Seasonal ranger with chatty style and geology expertise looks back on back on 55 summers at Wind Cave National Park
Don Frankfort couldn’t have asked for a much better way to end it.
Under clear, starry skies with silhouettes of ponderosa pine looming all around and friends, family and colleagues sitting with park visitors in the Elk Mountain Campground amphitheater, the 78-year-old Frankfort gave his last evening campfire program in Wind Cave National Park.
After doing them for 55 summers.
That’s right, 55 summers, including 50 summers straight until COVID showed up in 2020.
But the coronavirus was just a bump in the seasonal-ranger road for Frankfort, a New York City native who came west on a whim for a summer ranger job at Wind Cave in 1967. He came back in 1968, missed a season in 1969 and returned in 1970.
And after that he committed half a century of summers to greeting visitors and telling the Wind Cave story, above and below ground.
“From ’70 to 2019 it was 50 consecutive summers,” Frankfort said in an interview a couple of days after his Saturday night campfire program finale. “Then COVID kicked me out after 2019 and broke the streak at 50.”
He came back the next summer, however, and the next. And again this summer, although it was becoming clear that while passion for the seasonal ranger work was still strong, his body was weakening.
Frankfort hurt his left knee in June of 2022, which meant giving up cave tours and the hundreds of steps they require for the remainder of that summer season. He returned to the cave this summer, but noticed objections from his knees.
“I started thinking that my joints just don’t feel quite right down there, with all the stairs,” he said. “So my thinking has been that I could become a physical or safety liability down there, if my knees buckle or something goes wrong.”
A life full of summers in the park, by the numbers
So after 55 summers, Frankfort decided it was time to retire from the park where he found his life’s calling, met his wife — and where their son would meet his while doing seasonal work — and found a place to use his chatty personality and undergraduate and graduate degrees in geology. Which is why Mary and I drove down to Wind Cave on Saturday night to catch Frankfort’s last campfire program.
It was much more than that. It was also a by-the-numbers look at the life of a long-serving seasonal park ranger and interpreter, presented in a light-hearted, informative way by park Chief of Interpretation Tom Farrell and Assistant Chief of Interpretation Lennie Ramacher.
Let’s start with the stairs that Frankfort mentioned earlier. In giving an estimated total of 5,400 cave tours, Frankfort went up or down more than 1.6 million stairs. In doing that, he guided about 150,000 people through the cave. If you lined those people up, they’d create a string of humans almost 57 miles long.
And how many of those cave tours finished on time? Um, well, zero, according to Farrell. I said Frankfort was chatty, didn’t I?
Another interesting statistic was the number of tour participants that he “lost” during cave tours: nine. But be advised, those people weren’t lost forever and aren’t wandering around down in the darkness somewhere. They were quickly “found” by another cave tour.
“We’ve gotten much better at this. But occasionally you’ll have visitors that don’t keep up with the group,” Farrell explained by email a couple of days after the campfire program. “When they come to an intersection, they go the wrong way and bump into another tour.”
That unplanned exchange of tour participants actually worked in Frankfort’s favor, numerically speaking. He might have “lost” nine people over the years but he picked up 47 from other tours, for a net gain of 38.
Enough steps to walk all the way back to New York
In all the tours, Frankfort walked an estimated 1,800 miles. That means, over the course of his summer tours, he took enough steps to walk back home to New York City. Which is a pretty nice stroll, a few thousand steps at a time, mostly underground.
Then there are the people statistics. Frankfort worked with about 500 fellow interpreters, had 12 supervisors and “outlasted” eight superintendents, not counting current Superintendent Leigh Welling.
That’s proof of Frankfort’s staying power, which is further demonstrated by the fact that he has been affiliated with the park for 46 percent of its 120-year history.
In that time, he has spent 3,250 hours staffing the front desk at the park visitor center. He loves that job, because “I’m the first face visitors see when they walk in the door.”
I’ve seen him there a number of times over the years, greeting people with a smile and answering questions in detail. I think he might have answered a few of my own, and maybe a couple of times given Farrell a call to come to the front desk and see me.
There have been some interesting moments along the way for Frankfort. He was stuck in an elevator twice and charged by a bison once. Bisons, I guess I should say.
One of the elevator incidents happened this year, on June 20th. Frankfort had just finished a tour with 39 people and had taken 10 of them back up to the surface by elevator, where space is limited. He was heading back down for another group when the elevator stuck.
Getting out of the elevators and running from the bison
Fortunately there’s a phone in the compartment. And with help from other staffers, he was out in 18 minutes. But the elevator problem and other complications meant that other rangers had to lead the remainder of the tour on foot up 21 stories to get out.
That was after they had walked that far down during the tour. Frankfort said they all said they were fine, and seemed to be.
The other time he got jammed up was in June of 2014. He had just finished a tour and was taking 10 people from the group up to the surface when the elevator got stuck. This time the phone didn’t work. Neither did an alarm bell. Eventually he got the attention of a ranger with tour members in another elevator by pounding on the walls of their own elevator compartment and yelling the ranger’s name.
But there were problems with restarting the elevator. And even then it moved very slowly By the time they got Frankfort and his tour group members to the surface they had been in the elevator compartment for an hour and 10 minutes. One small girl got “a little panicky,” but otherwise there were no problems.
Emergency medical personnel checked everyone out just to be sure.
“When I was by myself for 18 minutes, I didn’t care about that. You know you’ll just sit there and be bored,” Frankfort said. “But the other time, with people on it with me, that’s different. You don’t want visitors to be in an uncomfortable situation.”
Speaking of uncomfortable situations, that’s where Frankfort found himself in 1967, running with another ranger as fast as they could away from a group of bison that were, well, gaining on them fast. It was his first summer in the park and he joined a second-year ranger on a hike.
When they came upon the bison herd, the shaggy beasts were plenty far away, maybe 200 yards. And at first, the bison start to run off. Then they turned, sort of lined up “shoulder to shoulder” and started to walk toward the hikers, picking up speed as they went.
Frankfort and the other ranger started running the other way as fast as they could with backpacks and camera gear.
“With that gear, we were probably running at 10 mile an hour. And bison can run at 35,” Frankfort said. “So they were gaining and pretty soon were maybe 100 or 125 yards behind us.”
About then, Frankfort and the other ranger ran down a slight incline on the landscape, out of sight of the bison. And once they were out of sight, the bison lost interest, which is exactly what you hope they’ll do out on the open prairie.
Since then, Frankfort has been closer to bison on foot a number of times without any incident similar to that. But he still maintains a “healthy respect for them,” and a healthy distance.
With good reason.
A life-changing Western Union telegram
But back to that last campfire program, his 365th, by the way. It would be hard for any of the previous 364 to top the last one.
After the by-the-numbers routine by Farrell and Ramacher, Frankfort presented his life story as it connects with Wind Cave. He spoke of how a family trip west to visit national parks when he was a kid stopped at Carlsbad Caverns National Park in New Mexico. There Frankfort’s mother was talking to a park ranger and learned that his job was seasonal.
What a concept!
A few years later when Frankfort was looking for a fun, interesting summer work experience, he remembered that seasonal-ranger epiphany. He sent federal job applications to 10 national parks and received just one response: from the superintendent of Wind Cave.
Frankfort still has the Western Union telegram (Telegram? Look it up, kids.) from March 3, 1967, that reads in all caps:
“YOU HAVE BEEN SELECTED SEASONAL PARK RANGER NATURALIST GS-4 AT $4,476 PER ANNUM WIND CAVE NATIONAL PARK. REPORTING DATE AND OTHER INFORMATION WILL FOLLOW BY LETTER. PLEASE ADVISE ACCEPTANCE OF THIS OFFER BY RETURN WIRE WARREN D HOTCHKISS SUPT WIND CAVE NATIONAL PARK”
The GS rating and annual salary was prorated for the length of seasonal employment. Frankfort figures it was about $2.29 an hour, hardly royal wages but a reasonable rate considering that the federal minimum was $1.40 an hour in ’67.
But more than wages and rates, the telegraph amounted to a season pass to a lifetime of summer work that often seemed more like play to Frankfort. He put his conversational ways and geology training to work during his summers at Wind Cave. In the off season for a number of years he worked back home in New York teaching a college geology class and working at a model-train business.
In the summer of 1976, Frankfort met his future wife, Kim, an Aberdeen girl who was also working at the park. They were married two days before Christmas in 1980, during a trip to visit national parks across the Western United States.
Finding a job in Gillette and finally moving west for good
The next summer they were back at Wind Cave, where they both worked through that summer and the next. Well, Kim ended her seasonal contract early in the summer of ’82 to take a full-time job with a school system in Gillette, Wyo., as librarian and media specialist.
That job allowed them to move out west permanently, not just for the summer seasons. They bought a place at Gillette and Don, who had been unable to find a college teaching job in the area, settled in as a house husband.
A couple of years later with the birth of their son, Sam, Don would become a stay-at-home dad, except for the summers at Wind Cave, which worked into Kim’s school schedule.
Kim worked for the Gillette school system for 26 years, retiring in 2008. Then they moved to a place on five acres just south of the park, about five miles from the visitor center, where they still live.
It was a pretty sweet location with a pretty sweet seasonal job nearby.
“I never had a real, full-time job in my entire life,” Don says. “I never had to grow up and get a full-time job.”
He looked and sounded during that last campfire talk like a man who had found the right path, the right people and the right place. His final evening program was a reflection of that.
Near sundown earlier, bison were grazing and grunting in a meadow not far away. And as the light faded at the amphitheater area, people stopped to look at the flat front surface of a large wooden arrowhead resting on a table. The arrowhead, which has been the emblem of the National Park Service since 1951, is a traditional gift for retiring NPS employees.
Some people signed their names on the arrowhead and offered well wishes that included this one from Clarissa: “You’re one of the best co-workers I’ve ever had.”
And this from Lennie: “Don — Thanks for showing me and so many the way.”
And then there was this one, from Nick:
“I thought we weren’t allowed to remove fossils from the cave.”
Pretty good, huh?
And now it’s all over for him in the park, unless …
At almost 72, I can chuckle along with Don Frankfort at the humor. But he’s one fossil who is unlikely to be removed from the cave and from the park for good.
Oh, sure, Saturday night’s program was his last campfire talk. But he’s going to work at the park for a few more weeks, and expects to lead a ranger trip or two out to listen to elk bugle.
He’ll also still be staffing the information desk at the visitor center.
And then that’ll be it. Or, um, will it?
“Tom (Farrell) asked me if I’d come back next year and do some data work,” he said.
You know, data work — keeping track of the number of tours and programs and the number of people and things like that. And he might even offer a few tips to newcomer ranger-naturalists on the geology of the cave, which the geologist in him understands as “an incredibly complex story.”
But, he stresses, the job of the ranger naturalist is to know those complexities well enough to present them to visitors in a simple, understandable way.
Don Frankfort could be very helpful in that, if he were to return to the park in a different way.
“If I did anything, it would be as a volunteer, not a seasonal employee,” he said. “At this point, I’m not sure.”
Well, he’s sure about one thing: Saying “yes” to that Western Union telegram back in March of 1967 was one of the smartest things he has ever done.
It led him to a park and cave and landscape he came to know and love, to family, friends and an extended community of colleagues and former colleagues.
And, of course, it lead him to a job that over 55 summers demanded his full attention and focus, but never required him to grow up.