Every job has its ups and downs. Being a backcountry wilderness ranger is no different.
Today is a down day. I have a bit of a migraine, and our original trip plans to work our way up the Prince Creek Trail doing logout have been thwarted by the fact that the river that we had expected to cross was absolutely raging. The lingering snowpack has done a great job of delaying Washington’s fire season, as well as delaying our access to work on the trails that need the most attention.
So today, I am moving rocks. Big rocks. Small rocks. Whatever rocks I can find within a reasonable carrying distance of our new project, building part of a bridge that, once completed, will allow people to cross the very river that forced us to shift our plans.
We did most of the fun stuff yesterday. Our crew deconstructed the last bit of the remaining defunct structure of the old bridge that rotted away many years ago. We cut and peeled logs, which our supervisors felled, to build a foundation for our new bridge. Seeing how poorly the last one held up, our crew takes the time to do everything right. The new bridge, once completed, should last decades. I learn a lot as I watch everything come together and have a good time helping the process along.
So with all of that somewhat exciting stuff out of the way, I now work to fill our tidy and fresh new foundation with rocks that will hold it in place. Each armful seems to make no difference. It will likely take Jacob and me hours to complete this simple task. The sense of futility of our project lets my mind go a little negative. For a while, I let myself entertain thoughts of going back to the way I lived for the past few summers, where I worked as little as possible in order to satisfy my urges to goof off in the mountains, rock climbing, and hiking. A pretty ideal lifestyle that is always just a few decisions away. But instead, I am walking back and forth, moving rocks into an unfillable hole.
Luckily the mindlessness of my task lets me get my thoughts straight. There are a good number of reasons why I’m here. I thought all this through five months ago when I applied for the job. I run through a few of them in my head.
First of all, instead of spending money to serve my own interests like I had done other summers, I am now making money while serving our communities and our forests. Between clearing trails, educating visitors on leave no trace principles, and filling this hole with rocks, I get to contribute to the preservation and access to our great outdoors.
Second of all, I get to learn new things. The gap between my wage and the wages of our other crew members is filled by the effort our supervisors take to really show Jacob (my fellow Mt. Adams Institute intern) and me how to get things done right. In previous projects, we’ve learned plenty about wilderness and non-wilderness methods of trail clearing and trail rehabilitation. This trip has shown us how to craft essential structures from scratch in the backcountry. In just quick three months, Jacob and I have acquired skills that will make us strong contenders for jobs doing public land stewardship-type work in the future.
And finally, perhaps most importantly, the crew and I get to live an extremely rare, fulfilling lifestyle. It seems obvious that none of us are here for the money; nearly any other career path is better for that. We all get enjoyment out of being out in the woods for extended periods, working outside, spending the afternoon by the creek or the lake, and then sleeping under the stars. The problems of the world peel away while we’re out there. It’s a nice thing when your worries revolve around simple things like warmth, food, and maybe snakes. All these things that we were meant to worry about, rather than artificial concerns like taxes and combing your hair.
I snap out of my thoughts when Tressa, our supervisor, tells Jacob and me that we have put enough rocks in our foundation, and upon stepping back, I can see that she’s right. The last few hours have flown by. The crew and I fit the last piece or two of the foundation structure together, a satisfying cap on the work we’ve done, and the workday is coming to an end.
When it’s all said and done, the day leaves me feeling satisfied. Both with the work that we have completed, as well as with my decision to sacrifice my more self-serving lifestyle to be out here. Even the down-days feel alright when I’m out doing this sort of work.