The People Who Make the Outdoors Great

… And how you can join their ranks
Tracey Blake

IF YOU’RE LIKE US, you probably spend a lot of time staring out the office window daydreaming about Arkansas’ great outdoors. (Editor’s note: Get back to work.) We find ourselves thinking, If only we’d chosen another career, one that would combine our love of nature with, well, a decent paycheck. At first that dream seemed a flight of pure fancy. But, really: Our state is chock full of people who took the path—or in this case, the hiking trail, the river, the climbing route—less traveled. So in an effort to see if those jobs are actually anything like our preconceptions, we reached out to a few outdoor professionals to see just what they do, and more importantly, how we (and you!) could do it, too.


Name: Tracey Blake

Age: 35

Title: Wildlife officer and special operations sergeant

Organization: Arkansas Game and Fish Commission

Years on the job: 10

What’s the best part of your job?

Working outside, in all elements, with every day being different.

Worst part?

Balancing my time between work—especially busy times of the year like the hunting seasons—and my personal life.

What does the public not realize about your job?

How tough and dangerous it can be. You have to want to be a wildlife officer—it’s not just a job; it’s a lifestyle. We carry a gun, a Taser and sets of handcuffs. We train to shoot, fight and survive, whether in the woods or on the water.

What did you not realize about the job until you started?

Going through 20 weeks at the training academy, everything is structured. Once you get out into the field, the structure goes away, and every day is subject to change.

What made you realize this was the job for you?

I’m not sure if I’ve realized this is the job for me, but I have realized that I am right for the job. I came into the agency as a young kid out of college not knowing a lot about it. Over the years, I’ve learned a lot and worked hard to fit the criteria of what makes a wildlife officer here in Arkansas. I plan on retiring as just that.

What advice would you give someone looking to land your job one day?

Do your research to make sure it’s something you really want. It’s a tough and dangerous career that has a very important role in resource conservation. Most importantly, it’s a lifestyle that you have to adapt to.


Name: Cheryl Vincent

Age: 39

Title: Assistant superintendent, Lake Catherine State Park

Organization: Arkansas State Parks

Years on the job: 13 years with Arkansas State Parks, Lake Catherine State Park for eight

What’s the best part of your job?

The park visitors. They become like family to us. I can tell you what holiday it is or what time of year it is based on who’s camping with us or staying in the cabins. So many of our park visitors have been coming here for years and years.

Worst part?

Plunging toilets or fixing water leaks at midnight. When you become a park ranger, you become a plumber, electrician, housekeeper, etc., all wrapped in one.

What does the public not realize about your job?

I think the public would be surprised by how much training we do. We’re all commissioned law enforcement officers and have statewide jurisdiction. We’re trained in search and rescue, wilderness remote first aid/first responders, wildland firefighting and more.

What has surprised you most?

Honestly, I didn’t know how much law enforcement went into it. We’re here to protect the resource—our parks, lakes, historic sites—from the people, the people from the resource and the people from other people. Trying to prioritize that can be difficult at times.

Did you always want to be a park ranger?

I knew I wanted to be a park ranger from the time I was 7 years old. My dad used to take us camping, and I knew I needed a job where I could work outside all the time.

What advice would you give someone looking to land your job one day?

All of our uniformed positions require a bachelor’s degree. It doesn’t have to be specifically for park management, criminology or wildlife biology. Volunteer or intern at your local state park during the summer months. It always helps if we know your name, face and work ethic when it comes to getting an interview.


Name: Kyle Lapham

Age: 34

Title: Fire manager

Organization: The Nature Conservancy (TNC)

Years on the job: 10 with TNC, 2 1/2 as fire manager

What’s the best part of your job?

Setting the world on fire! I truly feel I have one of the best jobs. The whole process is pretty amazing: orchestrating all of the logistics and operations, and seeing fire move across the landscape for the benefit of the plants, animals and people.

Worst part?

The travel is a double-edged sword. I get to see so many great places in Arkansas, but it makes for long days and weeks sometimes. I’m not always able to be home at night to see my wife and kids.

Best memory?

One that comes to mind is burning Pinnacle Mountain for the first time. It looked like a volcano erupting.

What does the public not realize about your job?

How important fire is to Arkansas. We aim to make the natural systems in Arkansas better, healthier and more resilient.

What did you not realize about the job until you started?

How much I would like it. Fire is completely captivating to me. My wife can tell you that I can start to become a bit grumpy when it’s been too long since I’ve been out burning.

What advice would you give someone looking to land your job one day?

Be eager and willing to learn. When I’m interviewing folks for our burn crew, I’m always impressed by the people who have volunteered first and maneuvered to get experience that would help them get noticed and qualified. It’s a small world out there. Go make your place in it.


Name: Lori Sloas

Age: 53

Title: Professional fly-fishing guide/instructor

Organization: Partner at Berry Brothers Guide Service in Cotter and Blue Ribbon Guides in Mountain Home

Years on the job: 15

What is the best part of your job?

Meeting people from all over the country who want to learn to fly-fish, working in a serene environment, and seeing families and couples learn a new sport that they can share together.

Favorite experience?

A client hired me to teach him how to fly-fish. I saw him the next day on the river, and he was catching one after another. He watched my two new clients struggle to land any fish. I was patiently pointing out their mistakes and how to fix them, but the two fellows insisted on doing it their way. Eventually, they turned to me and asked why he was catching fish and they weren’t. He overheard the question and quickly responded that he listened to me, and they weren’t listening to a word I said. I almost burst out laughing!

What did you not realize about the job until you started?

Clients have different expectations and goals. It’s my job to help them assess and achieve their goals while managing their expectations.

What advice would you give someone looking to land your job one day?

It is important for clients to have fun, catch fish and be safe. When I hire an instructor for anything, I pay for their expertise and their patience to teach me that skill. Remember to keep it simple when teaching a person to fly-fish.


Name: Daniel Carnahan

Age: 35

Title: Operations manager and head route setter

Organization: Little Rock Climbing Center

Years on the job: Climbing for 33 years, competition-route setting for eight, head route setter for four

What’s the best part of your job?

That’s easy: seeing the spark of excitement from a new climber. I’m able to set up a route for the young, the old, the tall and the short, and I’m able to let them problem-solve using climbing. It’s fantastic!

Worst part?

That’s a hard one, but I would say not being able to set up a five-star climb for everyone. People aren’t built the same, and they’ve all got different strengths, weaknesses and experience. But I’m up for the challenge and still try every time I put up a new climbing route.

What does the public not realize about your job?

A lot of people don’t realize the time, effort and artistic skill it involves. There are many different climbing holds to choose, and they vary in size and shape. It’s the head route setter’s job to have a firm grip (no pun intended) on what the climbing route distribution list should look like so there’s a range of climbing difficulty so climbers of all skill levels can find their personal challenge.

What made you realize this was the job for you?

I love being artistic, I love body movement and training, and I love to share the climbing sport.

What advice would you give someone looking to land your job one day?

Route setting can be one of the easiest jobs one day and one of the hardest the next. Being creative with indoor rock climbing every single day just doesn’t happen. Being able to adapt and overcome obstacles with what you have at the time is key.


Name: Jesse Livingston

Age: 31

Title: Arkansas trail crew program manager

Organization: International Mountain Bicycling Association

Years on the job: 5

What’s the best part of your job?

Getting to promote conservation through healthy and positive recreation is a favorite. Riding your bike at work doesn’t suck, either, or having someone tell you they love a trail you built. Or designing a new trail system in a town that doesn’t have one. Or spending all day in the woods. Or hanging out with mountain bikers. Or working with your best friends. … Or riding your bike at work.

Worst part of the job?

The humidity.

Funniest story?

One time, I was on the side of a mountain in Oregon, and the bucket on the excavator caught a stump and ripped completely off. I had to carry the 150-pound bucket down 6 miles of trail and 2,500 feet in elevation change to get it fixed. Then I carried the 150-pound bucket back up the mountain. We all had a good laugh.

What does the public not realize about your job?

In a perfect world, trail builders would go out and build amazing things with no constraints. Truth is, we’re bound by many factors—requests from the land manager, budget, time, trail users, safety, dirt, sustainability and the efficiency of certain tools.

What did you not realize about the job until you started?

That you are a construction worker. All the videos and forums showcase guys wearing flat-bill hats and flannels, packing berms and sculpting dirt-jump lips. Most of our time is spent carrying rocks, operating heavy equipment or raking.

What advice would you give someone looking to land your job one day?

Find your local IMBA Chapter, mountain bike club or professional trail builders, and help them out. Get involved, and log your hours. There is and always will be work to do on the trails, whether it’s maintenance or being one of the lucky few to help build a new trail.