Tuesday, October 20, 2015

RANGERING: April 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.

I started at Dosewallips just a bit too late to participate in the annual parks law enforcement academy, and would attend next year. At the end of March the three-and-a-half months of academy culminated in several days of scenario training. The ranger cadets traveled from Mount Vernon, Washington to Deception Pass State Park to play out law enforcement scenarios that they might encounter during their careers. Glenn urged me to join them for a couple days to assist with the scenarios and get a preview of what to expect next year.

I drove up to Deception Pass State Park and arrived at the large group camp area being used for this final part of academy. Uniformed park rangers were everywhere: they were overwhelmingly young, male and white. I wandered onto a grassy field surrounded by cabins and larger buildings; at the far end was an area for campfire programs and beyond that a lake.

Several of the rangers looked familiar, but on closer inspection they only shared features of other rangers I knew. With close cropped hair, uniforms and ball caps, their distinguishing features could be categorized: tall and lean, sturdy and muscled, tidy goatee, clean shaven, thick glasses, pink complexion, grim face and purposeful stride.

A ranger cadet approached me. This one was young and white, but also tall and slender with a tidy goatee. He introduced himself as the liaison for visitors, and asked if I was there to help with the scenarios. He brought me into a large building nearby, set up as a classroom with dozens of chairs and desks facing a table, and introduced me to a man sitting at the table, a ranger in his 30’s or 40’s with a National Parks Service uniform and much harder lines on his face. The NPS ranger welcomed me and told me they were coming back from a break shortly for a bit more classroom before starting the scenarios. He welcomed me to have a seat.

Rangers cadets started filing in. I was introduced as a new park ranger, and given the opportunity to share how excited I was to be there, and that I was looking forward to getting a glimpse at what I would be doing at academy a year from now.

We saw a video that demonstrated how someone trained with a knife, and standing 20 feet away, could stab and kill a person before they had a chance to unholster and fire off a single shot. 20 feet was outside of conversation distance. I tried to overlay this information on campground contacts and came up empty. No contact happened without close proximity, usually only a few feet. That was disconcerting. At 20 feet you’d be yelling.

The cadets stood up, with the instructions to respond to the verbalized scenario with the weapon of their choice. The instructor described a scenario where it was nighttime and a man was approaching with a large Maglite flashlight held up on his shoulder. The classroom full of cadets responded with a variety of weapon choices: pepper spray, baton, and firearm (I noticed all of them had red, plastic “guns.”) I was incredulous, and raised my hand.

“That’s every other contact in the campground. Why does that seem like a threat?” I asked.

The instructor’s eyes narrowed. He embellished the scenario, describing threatening posturing from the man with the flashlight. Or had he described that initially, and I had missed it?

It didn’t make sense to me. I recounted stories of rangers coming out of academy thinking their lives were constantly in danger, threatened by grandma out camping with her grandkids.

The cadets separated into groups for the scenarios and we rushed outside with all the chatter and enthusiasm of any class being dismissed.

That evening I overacted egregiously, hiding, resisting arrest, and getting into a violent domestic dispute with the academy commander, a distinguished looking man dressed in a crisp white and navy uniform, who had worked and retired from park rangering. I had a blast!

I was set up in a small cabin for the night. Before turning in I drove around for a place to buy some simple breakfast food and caffeine for the next morning, and set my alarm with ample time to start the next day at 8 a.m.

At a bit past 7 a.m., when I was still in bed and calculating exactly how much time I needed to get ready, the cabin door burst open. A young ranger was halfway into the room making a beeline for the restroom before seeing me. He stopped cold, said, “Oh!” and made a hasty retreat.

Well that was disconcerting. I wondered if anyone else would barge in on me. There was no lock on the door. I pulled on my pants under the blankets, then got up and made myself ready. Assuming that 8 a.m. meant thereabouts, I wandered out of my cabin with my travel mug of room temperature coffee and took the short walk to the classroom.

Outside facing a U.S. flag, lined up with chests out and chins up, were all the cadets standing at attention. The NPS instructor made his way down the line, inspecting them and making comments that the rangers hastily responded to by fixing whatever it was he found amiss.

I hovered uncomfortably. I felt far too casual, and embarrassed at showing up late. Apparently 8 a.m. meant before 8 a.m. The whole military thing was so unfamiliar to me, I felt quite intimidated. I looked at the cadets more appraisingly. There were four young women total, one with short hair, the others had their hair pulled back into tidy buns. All the young men had either short hair, or extremely short hair. Any facial hair was tidy and close-cropped. Their uniforms looked impeccable. It dawned on me that academy had a decorum and strict discipline. I wondered if it would be anything like boot camp, not that I really knew what that was like.

That day I played my role in a few more scenarios, again ridiculously overacting and having a great time. Before leaving I said goodbye in turn to the NPS instructor and the academy commander, and told them I looked forward to seeing them next year.

Eager to make a contribution as the new ranger at Dosewallips, I ordered dark green Naugahyde mattress covers to replace the skanky, stained white ones in our platform tents. Unfortunately, my measurements were off and some of them didn’t fit very well. Glenn and Bertie, the full time senior park aide who had filled in during the time they were down a ranger, complained about their struggles putting a couple of the covers on. So one night Jim and I decided we’d put on the rest, and were confident that we’d find a way to make it simple!

Each tent had one futon and a bunk bed with a twin and a full sized mattress. The futons behaved like futons. As we wrestled the stained white cover off the first futon, the pad acted like two people gone limp. No matter where we held it, it would buckle and collapse, a literal dead weight. The futon slid onto the floor with a thud, where we finished pulling off the white cover. Each taking a side of the smart looking new Naugahyde cover, we slowly started pulling it over the futon, an inch at a time. Finally the cover was on, but the futon mattress had enormous lumps and rolls inside the cover.

“Kjerstin, you’re going to have to go inside to try to push those lumps out.”

I looked at Jim to see if he was joking. He wasn’t. Well, it was the adventure that brought me to park rangering after all.

I crawled head first in through the zippered opening, and pushed, then pulled, coaxing the mattress folds out towards the edges. Jim did the same from the outside. It was exhausting and awkward, trying to manhandle the dead weight of the mattress inside such a confined space. Finally I had pushed the lumps and folds almost to the ends, and found myself completely inside the mattress cover with just my feet sticking out.

I stopped my struggle to catch my breath. “Kjerstin, you look ridiculous. Bet you never thought this was what park rangers spent their time doing.”

We both laughed, then I made the last effort to force the mattress into the corners. I was huffing and puffing, and it had become humid and claustrophobic inside my Naugahyde cocoon. I started to wriggle out backwards and my duty belt and radio got caught. Feeling panicky, I took some slow breaths and did a little self-talk to calm down. Finally I was birthed from the mattress cover, hair disheveled and red faced.

Unfortunately the regular mattresses were simply too long for the mattress covers. No amount of wrestling could change that. “I know what we can do,” Jim said. He took out his Leatherman and started ripping open the mattress end. I followed suit on the other end. We pulled out as much stuffing as we could between the springs, then cinched them up tight with twine – like wilderness first aide stitches.

The mattresses, which were already old, looked ridiculous. The work was very physical and it was pretty late at night at this point. Jim and I were joking about the destruction we were wreaking on these poor mattresses, and I practically peed my pants I was laughing so hard.

Shown: yurts at Cape D. State Park
When Glenn saw our handiwork the next day (and we had indeed finished covering all of the mattresses), he called it cheating. I thought it was ingenious and creative – just what being a ranger is all about!

My parents would drive up to visit every few weeks. On one visit, my dad helped fix up one of the park bicycles by taking the best parts of two bicycles. I ordered a new seat, helmet, rack bag, and lights to complete the set.

I loved zooming through the campground. It was so efficient, often faster than either walking or driving, because I didn’t have to stay on the meandering roads. Quarters jammed in the women’s shower?  I’m there in a few seconds. Need to go to the registration booth to check in a camper? Right there. Back to the office to get some tools for fixing the shower, then back to the restroom, all in under five minutes. As I rode through the park doing my job, I stopped to pick up bits of litter, all while hardly slowing down.

Before my new bike helmet arrived in the mail, Glenn and Jim made fun of my plain white Styrofoam helmet. Coming to the park office after a ride around the campground, I found Jim and Glenn there. Jim walked up to me and scribbled something on the helmet. “There, Glenn, don’t you think that’s better?” Glenn giggled.

I took my helmet off and turned it around to look. In front of the brand, “Bell,” Jim had written “Tinker.”  They were both laughing. I said, “Well the laugh’s on you, because I’m gonna wear it this way.” I put on my helmet and zoomed off on my bike. I was smiling and laughing to myself.

There are times with the two of them that I feel like the little sister being teased by the older brothers.

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