When you drive up to the entrance of Shark Valley in Florida’s Everglades, you might do a double take at the park ranger collecting fees and answering questions about the main attraction: the alligators. Christine MacKarvich became the working face of the partial shutdown of the U.S. government last year, and all she did was come to work.
On Oct. 1, the day of the shutdown, Christine was photographed at the Shark Valley entrance booth. When the Associated Press story was sent to newspapers around the country, so was Christine’s photo. That day, she was waiting for the call to close the gates on one of the main entry points to Everglades National Park.
But that was not the first time Christine had been in the public eye. In 1979, she and her twin, Carol, were Miami Dolphins cheerleaders, trained by the exacting choreographer June Taylor of The Jackie Gleason Show to dance and do high kicks on the sidelines — 75 kicks in one routine alone. She also had her moments in college football. Once, during a halftime show at a college game, she “flew” across the Orange Bowl in Miami as Peter Pan. It’s hard to make up life stories like those.
Christine grew up in the farming community of Homestead, Fla., the same place Hurricane Andrew ravaged in 1992. She was a dancer, then a dental assistant, then a dance instructor. She loves to dance and still dances onstage. She didn’t like being a dental assistant, however. (“How many people like to go to a dentist?” she asks.) But she loves being a park ranger. “You never know who’s pulling up to the window,” she says. “They’re all excited to see an alligator.” Shark Valley is famous for its alligators who sunbathe and snooze along the 15-mile path.
Now in her 12th year as a ranger, Christine’s heard and seen it all from the tourists who journey west of Miami to the Everglades to see the alligators, herons, egrets and turtles in the world-famous wetlands. More than 60,000 cars passed by Christine’s booth last year. “They’re pretty amazed that there are alligators just laying on the side of the road. They ask if it’s real, if we blow them up,” she says, chortling at the idea of the alligators as plastic fakes. Her response is no-nonsense with a tinge of sarcasm. “No,” she says, “this isn’t Disney World.”
Park signs warn tourists to stay 10 to 15 feet away from the alligators, yet recently, with more than two dozen alligators lounging by the bike path, visitors were taking pictures with their kids within inches of the sleeping giants. “People try to touch the alligators,” Christine says. “They take pictures with their babies by the alligators!” Luckily, there hasn’t been an attack in Shark Valley recently. The park’s alligators aren’t particularly aggressive — unless you go after their young, Christine says. “No man-eating alligators here.”
Christine got her start as a park ranger when she was in her 40s, at the suggestion of her husband, Ray Carpenter, who worked in the park system. (They met when he was looking for a country-western dance partner.) At the park, Christine’s on the front end of the operation, greeting visitors at the gate and balancing the books at the end of the day. She sees every nationality pass her window — Jamaicans and Japanese, Italians and South Africans, tourists from the Netherlands and Brazil. Christine says visitors are surprised that the park brochures come in a dozen languages. She’s not a huge linguist, but she has startled a few tourists with her fluent sign language. (She learned to sign as a child to communicate with a cousin who was born deaf.)
When she’s not at the park, Christine tends to 300-plus avocado trees on the 5-acre farm she and her husband run near Homestead. They grow Donnie and Simmonds avocados in April and May, followed by Black Prince and Choquettes later in the year. She still dances, too, often with her son Robert, who works as a law-enforcement officer in Biscayne National Park in Homestead, 35 miles south of downtown Miami. Luckily, the government shutdown last year lasted only 16 days, so Christine is back manning the gate at Shark Valley most days. If you happen to meet her at the gate, take a few extra moments to ask her about her dancing and her cheerleading days. If she’s got time, she might even share her recipe for avocado cake.