Like a teacher welcoming students to class, Heidi Gutknecht has many dependents to check on when she starts her 10.5-hour shift. Behind the wheel of a Ford F-150 (a far cry from the VW Beetle she commutes in), she narrates her observations of the flora and fauna throughout Mission Trails Regional Park.
She’s one of eight full-time park rangers who oversee the open space preserve, which encompasses nearly 8,000 acres of undeveloped land just 12 miles from downtown San Diego. Today she’s about to ford a stream with her Ford.
“It’s three feet high, so we’re going to be like a boat going through here,” she says, then slams the gas. “Wheeee! Isn’t that fun? Just let yourselves be rag dolls and you won’t get any whiplash.”
She spots a bush of manzanita berries and compliments their apple-like taste; curses an invasive artichoke thistle; and swoons over Ramona lilac, popcorn flowers, and other blooms marking the arrival of spring.
“How pretty! That’s a wishbone bush. Those are in the 4 o’clock family, because they don’t open until 4 p.m.”
“Oh, a deer! Do you see her? See her little white butt? They call them mule deer, because they have big giant ears like mules.”
“Oooh, chaparral sweet pea! It’s gorgeous.”
“Hey, does she have her dog on a leash?”
Gutknecht brakes abruptly, rolls down her window, and hangs her head out, grinning ear to ear. She confirms with the woman in question that yes, her dog is leashed.
One aspect of her job is enforcing rules and regulations, “But we like to educate more than enforce,” she clarifies. “Part of the job is just being a public presence. Sometimes, when it’s hot, I check and see if hikers have enough water, and I’ll top off their water bottles for them. I also get my dog fix at work. In my truck, I carry dog cookies. Some dogs know, like, ‘Oh, the cookie lady!’ They’ll pull their masters over to get a treat.”
In a nutshell, Gutknecht explains, a park ranger has three responsibilities: educate the public, preserve and protect the land and its wildlife resources, and enforce those rules and regulations.
At 50 years old and with 25 years in this position (the last 19 with the city of San Diego), she’s seen and responded to it all: dehydrated hikers, sprained ankles, even nude exercisers. She’s also cleaned up after many of them. “There’s a lot of unglamorous stuff about being a ranger.”
For Gutknecht, no four-day work week is the same. One day, she might have a school field trip to lead. The next she’ll be at her desk answering emails, and by the afternoon, she’s slipping into her “sexy coveralls” to spray weeds. “They’re these big, baggy dark blue things that make me look like a car mechanic.”
But the most unglamorous part of all is cleaning up after those dogs she loves to spoil. The park provides waste bags, and owners do use them—and then leave them on the side of the trail, perhaps assuming they’re biodegradable. (In fact, leaving dog waste is like marking territory, and it crowds out the area’s natural wildlife. Worse yet, the bags disintegrate, and wind blows them throughout the park.)
Always the optimist, Gutknecht has another theory on the oblivious litterers.
“They think there’s this magical poop fairy that comes around and collects the bags… I’m that fairy.”
On a more serious note, she continues: “We’re surrounded by all this development and housing and so forth, but this is really a preserved pocket of nature. It’s super important for the wildlife. Everything here has a purpose, and everything is protected. Make your memories, but leave everything in place so others can enjoy it.”