Mike Huckaby is the quintessential lone ranger — park ranger, that is.
“It’s been that way for a long time,” he said.
Huckaby, 50, is the Gainesville Police Department’s only park ranger, patrolling and enforcing rules of the city’s parks.
His day-to-day patrol is close to 150 to 200 miles a day, he said.
“It’s around 20-something parks technically, but it’s approximately 30 parks within the city if you separate everything: the game fields and courts, the cabins, that stuff,” he said. “I try to hit every park about four or five times a day. That’s how I get the miles on the truck.”
Huckaby’s role necessitates a lot of multidivision and agency coordination, including with the Department of Natural Resources and Army Corps of Engineers.
“I actually check and issue fishing and game citations,” he said. “I’ll check the fishermen in my parks, and that frees them up because they don’t have to check the ones in my parks. I check them for their fishing license and the whole nine yards.”
The way he affectionately refers to them as “his” parks feels appropriate given his longevity. He has served in his park ranger position for 28 years.
He always wanted to be a park ranger, he said, but didn’t necessarily expect to be in law enforcement.
“It actually started when I was at college, finishing up at Brenau. I was a wildlife and forestry major, and I came up here to finish my degree at Brenau with the criminal justice part. Chicopee (Woods Agricultural Center) was being donated to the city or county, but they had to provide a park ranger at the time. And the city chose to provide a park ranger at the time, so I basically came in at 1985 as the park ranger,” he explained.
Maintaining the parks is an obvious point of pride.
“If you look, we keep them fairly clean,” he said, motioning to the park behind the city’s Public Safety Complex. “If someone litters, they’re pretty much going to get a ticket, unless it’s a kid.”
Twenty-eight years on the job covering 30 parks has fortunately not bred much major crime — an attempted rape, he said, was the most serious under his tenure. Although that term has led to some interesting stories.
He recalled a 1996 incident in which a fishing youngster hooked more than he bargained for — a day-old drowning victim.
“I’ve seen a kid who caught one. He threw the pole and took off running, and we had to find the kid,” he said.
But he takes the less-pleasant aspects of the job in stride.
“It’s dirty, it’s nasty sometimes, but you get used to it,” he said.
One of his favorite aspects of the job is rescuing lost and distressed hikers, he said.
“Favorite part, I would say, is locating individuals that are lost out in Chicopee Woods. And we have a lot of them, about one a month. It gets dark on a hiker, they don’t have any light. Or you have a mountain biker on a trail and his bike broke down or he’s injured, and we have to evacuate them out,” he said.
As a first responder, Huckaby has splinted legs, stopped bleeding, and treated heat exhaustion and overexertion, among other things.
He gibed that most accidents seem to happen on the least picturesque days.
“The more inclement it is, the more I’m out there: snow, ice, rain. Somebody’s lost. It never happens on a pretty day. Pretty days, everybody’s OK,” he said with a laugh.
Those “pretty days,” as he calls them, are becoming more the norm now, too.
“Last Saturday, that was the first pretty day we had. Every picnic table, every parking spot was filled,” he said. “Our parks get a lot of use.”
As a member of the Pro Active Community Enforcement Unit, he has some occasional backup. But for the most part, he’s on his own. He also serves as a backup on major calls, he said.
Huckaby is committed to not just enforcement of park rules, but proactive policing, crime prevention and education, said Cpl Joe Britte, police spokesman.
“I try to teach and educate people about when they park in these parks, leave your purses and stuff in your trunk, and lock your doors, because if not, you’re giving stuff away,” Huckaby said.
As former head of community relations from 1985 to 1995 — in addition to park ranger duties — the task comes naturally to him.
And he’s still involved with several community relations functions.
“We teach self-defense classes, I’m a firearms instructor, I do Safe Kids, Badges for Baseball,” he said. “I try to stay real active in the community because I’m trying to give back to the community and give kids positive role models.”
Asked if he’d ever thought about a career beyond being a park ranger, Huckaby gave a contented nod no.
“If you think about it, once you get that, the job you really enjoy, why leave, you know what I mean?” he said. “I’ve never wanted to do anything else.”