“It basically becomes your life” – Lance Twombly reflects on more than a decade of service in the Apostle Islands

Lance at his desk at Roy's Point

March 13, 2024

“Once you work for the park service it becomes basically your life.” After nearly a quarter century in the park service and a dozen years at the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, Supervisory Park Law Enforcement Ranger Lance Twombly is retiring at the end of March.  Lance sat down with Friends of the Apostle Islands board member Neil Howk to reminisce about his chosen career path and most memorable moments in the park, and to talk about what’s next.

Neil: Where did you grow up, Lance?
Lance: I was born and raised in Northwood, New Hampshire until just after high school. It’s a small New England town.

Neil: So, after high school, what happened then?
Lance: I joined the military. The U. S. Army. 1990 to 1994 was my initial enlistment.

Neil: How long did you stay in the Army?
Lance: I just did my initial enlistment til the end of ’94, so it was a four year plus enlistment. Once I got out of the Army I went back to New Hampshire, and I was in the New Hampshire Army National Guard until 2000.

Neil: When you got out of the Army, what did you do then?
Lance: While I was in the National Guard, I was also a student at the University of New Hampshire. I got my degree as a Bachelor of Forestry. It’s an accredited school, so instead of getting a Bachelor of Science in Forestry, you can just say Bachelor of Forestry. I graduated in 2000.

Neil: Did you start working for the Park Service after that?
Lance: The professor in one of my college classes was an instructor for the seasonal ranger academy at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. When I was taking his wildlife law enforcement class, he mentioned the seasonal academy. I was really interested in that, so I went to U. Mass. Amherst to attend the seasonal academy. That ended in March of 2000. I started applying to seasonal law enforcement jobs and I got hired at Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area in May. That kind of started my NPS career. I went to Bighorn Canyon in the summer of 2000 and then came back and finished my degree at UNH.
Neil: Bighorn Canyon is in Wyoming, right?
Lance: Wyoming and Montana. I was in the Montana portion.

Neil: Did you get a full-time job after you graduated?
Lance: After I graduated, I was applying for other seasonal jobs, but Bighorn Canyon offered me a GS-7 position. My first season I was a GS-5. They offered me a GS-7 position due to my academic achievement. I figured that I couldn’t pass that up, so I went back to Bighorn Canyon for the summer of 2001 and stayed on until early 2002. That’s when I got permanent status at Gulf Islands National Seashore. After September 11th, there was a big push for Homeland Security and all that, so I stayed on at Bighorn Canyon to protect the Yellowtail Dam because of the concern to protect infrastructure. That’s why my season was extended.

Neil: How long were you at Gulf Islands?
Lance: 2002 to 2006. I went through Hurricane Katrina at Gulf Islands. I was on the Mississippi side of the park. Gulf Islands is spread between Mississippi and Florida. After Katrina kind of wiped out the park, I lost a bunch of my stuff, I went up to Ozark National Scenic Riverways for about a year from 2006 to 2007.

Neil: Where did you go after that?
Lance: At Ozark, I was a subject-to-furlough career employee, so during my furlough I went out to Death Valley for three months. That was really cool. I came back in 2007 and applied to Redwood National and State Parks in northern California. I worked there from 2007 to 2011. October 23, 2011 is when I came to Apostle Islands.

Law Enforcement rangers, Jason Johnson, Mark McCool, Mike Larsen and Lance Twombly

Law Enforcement rangers, Jason Johnson, Mark McCool, Mike Larsen and Lance Twombly

Neil: What is your present job title?
Lance: Supervisory Park Ranger.

Neil: What are the primary things you do as a Supervisory Park Ranger?
Lance: I’m the first-line supervisor for three permanent law enforcement rangers and manage the law enforcement, search-and-rescue, EMS (Emergency Medical Services), structural fire operations… and of course my supervisor is Chris Smith, the senior law enforcement officer for the park. I also supervise the temporary staff at Meyers Beach and a portion of Little Sand Bay.

Neil: What is one of your earliest memories here?
Lance: I have a couple. Coming into Little Sand Bay for the first time. I was hired by Myra Foster and she met me out there with Susan Mackreth. I actually thought that Susan was Myra because Susan was in uniform. (laughter) Then I realized who was who.

I was living at Little Sand Bay in the east dorm for about a week until I found a place to live. (Ranger) Mark McCool was living in the old Hokenson House. His dog, Buzz, treed my cat, Walker, and I actually thought my fat cat was going to have a coronary. Mark was freaked because his dog is chasing the new supervisor’s cat. They allowed me to have a pet out there temporarily. They don’t normally allow seasonals to have pets. It was kind of funny…poor Walker.

Neil: What is your favorite part of your job?
Lance: I think that most people who work here would say it was getting out on the lake, going to the islands, just seeing the park. That’s the highlight. Just enjoying that time when I can actually get out there. As a supervisor you get tied to the office a lot, doing a lot of paperwork. Getting out, supporting the field staff, running boats, that’s the highlight.

 

Lance operating one of the park boats

Lance operating one of the park boats

Neil: Had you done much boat operation before you came here?
Lance: Yes. It seems like I’ve worked at a lot of water-based parks. Redwoods and Death Valley are the exceptions. We ran boats on the lake at Bighorn Canyon. At Gulf Islands National Seashore, I lived on a barrier island, West Ship Island, for about three years. Then I lived on Horn Island for about a year. That’s designated wilderness. Running single-outboard Boston Whalers, 21 to 22 foot or so, mostly on the Mississippi Sound, but ocean water. At Ozark, I was running John Boat type jet boats, with outboard jet drives, on the Current River.

Neil: What do you think is the most challenging part of your job at the Apostles?
Lance: It’s that “damned if you do… damned if you don’t” aspect of the job. In law enforcement you don’t seem to please anyone. So that’s really difficult. Also, it seems like everyone knows how to do my job better than I do. Everyone has their thoughts on how we should be doing law enforcement. That’s the most difficult thing. It’s always been that way and it will always be this way. These are trying times now with social media and everyone is being recorded or videoed. And we actually carry body-worn cameras now, so the job is changing with technology. Good or bad, that’s just the most difficult thing.

Neil: What do you think is your scariest experience in the park?
Lance: Retiring! (laughs) It’s kind of a joke…but it is. Going into this new phase. Being with the park, a park ranger has been my identity for the last 24 years or so. Once you work for the park service it becomes basically your life.

But there were a couple incidents. There was a training (exercise) that we did, trying to recover unconscious patients out of the water. I was playing as the victim. They had a rescue net trying to pull me up out of the water. They dropped me, with the net, back in the water. So, I am kind of tangled in this net. And most of these scary things are about water because water does kind of freak me out. I don’t know why I work at water parks. (laughter) But I freaked out. I overreacted, I shouldn’t have, but that weird feeling being tangled in a net back in the water kind of freaked me out….

Then (there was the) body recovery of the fifteen-year-old drowning victim at Stockton Julian Bay. I was pushing myself hard, going into the surf. I was too emotionally invested in that. I really wanted to get his body back. I didn’t want the lake to take him.

And then there was the incident with the (boat) Kingfisher, when the bow ramp dropped when I was operating the boat. I was too mission-focused on that…taking the boat out in high winds. I thought the boat could handle it. When that bow ramp failed…

Neil: When the boat was underway?
Lance: While it was underway in heavy seas. By me taking the boat out, and it was gale force wind coming up the channel out of the south. I figured I’d be in it until I get to Long (Island), but once we get on the north side of Long, it will be dead calm, and we’ll be fine. On the way back, it doesn’t matter because we’ll have following seas. But there was slack in the line, the pins popped out, the door popped down. I tried to raise it, and the winch just snapped that cable and the door failed. I was reprimanded for it because going out, I had a crew with me because they were going to survey the boundary line and this project had been going on for a long time and they wanted to finish it. I didn’t have enough work suits on board for everybody. It was late September or early October. But now, that shouldn’t happen to anyone ever again because we mitigated the issues with that [the slack in the cable line]. The Kingfisher is a SAR (search-and-rescue) boat, that was another factor. I thought, “this is a SAR boat, it should be able to operate in these conditions.” I was just pushing the limits. Overall, I shouldn’t have done it, but I’m glad I did. Now there are coverings over the buttons operating the bow ramp because you could (accidentally) hit those buttons by setting something on them and that could put slack in the line. I checked the pins before I left, because that is one of the things that you check. Now (before you go) you make sure there is no slack in the line, there’s covers over the buttons, and now there’s special training on using the Munson (boats) to make sure people understand the issues. But that was kind of freaky. I had to go stern-first all the way to Long and the waves were coming over the back. Having that door in the water, you couldn’t imagine trying to steer the boat (going in reverse). It basically just wants to go where it wants to go.

And I put other people at risk coming out to get me in those conditions. Anyway, we fixed the bow ramp and cancelled the mission.

Neil: Are there any humorous experiences that you can recall?
Lance: That is a hard question. There’s such a good staff here. We have a good time. There’s a lot of smart, witty employees. People are often kind of joking around and trying to make the best of it. But there is the Whitefish Days event that we do, that’s a good time…lots of laughs. Our Christmas parties and the white elephant gift sharing is fun.

At one of our all-employee training sessions, Dave Brunsvold made a comment when he was doing a PowerPoint. Here he’s trying to use a computer and he said, “yeah, these computers, I never thought they’d catch on!” Which (I thought) was really funny. And Owen’s (Lueders) presentations at these training courses are hysterical too.

As far as the visitor part of the job type of humor, I don’t know how funny it is, but it’s just people (blindly) following their GPS. Going down Eagle Island Road…

Neil: Getting lost?
Lance: Yeah. Driving down two-track paths that have not been driven. Somebody drove down Engholm Road as far as they could go until they got their car stuck. We called the tow truck because we couldn’t get the car out. We tried to jack it up, but it was hard aground…high-centered. The tow truck driver couldn’t drive his truck down to the car because the road was too bad. So, we got three ATVs down to the car. We were able to use just one tracked ATV to pull that car off and get it turned around. The kid didn’t want to drive his car out because he was kind of nervous, so the tow truck driver got in that kid’s car and just took off. Here the kid’s standing there, and we are on one passenger ATVs, so we can’t drive with a passenger. We’re all looking around and like, OK, and we took off. And here this poor kid has to walk all the way back. (We thought) you’re not going to ride down a back road again, I hope! That was kind of humorous. I felt bad for the kid, somewhat, but he was scraping, bottoming out going down the road…

Neil: Where did he think he was going?
Lance: To the sea caves! And there were road closed signs on the way.

Neil: What are some of the memorable things you’ve seen in the park?
Lance: The ice caves. 2014 we got slammed. It went viral. It seemed like we were always scrambling because we had never had those numbers before. We could never get ahead of it. It was a huge effort on the part of the community because everyone was pulling in the same direction. We were all trying to do the best we could, trying to figure this out. It was still successful, but we could never get ahead of it. We didn’t have the staffing. We were asking for help. We got some help, but every time we thought we couldn’t get more visitors, the next day there were even more.
Lance, Chris and another employee checking ice conditions at the sea caves

Lance, Chris and another employee checking ice conditions at the sea caves

But 2015, I think, was the highlight, because in 2014 we were scrambling trying to figure it out as best we can. And then 2015, we didn’t really have any extra help from an incident management team, but I think we were super successful. If we didn’t stay ahead, we at least stayed with it. Because of our messaging, people were showing up in the proper gear. No ambulances needed to show up at all. Of course, the event was shorter, only 38,000 people in a 10-day span, but we still had huge numbers of daily visitors. I think after having that one season of scrambling, we basically nailed it in the next season. If we had the ice caves again, there’s a lot of new folks here and I think we’d be scrambling again. But I don’t know if we’ll ever have them again.
Celebrating Caroline and Lance's marriage at a park meeting

Celebrating Caroline and Lance’s marriage at a park meeting

Caroline and Lance

Caroline and Lance

Neil: I know you met your lovely wife Caroline here in the park, after I had the good sense to hire her…you’re welcome.
Lance: Yep. Thank you.

Neil: Where did you take her on your first date?
Lance: I think it was Patsy’s for a burger. (laughter) So you hired her in 2014 as a seasonal employee for Meyers Beach and that’s the first time we met. There were a bunch of people out at Meyers Beach cleaning up after the ice caves were over. There was a ton of sand in the parking lot, so we’re sweeping up the sand to get ready for the summer. I went out there to help. So, as we’re sweeping up the sand I made a comment, “man, I wish I had a witch with all this sand, ‘cause then I could have a sand-wich!” (laughter) I think Caroline said I was a weirdo, but I think she thought I was an idiot. But that was the first time we met. I heard that joke a long time ago, and here we were sweeping up a bunch of sand, and I thought it was super funny.

Neil: And that didn’t scare her away?
Lance: Well, we re-met, again at the “Book Across the Bay” in 2015. After that we were in touch and then we started dating a couple months after Book Across the Bay.

Neil: When is your last day of work?
Lance: March 31.

Neil: What plans do you have for retirement?
Lance: They are kind of low key right now. Mostly, right now, volunteering locally, whether it is here at the park, if they need some help with things that I can do. They need help with volunteering. Isle Royale needs help. Dave Cooper and Dave Brunsvold are going to go up there for the summer because they are hurting bad for staffing. I think it is mainly resource management that is reaching out for help. As of now Coop, Brunsvold and I are going out there in May to get trained, see what boats they need to operate, maybe for a week or two during the summer. They’ll pay for the travel and lodging and all that.

Other volunteer opportunities I’m thinking about include Meals on Wheels down in Ashland. I like to go on walks, and I may adopt-a-highway down on Engoe Road to pick up trash. I’m going to work on house projects too. I may decide to look for paid work after a short time. As of now my plan is to kind of take it easy, volunteer if people need help, work on the house, go for walks… I think it is going to take a little adapting, I’ve been doing this for a while.

Neil: I think you’ll be surprised at how quickly you’ll fill your time. Especially if you have house projects. That’s never ending.
Lance: That’s the thing. I’m going to retire and then I’m spending more money doing house projects…but we’re fine…

Neil: Well, that’s great, Lance, thanks very much.

Neil Howk began working as a park ranger/interpreter for the National Park Service in 1978. He worked at a number of different parks over the years and served as the assistant chief of interpretation at Apostle Islands National Lakeshore from 1993-2016. He now serves as a board member of Friends of the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore.
Friends of the Apostle Islands Board Member Neil Howk

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