By Laurelle Walsh
Rick Lewis is back to flipping burgers and brats, but not because he’s been demoted to grill cook. “I told everybody I’d buy them lunch,” he said, which, on Monday (June 1), meant 20 people gathered around the kitchen and back patio of Pearrygin Lake State Park headquarters, filling paper plates with potato salad, chips and buns, and waiting for the grill chef to bring out the main dish.
Staff and family members — some of them on their first day at work — from Pearrygin and Conconully state parks appeared for the noon meal, and the atmosphere was lighthearted and convivial.
“We try to do this about once a month during the summer,” said Lewis, whose staff is otherwise occupied at the busy parks checking in campers, maintaining grounds, cleaning facilities and otherwise providing a first-rate holiday atmosphere to thousands of visitors every week.
Staff from Curlew State Park near Republic didn’t make the 120-mile drive for lunch, but as of last month they too are part of the operations that Lewis oversees in his new capacity as Okanogan Highlands Area Manager.
Lewis has worked for Washington State Parks since 1978, when he started as a seasonal park aide at Gingko Petrified Forest. And this month marks Lewis’s 25th year at Pearrygin Lake State Park.
“I was 21 when I first went to State Parks, and I thought it seemed like a fun job,” Lewis said. “I had no idea it would be this long. When you’re 21, you’re kind of living year to year.
“But I’ve never questioned the route I’ve taken,” he added in the same breath.
Lewis graduated from Mead High School in Spokane in 1975 (his class’s 40-year reunion is later this summer), and enrolled in the journalism program at Washington State University that fall. But a seminal job in Glacier National Park the first two summers of college caused him to re-evaluate his priorities and switch his major to forestry and wildland recreation in his junior year.
“It was a very important time in my life. It focused me in on what my core values were,” Lewis said. He shadowed park rangers and naturalists at Glacier and by his second summer he knew that “doing something like this was how I was going to sustain myself in life.”
Lewis qualified as a commissioned park ranger in the spring of 1982 after going through a three-week park ranger law enforcement academy at Everett Community College. “These days it’s a 14-week program,” he noted.
He worked as a seasonal ranger at Potholes State Park and then a security guard at Mount Spokane ski area, but back-to-back seasons at Brooks Memorial and Maryhill state parks marked the start of his designation as a permanent employee of Washington State Parks in July of 1983.
His first permanent position was at Deception Pass State Park from 1984 to 1989, where he learned the ropes of running a state park and managed the environmental learning center. “I love doing interpretive stuff,” he said.
He took a lateral transfer to Wallace Falls State Park in 1989 before coming to Pearrygin in 1990, where he and his wife, Cathie, and then 4-year-old daughter, Rebecca, took up residence. “We enrolled Rebecca at Little Star [Montessori School] and once we got a look at what the schools were like here, we realized this was a pretty good place,” Lewis said.
Son Tim was born in 1994 while the family was living at Pearrygin. Not long after, they bought their “little piece of paradise in Twin Lakes,” and ended their six-year residency at the park.
Rick became the third manager of Pearrygin Lake State Park in January of 2000, following Larry Painter, who pioneered that role from 1964-1981, and Ted Smith from 1981-1999.
An evolving job
“The job evolved quite a bit” over the years, he said, especially as Pearrygin developed and expanded geographically; added a boat launch and fishing dock; paved entrance roads, campground loops and day-use areas; and built new bathroom facilities.
In 2004 State Parks purchased 95 acres north of the boat launch area that had been Derry’s Resort, creating the West Campground and adding 80 sites. Recently, with funds from the Parkland Trust, Washington Wildlife and Recreation Program and the Trust for Public Lands, State Parks was able to make a series of land acquisitions that extended the park around the west side of the lake, and its southern boundary to the Bear Creek Golf Course.
Lewis’s job evolved again last August, when he accepted the newly created position of Okanogan Highlands Area Manager. “My job is to support Bryan [Alexander, operations manager at Pearrygin Lake] and the managers at Conconully and Curlew,” Lewis said. “I get them the resources they need to serve the public and develop staffing and operations plans for providing high-quality parks for the public to enjoy.”
Lewis’s shift to a more administrative role came as a result of Washington State Parks’ “Beyond 2013 Transformation Strategy” — part of the governor’s “Lean Initiative” — which reworked the statewide organizational structure. Now Lewis manages one of the Eastern Region’s five areas. Other areas include the Lake Wenatchee Area, the Wenatchee Area, the North Central Lakes Area (Lake Chelan and Alta Lake), and the Greater Spokane Area.
He’s still adjusting to the changes. “It’s a challenge after 25 years of getting my fingernails dirty, fixing plumbing, mowing lawns and connecting with people,” he said. “My staff keep telling me, ‘That’s not your job anymore.’”
Connecting with people
“We have a small city” — up to 800 people — “up here on any given summer evening,” Lewis said. And those people bring with them some of the issues they might be trying to leave behind at home. In his law-enforcement capacity, Lewis has handled domestic disputes, emotionally disturbed people, alcohol issues including DUI arrests, and refusal to pay fees. He’s only had one “consequential weapons issue in all these years,” he said.
Lewis intends to maintain his law-enforcement commission “for now,” mostly to help provide adequate coverage for Pearrygin’s needs. “But I probably don’t need to be wrestling guys to the ground much longer,” he noted.
While other parks have had chronic law-enforcement issues over the years, “we’ve had quite a bit of success not having to deal with more serious issues here,” Lewis said. “We recognize when there’s potential for trouble. We have conversations with people during the day that diffuse potential issues at night.
“It’s not a game for us,” he added. “We don’t want the people who visit the park to put themselves or others at risk.”
Lewis admits he’s glad to no longer be working nights or patrolling the campgrounds, but he still enjoys interfacing with Pearrygin’s guests, especially on his mountain bike. “Getting rangers out of their vehicles is a great idea. You are able to interact with people on a human level.” One of the worst things for the job was when park rangers got air conditioning in their vehicles, he stated.
And what’s the best thing about his job? “The lifestyle it affords,” Lewis said. “Every morning I wake up in a place where I want to be, in a park where I want to work at. I never regret waking up in the morning and going to work.”
When Ranger Rick gets invited to job fairs, he talks to students about their life paths. “I ask them, ‘What would you do for free? Figure out a way to do that and have it support your life,’” Lewis said.
While it’s too soon to talk about retirement, Lewis would like to do some of the traveling he’s missed out on, and travel with Cathie to visit other parks around the United States. “I haven’t had a lot of vacation time when the weather is good,” he noted.
Until then, he’ll continue connecting with people and providing memorable experiences for multiple generations of families. “I want to be having as much fun on the day I retire as the day I first put my badge on,” he said, grinning.