As the lone park ranger manning Lake Sylvia State Park on most days, Darrel Hopkins has to wear “many hats,” along with the classic “Smokey Bear” that is part of his official uniform.
“You learn to wear many hats — law enforcement, maintenance, interpretive specialist all rolled into one,” said Hopkins, 30, who has been supervising Lake Sylvia since August of last year.
Hopkins is not new to Grays Harbor, having served as a ranger at Ocean City State Park on the North Beach prior to being laid off in 2012. He then found a job in central Idaho as a ranger at Land of the Yankee Fork State Park on the Salmon River. But since he was on Washington state’s “layoff list,” he received a call last year about the job opening at Lake Sylvia and jumped on it.
“It was an opportunity to come back home to Washington, so we took it,” said Hopkins, who is married with three young daughters, all living at the 1,500-square-foot home at Lake Sylvia, where the housing is part of his compensation package.
Hopkins was born in Renton and grew up in the Sumner/Puyallup area, graduating from Sumner High School in 2001. After earning his associate’s degree from South Puget Sound Community College, he attended Eastern Washington University, where he earned bachelor’s degrees in history and journalism.
“I was thinking of going into print media, but my wife said there’s not a lot of money in that and pointed out the jobs in the parks system,” Hopkins said. He later earned his master’s degree in public administration through online courses with the University of South Dakota.
Hopkins said he is putting all that knowledge to use — and more — managing Lake Sylvia and its sister state park, Schafer Lake near Elma.
“The lake atmosphere is different for me,” said Hopkins, noting that part of his job is monitoring the “unique structure” of the 109-year-old, 32-foot-tall dam that creates the impoundment, once used to generate power for the town of Montesano.
“This park has a lot of history and with the history comes the ages of the facilities, buildings and dam itself,” Hopkins said. “Really, it’s the older buildings in the park that you have to keep your eye on. We inspect the dam and we work with the Department of Ecology dam maintenance team to maintain it.”
Hopkins is also charged with managing the 41-site campgrounds and maintaining the peace in and around the park, and April is the beginning of the busy season for the park, illustrated by the fact that the campground was 90 percent full over the past weekend.
He said the law-enforcement aspect of his job “definitely comes into play when you get that influx of people” during the spring and summer months in to the 233-acre park.
Hopkins, who can often be seen carrying his sidearm, went through the four-month Parks & Recreation law enforcement academy as part of his ranger training and is a fully commissioned law enforcement official in the state.
But that’s not his favorite aspect of the job.
“It’s just great to be able to work outside and work with the public,” he said of his job.
He’s been seeing a lot of the public this past week as people have flocked to Lake Sylvia for camping, the annual Trillium Trek hikes and to try and score some of the hundreds of rainbow trout that were stocked in the lake by the Dept. of Fish and Wildlife last week.
Hopkins said there will be one more fish planting in the coming weeks, but there are some nice-sized lunkers in the lake — which has 15,000 feet of shoreline open to fishing year-round. The ranger has a picture on his smart phone of a local angler who caught an eight to 10-pound rainbow over the weekend. Along with the planted rainbow, Hopkins notes there are also native cutthroat trout in the Lake Sylvia fishery.
Hopkins lives in the park with his wife, Lyssa, and daughters Lilly, 10, Amelia, 7, and 2-year-old Willa. The older two attend elementary school in Montesano.
There’s also another member of the family who’s become quite familiar with some park visitors. That’s their calico cat, Callie, who the family adopted when it was abandoned at the state park he worked at in Idaho.
“We try to keep her in and around the house, but she prefers to be out greeting people in the park,” Hopkins said of the cat. “She likes to go down the slides with the kids. She has a great temperment and she’s the friendliest animal I’ve ever met. If we go on a bike ride in the park or a walk, she wants to go with us and follows us around the park.”
Right now, the park is staffed by Hopkins and his assistant Steven Swanson, who works there eight months out of the year. Hopkins said the park will be hiring a few more season workers in the months to come.
But Hopkins notes that this park and Schafer Lake get a lot of help from local volunteers who embrace the local natural treasures.
“This park has unusually big community ties, which is great to see,” said Hopkins. “And a great aspect of this park is the trails provided in cooperation with the City of Montesano and its forest.
“Lake Sylvia is unique because it feels like you’re in the middle of the woods when you’re in the park, but it’s just a mile down the road to civilization.”