Reprinted from the August, 2021, edition of HIKE ROCKY online magazine
Hometown Hero by Cindy Elkins, HIKE ROCKY magazine Community Correspondent
Wilderness preservation and accessibility are at the core of Eric Johnson's values. As a native Estes Park man, his interests in the outdoors from childhood into adulthood, have benefitted by the easy access to stunning wilderness experiences in the Rocky Mountain National Park.
As a young teen in Boy Scouts, Eric remembers the first time he recognized the importance of being in nature. While on an overnight camping trip to Sand Beach Lake in the Wild Basin area, Eric remembers how it really hit him; how amazingly beautiful and important the ecosystems are in Rocky. Eric recalled how they used a fast food cup, that one of the other Boy Scouts had with him, to build sand castles along the shore. He joked about the irony of fast food in the wilderness coming in handy to create a fun project with his troop.
This passion and sense of adventure grew and has led him in his recreational and college choices, and in his service as part of the trail crew in RMNP.
Trail-building materials along the Fern Lake Trail. Photo by Dave Rusk
During an Environmental Science class in high school Eric's growing interests in wilderness preservation were hooked by a service project along Fish Creek Road in Estes Park. He and his class planted river willows and other indigenous plants to help with restoration efforts after the 2013 floods. During this time, young Johnson recognized how deeply he cares about the plant life and the connection it has with the success of the animal life. Watching things grow that other species need to live is important to this insightful young person.
Spending time with Eric and getting to know how hard he will work to get a job done correctly and environmentally sound, is a direct result of how he was raised. Repeatedly in our interview, Eric gave credit to his family for helping him appreciate the beauty of nature and the benefits of hard work. As a student at Mesa in Grand Junction, Colorado, his older sister’s alma mater, Eric is in the Outdoor Recreation Industry Studies program. He feels he needs to excel to keep up with his sister's accomplishments and is motivated by his passion and deep-rooted sense of responsibility.
Eric hopes that every visitor to RMNP will take time to observe, enjoy, and follow the rules. He recognizes both the beauty and the dangers. Recently, he was on his first rescue of an injured visitor. Going into the rescue, Eric dealt with his own fears about having to rescue someone. He knew the time would probably come and naturally had reservations about his own abilities. Not wanting to be a hindrance, Eric stepped up with 20 some other park employees to successfully carry out the injured hiker.
Eric Johnson, right, helps with a search and rescue operation on June 1. RMNP photo
“Everyone needs to know the realities of being in the backcountry,” Eric said, “exposure, dehydration, animal habitats, personal skill levels, everything can change in an instant.” Afterward, he had a renewed sense of strength and recognized the importance of being part of a reliable team.
Being part of trail crew is just the beginning for this outdoor enthusiast. When asked about the future and a possible career path, Eric simply says he is keeping his options open and will hopefully discover his direction in school. He is in no rush while enjoying a summer of hard physical labor making our Park accessible to all.
Eric recalls seeing places that even as a local he had never been to in the RMNP, such as Finch Lake Trail, and Boulder Brook Trail, and how they stir a sense of awe and wonder. He doesn't like to visit certain places too often because he wants to be able to recreate that feeling inside again and again. The kind of experience that he can turn to that ignites his passion and fuels him to excel at wilderness preservation.
Eric developed his interests in the wilderness from early years into a seasonal job with the RMNP Trail Crew and loves the variety of work the job offers. This hard-working group makes impossible places possible for those who want to venture into the Park. Everything from backcountry repairs to wheelchair access ramps or foot bridges, Trail Crew moves rocks, builds steps, and does exactly what you would guess the name implies, they build trials, sometimes straight up a mountain made of rock.
Helicopter operations to drop in bridge-repair materials. RMNP photo
There are dangers and safety protocols, and still accidents happen. Yet the brave strong, individuals of our national parks trail crews deserve to be honored. Never take for granted the steps leading to your next favorite waterfall hike! Eric strongly believes in the “importance of preserving the natural world around us so people can see what the world is like when humans can't manipulate it.” So, please stay on the trails, enjoy the views, and don’t take anything. Eric appreciates the rules of the Park and wants others to follow them. The tundra is precious and such a gift to be able to explore by simply driving up and over the top of the continental divide in the Rocky Mountain National Park, it's very special. The ecosystem is fragile, humans are the visitors.
Be respectful of the tiny flora, fauna and aware of the lightning storms. Eric emphasized how he wishes that everyone would read the signs, follow the rules, and take things seriously. He wants everyone to have the opportunity to enjoy even the tiniest, most fragile life forms. In closing Eric offered these words of wisdom: “Trail work helps keep people in one place rather than damaging the areas around the trail. Keeping them in one place, helps stop mass destruction. Keep em' on the trails and allow the nature to be unaffected. And have a safe RMNP experience; be aware of exposure, dehydration and the ever-changing weather elements.”
Rocky Mountain National Park's trail crew on the Fern Lake Trail approaching Odessa Lake. Photo by Eric Johnson