Carl Calhoun knows the day is coming when he will light his workplace on fire. Not because he hates his job, his boss or the place. No, Calhoun has taken a torch to his job site in the past — and will again — precisely because he wants to keep going to the place where he has worked for nearly 28 years. Calhoun, a state park ranger, lights sections of Caladesi Island on fire to control the density of the undergrowth that could fuel an out-of-control wildfire ignited by lightning or careless humans, thereby damaging one of Pinellas County's natural gems.
"If you don't burn this from time to time, you'd get a more devastating fire," says Calhoun, slowing his all-terrain vehicle and pointing to the 6-foot-high vegetation on the left side of one of the trails that crisscross the island touted by Stephen Leatherman, a.k.a. Dr. Beach, as having the No. 1 beach in America in 2008.
On the right side of the trail is a section where Calhoun, a state-certified burn manager, and a team of rangers recently held a "prescribed" burn. "After about a week, we already had grass growing back," he says.
Calhoun knows well these cycles involving the island's plants, animals and marine life, as all rangers do. But no one has been hopping the 8 a.m. crew boat at Honeymoon Island for the 15-minute commute longer than the 51-year-old Palm Harbor resident, who says he just "kind of fell into" ranger work.
He pulls the ATV up to the old Henry Scharrer homestead site, in an area frequented more by rattlesnakes now, even though Caladesi had more than 300,000 human visitors last year. Calhoun stubs out one Swisher Sweet cigar on the bottom of his shoe at the end of a story, then pulls out another. "People tell me all the time, 'Carl, you should write a book.' "
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Working on Caladesi's 3-plus-mile beach, a ranger is going to see just about everything. Yes, Calhoun has had to tell women to put their tops back on. And, yes, he has told men to put their bottoms back on.
But ranger work on this barrier island is not just about monitoring tan lines and waiting to answer tourists' questions. For Calhoun, it might mean fixing the "water buffaloes," the 400-gallon and 600-gallon mobile tanks used on prescribed burns. Maybe he has to rope off the colony bird nesting areas or put cages over sea turtle nesting spots to prevent the raccoons from digging.
Could be he has to move a rattler that's sunning next to the boardwalk. Then there's working with biologists, looking for injured or sick animals and marine life, and keeping up with fire and medical training.
"I have a notion of what I'm going to be doing each day," says Calhoun, noting there's still plenty of room for surprises.
Like the time he fished a waterlogged osprey out of Hurricane Pass with a broom and put it near the bow of a pontoon boat. About 20 minutes later, as the boat approached the dock, the osprey suddenly flew off, made two circles overhead and let out its signature cry.
"It was kind of like he was saying thanks," Calhoun says. "Yep, that was a good feeling that day."
Of course, rangers also take care of the island's human visitors as well, providing first aid for everything from sunburn to stingray stings.
But in 2006, Calhoun and ranger Steve Collier responded to a call about a man suffering a heart attack at the concession stand.
"He had no pulse whatsoever," Calhoun says. The rangers started CPR and used the park's defibrillator. A few minutes later, they picked up a pulse, then the man was airlifted to a hospital, where he recovered. Calhoun, Collier and a cafe attendant received the state's Lifesaver Award, and a year to the day later, the man returned to thank them.
"He was actually kind of ticked about the whole thing," Calhoun says. "He said they charged him $6,000 for a helicopter ride he doesn't remember."
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Calhoun pilots the ATV through the woods until he reaches the Harp Tree — a enormous pine that splits into two trunks growing upward in tandem and resembling the musical instrument. It's also where the great horned owls often take their prey. Calhoun knows this because great horned owls eat mice or rats whole, then hours later regurgitate the bones and bits of fur as 2-inch grey pellets. Some people — teachers mostly — seek these pellets out for use in science classes, he says.
Calhoun is also sort of the census taker of the island, noting which osprey nests may be holding eggs, then putting up metal guards around the tree trunks to thwart raccoons. He memorizes which pine trees have been hit by lightning and figures the island's hot spot is right around the rangers' workshop.
He's a walking information kiosk on the island's history, inhabitants and habitats.
"Carl taught me everything I know about being a good ranger," says Pete Krulder, the park manager and a friend of Calhoun for 10 years. "Carl has a passion for this work, and it's kind of understated. … You sort of gravitate toward him. You see what he does and you think, 'I want to be good at this like him.' "
"If there's any question you can't answer, the answer is, ask Carl," says assistant park manager Bill Gruber, who has known Calhoun for 31/2 years. "He's great with the park visitors. He has the ability to captivate them in no time."
Calhoun's trip from teenager in the Youth Conservation Corps to longtime Caladesi ranger is full of captivating tales as well.
He grew up in Fort Lauderdale, but every summer his family camped throughout the Southeast, especially in the mountains.
When he was 15, he bunked for the summer in the Everglades with the Youth Conservation Corps. "That's the first time I ate rattlesnake," he says.
The next summer he worked for the park service in North Carolina at Mount Mitchell, the highest point east of the Mississippi River (elevation 6,684 feet) — "We sprayed trees with poison" to kill insects that were blamed for killing Fraser firs. He lived with nine others in cabins at more than 6,000 feet.
When a single-engine plane crashed into the mountain, Calhoun was introduced to the basket stretcher and saw his first dead body, carrying the pilot down the mountain. "He was missing his shoe, and his foot kept rubbing on my right hand as we were walking. That kind of stuff never leaves you."
After another summer stint on Mount Mitchell following high school graduation, Calhoun returned to Florida and did some odds jobs before landing a part-time park service opportunity at Hugh Taylor Birch State Park in Fort Lauderdale. Basically, it was a wooded area with water access surrounded by condos — and known for its wild side. Rangers didn't dare tell the crowds of drinkers to pour out their booze.
"You didn't ride alone on weekends in that park," Calhoun says. "You'd get beat up. … Rangers were known to carry a lot of 'tools' in their truck that they weren't using."
Though he was at Taylor Birch for nearly five years, Calhoun had been looking to transfer for a while.
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In 1981, Calhoun says he had never heard of "Dune-din," where there was an opening for a park ranger on some island. He visited, got the transfer and brought his then-girlfriend Debra and her daughter to the bay area, and he started work June 1.
"What did I get myself into?" Calhoun recalls thinking. "The shop was half the size it is now; there were hardly any tools. Our boats were pretty junky."
Still, he preferred dealing with rattlers over drunks. Caladesi averaged about 68,000 visitors in the 1980s, though it grew steadily. He and Debra married in 1982 and moved around from Clearwater to Dunedin to Palm Harbor, expanding the family to one boy and two girls.
"I can't believe it myself," Calhoun says of his lengthy stay on Caladesi. "God, it went by quick. It was not in the plan, I can tell you that. I thought I would be here three, four years and transfer. But this is a good park."
Over the years, Calhoun has covered most of the island's 650 acres and floated over most of the 2,000 acres of submerged area within the park boundaries. He has been encouraged to consider a management position. "I just don't want to do that," he says, crushing out one more cigar. "I'm a field guy. I like to get out and do things."
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In 1985, Calhoun spent part of a day with Myrtle Scharrer Betz, whose father, Henry Scharrer, homesteaded Caladesi around 1890. As a young girl, Betz took a small boat from the island to Dunedin to go to school. Now she was 89 and needed some assistance in getting around at a park service anniversary celebration.
Calhoun remembers Betz regaling the rangers with tales from her youth. Maybe that day she sensed that Calhoun would end up tied to Caladesi for a long time as well.
When Betz died in 1992, one of her instructions to the family was to spread some of her ashes around the homesite and to cast the rest adrift in the Gulf of Mexico.
Not surprisingly, it was Calhoun who stood on the deck that calm morning and carried out her wishes.
He has thought about sort of never leaving Caladesi himself, saying he might like half his ashes on the top of Mount Mitchell and the other half along Caladesi's shore.
"I don't want to be worm food. Yeah, just toss me to the wind."