MOUNT DESERT — People used to tell Sheridan Steele, former superintendent of Acadia National Park, that he should write a book about the fascinating, funny and sometimes freakish experiences he had in 38 years of national parks management.
Now he has.
It is titled “From Bear Dens to the Oval Office.”
One early spring day when Steele was deputy superintendent of Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado, he went along with wildlife biologists to check on the health of some mother bears and their newborn cubs.
After the hibernating mother bear in one den was anesthetized, her two cubs were brought out, and one was handed to Steele. He was instructed to tuck the cub inside his coat to keep it warm.
“But he was having none of it and tried to claw his way up and out,” Steele writes. “The next morning my neck was both red and sore where the male cub had scratched me.”
As for the Oval Office reference in the book’s title…
In 1999, when Steele was superintendent of Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Monument in Colorado, Congress passed a bill designating Black Canyon a national park. Steele, along with other National Park Service officials and several members of Congress, was invited to the White House to be present when President Bill Clinton signed the bill into law. At that moment, Steele became superintendent of America’s 54th national park.
He told the Islander that, even though the book tells of his experiences in specific national parks, he hopes it has broad appeal.
“During my career I found that, when you are in uniform out in public, people often come up to you and want to talk. There is just something about the national park ranger wearing the flat hat; people think we’re friendly, which I think we are, and they like to engage.
“So, I think that whether people have been to these specific parks or not, they would enjoy these stories.”
One of the stories he tells is of a mid-winter experience in Rocky Mountain National Park: “With a loud crack, the ice gave way, and in an instant I was standing on the bottom of the Colorado River with snowshoes on my feet…I was participating in the annual river otter survey where volunteers and park staff would…look for signs of the playful creatures.”
This wasn’t the only time during his outings in the park that enjoyment was tempered by a certain amount of personal discomfort. For example: “Because I wasn’t riding horses regularly, my infrequent rides produced a leg rash from the rubbing of leather and pant leg. Some experts claimed that wearing pantyhose eliminated the friction and the rash, but I could never bring myself to try it.”
As in probably every national park, rangers at Rocky Mountain are sometimes asked the strangest questions. One of Steele’s favorites was: “Is the altitude the same in the summer as it is in the winter?”
In 2002, he applied for the superintendent’s job in Acadia and was selected in early 2003.
An inveterate hiker, Steele could frequently be found on one of Acadia’s many mountain trails. One of his favorite views was from the summit of Mount Champlain.
“I also liked to hang out up there and listen to the excitement and thrill of those completing the Precipice climb,” he writes.
On the Precipice Trail, hikers ascend a sheer granite cliff with the help of iron rungs. Steele has climbed it at least a half-dozen times, always finding it “a great experience, unique in the national parks.”
His wife, Barb, also enjoys hiking, but the Precipice was more than she bargained for. After climbing it once, she declared, “Never again!”
One of Steele’s goals as Acadia’s superintendent was “getting youth outdoors and engaged with nature.”
“As mobile phones and the Internet consume more time in the life of today’s young people, I have grown increasingly concerned about the future of conservation, the environment and national parks.”
He tells of working with Friends of Acadia to develop programs designed to “get kids into the park and fully engaged in the natural environment.”
Near the end of the book, Steele takes readers behind the scenes in the long, complex, but eventually successful effort to save 3,200 acres adjacent to the Schoodic District of Acadia from commercial development. He didn’t do it alone, of course. But his passion and tenacity were key. And the result is surely one of his proudest achievements.
While Steele was at Rocky Mountain National Park, the park’s visitors included Pope John Paul II and the emperor and empress of Japan. As superintendent at Acadia, he hosted President Barack Obama and his family, who came for a long weekend in 2010. A few years before that, First Lady Laura Bush and a few of her friends came for a visit.
“These high-profile visits meant an increase in publicity and a corresponding bump in the numbers of park visitors,” Steele writes. “That caused both advantages and disadvantages. The most popular national parks…tended to get priority during budget negotiations in Washington. On the other hand, high visitation numbers often meant overcrowding at peak times, and this presented significant challenges for park managers.”
Steele retired from the National Park Service in 2015 after 12 years as superintendent at Acadia. During that time, he had opportunities to go to larger parks, but he always decided to stay.
“I loved the combination of natural beauty, historical interests, public support and the many partners, donors and volunteers who worked to make Acadia such a magnificent experience for both visitors and park staff,” he writes. “Acadia had all the ingredients for challenging and rewarding work.
“I was very, very lucky,” he told the Islander. “I had a fabulous career. I met so many great people and worked alongside so many great people. I had a passion for the national parks, and I still do.”
Steele has many wonderful memories from his nearly four decades of national park management. In the book, he lists about a dozen of them, including this:
“Seeing a still-steaming elk calf just born on a cold spring morning in the Rocky Mountains – a spiritual experience indeed.”
And this: “Having the American citizenship ceremony at Jordan Pond in Acadia and, as superintendent, welcoming these new citizens and telling them they are now part owners of Acadia and other national parks.”
Steel’s book, “From Bear Dens to the Oval Office,” can be purchased at Sherman’s Book Shop in Bar Harbor and McGrath’s Variety Store in Northeast Harbor. It also is available on Amazon.