An armadillo appeared from nowhere and skittered across the road in the Hillsborough River State Park as Florida's highest paid ranger cut into a wet bag of Timberline pine bark mulch to spread it near the entrance of Parking Lot No. 1.
As the armored creature disappeared into the palmetto bushes, Gov. Rick Scott began his workday as Ranger Rick. He spent Thursday toiling in the heat at the sprawling park in northeast Hillsborough County on his latest Let's Get Back to Work day.
He dug postholes, landscaped, greeted people at the pool and checked visitors in at the front gate.
"Is the governor here today?" an excited Lauren Weinberg, of Land O' Lakes, asked as she pulled up to the window of the ranger station about 10 a.m.
"Hello," Scott said, leaning into view.
Weinberg, who was there to pick up her daughter after a campout, asked whether she could take his picture. She was told to park, come into the station and snap the cellphone photo.
"Holy muffins," she screeched, pulling forward.
Scott didn't make news at the park, but he did marvel at the expanse and beauty of the place. He wore a "Crocodile Dundee" hat (minus the croc teeth), Gore-Tex boots and a light green park ranger shirt with a metal nametag that read: "Rick Scott … Governor."
Scott adopted his workday idea from former Gov. Bob Graham in an effort to learn more about his constituents. During earlier workdays, Scott sold doughnuts, worked with customers at Tampa International Airport and saddled up at an Okeechobee cattle ranch.
He has done this 11 times in the past two years, but this was the first time he put in a day at a state agency.
Park employees and visitors gushed.
It was Wednesday when the park got word about the new employee showing up for work Thursday morning, said park manager Kim Tennille.
"I was excited about it," she said. "And he's working very hard."
As Scott did his chores, an entourage of rangers, wildlife officers and security types milled about, swatting mosquitoes and wiping beads of sweat from their foreheads.
"It was a little bit awkward," said 10-year park ranger Brett Gormon, who showed Scott where to spread the mulch. "I want to direct him; I don't want to tell him you go do this or that. He is the boss."
The operating budget for the park system has shrunk since Scott took office, but Donald Forgione, director of the Florida Park Service, said the governor "is a big fan of state parks."
"We've had some cuts," Forgione said, "but they are minor compared to some other agencies."
The budget for the 160 state parks fell from $84 million last year to $79 million this year. Budgets fluctuate from year to year, Forgione said.
Parks do bring revenue into the state as well, he said, and the cuts, so far, haven't had much of an effect on operations.
"We have 20 million visitors a year," he said.
The Hillsborough River State Park records more than 134,000 visitors a year, with revenue coming in from things such as admission, canoe rentals and fees for use of the pool and camping.
"That's a $7 million impact on this community," Forgione said.
Scott talked up the park service and said his time at the Hillsborough park helped him understand how the system works, where state money goes and how revenue is used.
Thonotosassa residents Candida Parker and her 12-year-old son, Jacob, camped in the park for the first time Wednesday night and checked in for a second night, not knowing Scott would be taking the reservation.
"Hi," he said as she stepped to the counter. "I'm Rick."
Parker and her son waited patiently while park ranger Gina Philhower showed Scott how to make the reservation, collect the money and log the campsite into the computer.
"It's pretty cool," Jacob said once he was outside. "We got to meet the governor."