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Meet The Park Ranger Who's Right At Home In The Northwest's Wettest Landscape

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Gabriel Spitzer
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KPLU
Ranger Jon Preston

Editor’s Note: This story originally ran as part of our new show, “Sound Effect,” which airs on Saturdays at 10 a.m.

“Smell that, Gabriel.”

Jon Preston waves a jumble of moss under my nose. It looks very much like a green wig. I oblige and breathe in a lungful of earthy air.

“It smells just like soil, turned over in your garden, right?” Preston says, his eyes twinkling.

This is an invitation to join him on a deep dive into the microscopic zoo of life that teems in the Hoh Rain Forest’s thick moss mats. His pace quickens as he explains the elegant links of the ecological chain.

The moss filters raindrops, collecting the mineral dust motes at their centers. Those accumulate and shelter tiny arthropods who prey on insects, enriching the soil and serving up nutrients for plants, ranging from ferns to 270-foot-high conifers. 

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Credit Courtesy of Jon & Debbie Preston
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This stuff just lights up Preston, a lead interpretive officer for Olympic National Park.

“What’s remarkable is there's a lot of tiny spiders in this forest. I mean, bazillions of'em!” the ranger effuses. He rhapsodizes about the lush plant and wildlife like he’s digging into an especially rich entree.

“All kinds of habitat, all kinds of places to live!” he says. “If you think about other forests as these kind of double-layer suburban places, this one is a metropolis of skyscrapers with multiple  condos that go up 75 meters into the sky! It’s an amazing place.”

Preston is a rain forest nerd, a guru, an evangelist for a unique ecosystem that he’ll gleefully tell you has the most surface area and the densest biomass of any on the planet. It’s also one of the wettest – the very wettest, in fact, in the contiguous United States.

“It’s not a place [for you] if you don’t like rain,” he says.

A Lifelong Love With A Place Of Mist And Gloom

Preston has manned the visitor center at the lower 48’s rainiest national park since 2003 — “longer than anybody’s ever held that job before,” he likes to say.

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Credit Courtesy of Jon Preston
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The Hoh Rain Forest gets 12 to 14 feet of rain a year — about four times more than Seattle. It sits shrouded in mist and gloom for months on end. Maybe that’s why rangers here tend to last just a few years.

“Most people used the job as a stepping stone,” he says. But for Preston, this spot is no career way station but a destination.

His love affair with the lush landscape of the Olympic Peninsula began when he was just 7 years old, growing up in Hawaii. He was staying with Washington relatives on a summer trip when he made his first trip to Olympic National Park. Two years later he visited Hurricane Ridge.

“It was the first time I’d ever touched snow, and it had a huge impact on me” he says. “There was a ranger there. His named was Jack Hughes. And he kind of let me hang out with him for about 10 minutes or so, just following him around doing what he did. I thought he was so cool.”

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Credit Courtesy of Jon Preston
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Later on that trip he found himself at last in the rain forest, on the banks of the meandering Hoh River, chucking rocks into the current while his dad lounged nearby with a novel.

“I was getting to see and experience stuff I had only read about in textbooks,” he says.

When Preston would come home to Hawaii from his summer trips, he discovered that his peers didn’t much relate to the moving experiences he was having in the moist reaches of the Northwest.

“There was no point of reference to talk about it to other people, and it became a very personal journey for me. And I think that was really good,” he says.

It wasn’t a destination to be checked off on a list. And it wasn’t like summiting a famous mountain or catching a huge wave or something else to be announced and boasted about.

“It just became something I really enjoyed and looked forward to only because of my personal experience,” he says.

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Credit Courtesy of Jon Preston
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Pulled Toward The Hoh

Preston’s career trajectory wasn’t exactly linear. It went something like this: scuba diver, navy technician, theater arts major, plumber.

The plumber certification took years of work and apprenticeship in California. But once he had it in hand, he knew he could go almost anywhere and would be able to find work.

“The day I finished, my truck was already loaded up and I drove straight to Port Angeles. I wanted to be next to the Olympics,” he says. “I put an ad in the paper when I rolled into town that afternoon that said ‘plumber seeking employment,’ and to call a particular phone number which happened to be the phone booth next to the Odyssey bookstore.”

He didn’t have to wait long. In the next year, Preston worked as a plumber for eight months, then hiked in the nearby mountains for four.

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Credit Courtesy of Jon Preston
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Over time, he maneuvered his way toward the rain forest like an ambitious young professional climbing the company ladder. He volunteered at Hurricane Ridge in 1991, and then worked his way into seasonal appointments in various places.

He collected fees at Staircase for a couple of summers before landing a coveted year-round gig in Forks as a receptionist in the downtown visitor center. A desk job in town may not sound idyllic for a devout outdoorsman, but it had one big advantage.

“It was a great place to be a vulture on the fence post waiting for the Hoh [Visitor Center job] to open up,” he says.

‘A Refuge From Humanity, The Craziness Of Our Species'

Preston finally got the opportunity in 2003. He started at nearly the very same time the U.S. invaded Iraq, and he noticed that the visitors in his early days were people trying to escape the sensory overload of war news.

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Credit Courtesy of Jon Preston
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“They were there to just detach and unplug from the whole thing,” he says. “Right off the bat, the very first day, I am gifted with the idea that this place was a refuge from humanity, the craziness of our species. It’s a type of sanctuary.”

And it is a wet sanctuary. The rain, clouds and mist all contributed to a string of rangers passing through the Hoh Rain Forest visitor center. Most, he said, lasted about five years, max.

But Preston, for one, has no complaints.

“I love the rain,” he says. “I love the sound it makes. It means that one basic component of life is available to me. I'm not crawling across some dry desert looking for water. That it’s close to me gives me comfort.”

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Credit Courtesy of Jon Preston
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And Preston says when he does get a little bit down, the rain forest always buoys him up. He recalls a moment earlier this winter, standing silently near a cold, clear creek and watching a female bobcat stalking salmon. Balancing carefully, she plunged her head in and came up with a huge thrashing male fish. Preston says he felt such a strong connection at that moment to the landscape and the creatures he shares it with.

“Just when you feel like your attitude is sliding, it brings you back to earth, to the connection of what it all means. So many experiences like that,” he says.

“I think about Olympic National Park as sort of like this nurturing mother to me. Mothers teach their children how to get along and what’s important. The things I’ve been gifted with, the experiences, they’re so random, and yet I’m so humbled by my lessons.”

Gabriel Spitzer is the Host and Senior Producer of Sound Effect, KNKX's "weekly tour of ideas inspired by the place we live." Gabriel was previously KNKX's Science and Health Reporter. He joined KNKX after years covering science, health and the environment at WBEZ in Chicago. There, he created the award-winning mini-show, Clever Apes. Having also lived in Alaska and California, Gabriel feels he’s been closing in on Seattle for some time, and has finally landed on the bullseye.
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