Raystown Lake supervisory ranger enjoying his calling

There’s a moment, Jude Harrington said, when every future park ranger realizes his calling. For a teenaged Harrington, it was at Mount Rainier, the snow-topped peak that towers 14,000 feet over Washington State.

“There’s a point where the light comes on for people,” he said. “When I came back, I said: ‘I’m going to college to be a park ranger.'”

Four decades later, Harrington is the man responsible for much of Raystown Lake’s success – training workers, forging millions of dollars’ worth of partnerships and helping young visitors learn about the 28-mile manmade lake winding through their home state.

And, even though he insists the term doesn’t apply, the American Recreation Coalition saw fit to label him a “legend” of the field at a Wednesday ceremony in Washington, D.C.

“He talks about Raystown Lake like a grandparent talks about their grandchildren,” lake Operations Manager Nicholas Krupa said Thursday.

“He revels in it – I think that rubs off a lot.”

For a lake that just marked its 40th anniversary, Harrington’s national award tops off a week of celebration. Built in the 1970s by the Army Corps of Engineers and filled by rainfall draining into the Juniata River valley, Raystown Lake has since become an enormous recreation site for central Pennsylvania.

As a 22-year Raystown veteran and its supervisory park ranger, Harrington wrangles volunteers to keep the lake clean and establishes connections with outside groups to fill the gaps left by dwindling federal funds. He was a founding member of the Friends of Raystown Lake and helped secure a cutting-edge visitors’ pathway, the American Recreation Coalition said in a news release accompanying the Legends award.

Wary to take credit personally for the lake’s success, Harrington turns the attention to his rangers while praising visitors for taking up Raystown’s cause as their own.

“We all live in the community. It’s just a matter of calling your friends,” he said. “It’s your lake; come and clean up. Next thing you know, you’ve got an army of volunteers.”

An army helps, but it’s important that locals see a federal park as something more than a government installation, Harrington said. As a manmade reservoir backed against a dam and hydroelectric power plant, it serves a serious function – the lake has prevented $284 million in flooding damage, according to the corps – but thanks in part to managers like Harrington, it’s better known as a vacation spot.

“One of the first things I noticed when I came here is that people think of it as their lake, not a government lake,” he said.

And while the federal government owns the land, money hasn’t always been flowed freely. Grants and outside help are key to developing the park, and as supervisory ranger, Harrington is responsible for much of the legwork.

Last year, the park inaugurated a 21/2-mile visitors’ pathway made of thousands of recycled rubber tires. The environmentally friendly road, a destination in its own right for some tourists, was hailed among Harrington’s accomplishments in last week’s award announcement.

Word of his success made its way to Congress: In a brief address to the House on Monday, Rep. Glenn “GT” Thompson, R-5th District, hailed Harrington’s work and credited him with bettering the park “for people of all ages and backgrounds.”

And some of his best work, Krupa said, is with new rangers and trainees – the workers who need to learn the basics, like CPR and first aid, before they can take up jobs at the lake.

“By the end, they all know what to do,” he said. “[Harrington] is one of the greatest teachers and coaches and mentors that I’ve been around.”