From waves to caves: 83-year-old Glenwood man left Florida to hang out in Caverns
Glenwood Springs Post Independent
After spending 35 years in the waters of Panama City, Florida, as a fish biologist, Paul Pristas is spending his golden years of retirement in the cool, winding tunnels of the Glenwood Caverns.
Pristas, at age 83, is a cave tour guide at the Caverns, and he has been doing so since before the idea of today’s mountain-top adventure park was even conceptualized.
It was August of 1999, and the only way to the top of the mountain was via a bumpy bus ride over a meandering dirt road.
Bob Koper, another longtime employee and a fishing buddy of Pristas, brought up the idea of a part-time gig at the caverns. Koper was in charge of hiring the guides and bus drivers at the time.
“Back then, we didn’t have the tram. Our retail store was in the Hotel Colorado and we were just bus people,” Pristas said. “The BLM closed the road in the winter so we only worked during the summer.”
During the bus ride up, tourists would be filled with the information and history of the area and the caves. Still, some people just didn’t know what to expect.
“People would ask questions like, ‘Are the caves underground? Do you drive through the caves?’ You know, all sorts of crazy things like that,” Pristas said.
Through the years, Pristas has taken on the titles of bus driver, tram operator, amusement ride operator, and currently as a cave tour guide. His favorite, by far, is cave guide.
“That’s what the park all started on, was the cave tours,” he said. “I like the history that comes with the caves.”
Along the seashores
He imagines that being a longtime biologist also may have a little bit to do with his fascination for the underground world.
Pristas graduated from Michigan State University as an ichthyologist, also known as a fishery biologist. Shortly after graduating, he got a job studying Lamprey eels in the upper Michigan Peninsula.
“I had a terrific job,” Pristas said. “One day, though, I went back to the lab from the field and was expecting a paycheck. But what I got was a draft notice instead.”
He then spent two years working for the United States Department of the Army in Frederick, Maryland, doing biological warfare studies producing preventative medicine against certain diseases.
After being discharged, he went on to spend three decades working on big-game fishing studies with the National Marine Fisheries Service on the Florida Coast and along the Gulf of Mexico.
He worked with big-game fishing clubs and tournaments and helped set some of the first rules and regulations for fishing tournaments.
“I would interview sport fishermen during contests and find out where they fished, how long, what the water conditions were like and so on,” Pristas said. “There were a lot of unknowns about big-game fish in the Gulf of Mexico during this time.”
He worked for the NMFS for 35 years before retiring and finding his way to Colorado to be closer to his sister.
“There’s so much to see in the caves, you can’t cover everything; you’d be in there for days,” Pristas said. “So we pick out certain things and each guide has their favorite features.”
As a guide, Pristas loves and prefers when people ask questions; it shows that the crowd is interested. However, in all his years there’s only been one question he couldn’t quite answer.
The question came from a young boy who raised his hand and asked “Can we go home now?”
“I thought, boy, this must be a good tour,” he said with a laugh.
Pristas knows his limits and recognizes that some days are harder than others, but still he loves his job.
“Age catches up with you, but it’s just walking and talking,” he said. “I can’t say if I quit I wont have anything to do, because there’s always something to do at the house. But I didn’t retire to just sit around and stop life.
“I retired to do the things I couldn’t do when I was working; and this was one of those things.”
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