Saturday, September 20, 2014

RANGERING: February 2006

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 years ago. In some situations I have changed names and details to protect the privacy of people involved.

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

The evening before my first day as a park ranger, our senior park aide Bertie invited me to $2 tacos at the Geoduck Restaurant and Lounge.

The geoduck (pronounced gooey duck) is a clam that grows so large it cannot fully retract its body back into its shell. These gigantic clams are really quite obscene looking, but cut into bite-sized pieces and grilled or fried have a delicious shellfish flavor.

For a good video on harvesting the geoduck filmed at Dosewallips State Park, go to: Or to see how geoducks are raised at a farm watch this:

When I arrived Bertie was there with her friends, and I was surrounded by a small group of friendly young adults. The mom of one of Bertie’s friends coordinates women’s outdoor activities such as wilderness first aid and fly-fishing, and I was excited to meet her. She holds some of her activities at the park. The $2 tacos actually cost $3, and their quality was as expected. The restaurant was a large room with a u-shaped bar taking up nearly half of it, a pool table and foosball table, and several mounted elk and deer heads – one of which talked to you when you walked by. The proprietor joked with her customers at the bar, and was all business with me. The Geoduck was nothing fancy, but it offered an incredible view overlooking the Hood Canal. 

Our park manager Glenn was going to be away my entire first week, attending in-service, the annual law enforcement training for park rangers. Apparently in-service takes place on three consecutive weeks, so that every park ranger can attend without emptying the parks of all the rangers at the same time.

On my first day of work Ranger Jim and park aide Bertie were working with me. Because it was winter, we were all scheduled to work four consecutive ten-hour days; as spring approached we would switch to five eight-hour days. Each of we three rangers would have different days off. Ranger Jim took a bite of cookie and wiped crumbs off his greasy cargo pants.

“Let’s go see how the trail’s coming along.” The Washington Trails Association is a volunteer organization that helps build and maintain trails around the state. They were starting a trail reroute and a new bridge. The Maple Valley Trail was a sodden mess. Suddenly Jim veered off the trail and into the dense underbrush of salal, huckleberry and ferns, followed by an agile Bertie and a less-than-agile me. Jim and Bertie’s long legs had no problem cresting fallen trees, but I got stuck on a few and had to scooch across their mossy tops and down the other side. I could feel the moisture seep into my crotch. Jim and Bertie joked and horsed around casually.

Jim took us to a view that the reroute would capture: the creek cascading merrily through moss-covered rocks and over fallen trees. I understood the inspiration for all the hard work: it was idyllic. The new bridge was just being started, and despite the small size of the creek, the bridge looked to be a major undertaking. Jim said that all the wood they were using came from fallen trees and limbs. I felt both exhausted and refreshed as we made our way back, pulling twigs and pieces of lichen out of my hair and wiping mud and moss off my trousers. My crisp brand-new uniform was initiated before my first day was over.

On my second day Bertie and I drove to Parks headquarters in Olympia. She took the wheel of our old stick shift one-ton pickup and asked me a barrage of “getting to know you” questions: “What’s your favorite color? What food do you hate the most? Tell me about an embarrassing moment. What kind of music do you like?” I appreciated her friendliness, while reflecting on her youthfulness. I understood she was college bound in a year, and I wondered how her questions might change after a bit of college under her belt.

Soon after arriving at headquarters Bertie saw someone she knew, and launched into a very animated discussion about this woman’s recent trip to Dosewallips and some land-use planning activities that were being developed. I felt cloddish; Bertie did not introduce me, and not knowing where to go I waited until they finished.

Geri was in charge of ranger uniforms and equipment. I was able to try on shirts and pants and came away with several new pairs, two ball caps, and a jacket with removable lining. I was delighted to get trapper hat like Margo wore in the movie Fargo; it makes me feel very rangerly.

I asked Geri where I could find Will, the guy in charge of law enforcement for the agency; I needed to give him my completed application for law enforcement academy. She pointed to his office door and told me he was having lunch with his son. I knocked, entered when called to, and stopped short as I noticed two things: a toddler on a chair being spoon-fed, and a teenage Matthew Broderick decked out in jeans, t-shirt and beat-up tennis shoes feeding the toddler.

I was confused. Where was Will? Surely this teenager was his son. But then who was the toddler? I was about to say, “I think I’m looking for your dad.” Instead I said, “I’m looking for Will.”

“That’s me.”

OK, now I was even more confused. This kid was 19. How could he possibly be old enough to be in charge of law enforcement or anything else other than pep rallies at high school? I hesitated, I’m sure a stupid grin on my face.

Will said sharply, “What can I help you with?”

Shaking aside my disbelief I offered my academy application. After our quick exchange I found Will to be both impatient and quite articulate.

“Shut the door on your way out.”

I shut the door and leaned against it, catching my breath. Wow, that was a major fuck-up. I wonder if he had any idea what my confusion was about, or if I just appeared to be a slack-jawed idiot.

When Bertie and I finished all of our tasks we drove the short distance to our region headquarters, also in Olympia, to pick up a flatbed trailer to bring back with us. Bertie was familiar with the two fellows who helped track down the trailer and fill the tires with air, and she seemed confident and comfortable. Again she was very chatty and animated; again she didn’t introduce me. I extended my hand and introduced myself and received warm congratulations. Still, I was getting a bit weary of her exaggerated show of competence.

On the drive back, as a vehicle passed us the passenger reached an arm out the window and pointed behind us. Then a second vehicle passed, this time getting in front of us and flashing its hazards. I looked back both times, but it was getting dark and I couldn’t see anything. After the third car that signaled was particularly frantic, we pulled over. Somehow the cotter pins holding the ramp up had fallen out, and the grated metal ramp was dragging and bouncing on the road – undoubtedly creating a lot of sparks. I was tired and out of my element. After a search through the pickup, Bertie pushed long nails through the ramp holes and bent them back over on themselves with a set of pliers. I wouldn’t have thought of that.

My third day of work was the start of both Jim and Bertie’s days off, so I was the only person on shift. I closed the front door to my house and walked the two dozen steps to the park office to see if there were any notes from Jim: none. I decided to do a quick patrol of the park, something Glenn had told me was always a good way to start my shift.

Just ¼ mile down the highway from the park was a meadow and access to the shellfishing beach. There I had my first sighting of the local elk herd. I counted over 40 of them casually grazing. They were massive creatures, regal and magnificent.

The Roosevelt Elk were named after President Theodore Roosevelt. Their native name is wapiti, which means white rump. 

A large and proud buck stood slightly apart from the herd of females and juveniles, keeping watch. With some silent communication other heads lifted from their grazing and turned to look at me, continuing to chew. With the exception of the buck, all those distinct white elk butts faced me, with heads looking back over their shoulders. Was that a coincidence?

That night after work I heard the wind pick up. Glenn called me at home.

“Gould, NOAA has issued an extremely high wind warning. So what I need you to do is close the park.”

“Close the park?” How would that work, exactly?

“Right. Close the park, we can’t let any new campers in. What I’m worried about is the threat of falling trees. We only have a few campers at the park now, right? It would be irresponsible to put them out on the road in this weather. So I need you to move all the current campers to new sites away from the trees.”

“OK. Like camping sites that aren’t near any trees? That might be a little tricky.”

“Doesn’t have to be camping sites. Anywhere. Maybe under the bridge, or in the group campsite. Fran will help you. Give me a call if you need me, but I have confidence in you Gould.”

I put on my lined ranger coat over my sweats and patted my new trapper hat into place, and walked over to where our volunteer camp host Fran had her RV. It was getting wild, little gusts pushing and pulling me suddenly. Fran was already in action, overseeing our half dozen campers unhook their RVs. One fellow was jump starting Fran’s old motor home, which had been parked in place for quite some time – by special arrangement longer than the usual three-month limit for volunteers. We relocated two to under the highway bridge, and the remaining four pulled into the middle of the large, grassy part of our large group campsite. 

As instructed I pulled one side of our entrance gate closed, locking it into place. It had a large "STOP" sign facing anyone coming into the park, but we couldn't close both sides of the gate in case an emergency compelled anyone to come or go.

Before going to bed that night I took Jackie on a final walk to make sure that our campers were all settled in: I grabbed my radio, having agreed with camp host Fran that we would both keep ours on during the night in case anything else came up. I let Jackie meander, both of us savoring the darkness and the howling wind.

When we got back from our walk my radio was gone. Damn!

The next morning as soon as the sun came up I set about trying to retrace my footsteps. Everything was soaking wet, and branches were strewn about everywhere. It wasn’t easy, not yet being familiar with the park, and having lost it after dark. But as I looked around I would remember the next jaunt in our walk, and the next. Then I remembered tripping on the edge of a fire pit. Eagerly I looked, and found my radio just beyond the pit; it had probably been jostled out of my pocket. Thank goodness it still worked after a night in the elements.

On my fourth day I was working alone again. The park remained closed except for the folks already there. Some campers decided to head out, only to find their RVs stuck in the muddy soup of the group campsite. They said they just wanted to get home. A local fellow with a massive pickup truck and a winch rescued them, and they were on their way. Several trees had come down, though none where our campers had been.

Power was out all day, so I brought my kerosene lamp to the office for light and some warmth. Then I heard a thunderous sound and stepped outside the office in time to watch an alder crash down across the creek. It was a cold, wet day.

Day five was spent doing errands, primarily shopping for necessities for my house – outlet covers, door mats, shower curtains. It was a benefit of living in park housing that some household tasks were also considered work tasks; and some house expenses work expenses. I could get used to this.

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