Public Lands Stewards: First Impressions of a Wilderness Trails Ranger

by | Land Stewards

When I got the call from the Mt. Adam’s Institute (MAI) program coordinator, Marijke, that I would be joining the Chelan Ranger District as a wilderness trails ranger intern for the summer, I blurted “YES” into the phone rather embarrassingly and high fived a coworker sitting nearby. Luckily Marijke found this amusing and laughed along as I jumped around the staff house of the northern Maine ski lodge where I spent my winter, picturing myself on trails and mountaintops on the opposite side of the country. I was overwhelmed by the unbelievable opportunity I had stumbled into, and I couldn’t wait to get started.

I applied to MAI at an uncertain point in my life. As an environmental studies major a couple of years out of college, I had been unsure of how to best apply my degree in a fulfilling way. The world of wilderness rangers was something I knew very little about, but after completing a season of volunteer trail work in 2016, and a year-long internship with the Student Conservation Association for the National Park Service, I felt strongly about the importance of public lands agencies. I knew that I enjoyed learning about both hands-on and wide-lens conservation practices that preserve natural areas and empower the public to become stewards, and the duties of a wilderness ranger seemed to check every box. Heeding the call for alpine environments as a skier and recreational backpacker, I was hopeful to pursue this path somewhere in the Pacific Northwest. Finally, I came across MAI after a series of panicked late-night internet searches and applied to follow my interests to the backcountry of the Washington Cascades.

Two months, 17 states, and 5,231 miles after Marijke’s call, I arrived in Trout Lake, WA for orientation. I was gripped by the feeling that this was exactly where I needed to be, grinning at every new face and turn in the landscape, as well as the gravity of the challenge to come. Spending the better part of six months in the wilderness in a completely unfamiliar region is an experience not to be taken lightly, nor wasted.

Writing this, I am 25 days into my season. As wilderness trails rangers, my co-intern Tyler and I balance two roles: assisting the Chelan Trail Crew with backcountry trail maintenance projects and completing independent tours of the Glacier Peak Wilderness, maintaining trails, campsites and educating visitors on Leave No Trace principles. Our service site includes the Lyman Lake and Pacific Crest Trail near a village called Holden located “uplake” of the 55 mile-long Lake Chelan, and occasionally the Echo Ridge area near the city of Chelan.

Although I have yet to embark on a solo tour, three work trips (hitches) over the past few weeks have given me a sense of the area, expanded my backcountry skills, and laid a foundation for the work that lies ahead by practicing the basics of assessing trails, building tread, and working as a team with the trail crew to clear trail using a variety of tools including crosscut saws. A Memorial Day weekend patrol of the popular Lakeshore Trail with fellow MAI interns from the Entiat Ranger District provided practical experience for approaching visitor interactions in the role of a ranger.

It’s hard to believe how much has happened since that call in March, yet every day I wake up in the cool shelter of a pine forest, or to the sound of rushing water and bird song, I am filled with that same excitement for the experiences to come.