Alaska State Parks chief ranger has hunger for outdoors

Former police officer oversees parks north of Alaska Range

Posted: Tuesday, January 05, 2010

FAIRBANKS - It was 10:30 a.m. and Matt McClurg already had lunch on his mind, a thought he expressed to Doug Avara, who was riding shotgun in the Alaska State Parks pickup McClurg was steering down the Richardson Highway to Quartz Lake.

Tim Mowry / Fairbanks Daily News-Miner
Tim Mowry / Fairbanks Daily News-Miner

"I think it might be time for a sandwich," McClurg said.

To which a slightly flabbergasted Avara replied, "You just had a donut."

"All that did was make my stomach say, 'Where's the rest?'" McClurg said with a grin.

After enduring a little ribbing from Avara, McClurg decided to save the sandwich for lunch and instead had Avara fish out a sizable package of smoked salmon to nibble on.

McClurg's prodigious appetite is well-known among his co-workers at Alaska State Parks. The ranger, who stands 6-feet-5-inches and weighs 225 pounds, said it's simply a matter of physics.

"I get bad fuel mileage," is how a grinning McClurg put it. "I need a lot of calories to keep me going."

McClurg, 36, certainly has his plate full as chief ranger for the northern region of Alaska State Parks. He supervises staff that oversees all the state parks and campgrounds north of the Alaska Range, including the 250,000-acre Chena River State Recreation Area east of Fairbanks.

His agenda for this particular day was a road trip to Quartz Lake to check on a recently built public-use cabin and inspect four rental ice fishing houses the state was planning to put out on the lake in the next week.

On the way home, he and Avara stopped at Birch Lake to inspect four other ice fishing houses that had been put out by a state parks crew the day before. They measured ice and water depths, shoveled snow out of the huts and checked the locks on the houses.

He also plowed a little snow on the entrance road to Birch Lake and checked the licenses of a handful of ice fishermen at Quartz Lake.

It was all in a day's work for the former policeman-turned-park-ranger, who left the Fairbanks International Airport Police and Fire Department two years ago to take the chief ranger's job at state parks.

"I love it," he said of his new job. "I get to take off my gun belt once in a while and put on a tool belt."

A ranger's job isn't as stressful as that of a law enforcement officer, which is one of the aspects of the job that appealed to McClurg, even though he still wears a gun on a daily basis. An accomplished carpenter, McClurg has helped build two public-use cabins in his short tenure on the job.

"Every day is different," he said. "I do everything from pushing ice huts around on the ice in the winter to patrolling campgrounds in the summer. It's the variety I like about it."

A clean-cut, aw-shucks kind of guy, McClurg isn't one to toot his own horn but his boss, Brooks Ludwig, who held the chief ranger's job for several years before moving up to superintendent, will tell you that hiring McClurg is the one of the best managerial decisions he's made.

"He's been such a great fit and brings so many great skills to that position," Ludwig said.

McClurg's people skills are perhaps his most valuable asset, he said.

"A park ranger's job is a really challenging one," Ludwig said. "You've got to be a friendly, happy, approachable guy but at the drop of the hat you have to switch gears and put on a law enforcement face. He does that really well."

Most importantly, he doesn't do it in a heavy-handed, intimidating way, Ludwig said.

"He's not out there writing a lot of tickets," the superintendent said. "He's getting voluntary compliance by folks wanting to do it."

His old boss, Mike Supkis, chief of the Fairbanks International Airport Police and Fire Department, said the same thing.

McClurg is such a nice, easy going guy "that he could give you a ticket and you thank him for it," Supkis said.

"He's probably everything you'd want in a public safety officer," Supkis said.

McClurg came to Alaska from Missouri on the wings of the U.S. Air Force in 1994. The former high school wrestler fell in love with Alaska and his wife, Jennifer, while stationed at Elmendorf Air Force Base in Anchorage, where he spent six years as a crew chief on a C-130.

Following a two-year stint at McConnell Air Force Base in Wichita, Kan., McClurg got out of the Air Force and returned to Alaska in 2004, where he still serves as a captain in the Alaska Air National Guard.

At state parks, McClurg is one of the division's five defensive tactics instructors, as well as a field training officer for new recruits.

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