Friday, March 14, 2014

RANGERING: October 2004 (4)

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.

NOTE: I will never write about upsetting details without a warning. 

Eva had left me a note asking me to switch out the fluorescent light fixtures in the ranger station. We’d done enough at this point that I felt confident doing so without her. I switched off the breaker to the lights and wrestled the ladder into pace. I climbed up and saw that these fixtures were attached to the ceiling with a screw I didn’t have a bit for. It seems to be a park rule to mix-and-match screw styles, so that no single screw driver or bit can be used on any one project. Perhaps this is a deliberate anti-vandalism tactic, I’m not sure.

Park aides Sue and Ralph were in the front of the ranger station where campers and park visitors come to register. Ralph didn’t have any work to do there, so he was apparently killing time, something he was good at. “What are you doing?” he asked.

“Switching out the light fixtures to a more energy-efficient kind. Eva and I have been replacing these throughout the park. I’m trying to finish up one of the last buildings.”

“Is it hard?”

“No, not really. But since I’m dealing with electricity, it’s important to do it right.”

Frustrated by my delay, I walked to the maintenance shop to find a screw bit that would fit. I took several of varying sizes. Since working at the park I have discovered handy things such as Phillips screw heads come in different sizes, and if you try to use a Phillips bit that is too small you end up stripping the screw.

A few minutes later I was back up on the ladder with the right bit in the cordless drill. I looked down at the circuit breaker, but specifically remembered turning it off. As I started loosening the screw, I jumped as I felt a small sting in my hand. That was strange. I put the drill back to the screw and tried again; again I felt a sharp sting in my hand. I pulled the drill away as suspicion started to grow.

I climbed down the ladder and set the drill down, then walked over to the circuit breaker. The switch had been returned to the “on” position; the sting in my hand was an electrical shock. Sue and Ralph were still in the front of the ranger station, engrossed in a soft-spoken conversation. No lights were turned on. Nothing had changed except for the breaker. My mouth tightened and my brows furrowed. I knew one of them had done it, and I imagined them doing it on purpose, sneakily. I wanted to yell, “You almost fucking killed me, you morons! Do you dislike me that much you’d be willing to kill me?”

O'Neil Lake
Instead, face red with anger, I stormed out of the office and walked towards O’Neil Lake. They could have killed me. True, it was my fault not putting a lock-out/tag-out on the breaker. And yes, I should have double checked it when I came back into the office. But that didn’t excuse them. They knew what I was doing. They had no reason to turn that breaker on. They had been fucking with me. I was so angry I could hardly see straight, as I walked quickly and angrily along the perimeter of the lake.

I walked for about twenty minutes until I felt my anger subside. When I walked back into the ranger station Ralph had left. I checked the circuit breaker and returned to the light fixture.

A few minutes later Ranger Bob came in at the start of his shift. “Hey, I’ve seen you and Eva doing that around the park. Tell me about it.”

“Well, these are more energy-efficient light fixtures, and we’re working our way through the entire park, switching the old ones out. It’ll be a huge cost savings over time.”

“That’s great. Can you show me how you’re doing it?”

“Sure, no problem.”

So a park aide taught a ranger how to switch out light fixtures: being certain that the power is off, identifying the colored wires, attaching the ground. We got through the three fixtures in the ranger station before he had to do his campground patrol. I gathered up all the tools, garbage and recyclables, and put them away. It felt enormously gratifying having learned this new skill well enough to pass it on to someone else.

As the days shortened and most of the summer park aides ended their tours of duty, I was asked to cover the office from time to time. This involves answering telephones and checking in campers and park visitors on the computer. Being dragged inside from the beautiful outdoors makes me feel like I’m being grounded. However I am learning far more about the park and how it is run. And of even more interest is my exposure to the rangers. While working outside I am typically working solo and do not have many conversations with the rangers. The office is where the rangers come to write up incident reports and to discuss park issues. I feel privileged hearing them debate probable cause, misdemeanors vs. felonies, and defensive tactics. The rangers keep a log of incident reports, and I am creating a spreadsheet index of these incidents so that they can look up repeat offenders and reference past incidences.

The Lewis & Clark Interpretive Center was the venue for a ground-breaking event for the introduction of the new national and multi-state Lewis & Clark Historical Park. On the day of the event our park was filled with important muckety-mucks in all sorts of uniforms, both ranger and military, to celebrate this new collaboration. I helped shuttle people from the main park entrance to the LCIC, which has limited parking, in a small van. Part of the route is a very steep, narrow and windy road, and on one of my trips up, a muckety-muck in a hurry to depart came racing head-on towards me in his large SUV. I screeched to a halt, but he continued fast towards me as if he thought there was room to pass (there wasn’t). At the last possible moment, he slammed on his brakes and his SUV skidded to within a foot of the front of my vehicle. I slowly backed up to a turn-out, with him pursuing closely the entire way. After he finally was able to get by and I resumed my ascent, I saw the deep gouges his tires had made in the mud on the shoulder as he’d skidded to a stop.

I have made the decision to apply to become a Washington State Park Ranger. The lengthy application process involves fitness training and filling out incredibly personal forms. While working the office I ask the rangers questions like, “on the sit-ups, exactly what do they mean by ‘shoulders touching the floor’?” I get to hear stories about their application process, and the crazy questions they were asked in the psychological evaluation such as, “True or False, some days I wake up evil,” or “I have a super power I’ve never told anyone about.”

My exercise regimen has been sporadic since arriving in Astoria, but I am going to start a more rigorous fitness routine. Ranger requirements include a one-and-a-half mile run, 300 yard sprint, 20 pushups, bench pressing 70% of my body weight, 32 sit-ups in one minute, and a vertical jump. Upper body exercise has never been my thing; and growing up I disdained contact sports. So as a teenager I fell into cross country running. The solitary activity that focused more on endurance than speed suited me well, but my noodle arms had never been tested.

Getting dressed in sweats and clearing a space on my living room floor, I started with the pushups. Twenty pushups. That sounded like a lot to me. I stretched my legs back, balancing on my toes, and slowly bent my elbows. A baseball cap under my chest marked the required four inches from the ground. I lowered myself down, then with arms shaking horribly made it back up. Second time, my arms buckled and my body collapsed onto the floor. Well, at least I could eke out one.

School filmed in Kindergarten Cop
The sit-ups were far easier. I cranked out two dozen and thought that was a good starting place. I drank some water and headed out the door. I did a few leg stretches, then walked briskly down Goonie Hill to the paved road. I had measured out a route the other day in my car, marking a two-mile circuit. I ran past the school filmed in Kindergarten Cop, and uphill from there. Being built on a hill, the neighborhoods of Astoria are great places to get a workout whether walking or jogging. My lungs weren’t able to suck in enough air, but my legs felt strong and certain of themselves. I tried to remember the last time I’d been running, and guessed about four years ago. Nice that the muscles had retained strength and memory. The two miles wasn’t easy, but neither was it unbearable.

The next day I felt pleasantly tired and sore, but my knees and ankles were very unhappy with me. I guess running on sidewalks should be kept to a minimum. Both Astoria High School and Ilwaco High School have nice rubberized tracks. The Ilwaco high school is on my way to work, so two days a week I will head in early for a two-mile run, then use the shower in the trailer before starting my work shift. And I will alternate lower body workouts and upper body workouts on different days.

One evening I finished my shift and as arranged, met Eva in the ranger station office for a ride-along. She smiled at me as I came in.

“One of our camp hosts called me. There’s a report of a dead sea lion on the beach near some campsites. He’s decomposing, so he smells and there’s a health risk for kids playing around it.”

“Does that happen often?”

“Every once in a while. Life isn’t easy in the ocean, and sometimes critters die. Who knows what happened to it. But I think this might be one that we buried a few months ago, and the tides slowly worked him back up to the surface again.”

“What are we going to do?”

“Bury him again.”

“Won’t he just come back up?”

“Maybe. We’re going to take the back hoe and dig a really deep hole this time.”


We walked over to the maintenance shop. On the way I grabbed my park ball cap and work gloves from my truck. Eva opened the bay door and started the tractor motor as she walked around it to make sure everything looked operational. She told me that if I needed to alert her once we started going, I would need to tap on her shoulder to get her attention. I hopped into the jump seat on the backhoe side of the tractor, facing backwards. We drove out of the shop and onto the campground road. We bounced along at a good clip for a tractor, and a smile crept across my face as I turned my face into the coldness and the wind. Half a mile down the road, the sky went from hazy dusk to absolutely black and the sky opened up. Rain pounded on us, drenching us completely in seconds and reducing visibility; I could hardly keep my eyes open, the rain was hitting so hard. I was grateful for my extra layers, but the wind and wetness cut through to my skin and I was freezing. Eva was wearing short sleeves still; she must be miserable.

Where the road takes a sharp turn to the right, we continued straight ahead onto a fire access road. Eva stopped the tractor and looked back at me. I swung down and opened the gate, a pole hinged on one stump and resting on another; at its open position is another stump for it to rest on. Eva drove through the gate and paused for me to close the gate and hop back on. We drove onto the sandy beach in the pouring rain and darkness. Eva pulled out a large flashlight from somewhere and shined it towards the driftwood and dune grasses. We drove on, sometimes coming closer to the dune grasses, sometimes further away, weaving our way in and out of the driftwood. Then out of the darkness materialized a shape that didn’t fit in – it was smooth and rounded. We stopped and got off the tractor, approaching the sea lion corpse. The stench was overpowering. Eva checked to make sure it wasn’t tagged, which would have identified it as a sea lion that is being monitored.

Eva handed me the flashlight and climbed into the jump seat to operate the backhoe. She maneuvered the arm and started digging a hole near the dead creature. I shined the flashlight on the area. It seemed to be going slowly, and a scowl started to show on Eva’s face. The hole didn’t seem terribly deep, but Eva used the backhoe arm to push the sea lion. He nose-dived into the hole, half of him in the hole and half of his body sticking straight up out of it. Eva tried to dig the hole bigger near the rear part of his body, then lowered the backhoe to the ground and turned the engine off. She hopped down.

“It’s been a long time since I’ve used the backhoe. I couldn’t seem to get it to work right.” She took two shovels out of the tractor bucket and handed one to me. She also came up with a couple pairs of leather gloves, a set of which I pulled on. The rain had slowed to a steady pour. We started digging, trying to deepen the hole so the end of the sea lion would fall into it. It was tough work. I wasn’t cold anymore, but my arms were getting tired. I knew if I pushed myself too much it would trigger a migraine. But with Eva chugging away, removing large piles of sand with every scoop, I kept shoveling.

Despite my intentions, my digs became more and more shallow, and pretty soon I was doing little more than flicking bits of sand away from the sea lion. I felt inadequate and embarrassed.

Eva handed me her flashlight. “Here, can you just shine it in there so I can see better?”

I was sure she gave me the flashlight since I was so pitiful with the shovel. I did my best to hold it steady while she kept digging. Finally she fired up the tractor again and pushed the upright part of the sea lion’s body until it fell into the new opening. It looked like it fit this time. Again she turned off the tractor and picked up a shovel. I decided to stick with the flashlight. My arms felt like they were going to fall off, and the back of my neck had a searing pain. Damn!

The drive back was miserable. I was soaked both from rain and sweat, and the breeze kicked up by our passing cut right through to my skin. Eva drove faster this time, and the tractor bounced around like crazy; I hung on for dear life. I was shaking and shivering by the time we got back to the maintenance shop and parked the tractor. Eva’s bare arms were covered in goose bumps.

We put our tools away in silence, and walked over to the ranger station. It was locked up and dark, long since closed up for the day. We entered, and Eva turned the thermostat up high; we shed our outer layers and waited for heat to work its way into the room and into our bodies.

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  1. You have such a deft touch with details. I so enjoy the specificity you use when writing about things! And of course the humor is always top-notch. Thanks for a good read.

    1. Thank You! There was always something new and interesting going on. I'm glad that comes through in my writing.