HENSLER - He knew at an early age. Eric Lang became involved with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service at age 16, eventually becoming an employee for 10 years. Now he is the manager of both Cross Ranch and Little Missouri State Parks.
"I've always loved the outdoors, even as a little kid," said Lang while standing beneath tall cottonwoods lining the bank of the Missouri River at Cross Ranch State Park.
The unmistakable sound of Canada geese could be heard in the direction of the river while an owl drifted silently overhead.
"This is just really a neat opportunity," continued Lang. "Who gets to live right in the outdoors like I do? I couldn't ask for a better opportunity. I'm in the park that I love."
Lang and his family reside at Cross Ranch. It is one of the most unique parks in the State Parks system. It gets its name from the legendary Cross Ranch that once was an important part of rural life along the Missouri below Washburn. Much of the park is situated on land that was once a feedlot for one of the state's largest cattle operations.
Today Cross Ranch is dotted with campsites, shelters, cabins and the Park Headquarters and Interpretive Building. Remnants of the old ranch can be found at various locations in the park, from old fence posts to crumbling foundations, all situated in the tall woodland flanked by the last few, free flowing miles of the famous Missouri.
"It's pretty cool to have the history tied behind it," remarked Lang. "The Maltese Cross was the brand adopted by the Levis family that owned the ranch. They took it from the Teddy Roosevelt ranch, which he used as his brand, so there's some unique history to the park and this area."
Lang's route to Cross Ranch traveled through Fort Stevenson State Park. He worked as a ranger at that park for a year and a half before accepting the job at Cross Ranch and Little Missouri State Park.
"It's a big job up there, handling both parks," said Gordon Weixel, N.D. Parks and Recreation public information officer in Bismarck. "It was a stressful time in 2011 with all the flooding, and the park came through with flying colors. He handled that really well."
The main fixtures at Cross Ranch includes the headquarters, two residences, a shelter that is the focal point for many of the park's activities, the rustic Coulter and Link cabins, three yurts and an electrical grid that services much of the park and campground. The yurts, conical tent-like structures available for rent, were removed to prevent them from succumbing to flood waters. The cabins are permanent structures that were protected by extensive sandbagging. Today all is operational, thanks to hard work by Lang and his staff.
In some ways Cross Ranch is the "forgotten" park in the state system. It has no lake or marina but, for many, that is the appeal.
"It is a little bit more off the beaten path compared to some of our other parks," said Weixel. "We're pushing towards more of the music kind of entertainment up there."
The annual Bluegrass Music Festival has become a fixture at the park. The music is a good fit, and it draws people to a park they might not otherwise frequent. Sometimes those who come for the music find themselves fascinated by the park and return for other reasons reasons Lang understands very well.
"It's such a nice, unique park. We don't have TVs for people but we sure have a lot of outdoor activities. We have cross-country ski and snowshoe rentals during the winter. It makes for a really neat experience. You get to ski right along the river here, see a lot of wildlife. It gets involved with the people. It's been a good fit for me."
Lang also has been a good fit for the park and the department.