YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK, Wyo. — If there's one law that really chaps Colette Daigle-Berg, it's the mandatory retirement age for federal law enforcement officers.
While 57 might be the new 40, in the eyes of federal officials, at least, it's time to hang up the badge and sidearm and find something else to do.
"It's my 'What's next, Colette?' "Daigle-Berg said while standing on a ridge overlooking the icy Lamar Valley in Yellowstone National Park. "I guess I'll take some time to decompress and look at my options. I have some transferable skills. I know the park and its issues pretty well."
Daigle-Berg turned 57 in January and will be leaving the job at the end of the month. It's been a long run for a woman who came from Seattle to Yellowstone in 1974 and pumped gas so she could stay.
She said the Yellowstone dream came in part from her sister, who "had a great time one summer." Daigle-Berg (just a Daigle back then), liked to hunt and camp, and she knew pumping gas wasn't a long-term solution to a longtime dream.
"I got my degree in forest resource management in 1979 and started as a seasonal ranger," she said. "I did two summers up in Alaska on the Yukon River in '82 and '83, then one year at Indiana Dunes National Lake Shore to get my foot in the door as a permanent ranger."
As fate would have it, Daigle-Berg returned to Yellowstone in 1986 and has worked out of Tower since 1992. As one would expect after so many years patrolling the trails in the nation's oldest national park, she's got some stories to tell.
It was "boundary season," around 2000, when Daigle-Berg was patrolling Yellowstone's northern line with the national forest. She discovered a poorly hung and abandoned bag of horse feed on the wrong side the line, and a rather large Yellowstone grizzly trying to get at it.
The timing was right when four hunters from Billings happened down the trail. It wasn't their bag of horse feed, she said, but they were happy to help deal with it in the proper way.
"I'm up one tree, another guy is up the other tree, and we're testing the rope," she said. "One guy is down below, keeping an eye on the bear, and the other two are trying to lift the sack of horse feed. That bear was in the periphery, watching."
The sun had gone down by the time the job was done. Daigle-Berg found herself hiking out alone, knowing the bear wasn't far away.
But the life of a Yellowstone ranger can be a solitary one. She recalled the manhunt for the escaped killers out of Arizona and summers riding in an ambulance with injured park visitors.
There was the time she helped save a cardiac patient on the top of Mount Washburn — the park's highest point — and she helped hatch a plan to arrest a man who vowed not to return to prison alive.
"One of our seasonal rangers recognized his vehicle at the Tower campground from the APB," she said. "Our plan was to catch him when he came out of the outhouse in the morning. It worked without a hitch."
Daigle met her Berg in Yellowstone Park and was married at the chapel in Mammoth. She'll miss the work and her life as a park ranger, but she doesn't plan on quitting the Yellowstone way.
"That's the joy of this job and what I'll miss — there's so much variety to it," she said. "It's a lot of work, a lot of long days, but look around. Look at this place."