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Park ranger gets fresh look at Mississippi through visitors' eyes
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More photos from this shoot
Photo: John Greenwood
Samantha Heilig, a ranger at the Mississippi River Visitor Center on Arsenal Island, conducts a tour of the Arsenal clock tower.
More photos from this shoot
Photo: John Greenwood
Samantha Heilig, a ranger at the Mississippi River Visitor Center on Arsenal Island, talks to a group of visitors about the historic Arsenal clock tower.
More photos from this shoot
Photo: John Greenwood
Samantha Heilig is a ranger at the Mississippi River Visitor Center on Arsenal Island. As part of her job she gives eagle tours as well as tours of the Arsenal clock tower. In the photo, Steven Wade and Karen Judkins use their own binoculars to watch eagles as Ms. Heilig finishes setting up a spotting scope.
More photos from this shoot
Photo: John Greenwood
Samantha Heilig is a ranger at the Mississippi River Visitor Center on Arsenal Island. As part of her job she gives eagle tours as well as tours of the Arsenal clock tower. In the photo, Steven Wade and Karen Judkins use their own binoculars to watch eagles as Ms. Heilig finishes setting up a spotting scope.
Photo:

ARSENAL ISLAND -- Samantha Heilig grew up playing in the creeks near her home and searching out frogs. Turns out, life as an adult isn't all that different.

Ms. Heilig, a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers staffer, is one of two permanent park rangers at the Mississippi River Visitor Center on the Rock Island Arsenal. Year-round Ms.Heilig is busy showcasing the Mississippi and the wildlife that make this area unique.

At this time of year, the visitor center is all about bald eagles. Ms. Heilig and other center staff will give about 30 tours, or six each weekend, through mid-February. Before the flurry of tours, visitor center staff members were busy helping host a kids' day at the annual Quad City Bald Eagle Days.

In any given year, Ms. Heilig said the center will serve approximately 30,000 visitors who come from near and far to learn about eagles, the Mississippi River, the locks and dam system and other topics. Her typical day is filled with many general customer service tasks, including providing information on things to do in the Quad-Cities and helping people figure out how to get around. She also provides tours of the center's museum and does educational programming for children and adults.

"I originally wanted to be a teacher," Ms. Heilig said. "But I love the outdoors and the nature scene. I realized I can put the two together here."

Year after year, Ms. Heilig shows off the eagles that flock to Lock and Dam 15. Despite the repetition, Ms. Heilig is still fascinated by them.

"Oh, I love to see them," she said. "The fun for me is getting to see someone else see them for the first time. That's what keeps it interesting for me."

As much as she loves eagles, there really isn't one time of year Ms. Heilig enjoys over another because every season brings a different focus. In the spring she'll focus on boating safety education and assists with the opening of campgrounds. Spring is also a very popular time of year for school field trips to the visitor center.

In summer, Ms. Heilig will be busy with water safety patrol and providing tours to the many visitors that pack the center. In the fall, school programs take off, and teachers start calling to request presentations and programs, such as the five-week junior ranger program.

No matter the season or the task at hand, her job revolves around communicating with people.

"You have to be a people person to be a park ranger," Ms. Heilig said.

A degree in biology also doesn't hurt. Ms. Heilig earned her bachelor's degree in biology from Central College in Pella, Iowa. She believes degrees in natural resources management or other science-related degrees also would be good fits for those looking to get involved in the field.

Ms. Heilig is married and the mother of a 3-year-old girl. Her daughter is far from plotting her career plans, but Ms. Heilig wouldn't mind if she followed in her footsteps.

"You know I would love it if she does, but I'm not going to tie her down to that," she said.

If her daughter does decide to be a park ranger,she would not be a lone woman in a man's profession.Despite the uniform -- black boots, olive green pants and a khaki shirt -- and the sometimes physically demanding parts of the job, there is an even mix of men and women on the job.

The DeWitt, Iowa, resident said she loves that every day on the job is different. But it's that childlike wonder that she had growing up that keeps the passion alive for the job she's been doing for a decade."I look at the river, and I see it new through visitors and kids because, to them, it is new," she said. "That's what the visitor center is about."









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