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'Heart the size of Alaska'

Park ranger honored for excellence

Posted: August 31, 2013 - 6:49pm  |  Updated: August 31, 2013 - 6:50pm

Jacqueline Erion stood with a sudden look of faux concern among a circle of friends. She held her shoulders down, her lips pursed. She bobbed her head back as she spoke, exaggerating her character impersonation.

“A guy caught his gas can on fire and then himself on fire,” she said, recalling what a camper had once told her, “but we put him out.”

Her friends remembered the incident.

“And I’m like, ‘Problem solved,’” she said.

A pistol and two magazines hung on her belt, an Alaska State Park Ranger patch sewn on her chest. Friends around her laughed.

“You’re seeing Jacqui,” said Cleta Elefritz, a summer State Parks camp host.

The group had gathered under the Clam Gulch State Recreation Area’s pavilion Friday for Erion, a park ranger. It was a special day, with spring rolls and sunflowers, speeches and cake. All Erion’s friends there, all camp hosts, had presented Erion with the “1st Annual Park Ranger of the Year Excellence Award” to show just how much they appreciated her — because they certainly did, Elefritz said.

“Cleta, I know you were about to kill somebody last night. Did you have your machete out?” said Elefritz, recalling a voicemail Erion had left on her phone following a long night of disrespectful dipnetters.

By now, after spending an entire summer with Erion, some an even longer duration, Erion’s hosts know the ranger’s character — her quirks, her qualms, her compassion.

Yes, Erion is a cutup, Elefritz said, but she is also more.

Two years ago, when they first met, Erion walked right up to Elefritz and hugged her. That was their introduction. Erion does that with all her hosts, Elefritz said.

Erion has patrolled the largest clutch of state recreation areas on the Kenai Peninsula — spanning Soldotna to Deep Creek — since 1994. She facilitates park operations and public safety.

The hosts, appointed in pairs at the beginning of summer to eight parks, clean the area facilities — bathrooms, fire pits — and provide information.

Erion works hard, Elefritz said. For all the acreage the ranger covers, she has the support of only one technician, who heads park maintenance, and her 16 hosts.

Although Erion “breaks her back” for the recreation areas and to keep Elefritz and the others safe and supplied, she maintains her love, her humor for the hosts, Elefritz said.

Constantly, Erion calls the hosts to check in. She even brings them vegetables from her garden, Elefritz said.

Elefritz knows all the Peninsula rangers — for two years she and her husband have been volunteering for state and federal parks — but none of the rangers are like Erion, Elefritz said.

“She’s got a heart the size of Alaska,” she said.

But Erion said that’s not it at all. It’s not about her, really; it’s about the hosts. They’re the “backbone” to the parks. It’s them that pull her from a funk some days — they’re always smiling and full of humor, even after odd nights and naked guests, she said.

Like that one afternoon in the Ninilchik River Campground with the European mobile home.

“I saw the woman walking towards the bathroom,” said Don Janiak, a host for that section of the park.

The woman was clothed. When she left the bathroom, heading back to the mobile home, where her husband was, Janiak stopped her and they started chatting.

Meanwhile, Erion had driven to the other side of the camper. Under a shower protruding from the vehicle, the husband was showering nude.

Erion later asked Janiak if he’d seen the buck-naked bather.

“I was going to say something,” Janiak said, “but I was waiting for his wife to take a shower.”

They both laughed.

“And that’s a true story,” Erion said, “because he was up there schmoozing with that lady.”

Dan Schwartz can be reached at daniel.schwartz@peninsulaclarion.com.

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