Bear Spray & Chapstick: What It Really Takes To Work In The Wild

Photo: Courtesy of The Ritz-Carlton, Bachelor Gulch.
In the mossy, malachite forest at the heart of Colorado’s Rocky Mountains, amid stands of quaking aspen and Englemann spruce trees, Jacqueline Elder is parting a sea of dandelion greens. She plucks a particularly pungent one and pops it in her mouth. “Yum” she says excitedly.

Like a surveyor, Elder, who has cobalt blue eyes, scans the forest, looking up at the clouds, through the tops of the trees, onto her tippy toes and then back down to eye level. She squats on the ground and inhales deeply. “Mmmm, wild arnica” she says, pointing to a two-toned lemon yellow flowering plant.

Elder, 28, is a former national park ranger, who now serves as the resident naturalist at the Ritz-Carlton hotel in the mountain resort of Bachelor Gulch, Avon, CO, where she’s equally comfortable tracking bears and hauling gallons of water on her back as she is making daisy chains getting lost in the woods. “My goal is to get people out and exploring, making emotional and intellectual connections with the land,” she says.

The New Jersey native, who describes her childhood as “urban,” says she has been drawn to the open skies since she was a child. “John Muir famously said ‘The mountains are calling and I must go.’ Well, the mountains called me,” says Elder. And go she did: After attending Colorado College, where she majored in political science and minored in environmental issues and African studies, Elder interned with the National Park Service — first in Moab, Utah, and then at the Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve in Alaska. She spent five seasons working as a ranger, and then sought out a naturalist position, which is a change of pace from the sometimes solemn ranger duties.

Schlepping 30 to 50 pounds of gear up a mountain three times a day is merely part of the job. From fancy cheese and wine, to plant and wildlife field guides, chapstick, bear spray, sunscreen and water, Elder customizes her backpack to suit her clientele, whether they’re interested in a romantic afternoon picnic or an “insta-ready” hike, as she describes it.
Photo: Courtesy of The Ritz-Carlton, Bachelor Gulch.
During the summer months, she leads breakfast hikes and nighttime stargazing tours; in winter, Elder straps on her snowshoes.

“I want to wow people,” she says. “That feeling of awe when something is so beautiful or so fascinating — I want people to really feel that in their heart and soul. I want them to come back because that connection is so strong.”

Last April, Elder and her fiancé, Adam, a former park ranger turned dog sledder, eloped to Leadville, CO, the highest altitude town in North America (at 10,430 feet elevation). “What can I say, we’re both just crazy about open spaces and Colorado,” she says of her nuptials.

“Jackie is phenomenal,” says Allyson Fredeen, the communications manager for the Ritz-Carlton Hotels of Colorado. She takes you out of your daily life and transports you into our forests, onto our mountains. She’s an amazingly knowledgeable woman.”

Elder’s gift for opening up the soul of the mountains to her guests has recently been rewarded. Four months ago, she was promoted to recreations supervisor and has hired two women, training them to be naturalists as well.

“People are interested in exploring outside of our realm of life,” Elder says. “Unplugging is a thing now, and I help people do that.”

Read more about what makes Bachelor Gulch, Colorado so special in R29's The Places Every Woman Should Visit In 2016.

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