By Catharin Shepard
Published in News on August 27, 2010 1:46 PM
Cliffs of the Neuse Park Superintendent Lyndon Sutton looks out over the forest that has been his "home" for four years. After 30 years as a state park officer, Sutton has announced that he will retire this year.
SEVEN SPRINGS -- Cliffs of the Neuse Park Superintendent Lyndon Sutton knew he was in trouble when he rounded a bend in the hiking path at Jones Lake and stumbled on a bear cub.
The cub wasn't dangerous, but its much-larger mother, foraging nearby, was another story.
And that was why, by the time he made it back to the ranger's station, Sutton was soaking wet.
"I ended up in the lake to get away from the mama bear," he said.
Sutton retired this week after 30 years in uniform as a state park official, leaving behind a legacy of conservation and education reflected in the wild, outdoor places he enjoys so much.
A lifetime working at some of the many state parks scattered around North Carolina gave Sutton plenty of stories to tell, too, about unexpected encounters with dangerous animals.
There was the enormous rattlesnake, coiled in a trash can, that struck out and nearly bit him, and the bobcat that crossed his path one day when he was out jogging.
"I ran, probably, the next mile in two minutes," he said, reminiscing about the surprise encounter.
And other kinds of "wildlife" -- tourists and campers unused to the great outdoors -- could be dangerous in their own way, particularly when illicit alcohol was involved, or when tempers flared at campsite domestic disputes.
After serving in several capacities at four state parks, there isn't much the superintendent hasn't seen at one location or another, he said.
The Wayne County native decided from a young age that he wanted to dedicate his life to teaching others about nature, especially if it meant he could be outside most of the time. Along the way, he worked to preserve the state's natural beauty and helped keep countless park guests safe.
Sutton started working at the Cliffs of the Neuse as a part-time seasonal employee in 1970, and continued working there during the summer while attending college. He went on to work at Jones Lake, where he served as chief park ranger, then moved to Kerr Lake where he worked for nine years. He worked at Medoc Mountain State Park for another nine years, and finally returned home to Wayne County in 2006.
Being outdoors is a way of life for him, Sutton said.
"This is all I've ever done. Getting up, putting the uniform on," he said.
Including the most important part: the hat. Park officers should never be outside without their hat, he said.
His career as a state park official proved to be very fulfilling, especially the years he spent working as a park ranger. Besides educating people about nature conservation and native N.C. plants and animals, he also participated in the state's "Manpower" program, hiring young people to work with the state park service. Many of the young people he mentored went on to succeed in their own lives, thanks in part to Sutton's guidance.
"To see them progress in their careers, some of them went on to be teachers and lawyers, that's very rewarding," he said.
But now, Sutton is ready to turn the keys to the Cliffs of the Neuse front gate over to the next generation. It was a tough decision to make, but to the park superintendent who has seen dozens of seasons come and go, it's just another change.
"Life is like a book; you write a chapter, then you close a chapter, begin a new chapter," he said.
Sutton plans to spend time with his family, who still live in the area, after he retires. He also wants to continue a long-running passion for coaching, and still plans to referee local high school basketball.
Sutton looked around at the tall trees at the cliffs, thinking about whether he will return to the familiar park paths for a visit -- even when he doesn't have to wear the hat.
"This is home," he said.