Meeting a force of nature
R-C Alpine Bureau
“Stand back!” she said forcefully, letting her hand rest lightly on the top of her firearm, “I’ll blow it open with my gun!” Our eyes widened. My sons and I were not sure whether she actually meant it, but hurried out of the way. We were struggling with the lock on our new mailbox in Markleeville, and as it turned out, the remarkable Paula Pennington was not actually serious about this alternate method of accessing our letters. However, this was our first time meeting Paula, and there was no way to know. As our initial encounter suggested, the passing years have proven her to be a true “force of nature.”
Paula got her degree at Humboldt State in Arcata and was the only woman in her graduating class to actually become a Park Ranger. It is hard to imagine now, but at that time, there were no woman rangers in the field. In fact, Paula reports that a brochure given to her by her college counselor said something to the effect: “ If you are a woman and want to be a Park Ranger, marry one.” The uniforms were not very flattering, since they came in men’s sizes only. She was one of the first, or perhaps even the first, to blaze that new trail for females in the State of California.
Paula’s husband Jim Dunn was studying Forest Management when they met in college. His career took quite a different path when he was drafted for the Vietnam War in 1970. He went into the Air Force and became a Weapons Controller, learning to use a radar scope to track and intercept bombers. They were married after he was released from the service, going on a backcountry pack-trip for their honeymoon.
Paula’s first job was at Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park. Her first official year was spent at Folsom Lake until she transferred to Old Town San Diego and Borderfield State Park. Jim also worked in the Park for a while, but there was a high demand for his skill set, so he started work as an Air Traffic Controller in Carlsbad.
In 1977 Paula relocated to both live and work in Sugar Pine State Park at Lake Tahoe, finally transferring to Grover Hot Springs State Park outside of Markleeville in 1978. She spent the rest of her career as a Park Ranger at Grover’s. Jim took a position as an Air Traffic Controller at the Lake Tahoe Airport also in 1978, remaining there until it closed. He transferred to the Reno Airport for his last one and a half years before retiring.
Both Paula and Jim have close-knit families that gave them solid foundations and a deep love for wilderness lands. They have included many other activities in their broad scope of interests. When they built their solar home after retirement, a large fenced garden area where they grow organic vegetables was included in the plans. They also specifically designed the house so they can bring in and set up an 18 foot Christmas tree each year. They spend the entire year looking for the perfect tree, then cutting and hauling it with the same group of friends each year. Christmas is an important time for them, with lots of decorations. They host a special party each year with great food, music, and everyone singing Christmas carols.
Both Jim and Paula grew up folk and square dancing, continuing through college. Jim and his siblings were even in a performing exhibition dance group. Today they both still contra-dance every month in Reno. Jim had a great acting career starting in 1980 with the South Lake Tahoe Theatre Company. His first production was as a dancer in Fiddler on the Roof. He had roles in The Music Man, Romeo and Juliet (Brewery Arts Center), and was lead in Shakespeare’s The Tempest. His favorite role was as Mortimer in Arsenic and Old Lace. He has a true appreciation for comedy.
Jim also played accordion from the time he was 8 until he was 12. He didn’t take it out again until after retirement, and then was encouraged by fiends to take up the stand-up bass. He was a natural, and had a blast playing in the Big Meadow Band, a local bluegrass group, for over 8 years.
Paula grew up knitting with her mother, making complex hats, sweaters, and gloves since her youth. She learned the art of basketry locally, studying with elder basket-maker Elaine Christianson. She continues to make and display baskets and is a member of the Great Basin Basketmakers Collective.
River rafting trips are a central component of their lives. Even though it is hard to get a spot to go, the Colorado River through the Grand canyon is still their favorite. If they are not out rafting, they are hiking or cross-country skiing during the winter. They have always had rescue animals, and right now have 2 dogs and 2 cats.
Their intense passion for the mountains has defined their lives. Their love for these wild lands is in their blood. Both Paula and Jim live fully, putting every ounce of energy they have into whatever they are doing. Paula says that, “We intend to keep doing all the things we love right up until we can’t anymore.”