Fresh Air, Gorgeous Scenery, Hard Work: The Life of a State Park Attendant
“My kids left on a paddleboard two hours ago, and I haven’t heard from them since.” The woman’s voice is tinged with concern as she talks to Gilchrist Blue Springs Park Attendant Garrett Barr.
She tells him she thinks her kids were headed for Ginnie Springs, a neighboring springhead that connects to Gilchrist Blue by way of the Santa Fe River.
“But I don’t know if they went right or left at the fork — and they don’t have their phones on them.” The edge in her voice sharpens as Barr’s face draws in worry.
“It shouldn’t take that long to get over there,” Barr says, 19, his voice a mix of concern and an authority that belies his tender years. “I’ll call Ginnie. If they’re not at Ginnie, I’ll call FWC.”
FWC, or the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, picks up the second call on the other end. Barr explains the situation, and, a couple of “mhms” later, clicks the handset off. “They got ’em,” he says. “They’re over at Ginnie.”
Love What You Do
Not all of Barr’s duties at the state park are so dramatic — but they certainly do keep him busy.
During the peak season, which stretches from April to September, Barr spends long days picking up trash, maintaining the grounds, cleaning the bathroom and shower facilities, assisting guests, keeping an eye on the campgrounds, leading nature walks and educational sessions, scheduling camping slots, coordinating volunteers and ensuring that the nature — plant and animal — doesn’t bother the guests — and vice versa.
The park is open from 8 a.m. to sundown 365 days a year — which means in the summer, the last daytime guests leave about 8:30 p.m. But even after the gate is locked and the campers are zipped up in their tents, Barr often gets calls to come help with power outages and other unexpected issues.
Barr works 40-hour weeks in the park and is in school full time at Santa Fe College, but he’s not cutting back his hours. He couldn’t really, even if he wanted to.
In September 2017, the privately owned park was bought by the state. Prior to that, there had been 17 employees — but the state underestimated the busy season and cut the staff down to five.
Still, despite the demanding workload and crazy hours, the park attendants say they are genuinely happy and excited to show up to work each day.
Barr’s favorite part? Seeing people from all over the state (and from around the world — Gilchrist Blue Springs has had visitors from as far away as Australia) come to enjoy the place he loves so dearly. “That’s probably the most rewarding thing,” he says.
Barr’s attachment to the park runs a little deeper than the other staffers’. Before the buyout, Barr’s family had owned Gilchrist Blue Springs for nearly 60 years. Whereas the other park attendants had grown to call “Blue” home, to Barr, it’s the only home he’s ever known.
But it’s not just Barr with his familial attachment to the place who truly loves the work he does. The other staffers agree: Working at a state park is rewarding, and, especially at Gilchrist Blue Springs, it keeps a person close to nature in its purest, most breathtaking form.
Just standing on the boardwalk at the edge of the springs offers a spectacular sight. The water is an almost unbelievable shade of cerulean, changing ever so slightly depending on where the sunlight hits.
Down below, the rock formations are equal parts foreboding and alluring, tempting snorkelers to continue diving deeper into the cavernous spring. The lush greenery surrounding the natural pool provides a stark contrast that makes the blues bluer and acts as a filter that shoots beams of sunshine down to the sandy bottom, illuminating the already crystal-clear water and making it sparkle.
“This is my home,” Barr says. “It always will be — even when I leave to pursue a career with fish and game [the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission], I’ll still always be around here — always be a phone call away.”
A Path to the Parks
Barr hopes to transfer from Santa Fe College to the University of Florida, where he plans to receive his degree in agriculture education. He says that although he may not end up teaching, he wanted to study agriculture because it’s a family trade.
But that’s the beauty of state parks: There are nearly unlimited inroads to a career in any of the 175 state parks in Florida and the more than 10,000 in the U.S.
People come to work at the state parks from a variety of backgrounds, and for a variety of reasons, says Sandi Richmond, another of the five park attendants at Gilchrist Blue Springs.
“There’s people that are interested in geology, archaeology, biology, marine biology,” she says, counting off the list on her fingers. “We also welcome people who are educators… or if you’re interested in marketing — the opportunities here for employment are vast.”
For anyone hoping to someday become a state park ranger or to nab another type of job in any of the state or national parks across the U.S., volunteering is a great way to gain job experience. Volunteer opportunities range from jobs in visitor services and administration to maintenance and resource and wildlife protection.
Richmond herself started as a volunteer, and after about six months was offered a permanent staff position. “It was captivating — and addicting,” Richmond says with a laugh. “So when the opportunity for employment did come up, I jumped at the chance.”
An Unconventional Paycheck
Employees of the National Park Service have a saying: “We get paid in sunrises and sunsets.”
Whether it’s a national or state park, though, the sentiment is the same; no one’s getting rich working in the parks.
Park attendants at Gilchrist Blue Springs State Park make between $8.25 (Florida’s minimum wage) and $14.00 per hour.
Park attendants have access to a retirement plan and health-care options, but to get benefits like paid vacation and sick time, a person would have to be a park ranger. On top of the added benefits, park rangers also make a bit more money — but require additional training and education.
According to PayScale, state park rangers in the U.S. make an average of $38,805 annually, although some make as much as $61,017. Glassdoor states that rangers at national parks make slightly more, bringing in an average of $41,000 annually.
To become a park ranger, a person needs a combination of schooling and experience. Generally, a person needs at least two years of relevant college coursework, although some parks and states require a bachelor’s degree.
There’s No Place Like Home
For the five staffers working from 7 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. every day during the busy season at Gilchrist Blue Springs State Park, the saying about sunrises and sunsets might seem a little too accurate.
But when you truly love the work you’re doing, it’s easy to overlook the less enticing parts of the position.
While the hours may be long and the pay may not be what you’d get working the same hours in an office job, for Barr and his coworkers, these parks are everything — and you’d be hard-pressed to find employees who loved their workplace more.
“There’s other springs in other states, but there’s nothing like Blue Springs,” Barr says. “There never will be anything like Blue Springs.”
Grace Schweizer is a staff writer at The Penny Hoarder.