Brenda Charpentier's Forest Journal: Floodplain ranger has Mother Nature's back

By BRENDA CHARPENTIER August 11. 2017 6:58PM
Part friendly ambassador and part strict rules enforcer, Jarrett Dodge walks the trails at the Merrimack River Outdoor Education and Conservation Area in Concord. (Brenda Charpentier)

Jarrett Dodge and I had just settled onto a wooden bench overlooking a peaceful marsh to talk when he leapt up and dashed toward a teenage boy riding his bike along the dirt trail nearby.

"Excuse me - how ya doin'? There's no biking here," he said.

Dodge's voice was friendly but brisk and resolute, his tone sending a clear message that he meant business and there was no room for arguments and excuses.

"Oh, sorry," the boy said, "I didn't know bikes aren't allowed."

As the boy walked his bike back out of the woods toward the road, "Thanks, I appreciate it," Dodge called out. He returned to the bench, saying that keeping bikes off the erosion-prone trails is a daily chore but is far from the most troublesome - or awkward - of situations he deals with at the Merrimack River Outdoor Education and Conservation Area in Concord.

For the past two summers, Dodge has guarded the 100-acre conservation area as a floodplain ranger, a position similar to a forest ranger but named for this particular spot along the bank of the Merrimack River. The Forest Society hires two floodplain rangers each summer. They're tasked with enforcing the rules and taking care of the land and trails during the busy season when the most people visit to walk dogs, swim, hang out along the river and, in some cases, try to party in a place where partying isn't allowed.

Dodge, who grew up in Amherst and just graduated from college with an environmental sciences degree, does it all with the most personable of personalities, kind of like a Mr. Congeniality of the woods. Even though he's extremely allergic to poison ivy and gets consumed by mosquitoes as a matter of course, he revels in being outside in a beautiful spot all summer.

"I get to walk through the woods all day, I get to be down by the river, I get to see the sun go down, I get to see a lot of wildlife - I've seen deer, turtles, bald eagles, beavers, lots of birds, garter snakes - which is really a plus to the job," he said.

But behind his engaging smile is a determination to protect the land and abundant wildlife as well as the experience for the majority of people who respect and appreciate the place.

"I greet people when I see them come in and I tell them to enjoy the trails and whatnot and make my presence known. That's a big part of why I'm here, to create a presence so that nothing gets out of hand down here," Dodge said.

It's when some people think they're not being watched, of course, when bad things can happen. Last summer, someone cut the ropes and broke the stakes used to rope off an area along the riverbank where bank swallows build nests in the sand and lay their eggs each spring. More commonly, people ignore the ropes to get closer to the river or let their dogs romp there despite the signs asking them not to bother the birds.

"When people try to disturb that or don't care about it, it really upsets me that they're not caring about the wildlife," he said. "All the birds are startled and they don't want to go near their nests. It really makes them confused."

Dodge is good at succinctly relating the "why" of the rules to people in such a way that they tend to agree with him that they're a good idea and they should really follow them.

"The reason we have a no-alcohol policy is because 90 percent of the litter we have down here is alcohol-related - bottles and cans. And smoking is the other big problem - we find the filters littered on the ground, and look at all these dry pine needles we have here - smoking is a massive fire hazard," he said.

So, emboldened by his love of the land and its creatures, Dodge has become adept at approaching people with beer or cigarettes or joints in their hands. Depending on the infraction, he'll tell them to either put the items away or to leave the area. He's never had to call the police to come and help to remove offenders.

"Sometimes they grumble, teenagers especially, but they cooperate pretty good," he said.

If more of us had a job like his, we'd be the fittest nation on Earth. Dodge figures he walks about eight miles during every six-hour shift. It takes him about an hour to make it once around the looped trail, depending on how many people he stops to chat with, and then he starts around it again.

He wears a set of keys on his belt that jangles, a sound he has found useful a couple of times when he has come across couples "doing inappropriate things," as he puts it.

"It's awkward. definitely awkward, but you kinda just have to make your presence known immediately. I'll get up to them and say, 'Excuse me!' and they generally stop immediately and they'll freak out. Yeah, I generally try to be a little more stern with those people and say, 'You know, there are lots of families with young children who come here, and you just need to leave.'"

In between walks around the trails, Dodge may be found picking up litter, weed-whacking overgrown areas next to the trails or battling invasive species, like the thick oriental bittersweet vines that overtake trees, constricting their growth and blocking sunlight.

"Last year I must have saved about 30 trees, so that feels pretty good," he said.

Getting to know the regulars, dog walkers mainly, who come nearly every day, has been great, Dodge said. He would definitely be up for another stint as a floodplain ranger, but actually hopes he's not in the same job next summer. Now that he's graduated from college, he's looking for his first full-time job in natural resources. He'll not soon forget his days as a floodplain ranger.

"Sometimes when there's not many people down here and it's real quiet, it's really peaceful," he said, wistfully. "When the sun's going down, it's very beautiful."

Brenda Charpentier is communications manager for the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests. Contact her at Forest Journal appears here biweekly.

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