get a degree in forestry with the intention to become a park ranger,” he said. “When I went to the academy, it was 12-13 weeks of training.” It’s a grueling process, and many do not make it to the finish line. The “defensive tactics” training is quite challenging, for one, he notes.

Afterwards, Hapke attended the Santa Rosa Academy, “—which has since closed so now we are sending folks to the Colorado Academy,” he said. Rangers are certainly more qualified than many may presume. So, first a bachelor’s degree in a related field, then successful completion at the Park Ranger Law Enforcement Academy Training Program. Specific Basic Training and Land Management Police Training courses take about 18 weeks.

To become a park ranger with Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District, a four-year degree is not necessary. New recruits must have the equivalent of an associate degree or 60 units and a year of customer service experience. Park and public safety experience is desired but not required.

“We are trained in a week-long fire academy training, where you learn how to do wildland firefighting,” Hapke said. “My patrol truck is basically a four-wheel drive engine. Fighting fires is part of the job. We also train locally in firefighting after the Academy. We are put through situations that will come in handy when we are out in the field.”

Rangers are expected to conduct tours, help injured hikers or locate missing people, and they are trained to the Emergency Medical Responder level. “I am usually the first responder at an event,” Hapke said. “It is important for me to know how to prepare for the next level of medical treatment.” Rangers are also taught how to properly collect data on wildlife and plants. A candidate receives on-the-job training, and continues to add to their knowledge under the guidance of more experienced employees. “We learn how to be safe out there, learning different techniques in the field,” he said. “There is a big advantage to training with seasoned rangers.” A new trainee is required to study under four field training officers, spending three weeks with each. “You have to go through certain steps with each of these, to then show that you understand and can carry out policy and be a good representative of the District,” Hapke added.

YOUNG ONE – Rangers see plenty of flora and fauna while at work. (Photo by Karl Gohl)

There’s also the enforcement aspect, though rangers don’t carry guns. The most common violations are related to dogs and bicycles being in enclosed locations, where they are not allowed. “We have 27 preserves, and the publicly-elected board chooses what can be done where,” he said. “At one preserve, dogs are allowed to be off-leash in a designated area. There are other areas where dogs must be on a leash—and some areas where they are not allowed.” Electric bikes are allowed at Rancho San Antonio, on the paved trails, and at Ravenswood on the paved trails. Hapke points out it’s better to learn the rules beforehand, instead of having to have an awkward conversation with a ranger.

I asked Hapke what a typical day would be like. Depends on the day, he replies. “On a weekday, we are general rangers, so we do maintenance projects. We make sure signs are maintained, fences are still standing and visible. Right now, it is brushing season.” He means paring back grasses and other vegetation obstructing sign visibility. And there’s always plenty of trail work to complete. “I make sure locks and chains are in good condition, and that they are in sequence—and well lubricated,” he said. On a weekend, as the visitors flock to the parks, he tries to be more visible, patrolling on foot, having conversations with the recreators.

After 17 years, Hapke still loves his job. “The kids today seem to transition through several careers,” he said. “For me, it took me a while to decide that I wanted this as a career. I am doing what I want.” Hapke even cares for his uniform himself, pressing it into regulation appearance. “This is a career that requires dedication and a passion to serve and protect,” he said. “I felt this desire on my hike along the John Muir Trail. And it continues as my passion today.”  

And, if it’s your heart’s desire as well, you, too, could embark on the journey to become a ranger.

You can drop by the Midpen administration office at 5050 El Camino Real, Los Altos, and pick-up a detailed preserve brochure, or view it online:

If you’re looking for a job as a ranger, you can apply online through CalOpps:

*This article has been updated to clarify the minimum requirements for prospective Midpen rangers.

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