Cayo Costa park rangers work in unique environment
Maintaining a house is a chore for many, but imagine trying to take care of 2,506 acres of paradise, which can only be reached by boat.
What comes with such a responsibility is self-reliance, self-efficiency and duties which include everything from fixing a carburetor on a tractor, to clearing a half-acre of invasive exotic plants near the beach.
It’s the day and life of a Cayo Costa park ranger, a job which entails working on an island, where convenience stores don’t exist and you will work with what you have.
When asked to describe a normal, regular day of working on Cayo Costa State Park, Park Ranger Megan Reed could only laugh.
“A normal day, huh?” Reed said with a laugh. “No, everyday is different out here. It’s just limitless, there are no two days which are ever the same.”
Challenges abound, but the chance to work in paradise, literally, has been an attraction for the Park Rangers who live it everyday.
There are many hats a Cayo Costa park ranger has to wear, because there will be no calling the local plumber to stop the broken pipe in one of the bathrooms, or going to the hardware store to buy a new spark plug when the lawnmower doesn’t start.
Whatever items are on the island during that day or evening, that’s what the park rangers will have to work with.
“One challenge out here is we need to be self-sufficient,” said park manager Chad Lach, who oversees Cayo Costa, Don Pedro Island, Gasparilla Island and Stump Pass Beach. “We need those generators running 24/7, and we need the fuel out here to do it. We do everything ourselves. If a truck isn’t working, we can’t just take it to a shop, we fix it ourselves.
“If we need to completely rebuild a 50-kilowatt generator, we do it. We take three golf carts and make one out of it. It’s a big expense barging equipment out here and we have to rent one to get anything out here. Just the other day, we transports four picnic tables, using just one boat. You learn to work around challenges when being on an island.”
Each state park in Florida brings its own unique attraction, with Cayo Costa’s being seclusion and the chance to live rustic island life camping. It is 12 miles west of Cape Coral and was established as a state park in 1976.
There isn’t any electricity and campers/visitors are only afforded cold showers. Sometimes cell service is good, depending on one’s carrier, but mostly, it’s you smack dab in paradise without the anchor of civilization hounding you.
Cayo Costa State Park has nine miles of coastline beach, with 12 cabins and 40 campsites available to overnight visitors. There are also three first-come-first-serve campsites available to ride-in visitors.
But it’s the job of the park rangers to ensure the island stays as it is, much like is was 300 years ago. The Park Service also employes a maintenance mechanic, some part-time workers and many good volunteers.
Two of the park rangers, John Dunnan and Assistant Manager Bill Nash, live on the island full-time in the housing units provided by the State Park Department. That ensures there is 24-hour authority and supervision on the island at all times.
The day starts promptly at 7 a.m. for Lach, who lives with his wife and son on Gasparilla Island, which is nearby to Cayo Costa.
“The first thing we do is run through the bathrooms,” Lach said. “We make sure they are clean. My philosophy, is will you let your mom use that bathroom?
“Then we make a run through the park to make sure everything is safe and open, like the trails. I will stop at the Ranger Station, get it opened and see how many campers we have coming in and how many people on ferries will be coming on. That will dictate how the day will go.”
Services such as Captiva Cruises, Tropic Star out of Pine Island and King Fisher provide ferries for daytrippers and campers.
Captiva Cruises is the Official State Park Concessionaire for Cayo Costa State Park, Gasparilla State Park, Don Pedro Island, Stump Pass Beach State Park, Jug Creek Cottages and oversees all ferry services, special events and concessions.
The Captiva Cruises take off out of McCarthy’s Marina and South Seas Resort Marina out of Captiva. Their Cayo Costa ferry information can be found at www.cayocostaferry.com.
Visitors who board off a ferry, will enjoy an island which has remained the same for the most part for the last century and a half. There are no houses or business development nearby, just beach, palm trees and an array of native vegetation and wildlife such as dolphins, gopher tortoises, shorebirds and plenty of fish to be caught.
But with the only way to the island being by boat, the Park Rangers need to be creative in ways to maintain the park.
“It’s a constant battle with rain, bugs and grass constantly growing, and it takes a lot to make it look like this,” Dunnan said. “You have to be plumber, electrician, carpenter or whatever needs to be done. Since I live on the island, this is like your back yard. The park doesn’t just close at 5 p.m., when the gates are closed up, there are still campers here. But it is just great being out here.”
For how unique working on Cayo Costa is, the treks the park rangers took to get there are also interesting.
Many paths for park rangers in the Florida park system are many, with a bevy of forks in the road. Moving from park to park is common and climbing the ladder is normal.
Lach, who is from Cleveland, Ohio, took such a route. He started out in park law enforcement, which ultimately was not the career choice he wanted to pursue.
“I worked in Utah at a fish hatchery, which was seasonal, so I started applying in Florida,” Lach said. “I had 11 interviews for jobs here and no one hired me because of my law enforcement background, but I didn’t want to do that.
“But a park attendant position opened up and I took it. I started from the very bottom and worked my way up.”
A park attendant’s job is mostly cleaning bathrooms and maintaining the park, but after four months of that, he worked as a park ranger for 3.5 years at another Florida park, then as an assistant Park Manager in Naples for four years.
Eventually, he reached park administrator at Gasparilla Island, where he manages the four parks, including Cayo Costa.
“But times have changed, because about 10-15 years ago, if a resident position open up, you’d have 75 applications,” Lach said. “You don’t get that anymore. Because of the economy or if a spouse is working, they will not want to move.
“When I was trying to get in the system, you were competing against other park rangers for same position. You just don’t see that anymore, people are settled in where they want to be. I consider I have a primo job opening at San Pedro and don’t have a single ranger applying for it, and I am shocked by that.”
Lach and his family lives on Gasparilla Island, where his wife also works. His son attends the K-5 school on the island, but will have to go to a mainland elementary and eventually middle and high school.
“If you have a family and kids, that means you have to get up, take them over on the boat to get picked up by the bus,” Lach said. “When you go grocery shopping, you make a day of it. And if you forget a gallon of milk, you will not have milk for those few days.”
But the island lifestyle is perfect for Lach and his family. He loves small community living and the solitude of living and working on a barrier island.
“It takes a unique person to do it,” Lach said. “But I love me some fishing. I can be found on the beach fishing at 5 a.m. before work.”
Dunnan made a major life change after working in a factory for 27 years in Ohio.
“I decided, since the kids were graduating and my dad had been working in he factory since he was 20, I didn’t want to be there that long,” Dunnan said. “If I was going somewhere else, I needed to do it now.
“My in-laws were in (Naples) area, so my wife and I moved down to help them out. Everyone said I was stupid leaving a $24 an hour job, but the stress up there was out of the roof. I spent my first two or three months down here decompressing.”
Dunnan eventually took a job as an eco-tour guide for a kayaking outfit, which eventually led to him applying for a ranger job on Gasparilla Island instead. He was hired by Lach in 2012.
“Having a backyard like this is amazing,” Dunnan said. “I’ve always been in a job where you watch the clock counting down when it’s time to leave. I don’t have to do that here.”
Reed and Nash took a more conventional route to Cayo Costa, with both graduating from Auburn. Reed earned a degree in animal science and Nash in Forestry.
Reed lives in North Fort Myers and drives the 45 minutes to Bokeelia, where she jumps in a boat and heads to Cayo Costa.
“That presents many challenges and I am definitely learning how to drive the boat through rough waters, because I have to get to work,” Reed said. “But I know the day can bring anything. If something breaks down and we don’t have the supplies to fix it, we still have to figure out how to get by.
“But it’s awesome out here. I get to work in an environment which is usually displayed on peoples’ screen savers.”
Nash is the assistant manager and his duties include being the immediate supervisor on the island and in charge of maintenance.
But the challenges which are presented is just a part of the job.
“This is perfect for me, I am not a fan of crowds and traffic anyway,” Nash said. “This is the quietest place ever, especially at night. There isn’t any light pollution and I get to meet different people from all over the world.”
Nash said the best plan for working on Cayo Costa is having a plan in advance.
“Just have a tangible plan and think in advance,” he added.
The park rangers also have to be the first line of help in case of emergencies. There are over 100,000 visitors who step foot on Cayo Costa a year, meaning there are plenty of mishaps which can take place.
The most common is stepping on one of the creatures in the Gulf of Mexico.
“Most common is someone stepping on a sting ray, and it happens quite a bit,” Lach said. “You can recover here on the island, depending on what your pain tolerance is. The best treatment is to apply the hottest water you can possibly stand.”
But some emergencies are more severe and outside aid needs to be called. Most of the time in occurrences like that, medivacs are issued, which includes helicopters flying in to pick up the patient.
The affordability also is an attraction for visitors. No one needs to be in the millionaire club to stay on a secluded island, there’s just not the amenities of a four-star hotel, which in turn, is another attraction.
“There is no electricity here and people ask about cell phone service, and I tell them it depends on carrier, and sometimes you get no reception, and then they say ‘Great! I want to get away from it all!'” Lach said. “Then some others say they want their technology.
“But many just want to get away.”
Expect cold showers, no take-out food, the inconveniences of what Mother Nature has in her arsenal such as mosquitos and humidity and no roads which leads to a shopping center.
But expect solitude, a chance to stay on a secluded island where the stars are as bright as lights in a skyscraper and having the chance to being one with Mother Nature.
Visitors of Cayo Costa also can have the comfort the Keepers of the Island are nearby in the form of Florida State Park Rangers.