As a history major at Loyola University New Orleans, Peter Winfrey didn’t expect his career would lead him to the National Park Service (NPS). He definitely didn’t think it would take him to the largest and one of the wildest states in the country: Alaska.
Yet, after years of volunteering, an internship with the Student Conservation Association (SCA), and countless seasonal positions, Peter landed a coveted interpretive ranger position at the Fairbanks Alaska Public Lands Information Center (FAPLIC). We talked with him about his passion for history and helping people — and how it led him to the National Park Service (NPS).
(Peter at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C.)
Pathway to the National Park Service
As a fluke, Peter attended a ranger program at Gulf Islands National Seashore while he wrapped up an AmeriCorps State program in southern Mississippi. Subsequently, he was hooked. Shortly after, Peter found himself volunteering on weekends to give interpretive tours of Fort Massachusetts (an old Civil War-era brick fort) at the park.
Inspired by his time at Gulf Islands, Peter began to explore opportunities with the SCA. Soon he became an SCA intern at Gettysburg National Military Park in Pennsylvania.
(The High Water Mark and other monuments on Cemetery Ridge, taken in 1910.)
Few sites are better suited for a history buff like Peter. You may recall from your American history classes that the battle of Gettysburg was the bloodiest of the Civil War, and the inspiration behind President Abraham Lincoln’s legendary “Gettysburg Address.”
“Working at such a special place and being able to absorb that place at my own pace, over a year, was incredible,” he says. “Gettysburg has a special place in my heart.”
Peter’s role as the SCA Civil War Education Intern was to help plan, develop, and execute a week-long teacher conference at Gettysburg College. After six months of planning, Peter witnessed learning come alive for educators at the conference. He knew he was on the right track.
(Peter during his internship at Gettysburg National Military Park.)
Following his SCA internship, Peter volunteered at few other parks before getting his first seasonal job at Sequoia National Park. He went on to work seasonally as an NPS interpretive ranger at four national parks while volunteering in the off season at others. Then, in January of this year, he was hired as a permanent NPS Park Guide in Fairbanks, Alaska.
It takes a lot of time and effort to land a job with the NPS, and Peter is full of encouragement. “Be patient, and always keep working for the dream.”
Careers in Parks for History Majors
When it came time for Peter to choose a major in college, he followed his passion for history. Although he didn’t have plans to become a park ranger at that time, his decision proved valuable. “I’m glad I chose to study history. It’s provided great fundamentals for my work doing interpretation.”
Not long after Peter graduated, he became intrigued by the storytelling of the Ken Burns ‘National Parks’ film series. Most people are familiar with the nature associated with national parks, but Peter explains that there’s always a human story and history behind it.
For people like Peter who are passionate about history, there are a number of career paths with federal, state, and local parks. The NPS employs Historians to research, publish, and explore different historical topics. Additionally, Cultural Resource Specialists are hired by the NPS to monitor and protect important historical and cultural resources.
And of course, there are interpretive rangers, like Peter.
“Our parks are our history, as a people, and as a nation. There’s rarely a topic of American history that isn’t covered in the national parks,” Peter says.
His fascination with obscure people and their connection to parks keeps him motivated. For example, the Buffalo Soldiers in Sequoia, early settlers in Zion, Mary Colter at the Grand Canyon, and the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) at Death Valley. Peter has made a career out of helping people discover these stories and has absorbed a great deal of information along the way. “One thing I enjoy about being a park ranger is learning new things all the time.”
(Desert View Watchtower at the Grand Canyon was designed by Mary Elizabeth Jane Colter. She hand-picked many of the individual stones that make up this 70 foot tall tower.)
A Dream Come True: Working in The Last Frontier
Alaska is home to 7 of the 10 largest national parks in the United States (Wrangell-St. Elias NP is the largest at 13.2 million acres). The Malaspina Glacier in Wrangell-St. Elias is the size of Rhode Island, and it’s only a small portion of the park. Denali National Park and Preserve is the size of Massachusetts. All of these parks have amazing opportunities for wilderness, wildlife viewing, and endless hiking.
Peter’s own stories of exploration are something out of a book. He’s flown over Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve twice, driven to Skagway on the Alaska Highway, ferried to Sitka, and stood in the middle of Dalton Highway past Brooks Range to listen to the silence.
His days as a park ranger are spent leading interpretive programs at the FAPLIC. He offers information about Alaska’s public lands, Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve, and Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve to visitors.
“I always wanted a job where it really wasn’t work, and this is it.”
As for parting wisdom to current and future SCA’ers, he gives a big smile and says, “the road may be long and winding — but enjoy the ride!”
Want to learn more about getting a job with the park services? Check out our two-part series on what it takes to become a park ranger.