Remembering Tilden’s ‘Ranger Tim,’ who hooted at owls and bent eucalyptus into jungle gyms

Tim Gordon guided generations of Tilden’s Junior Rangers and Ranger Rovers through the wilds of the forest.

“Ranger Tim” Gordon. Credit: East Bay Regional Park District

Beloved “Ranger Tim” Gordon —aka Ranger Mud, Ranger Danger and Ranger Wiggly — who led kids and adults on endless adventures for 34 years through the East Bay hills from his base in Tilden Park, died peacefully on Sept. 20 in Moraga. 

Tim was born April 20, 1935, in Cherokee, Iowa, and spent as much of his first 10 years as he could roving the corn fields, neighbors’ barns, and creek banks in the warm and hot months, and sledding down those same creek banks in the snowy winters, tagging after his big brother Bill. He had a pronounced tendency to be late for school and let’s just say that his mother Harriet had more than a passing acquaintance with the school principal for one or another of his misadventures. He did, however, under her guidance dutifully collect bacon grease, tin cans and newspapers for the war effort.

In 1945 his father, Max, a reporter for the local paper, got a job with the Salinas Californian and they embarked across the continent in a 1934 Ford sedan that had seen (much) better days and made it to the coast thanks partly to an engine block welded in Custer, South Dakota.

By the time he was in high school, he and his friends Dennis Cahill and Eric Brazil were venturing into the nearby Ventana Wilderness for overnight adventures, sporting duffel bags strapped to homemade frames and subsisting on pork and beans and Hershey bars.

In 1953 he moved to Berkeley to attend Cal, majoring in geology and also taking painting classes. Inspired by Jack Kerouac, he and his two pals spent a few years “on the road” before Tim returned to Berkeley, finished his degree, and started looking for work. It wasn’t long before, in 1966, he heard about a job in Tilden Park, and as they say, the rest was history.

At Tilden, newly minted “Ranger Tim” delighted in bringing kids up to the park to learn about banana slugs, eucalyptus trees, and the ever elusive “Door in the Forest.” He led night hikes where he taught families how to talk to owls, hooting to them as they called back in return.

His work with kids from places like Richmond and East Oakland who’d never seen this amazing natural playground in their backyard brought him immense joy. The look on the face of a kid who’d never seen a tree growing out of anything but concrete created palpable delight on his face.

He guided generations of Junior Rangers and Ranger Rovers through the wilds of Tilden and beyond. The adventures were legendary. Trail building, invasive plant removal, backpacking trips in both East Bay, state and national parks. Uncountable numbers of s’mores and Backpacker’s Pantry rehydrated foods (some good, some … questionable).

He could be found marching in the How Berkeley Can You Be parade, wearing his naturalist’s uniform and papier mâché frog mask. He loved hosting the reunion of the Jack-o-Lanterns at Le Conte Elementary (now Sylvia Mendez). He would tell stories of Coyote, Wicked John, and Wiley and the Hairy Man, as well as the semi-autobiographical “Wolf Water,” about a former firefighting cohort who drank water from a wolf’s footprint … and then the chickens started dying. Allegedly. At Tilden’s semi-annual Harvest Home Festival, he pulled a gopher snake from his shirt during a snake talk, which was met with delighted oohs and ahhs, and he instigated water fights between fire trucks.

He taught kids how to build domes by bending eucalyptus saplings into a ring, then raising fantastical natural jungle gyms out of the base, the tops soaring 20 or 30 feet above the grassy back lawn of the Environmental Education Center at Tilden. He helped Junior Rangers make coracles (round bottomed English boats which were tarred, sealed, and taken out for a sail on Jewel Lake).

On a trek. Credit: East Bay Regional Park District

He served as a mentor for younger naturalists and student aides, some of whom have gone on to walk in the footsteps of his legacy. One such example is James Wilson, who currently runs an outreach program to bring underprivileged kids to parks. 

One lasting memory many kids have of Ranger Tim was the walk on a boardwalk leading most of the way from the Environmental Education Center to Jewel Lake. A favorite bit was convincing the hikers midway through that the bridge did not, in fact, ever end, and sadly they would be on this hike forever. He would never allow a child to stay frightened, though. If anyone took the joke too seriously, he was quick to reassure, and often brought the scared kid to the front, to lead the hike with him. He was intuitively good with kids and knew how to make them feel safe, and respected. His family hopes to rename the boardwalk as The Never Ending Bridge in his honor.

In the ’80s, he also joined other families in anti-nuclear activism, as part of a group called “Parenting in the Nuclear Age,” participating in marches and sharing ways children could be reassured that they were all working for change.

Not long after he retired in 2000, Tim was diagnosed with Parkinson’s. At first it seemed to overwhelm him, but before long he had connected with others that had the disease and they were building a community around exercise and mutual support. This grew into “P.D. Active,” which continues and grows larger to this day. For a decade he attended John Argue’s “Parkinson’s and the Art of Moving” class, biking across town to it for as long as it was safe. And until 2019 he took part in Claudine Naganuma’s “Dance for PD” and Lauren Carley’s “Tremolos” chorus, for which he sometimes wrote new words to old, satiric songs. He and Donna also hosted a salon for those with Parkinson’s who wrote or were other sorts of artists.

With the help of Claudine, and despite his advanced Parkinson’s, he choreographed and practiced a first dance with his daughter Megan at her wedding. He also recited Lewis Carroll’s Jabberwocky at the event, to the delight of all.

The family wishes to acknowledge their gratitude for the exceptional care Tim received in his last few months, when he moved to Moraga Retreat, under the remarkable guidance of Ana Blaj. 

Tim is survived by his wife, Donna Mickleson of Berkeley; their daughter, Megan Gordon Turner of San Rafael; his self-proclaimed “Bonus Daughter” Cielo Fisher of Oakland; his sister, Jane Wittmann, of Anderson; and his brother, Chris Gordon of Pacific Grove. 

A memorial celebration of his life will be held in Tilden Park and also streamed from 3 to 5 p.m. on Oct. 3o. For planning purposes, please email Donna at donna@lmi.net if you wish to attend.

For those wanting to honor his memory, a fund is being created to support and extend work that brings underserved youth to the East Bay parks.  Specifics will be available at the memorial; you can also email Donna to get the information when it is available.