Grandpa’s wisdom, UW-L education lead alum to career in the great outdoors

Eric Hammer

Eric Hammer, 06’ and 08’, earned an undergraduate degree in business and a master's in recreation management

The log walls of Eric Hammer’s home tell the story of his life — mainly spent outside of them.

They are decorated with snowshoes, buckskins, deer skulls and fishing poles. Out in the tall grass he maneuvers slowly around wooden beehives. Back in the dark, cool woods he grows patch of Shitaki mushrooms.

“I have a lot of natural hobbies,” the 27-year-old says. “About 90 percent of them I learned from my grandpa.”

Education at UW-La Crosse helped Hammer see how the love of nature he learned from grandpa could become a big part of his career path. Hammer, 06’ and 08’, earned an undergraduate degree in business and a master’s in recreation management.

“The recreation program and professors made me think about why I do all of these hobbies and realize what I really like,” he explains. “I like the idea of getting people who don’t experience nature — out there.”

Today Hammer is a park ranger at Blackhawk Park near De Soto, Wis., which is run by the US Army Corps of Engineers.

He recalls when he discovered nature for the first time as a child canoeing with family through the pristine St. Croix National Scenic Riverway. As his paddle stirred the clear water, he didn’t see any people or houses along the shoreline – just green leaves and occasional sandbars. Hammer was addicted.

Eric Hammer

Eric Hammer explains how he uses hair dye on a deer skull to create a European mount

In years following, he learned more outdoor hobbies from grandpa Dick Nelson. They went fishing, hunting, learned woodworking, bee keeping, gardening and even teamed up for a triathlon.

“I guess I just don’t like to sit still,” says Nelson, 78, of Amery, Wis. “It’s been fun to watch him take an active part in it.”

In college Hammer studied the works of conservationists such as Aldo Leopold and John Muir and the importance of protecting the natural resources he and his grandfather have enjoyed.

“As a park ranger I protect people from people, people from the land and the land from the people,” explains Hammer.

You might find him giving school presentations on life jacket safety, identifying a patch of poison ivy for a group of Blackhawk Park campers, or explaining the downfalls of dumping “gray water” — camper-generated soapy water — on a patch of campsite grass.

Instead of rush hour traffic, Hammer battles with spring’s high waters — at times boating into the park office as he passes by treetops and homes on stilts peeking above the water.

But what Hammer enjoys most about his work is meeting campers who’ve never been camping before. He likes to watch their eyes grow wide like his did for the first time on the St. Croix waterway. And he likes to watch them come back to Blackhawk Park for more.

“I see them start to appreciate it how I appreciate it and come to recognize the beauty of the Mississippi and the area,” he said. “I like working to protect and improve the environment. It’s meaningful work.”

Featured in the Winter 2011-12 Magazine