ASK Widewater State Park’s manager what led him to a career working in the great outdoors and he’ll mention things like a failed camping foray and regular family fishing trips.
But Paul Anderson, who grew up in the Danville area, said it was a high school job that put him on a path to state parks.
Anderson said he spends more time indoors than he’d like on the 1,089-acre park made up of separated parcels on the peninsula where the Potomac River and Aquia Creek meet.
Anderson noted that while his family didn’t spend countless days out camping in Pittsylvania County, he did spend enough time fishing and target shooting to feel comfortable in nature. But he said it was the job he had at 16 on a Danville golf course that convinced him that he needed a career that kept him outdoors.
“I wasn’t bothered by the heat, the bugs, the snakes or anything else that bugged others there,” he said. “I just loved being outdoors all day long.”
A biology teacher who helped instill in him an interest in studying nature and natural systems initially steered him toward a biology curriculum. But in his final college years at Virginia Tech, he found that he just wasn’t thrilled with a discipline that had him indoors in a lab with test tubes and Bunsen burners.
“Luckily, a college counselor steered me to natural resources recreation and it was good advice,” said Anderson, noting that he was soon excited to be in outdoor labs doing everything from using a map and compass to creating surveys of flora and fauna up and down a mountain.
After graduating from Virginia Tech, a job working in one of Virginia’s state parks seemed like a good fit and he was hired in 2005 as a park ranger at Staunton River State Park.
“I didn’t have any idea what to do when I got there,” said the plainspoken Anderson, who added that his inexperience wasn’t a problem. “It was one of the greatest learn-on-the-job situations that you could ever have.”
That was partly because he found himself in a situation where he, the park manager and another ranger were the entire staff.
“I did a little of everything: cutting grass, emptying trash cans, cleaning restrooms, checking on the situation at the swimming pool and leading school groups on guided hikes,” he said. “I would point out what types of trees we were seeing, would identify insects and any wildlife we would see and point out what poison ivy looks like.”
Anderson moved up the ranks in postings at First Landing, James River, Chippokes Plantation and Leesylvania parks. He learned to do carpentry, trail maintenance, law enforcement and a range of different interpretive chores while getting experience in managing others and customer service.
“You learn a lot at every stop, from a lot of different people,” he said.
“It also helped to be at parks that were very different, from a crowded spot like First Landing to a more rural setting like James River, which had lower visitation,” he added.
Anderson said he’d be remiss if he didn’t point out that the best thing that happened while working at Chippokes was meeting Rachel, who would become his wife. The couple has two sons.
He pointed out that one of the critical roles he got to play as the assistant park manager at Leesylvania was being tasked with overseeing work on the Widewater property, getting it ready to open as a new state park.
That meant meeting with neighbors and other Stafford County residents who helped to create the park’s master plan that spells out its mission and what assets will be built and when. For a time, he would make the half-hour trip from Leesylvania to Widewater when people called about a problem or asked for help.
Soon enough, he was appointed the park’s manager, and in 2018 things really took off. His main focus became working with the contractor building structures in the park and coordinating with the Friends of Widewater State Park.
When an ambitious opening date in August of last year had to be pushed back, a call for help went out across the agency.
“I started getting emails and calls from all over the state, park managers, rangers and others asking if they could send a crew to help with the work,” said Anderson.
Colleagues flowed in from state parks such as Douthat, Kiptopeke, False Cape, Pocahontas, Westmoreland, Leesylvania and even Seven Bends, “which wasn’t open then and still isn’t open yet,” Anderson said.
He met them at the main gate with a notebook that listed their names and jobs for each incoming volunteer, tasks that ranged from building a trail or picnic table to creating a sign.
“I didn’t want anyone standing around or not having something to do,” he said. “And they helped us be ready for the day when the governor showed up Nov. 8 to open the park. It was rangers helping rangers.”
You learn a lot at every stop, from a lot of different people. —PARK MANAGER