“So what exactly does a wilderness/backcountry ranger do?” This is the question invariably asked by friends, family and public alike when I explain that for six months through the summer I will be patrolling the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest. When I first applied for the position I had little more than an idea of the actual duties of a wilderness ranger, and honestly after my first few weeks I wasn’t much closer to a solid answer. Finally now, after a full two months of stumbling, learning and experiencing the job first hand, I am pretty sure I have a reasonable grasp of what I do. However, it can be hard even articulating who you work for, and exactly how you came to be out in the middle of the woods in a ranger outfit, deep in the Central Cascades, sweaty, dusty and crouched with your partner next to a downed log.
“You see we are AmeriCorps members… its kind of like the domestic Peace Corps, but we are technically employed by Mount Adams Institute (MAI), this awesome non-profit in Trout Lake, WA… yeah and they have a Public Lands Stewards program in coordination with other agencies and organizations… and that’s how in partnership with the United States Forest Service(USFS) I ended up getting a Wilderness ranger position in Entiat, WA”
As you can see, even getting across who you work for can be an equation of agencies, acronyms and affiliates, but really that is what MAI does, they lay the groundwork so that people like us can be placed in positions that would otherwise be inaccessible, through lack of experience, or institutional awareness.
Now back to the question: “what is it that you do exactly?” The answer: it depends. It varies, by time of year, geography, experience and the visitor stresses unique to each ranger district. It’s easy to look at the photos of sublime vistas and serene landscapes and assume that wilderness rangers are glorified semi-pro hikers with the best job ever. While that is not completely untrue, it tends to omit most of the gritty details occurring between those “instaworthy” shots we bring back from the wilderness.
Our main job duty is patrolling the backcountry. We head out on different trails with the goal of positively interacting with the public, educating visitors about Leave No Trace (LNT) principles, and maintaining trails, campsites and fire rings. We go out for anywhere between three to seven nights at a time, camp on trail and carry any tools and provisions we may need for the entire trip. We always have some form of a cutting tool, such as a handsaw, and usually a tread tool like a shovel, hoe or Pulaski. Over the course of a trip we usually cover anywhere from 5-12 miles per day depending on quantity and complexity of the work to be done.
Before we set out for any given trip, we meet at the ranger station to go over trip itineraries and goals. Our main objectives are often different from trip to trip; we may focus on visitor interaction, trail maintenance or skills training, usually some combination. We always work in uniform, and use personal protective equipment (PPE) such as gloves, helmets and eye protection to name a few. Most importantly we maintain a line of communication throughout each trip with radios and GPS devices. We check in with radio dispatch each morning before we work and check at camp each night usually through a SPOT GPS device.
Backcountry trips or “stints” as we call them, is only one aspect of our job. Early on in our term we did much more driving than hiking, putting a few thousand miles on our trusty government rig “Lady”, a white Jeep Liberty. We travelled around, attended various classes, safety meetings and skills certifications, assuring we could safely perform our duties, and taking every opportunity to acquire new job skills to help us in the future.
Even now, while I can confidently explain who I work for and what it is I actually do, I am a long way from a veteran ranger, and my carefully crafted spiel will have to be updated and adapted as time goes on and my experiences change. For now, be safe out there and happy trails!!