Public Lands Stewards:  “Lessons from the Trail”

Jessy Mueller

As the season is coming to an end I am reflecting back to the last five months of living and working in the backcountry. Through this summer’s hard work I have grown a lot as a person. It didn’t come easy, but with some trial and error I can safely say there is a lot of life lessons I will be taking away from this Public Lands Stewards AmeriCorps experience.

The first life lesson came to me on a cold, 35 mph windy morning. My co-worker Azrael and I were setting up the ranger base camp at Lyman Lake in early July. There was still lots of snow on the ground, but it was melting fast. Two days prior our boss had hiked up with us showing us around, telling us different projects to work on and where to set up camp. The ranger camp consists of a large cook tent and a small 2 person sleeping tent. They are about 500 feet away from one another and to get from one tent to another we had to walk across a snow field. Our boss informed us there was a creek somewhere under the snow and showed us a long route to get from one tent to the other. Fast forward 2 days, our boss left us to finish setting up camp and acclimating ourselves to the area. It was 7:15 a.m. when I emerged from my tent, still half asleep with no coffee in my system I made the cold trek to the cook tent. It was very windy, and I see Azrael with all his strength trying to keep the large tent from blowing away because we did not stake down the tent properly. Mistake #1. I feel frantic and want to rush over to help him. The snow by now is melted by 50% and a direct trail to the cook tent is SLIGHTLY uncovered. It’s not the route that our boss showed us, but in my mind I should trust the trail, right? Wrong! Little did I know this path was created by previous rangers to get water from the creek. I am now thigh high in freezing cold water, in my boots and work clothes, trying to jump out on the snowy edge. Once I pull myself out, I unhappily walk up to Azrael thinking he saw the whole disaster, but he didn’t. Instead I hear “About time you got up! Its hurricane winds out here and the tent is ripping!” In the calmest voice I could manage I scream back “I just fell in the creek!” But I knew there was no time to waste. The only thing worse than trying to stake down a tent with no feeling in my fingers and toes would be going back to the office and explaining to our boss how we managed to break a tent on the first day of being unsupervised. So with soaking clothes we staked it down, managing only to put a few tears in the rain fly. An hour later I was finally able to put dry clothes on and warm up with some hot coffee. I can honestly say it was the worst morning of the whole summer, but some valuable life lessons were learned.

#1 – Always Listen to your boss when they show you a route to take. Even if you think you know a better way, most likely you don’t.

#2 – Don’t assume social paths have your best interest.

#3 – Don’t take short cuts

#4 – Always bring an extra pair of socks

#5 – Make sure to have coffee before making decisions in the morning.

The second major incident happened a few days later at the Holden Village ranger cabin. The project was too chop large logs into smaller pieces for the wood burning stove. Once everything was chopped you re-stack the logs in an organized pile next to the cabin. Easy enough. A coworker and I started the re-piling task, she would toss me the wood and I would stack it. I decided I didn’t need to wear my hard hat because I have stacked wood at home and never wore one, why would I now? About 30 minutes in we got in a groove, toss, catch, stack, toss, catch, stack. We got it down so well there wasn’t even a pause between each toss, leaving little room for error. Then it happened. A log slipped between my hands and fell on the ground. I should have let it go, picked it up later knowing that in a few short seconds another log would be flying towards me. But being mission driven, I had to pick it up. As I bend over I hear “JESSSSSSY!!” BAM. A small log hit my skull. I look at my co-worker, her face says it all. “What is my head bleeding?” I started to ask… but before I can finish my sentence blood comes rushing down my face. Luckily we were near a well-stocked first aid kit and I had a wilderness first responder tending to my wound. Another co-worker walks up to the situation and shakes his head. “Jessy, Jessy, Jessy. No PPE?” (PPE stands for Personal Protective Equipment, A.K.A my bright yellow hard hat.) Thankfully, all I got was a bump, a small cut and another life lesson learned.

#6- Always wear your PPE!

#7 – No matter how monotonous a task is always pay attention.

#8 – Don’t be afraid to tell your co-worker to slow down.

#9- Listen to your gut instinct. If your gut tells you to let the log go and pick it up later… pick it up later.

#10- Always carry a first aid kit.


I could go on and on with more stories from this summer and how I learned a few things, but I will keep it brief. Other major life lessons were, always bring 2 watches when you are rangering alone, especially if one of the watches was only $9 from Walmart. If you don’t, you might get really good at telling the time by the sun. Always bring your rain gear in your day pack, you never know when a storm decides to roll in for a whole work day. If you don’t, you will end up with soaked work clothes for a few days. Always double check you have everything packed in your backpack before you leave for a 9-day hitch in the backcountry. If you don’t you might forget your stove and have to eat uncooked cold oatmeal and coffee for breakfast every morning. Never leave your backpack in a rat infested shelter in the woods. If you do, your pack might smell like sour urine for the rest of the work week. And if you ever happen to find yourself wearing a Smokey Bear costume for a Fourth of July parade, while sitting on a bench in a back of a pick-up truck. Listen to the driver when they tell you not to stand up. If you don’t listen, the driver might slam on the breaks, making you fall behind the bench, on your back, with your feet and hands straight up in the air.

As you can see I have learned a lot this summer and will always remember these experiences. Glacier Peak Wilderness, you will always hold a special place in my heart.

Thanks AmeriCorps. Jessy out.


Public Lands Stewards: “The Wilderness Particle”

Azrael Wilson

It’s another year, another season in the mountains. Last summer I shouldered a heavy pack and enough primitive crosscutting tools to gain a 19th century woodsman’s approval and set to clearing the main path up the Entiat valley with my work partners, Martin and Peter. We transformed from the soft outdoorsy types we arrived as into rough part-feral trail workers. So returning this year to work in the nearby Chelan district would be a piece of cake, right? Right. I guess things have a way of turning out exactly as they are and not the way you envisage.


One of the things I’ve come to appreciate about the wilderness is the many truths and stories it tells. Deer, for example, have salt-deficient diets and they will stalk your camp and steal your delicious ultra-sweaty salt-encrusted shirt should you hang it on a branch outside your tent. And this gem: where there is standing water, there are mosquitoes. Your body is full of truths, too. Sometimes these truths are particularly challenging – like when your brain says “Yes, you are going to do this thing” but the sudden searing of nerves screams “NOPE!” Of course, it helps if you listen to your body’s story the first time and not, uh, the second or third. There’s likely some lessons tucked away in there about practicing patience and knowing your limits and learning to pace yourself. Big picture stuff. But I’m not here to complain about a minor back injury.


[quote align=”center” color=”#999999″]So why did I return to wilderness trail work this year?

Two words: fame & money.[/quote]

Ha! Just kidding. Working on the trails will earn you payment in equal measures of sunburns and stunning vistas. You might find fame with the deer if you forget about your shirt often enough. Really, though, it comes down to the details. How the trees and weather shine incandescent when the shy sun re-emerges after hours of pouring rain. Tracing veins in a leaf as light filters through. Memorizing the colors of wild paintbrush: coral, ochre, carmine. Watching an umbral dance play out on glaciers as the clouds above shift and swirl. The stunning silence of the mind after seeing no one for days.


A couple years ago I found myself walking on a long trail at the zenith of a longer adventure of self-discovery, awareness, and action. At the time, my reason for hiking the trail seemed vague and bland. “Why not?” I’d respond to hikers who inquired. Upon later rumination I decided this: choosing to hike was an act of self-preservation. By walking through the living wilderness I became alive. To this day it feels as if a tiny part of the mountains, rivers, deserts and forests have become a part of my body like an extra particle in my blood – the wilderness particle.


So here I am – another year, another summer in the mountains. With the absence of major fires so far, the trail crew, Jessy and I have accomplished a fair bit of work in the uplake Chelan area – logging out trails, fixing tread, cutting brush, replacing signs. We’ll keep on truckin’ and despite my mid-season stumblings, maybe I’ll find my groove yet.


Public Lands Steward: A Hundred Tomorrows


It’s hot. Is there a word for hotter-than-hot? It’s so hot the first few weeks in Entiat that my sweat has a sheen of sweat on it and all I’m doing is cowering in front of the living room air conditioning unit that looks something like R2-D2 and a mail drop box. The other two rangers I live and work with have found a dusty TV and VCR player and we spend glorious hours consuming some serious cinematography (Forrest Gump, Blazing Saddles, and The Princess Bride) while waiting out the heat of the day. Once the temperature outside drops below 100 degrees – six o’clock or so – I hike up the dirt road past our house to my favorite local spot: the Steliko look out tower, standing dormant and shuttered against a nearly constant barrage of wind. From the look out you see this: a tiny town below, blue sky above, the pale gold dry grasses whispering in the breeze, a rattlesnake coiled in the dust, balding hills in every direction. What you see is the high desert, the harsh seasonal reality of these matchstick mountains.

Steliko Look Out

Life here is full of contrasts. We work in the woods and spend days off in town. Sweltering days turn into night shivers. Our trail maintenance and ranger patrols take us to places where the dust turns to duff, dry hillsides morph into vibrant meadows festooned with bright summer flowers. Streams babble. There are larches and lakes and bare granite passes.

Crater Lake Sawtooth

Today sweat is streaming down my face as my folding hand saw sings through a log as wide in diameter as the blade is long. No, wait. I’m singing “9 to 5” with a Dolly Parton no one else can hear, except I can’t remember most of the lyrics so it sounds more like

Workin’ 9 to 5

what a way to make a livin’

nuh-nuh nuuh nuh nuh

nuh-nuh nuuh nuh-nuh nuh-nuh

…it’s enough to drive you

crazy if you let it!

 Today my mind is quiet. Today I feel alive. Is there a word for more-alive-than-alive? I think about this as I finish cutting my fourteenth log this morning. I also think about corn nuts because I’m hungry and I really, really love corn nuts. This is where I belong, I decide, and my body hums with an electric anticipation of the hundred tomorrows that will be like today.

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