Park ranger Hank Schoch was jack-of-all-trades for 17 years
This is the first in a series of weekly columns about Colorado National Monument in honor of the park’s centennial anniversary on May 24.
When Hank Schoch was hired as chief ranger for Colorado National Monument, it was not exactly love at first sight. The high desert isn’t for everyone, not even a man with a dry-as-dust sense of humor whose maiden voyage with the National Park Service began in the Grand Canyon. But he was in his mid-30s and needed a good job to support his growing family. He opted to make the best of things until something better came along.
“When I came here, I had no intention of staying,” Schoch said.
That was 1977. It took time for the charisma of the monument’s red stone canyons to grow on him. After assignments in other national parks, from Mississippi to North Dakota, he accepted the job at the monument before actually laying eyes on the place.
This was all part of what he defines as a “calling,” similar to the urge some feel to join the ministry. So he and his wife, Judy, opted to raise three children in Fruita, a stable community with good schools and Western hospitality.
“We decided it was a good place to be stuck,” he said. The rest is history. He would end up devoting more than half his park ranger’s career to protecting the monument’s flora and fauna.
Today, 17 years since his retirement, Schoch still can’t bring himself to stay away. He explores the trails with the fast pace and inquisitive spirit of a man half his 68 years. He volunteers every year to teach new rangers the ropes. He even wrote a book about the monument.
Not that he planned it this way. An Ohio native, Schoch graduated from the University of Cincinnati with a geology degree. He entered grad school, unsure of what good it would do him in the real world. His formal studies came to a halt, however, when a job recruiter invited him to join the National Park Service. He accepted the offer.
His efforts to help train tomorrow’s generation of park rangers at the monument may reflect his own experience as an impressionable young man with a new green-and-gray uniform.
Schoch recalls meeting Eivind T. Scoyen, a legendary figure in the National Park Service. The year was 1967 and the place was Grand Canyon National Park, where Schoch and other rookie rangers underwent training for their bright futures ahead. Scoyen, then 71, was there to inspire the whippersnappers before they began their life’s work.
The 25-year-old Schoch and his peers listened to the elder statesman, still revered, if past his prime. Scoyen had risen from youthful seasonal ranger to superintendent of several national parks and combated one of the worst wildfires in U.S. history. Scoyen eventually helped lead the National Park Service as associate director.
By 1967 his career was over, and it was clear Scoyen missed it. Schoch recalled: “Eivind Scoyen told us, ‘If I could do it all over again, I’d like to be sitting where all of you are sitting right now.’ “
Schoch proved to be a jack-of-all-trades for the National Park Service. He led nature walks, investigated car accidents, repaired fences, found lost hikers, wrote press releases, rounded up bison, monitored the aeries of peregrine falcons, led ski patrols, arrested poachers, created museum exhibits, organized special events, helped rescue stranded climbers, surveyed archaeological sites and helped reintroduce desert bighorn sheep here.
A crisis often loomed on his radar screen: flash floods, wildfires and a legal battle with landowners over multiple use of Rim Rock Drive that ended up in federal court.
Close calls were few. He crossed paths with a mountain lion, and kept a photo of the big cat’s enormous paw print to prove it.
“I’ve seen plenty of midget-faded rattlesnakes on the Rim Rock Drive in various states of repose, locomotion or ‘vehicular compression,’ but in all my miles of hiking in the monument’s backcountry, I’ve encountered only one,” he said.
He was hiking along the bench above the head of Kodels Canyon and noticed the little rattler gliding along from a safe distance. “Whether lions or rattlesnakes,” he said, “I suppose it’s the ones you don’t see that should be of concern.”
For 27 years Schoch worked for the National Park Service — the last 17 as the monument’s chief ranger. He hung up his “flat hat” for the last time at the monument in 1994.
Now Schoch is nearly as old as Scoyen was that unforgettable day long ago at Grand Canyon. If he could do it all over again, Schoch probably would like to be sitting where young rangers sit when they sign on.
What would he tell them?
“It was a calling then and perhaps still is,” he said. “If someone hears the call and finds it appealing, I’d tell them to go for it.”
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Eric Sandstrom teaches at Mesa State College and is a seasonal park ranger at Colorado National Monument.