“People just don’t know what we do,” says Fish and Game Department Conservation Officer Christopher McKee ’06, who’s been on the job for more than a decade and a member of the dive team for five years. That may start to change Sunday, March 5, when “North Woods Law: New Hampshire” debuts on Animal Planet. The series shows conservation officers working across the state to enforce laws, protect wildlife, aid the lost and injured, and recover drowning victims. McKee expects to appear on at least the first episode. Regardless of his airtime, he says, the film crew was on hand for some good cases.
“The best part of our job is it’s always changing,” says McKee, who graduated from Colby-Sawyer with a degree in environmental studies and a minor in biology. He also went through the same police academy in Concord that state troopers attend: A conservation officer is a full-blown law enforcement officer with statewide jurisdiction and even greater search powers than local or state police.
In the summer, McKee, who covers 13 towns in southern New Hampshire, is out checking fishermen’s licenses and stocking fish, helping injured or lost hikers in the White Mountains, or looking for missing dementia patients.
Fall is hunting season, and everyone he runs into is armed, which keeps the senses heightened. From goose and bear through to deer and moose seasons, he’s walking the woods in a red jacket looking for camouflaged people with guns. He’s well aware they have the upper hand if they’re not in a good mood.
“When winter rolls around, we’re checking ice fishermen and are out on the snowmobile trails, which have speed limits just like the highways, so we put radar on them,” says McKee. “They have to be registered just like a car and drivers have to have a license. They never stay on the trails, so I get them back on, give ’em a couple tickets.”
Spring brings nuisance animals like skunks and raccoons.
A New Hampshire native, McKee grew up hunting and fishing with his grandfather, and they often encountered game wardens who checked their licenses. McKee realized he could earn a living helping people and being outside, and by the time he was a teenager his mission was to become a conservation officer. He made it happen at Colby-Sawyer, where he geared his education to meeting his goal. Courses on flora and fauna identification, ecology and animal behavior combined with White Mountain history, English and writing (he writes a lot of reports) to create the perfect interdisciplinary background for a multi-faceted job that demands critical thinking, clear communication and on-the-spot decision making.
“I have a lot of fond memories of Colby-Sawyer,” says McKee. “My education was outside and hands-on whenever possible, and that’s the way I like it -- interactive rather than always in a classroom.”
Interactive is one way to describe McKee’s job -– he’s been shot at and in three fights. The worst was in 2011, when he saw an intoxicated boater knock over a couple kayaks. When McKee was finally able to board the boat, a punch broke his eye socket and he lost his vision for more than a week. The boater spent seven years in jail.
“There’s never a dull moment on the job,” says McKee. “My calls could be anything; the other day it was an owl that flew through a window into someone’s house, so I went down to get that, and then I checked fishermen on a local pond. I washed the cruiser, which didn’t make a bit of difference with the salt, but they wanted it washed; then I went home to do paperwork, got a call for a raccoon in someone’s garage and took care of that, went off duty, polished all my gear and then at nine o’clock got called out for a snowmobile accident. Not too long ago we had a drowning, so we went up there to look for the person. It all depends, on any given day.”
As a member of the dive team, McKee is called on for both evidence dives -– looking for a safe reportedly dumped in the Merrimack River, for example (he found six -– but not the one in question), and recovery.
“It’s not fun; we know we’re going to find a body, which is like looking for a needle in a haystack,” says McKee, “but it’s nice to bring closure to families. It’s good to bring loved ones back home.”
In 2010, McKee was honored with the Fish and Game Law Enforcement Division's Life Saving Award for his quick thinking and extraordinary first-aid skills in response to a car accident.
Is the life of a conservation officer what he thought it would be? “It’s better,” McKee says with a grin. “If you do what you love, it’s not work."