For about nine weeks in 1990, Richard Jones was completely on his own deep in the Alaskan wilderness as winter settled in. During that time, he saw other people for only about five minutes. For the other 91,000 minutes, he saw no human beings.
“Most people don’t go that long alone unless they’re in solitary confinement,” he observed.
Jones’ self-imposed solitude took place in Lake Clark National Park and Preserve, a combined area of 4 million acres hemmed by three rugged mountain ranges in southwest Alaska. At the time, he was acting as a backcountry ranger, the first placed into the region after the park was created in 1980.
The trip was just one of the many unusual jaunts that the 57-year-old Jones has taken over his long career with the National Park Service. Now living outside Cody, Wyo., Jones has also spent a considerable amount of time as a backcountry ranger in nearby Yellowstone National Park.
The duties have provided him with a wealth of stories, some of which he’ll share with visitors to the Buffalo Bill Historical Center on Thursday during a noontime talk on “looking for sources of inspiration in nature observation.” The talk will include photos from his trips loaded into a PowerPoint presentation, an interaction with technology that Jones wasn’t looking forward to.
“I’d rather be treed by a grizzly bear than deal with that,” he said.
Being treed by a grizzly is something Jones knows about. He’s also been chased by a grizzly while on horseback.
“I had my horse at a full gallop and he was still catching me,” Jones said.
He’s also been charged by bison and a moose, as well as “dragged nearly to death” by his horse. Such incidents may not be in the job description for a backcountry ranger, but they come with the wild territory, wildlife and unique duties.
“You do that work long enough and something is bound to happen,” Jones said. “But I always seem to weasel out of it somehow. Like I said, I never thought I’d live this long.”
Jones wandered into the world of federal work at the age of 18. A friend of his mother had a daughter working near Yellowstone. She told Jones whom to call to apply for a job on a trail crew working in the Sunlight Basin in 1976.
“There was a 24-year-old guy who I thought was an old hand,” Jones said. “Hell, he wasn’t much older than me.”
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From that introduction, he hopped throughout the federal system, next working as a firefighter — “It wasn’t quite as sophisticated as it is now,” he said. Then in 1978 he landed a job helping to rebuild an old ranger cabin on Cache Creek, in 1979 he was back in Sunlight Basin and then in 1981, he worked as a wilderness ranger with the Forest Service. After graduating law enforcement school in 1982, he was hired in Yellowstone as a backcountry ranger. After a big poaching ring bust, he was recruited by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and ended up in Miami investigating international trade in wildlife. Rather than advance from that position to a job in Washington, D.C., Jones said he hired back on at Yellowstone.
The change in scenery and population was stark, but the work affirmed for Jones how much more comfortable he felt in the woods. That year, he rode 1,100 miles on horseback while policing the park’s wilderness, confirming for Jones that he had made the right choice.
“When I was young, they just turned me loose,” he said. “I would work almost entirely alone for 10 days with my horse. One time I stayed out 25 days by myself. When you have a horse, a pack mule and a series of cabins to stay in, that’s as good as it gets.
“I’m never bored. There’s always something to do or see.”
North to Alaska
After a couple of years in Yellowstone, he made the jump to Alaska, a place he’d always wanted to visit and even more remote than the roadless territory he roamed in Yellowstone.
His first tour at Lake Clark National Park was supposed to last six months, but he had so much food left after being conservative with his rations that he offered to stay longer. His boss warned him that until the lake iced over, airplanes wouldn’t be able to reach him. The nearest village was 80 miles away.
“What’s wrong with that?” Jones said he told his boss. “You can’t come back here to bother me, either.”
His lodging in Alaska was a plywood “trespass” cabin, 10 feet by 10 feet, with a hole chewed in one wall by a porcupine. His orders were to find out what went on in the Twin Lakes area, because no funds had been spent on a ranger in the region since the park was created.
During his four years in Alaska he met Dick Proenneke, who lived 35 miles from Jones’ shack. In 1968 Proenneke had begun building a cabin by hand, filming the entire adventure. The film was turned into the documentary, “Alone in the Wilderness,” which has become a popular feature on PBS, where it is frequently aired.
Jones met his wife while working in Yellowstone’s remote Thorofare region. His location eight miles from the nearest road complicated his domestic life, so he now lives outside Cody where he established a nonprofit organization, Wildland Rangers, and has helped the Draper Museum of Natural History in Cody with its golden eagle project. He’s also working on a project with a national wildlife organization documenting the history of bighorn sheep transplants since 1922. In addition, he gives summer talks in Yellowstone at places like the Lake Hotel. He’s not semi-retired, he says; he's merely underemployed.
Looking back on his career, Jones said he had chances to move up in the federal bureaucracy, but couldn’t see himself sitting in front of a computer rather than being out in the woods. He was never much for schedules, still isn’t. But now his contemporaries are retired and making more money than he did while working full time. Even so, he wouldn’t swap his experiences for the security of a desk job and a pension.
“I think back to those days and I am so grateful I was able to do that,” Jones said. “For me, it was like paradise.”