Seasonal job at Glacier National Park inspired Detroiter to become ranger

Chad Sokol
Daily Inter Lake

Kalispell, Mont. – During his freshman year at Michigan State University, Pete Webster spotted an ad in the college newspaper for seasonal jobs in Glacier National Park. The former Boy Scout, who grew up in Detroit, jumped at the opportunity to work in the great outdoors.

His first job, though, wasn’t what he expected. In the kitchen of the St. Mary Lodge and Resort, Webster was handed a knife and the day’s catch of whitefish.

“This was sort of the signature dish for the lodge. They had a sign that said ‘Caught Fresh Daily.’ And so I was tasked with filleting – trying to learn to fillet – the fish, and it’s not something that I liked,” he recalled with a chuckle in a recent interview. “I don’t think I was very good at it, either.”

Pete Webster, acting superintendent of Glacier National Park

Fast-forward 35 years. Webster, 54, has spent roughly a third of his career in Glacier, a third in Yellowstone National Park, where he served as chief ranger, and a third in other national parks along the way. He is now Glacier’s acting superintendent, overseeing all aspects of the park, from law enforcement to facilities to conservation to public outreach.

Webster spent two years in the park’s No. 2 leadership post and took the helm in April, when Superintendent Jeff Mow left to serve as the National Park Service’s acting regional director for parks in Alaska. Webster said he anticipates it will be a temporary gig; Mow should return to Glacier around the end of August, at which point Webster would return to his old job as deputy superintendent.

But with another visitor season right around the corner, Webster won’t be relaxing on the job any time soon, the Daily Inter Lake reported.

Park officials anticipate the number of visitors in 2021 will meet or break records as the coronavirus pandemic ebbs, travel and commerce restrictions are lifted, and vaccinated people feel more comfortable taking off their masks and visiting new places.

Traffic is a primary concern for Webster and other park officials, who this year implemented a controversial reservation system to limit the number of vehicles on the Going-to-the-Sun Road corridor. Complicating matters further, construction is scheduled throughout the summer along U.S. 2 near the popular west entrance to the park.

“Within the last several years – 2015, plus or minus – visitation has reached the threshold that exceeds our capacity,” Webster said. “The capacity of the infrastructure, the road system and the park staff to safely protect the park, and protect the visitors and provide a good experience.”

Webster traces his love for Glacier to an overnight family camping trip in the park during his childhood. He recalled meeting a ranger at the Logan Pass visitor center who left a lasting impression.

“From there, I kind of just decided I wanted to be out in Montana somewhere, and the park really was something that drew me,” he said.

“I love the mountains,” he added. “You know, from Detroit, that’s something we didn’t have there.”

After a brief stint as a fish filleter at St. Mary in the summer of 1986, Webster was assigned a different job behind a deli counter, making sandwiches and scooping ice cream, and then another position as a fry cook.

He spent the next two summers “just hitchhiking and backpacking the park,” he said. “And from there, that got me an internship with the park in Walton that year. And that’s really where I learned, OK, what are the next steps to becoming a ranger.”

Webster spent his last summer during college working at an entrance station at Yellowstone, cementing his decision to attend a seasonal law enforcement academy in California the following year.

His first permanent ranger job was in Alaska. “And then,” he said, “I went down to Yellowstone and worked Old Faithful for about five years, and that was really where I grew my chops as a ranger.”

Webster was living largely off the grid at that point, but he wasn’t alone. Two of his three children were born during his posting at Old Faithful. He and his wife raised the toddlers through several winters in the park, their cabin thoroughly snowed-in.

Webster worked as a seasonal ranger in Glacier in the 1990s and 2000s and spent stints as a deputy chief ranger at Shenandoah National Park outside Washington, D.C., and chief ranger at Denali National Park in Alaska. He returned to Yellowstone in 2015 and served as chief ranger there until 2019, when he was tapped for the deputy superintendent job at Glacier.

Webster has encountered a lot of bears during his time in the backcountry. Once, he recalled, he and other rangers, with the aid of Karelian bear dogs, were trying to discourage a large grizzly sow from getting too close to hikers and campers in Glacier. It didn’t go particularly well.

“We ended up being in a situation where she came back and charged at us,” he said. “And then luckily with the dogs and all of us there, we were able to keep her at bay until she figured out where her cubs were at. Once she did that, they all kind of got together and moved off.”

Webster said his view of his job, and the aspects he finds most rewarding, have evolved over the years.

“The first thing that drew me was just the personal experience as a kid,” he said. “I was drawn to the mountains, the park specifically, and Montana as a whole. And then just coming out the first couple of years, it was primarily more personal experiences – backpacking, being with friends and whatnot.”

But as he settled into his role as a ranger, Webster quickly began focusing on the educational and interpretive aspects of the job, helping visitors understand the importance of conservation and forming emotional connections to nature.

“As I grew as a ranger and had more interactions with the public,” he said, “it definitely became not just protecting the park but providing meaningful experiences.”