Kristen Lodge: Longtime Rocky Mountain National Park rangers share stories
Grand County, CO Colorado
Jim Caretti and Jeff Hodge have been seasonal park rangers in Rocky Mountain National Park for longer than 30 years.
Jeff started his seasonal career as a campground ranger in 1971 until he was told patrolling was more exciting and the following year became a law enforcement ranger.
Jim began as backcountry ranger and his duties included patrolling the backcountry for a week at a time. Now, they both do everything from search and rescue to law enforcement.
Jeff says that back in the early ’70s it took an entire shift to patrol the park since the park’s boundaries ended as far south as Willow Creek and included all three lakes. After the Yosemite Riots in 1976, park rangers started to receive more law enforcement training; and their jobs changed once again.
“We were even deputized in Grand County,” Jeff says.
Every summer they would bring their families to the park and their relationship grew.
Jim says, “Our friendship developed over the years. We are best friends. I live in Alabama and Jeff lives in Illinois. Some winters we would meet in different places around the country.
“We would consult with fellow rangers and talk to college students about what it is really like being a National Park Ranger,” he adds. “I tell my students to find something you love to do and figure out a way to make a living at it.”
What keeps Jim motivated to come back each year and make the cross country trek to Rocky Mountain National Park?
“I love what I do.”
He retired from school teaching in 2001 and now spends six months each summer as a ranger.
“I raised my family here. This park has such a family atmosphere. We work, we play and support each other. ”
Jeff says, “The mountains are addictive and draw you back.”
Get these two men in a room and the stories just keep coming.
I want to know if the stories about potluck dinner meals are true. They are known to have dinners with “exotic main dishes.”
“The dinners started out small, just rangers and their families,” Jim says. “Then volunteers started attending. Jeff would cook geese or beaver that he trapped in Illinois. At first he didn’t tell anyone what the meat was, but after introducing some “exotic” food to other employees, he had to be more forthcoming.
“Jeff has cooked turtle, tongue, and elk liver and tells me the story of how RMNP employee Shannon Olmstead came to one dinner and tried the tongue. … She is a vegetarian now.”
Jeff’s exotic meal advice, “The key to cooking geese and squirrel is to cook them in a pressure cooker with lots of barbecue sauce.”
The best story they tell is the “Radio Controlled Horse” story. It is 1985 and Jeff is riding a horse named Henry on the East Shore Trail. He must be back for a dinner party his wife Carolyn is hosting. He sees a fisherman and decides to check his license. Jeff ties his horse to a tree and walks up to the guy.
The fisherman doesn’t have a license and just as Jeff walks back to the horse to get his ticket book, lightning strikes the tree, the horse takes off – tree attached. Jeff has no ticket book, no radio, and no horse. He tells the guy, “this is your lucky day” and walks back to the coral.
The horse does flee back to the corral so he and fellow ranger Mike Brooks walk back to look for the horse. They encounter two women and ask if they saw a horse.
“We saw a horse and heard the radios and thought that it was radio controlled horse and he was OK.” Later, they find the horse at the lookout tower, the tree still attached. Jeff missed the dinner party.
I want to hear all their stories but run out of time. I can’t wait to read their book.
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West Grand seniors Rene Dominguez, right, and Angel Dominguez pass the baton during one of the nighttime relays at the 2021 Joe Shields Invitational at WGHS.