Saturday, January 11, 2014

RANGERING: October 2004 (2)


Dear Reader: The truth is never an absolute; it is subjective and it changes over time. So I do not claim that any of what I write is the truth. It is only my perception and recollection of events as they happened many years ago. In some situations I have changed names and details to protect the privacy of people involved, but I do my best to maintain the underlying substance of events and their impact on me.


I was reading “Thunderer” at the picnic table by the trailer, eating my dinner. It was a beautiful Fall day, sunny and warm enough to sit outside with a light jacket on. I looked up as I heard sirens and saw one, then two ranger trucks head towards the campground, lights flashing. I wandered to the park office and asked the young park aide working there what was going on.

“There’s a cliff rescue going on. The coast guard is out there with their helicopter.”

The Coast Guard Station Cape Disappointment was adjacent to the state park, and used the cliffs at the North Head Lighthouse to practice for cliff rescues. Today their training would be put to the test. I asked her if she needed any help with phone calls or the radio.

“No, I’ve got it covered,” and she returned to her paperback. I walked back outside. Of course I wanted to see what was going on, but if my help wasn’t solicited I regretfully concluded I would probably just get in the way.

I saw Eva drive up to the welcome station and park. She walked towards me with a huge grin on her face and sat down across from me. “How are you?” She pulled up a pant leg and scratched her leg.

I felt my mood brighten as I smiled back. “Good. Just taking my dinner break.”

“Mind if I join you?”

“No, not at all. So what’s going on?”

“Some guy thought he could climb up the cliffs to the North Head Lighthouse. It’s not that big a deal, but he panicked halfway and didn’t think he could move up or down. So he’s been hanging there. His friend called 911.”

“Is he in danger?”

Eva shrugged. “It would be hard for that. He would almost have to let go. He should be fine there. I think he’ll be more embarrassed than anything. Anyway, it’s good practice for the Coast Guard.”

“And the rangers.”

“Yeah, there were five of us there. I realized I was just making a crowd, and there was nothing I could do to help. So I decided to leave. Most of them are just watching the Coast Guard anyway. There isn’t anything to do.”

I put in my bookmarker and closed my book.

“What are you reading?”

“Thunderer.”

“What’s it about?”

“Different than any book I’ve ever read. It’s sci-fi, but it breaks all kinds of rules – in a good way. The story centers around a city that apparently has no boundaries, and constantly shifts – so no map can be made of it.”

“Cool. What happens.”

“I’m not entirely sure yet. But I love the characters. They have dimension and depth, and they learn as they go. I think the author’s brilliant.”

“Hmm, that sounds interesting.” Eva took out a notebook and started writing.

“Do you write everything down in that?”

“Pretty much. I’ve filled out dozens of these.”

“Wow.”

“I write down things I see in the park or on hikes. Sometimes I’ll do sketches of plants or prints or scat, particularly if I can’t identify it. That way I can look it up later. If I have a thought I want to remember, or someone says something that’s interesting, I’ll write it down.”

“No wonder you’ve gone through dozens.”

“Yeah, I started about ten years ago. They fill up half of a bookcase.”

Just then Joseph drove up to the welcome station and walked over. He sat down with us. “An amazingly beautiful Fall day in the Pacific Northwest.”

“It is,” I agreed.

“This time of year we get to winterize the mowers. And in the Spring the grass is growing so fast, they call us Lawn Enforcement Officers.”

I smiled.

“You know, instead of law enforcement; since we mow so much grass they call us Lawn Enforcement Officers.”

I forced out a chuckle, and Joseph was satisfied.




Eva and I finished loading the tools and supplies we needed for installing restroom lighting fixtures into the back of her truck, and drove out to the campground. More energy-efficient fixtures were replacing the old ones throughout the park; we had already done this in several restrooms, and were getting into a routine.

We started in the pipe chase, turning off the breakers to the lights and attaching a lock-out/tag-out gadget to prevent someone else from turning the breaker back on while we were working.

We dragged two ladders into the women’s restroom. There were four light fixtures hanging end to end across the length of the ceiling. Eva bashed and scraped one ladder to the end of the restroom, through the narrow door and into the shower area; my ladder wouldn’t fit directly below the other end of the light fixture, so I propped it next to the stall door.

Eva removed her law enforcement gear and stashed it in the back seat of her truck so that her various weapons wouldn’t get in the way climbing up and down ladders.

We climbed partway up our respective ladders, then each grabbed our end of the light cover and pulled; it came off easily.

In synchronicity we twisted each end of the long fluorescent bulb till it was lined up correctly, and then pulled straight down to remove it. I climbed off my ladder and carefully set the bulb on the floor along the wall, far from our work area so we wouldnt trip on it. The metal fixture was screwed into the ceiling in several places. Eva was still up on her ladder and set about unscrewing her end. I climbed my ladder and hopped up on top of the stall door frame to get a better angle for loosening the old and corroded screws.

The metal fixture came off in several parts, all of which I stacked near the light bulbs. Eva was already working with the wires coming out of the ceiling, stripping some of the plastic encasing and cutting a clean edge. I unpacked one of the new metal fixtures, then took some pliers to pull away a circular cut-out where the wires protruding from the ceiling would come through.

“So how did you meet David?” I asked of her husband.

“David and I went to college together. We were friends.” Eva was finished prepping the wires. I hoisted up one end of the new fixture till she grabbed it, then I stepped onto my ladder holding the other end. I pushed my end firmly up against the ceiling, holding it in place while Eva screwed in the first two screws.

She continued, “I didn’t have any plan of being anything more than friends with him. But we used to like to camp together. And we started taking annual backpacking trips. Then one time, I guess the moon was just right, and… everything changed.”

I started securing my end to the ceiling as well, again finding a better angle from the top of the stall door.

“Funny how unexpected life can be.”

“Yeah, it is.

Eva looked over at me. I had hopped down to retrieve the next part, and handed her the inside portion that the wires would attach to. As Eva screwed it in place, I dragged my ladder closer and climbed up. We each grabbed a wire and attached it according to color; green was the ground and was attached to a screw further away from the other wire ends.

We worked our way down the line, replacing each of the four fixtures. We then dragged our ladders and supplies around to the other side, and repeated the routine on the men’s side. One of the fixtures required more coaxing; a screw simply refused to unscrew, so we had to improvise and with satisfaction I smashed it into oblivion.

We took several armloads of garbage to the dumpster, then carefully loaded the old bulbs into cardboard boxes; they would need to be recycled. We swept up, and loaded everything else back into the pickup. We got in and started driving to the north end of the campground. I was chatting away as we approached the next restroom when Eva interrupted me.

“These guys are acting rather edgy. I saw one take a bag he’s holding and put it on the other side of his body, away from me.”

I whipped around to my left. Two men were walking on a path that would bring them right up to us. Eva stopped the truck and rolled down her window.

“Hi there, how’s it going?” she called to them. They approached her window. One of the fellows was easily over 6’ and very muscular, maybe in his mid 30's. The other was smaller, perhaps 5’10 and slim and looked younger.

The larger man answered, “Fine.”

“Just out for a walk?”

“Yeah, we were just on the beach. Anything wrong?”

They had not come from the direction of the beach. “Are you camping here?” Eva asked.

“Uh, no. Just here for the day. On our way back to the car.”

“Where are you parked?” The smaller guy started looking uncomfortable, but kept quiet.

“We’re parked at the North Head Lighthouse and we’re heading back to the car now.”

“What is that you don’t want me to see?” Eva asked.

“What?” He looked towards his far hand, then back at Eva. “Nothing. Just a sandwich. What’s this about?”

“I’d like you to step to the front of the truck,” Eva said, and turned off the engine. As she opened the door, the larger guy took off at a dead run away from us and into the woods. The smaller fellow looked at Eva, then took off after his friend.

“Dammit! Kjerstin, go write down the license plate numbers of those vehicles parked by the restroom. I’m going to get my gear on and head in their direction. Meet me at the edge of the woods.”

As Eva started hurriedly putting on her body armor and duty belt, I ran to the parked cars and wrote down their license plate numbers. I stuffed the paper and pen in my pocket and ran back. Eva wasn’t at the truck, but I found her just inside the first line of trees, crouched down.

“Turn off your radio, or someone else’s talking will alert them,” she whispered. A problem with our radios is that they indiscriminately broadcast everything everyone says into them. Some staff use the radios for conversations and even joking around. Others, like Eva, were irritated when they were used for anything but clear, concise, and relevant communication. She had told me that when the joking went back and forth, that radio traffic could be blocking a message from someone in the middle of an emergency.

I fumbled around for my radio’s power button and switched it off. My heart was beating so loudly I could hardly hear what Eva was saying.

Eva was shaking a canister. “If we find them, I may use this. It emits an orange cloud. Stay away from it.” She kept it in her left hand. “They went this way… see how the ferns all around us are covered with mist, but these ones are shiny?”

I nodded. It was pretty cool that she could actually tell the path they had travelled. We proceeded, crouched low, taking steps as quietly as possible. I was barely breathing because my breath sounded so loud to my ears.

Eva stopped and signaled with one arm behind her for me to stop and get low. I did. She pointed to some foliage trampled close to the ground, and again we set off.

We walked a bit further, and again stopped. Eva pointed to her ear, and I stopped breathing entirely so I could listen. I heard some squirrels chattering, and that was all. She looked back at me and nodded, and we set off in the direction of the chirping.

The next time she stopped, she crouched even lower and put her finger to her lips. Then she pointed ahead and to the left of us. The ferns and salal were dense this low to the ground, but after a while I could see some movement about 250 feet ahead. It slowly resolved into the two men, one of whom was taking off his sweatshirt. A backpack was on the ground, and then one of the men picked it up and put it back on. They were being absolutely silent; they hadn’t seen us. Through the greenery I could see them move off away from us.

Eva crept back towards me, and then turned to look. “They’ve headed up the trail to the light house parking lot,” she said quietly.

“Isn’t that where the guy got stuck and needed to be rescued?”

“Yeah, more or less. But it’s not that difficult, and these guys have already been down it once. Let’s go.” We stayed low all the way back through the woods, then stood up and walked back to her truck. We got into her truck and she grabbed her truck radio as we started driving out of the north end campground. “Parks 298, Parks 122.”

“Parks 122,” Joseph answered.

“Are you discreet?”

This meant, make sure the general public isn’t within earshot. And hopefully, others with their radios on were doing the same.

“Parks 122.”

“A couple guys just headed up the trail to the North Head Lighthouse. I think they’re mushroom pickers. Can you meet me at the lighthouse parking lot?”

“Right. Parks 122.”

“Parks 298.”

I looked at Eva expectantly. I knew that this time of year mushroom pickers were a big problem in the park. The coastal climate and geology were perfect for a variety of psilocybin mushrooms, a hallucinogenic and illegal mushroom to harvest. They grew among the dune grasses and non-native scotch broom.

“I think I’ve seen that guy here before, and he was acting surreptitious then as well. And he was definitely trying to hide that bag from me.”

“And running away from you. That seems guilty.”

“Well, running away isn’t considered probable cause for committing a crime. But they were coming from the direction of an area that has a lot of mushrooms; they lied about coming from the beach; and it doesn’t make sense that they would have parked that far away unless they didn’t want anyone to recognize the vehicle or run the plates. Those things, together with him trying to keep me from seeing the bag, gives me reasonable suspicion to pursue it.” 

I was impressed. “He doesn’t look like the typical mushroom picker.”

The joke was that all mushroom pickers were college aged and wore sweat shirts and knit caps. Most of them were male.

“Older, higher quality clothes. I think maybe this guy is more serious about picking mushrooms, maybe even selling them. Stupid for him to run off. He really didn’t want me to find those mushrooms on him.”

“So why did we let them go? In the woods, I mean?”

“It would not have been smart to approach them in there without another law enforcement officer. Plus, it’s obvious where they’re going. We’ll catch them before they get to the parking lot.”

“That was pretty cool, tracking them in the woods.”

“Yeah, I was trained in it. It’s fun.”

“What was the deal with the squirrel?”

“I know that type of squirrel only starts chattering when it’s been disturbed. So I figured they’d gone that way.”

At that moment Eva was my hero. I wanted to be just like her. I was older than her by several years, but I still felt like I’d just found out what I wanted to do when I grew up.

When we got to the lighthouse parking lot Joseph was already parked at the end of the lot furthest away from the trailhead that they would be coming up on. Eva stopped the truck, and she and Joseph got out of their vehicles and conferred. Eva started walking towards the trailhead.

Joseph approached me. “Why don’t you get in my truck. Make sure your radio’s on. Stay here, and when you hear me radio, drive up to the trailhead and stop. Don’t get out of the truck, but keep your radio on. It’s sometimes good for it to look like there are more rangers around.”

As Joseph walked to join Eva, I got into his truck and made sure my radio was on. I waited for what felt like a long while. I wished I could see what was going on, but because of the foliage and the way the ground sloped at the trailhead, I couldn’t see a thing.

Then, “Go ahead and drive forward,” came over the radio. I drove forward to the edge of the parking lot just in front of the trailhead and stopped, keeping the motor running. Behind the trailhead sign I was able to see some of what was going on.

The two men who had run from us were lying on their stomachs and Eva was handcuffing the larger man’s hands behind his back. She looked up, then back down. Her face was very focused and serious. Joseph started pacing in front of the men. He said loudly, in his squeaky voice, “Don’t fuck with me! We know you’re lying.” Wow, that sounded strange coming out of his mouth. I didn’t think he pulled it off.

Eva and Joseph helped the handcuffed men stand up, and led them to Joseph’s truck. He put the tailgate down, and helped the men to jump up and sit on the back of the tailgate. Joseph motioned me to get out of the car; I walked to the back of the pickup.

The larger guy was talking. “You guys have harassed me before when I’ve come to this park. What’s the deal? I haven’t done anything wrong.”

“What were you doing in the park before?” Eva asked.

“Just hanging out, but you guys treat everyone like criminals.”

“Why did you run?”

“Because of how I’ve been treated before. I don’t know, I didn’t think.”

Eva asked the smaller guy, “You weren’t expecting that, were you?”

For the first time I heard him speak. “No,” he laughed nervously. “I didn’t know what was going on. But I just decided to go along with it, you know?”

The men’s vehicle, an expensive SUV, was nearby. “So you’re saying you didn’t pick any mushrooms.”

“No, I didn’t even know there was anything like that here.”

“Well I think you were picking mushrooms, and that’s what you were trying to hide from me,” Eva said. “Where’s that bag now?”

“I don’t know. I guess it fell when we were in the woods.”

Eva and Joseph walked a few yards away and talked quietly. Then Eva walked to her truck and drove off.

While she was gone Joseph carried on a chatty conversation with the two men. The tough cop demeanor was gone. He said, “So you understand that you aren’t under arrest. This is just for your protection and ours while we check out your story, and find out who you are.”

“No problem,” said the larger man. The men relaxed as Joseph started doing what he did best; tell stories of no consequence, and of fair entertainment value. Five minutes went by, then ten, and fifteen.

Finally Eva radioed Joseph. He and I both walked a small distance away, eyes on the handcuffed men, to listen. “I didn’t find anything,” she said.

Joseph returned to the men. “Well guys, it’s your lucky day. You get to go.” He removed the handcuffs from the two men, and returned their drivers licenses.

“That’s it?”

“That’s it.”

As they drove away, Eva drove up and got out to join me and Joseph.

“Well, that was exciting,” I said.

“Would’ve been better if I’d found that bag in the woods,” Eva said. “I’m sure they ditched it somewhere. Probably they’ll come back for it later, if they want it badly enough. But now we know them, and we’ll keep our eyes on them.”

“You don’t think there’s any chance they were just acting stupid, and not mushroom pickers at all?”

“No, there was too much adding up to be coincidence. Thanks for your assistance, Joseph.”

“Any time,” he said.

Eva and I got back into her truck and headed back to the maintenance shop. “Let’s unload this stuff. I’ve got a pile of reports to write now. I’m afraid we won’t have time to install any more lights today.”






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