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.

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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.

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Public Lands Stewards: New 4th of July Tradition – Clearing Wilderness Trails

Jessy Mueller

Today is the Forth of July. If I was back home in Wisconsin I would be celebrating it with family and friends. Watching the town parade, grilling out, enjoying the sunshine waiting for the firework show to start come nightfall. But this year I am doing something completely different. I am working on a section of the Pacific Crest Trail. My location is a little difficult to get to. Myself plus 5 other Forest Service Trail Crew members take a 4 hour ferry ride up Lake Chelan. At the other end of the lake we hop on a bus in the village of Stehekin. Forty-five minutes later we arrive at the trail head. From there we hike 10 miles gaining and loosing 1,000 ft in elevation. With a 40-pound pack filled with tools, our camping gear, extra clothes and enough food to last a 9 day hitch. July 4th is like any other work day. I wake up to the beeping of my watch at 7 am. The sound of the rushing river is so loud I sleep with my watch right next to my ear so I can hear the alarm. I open the rain fly to my tent just enough so I can set up my little light weight cooking stove to make hot oatmeal and coffee. All the while I’m still cozy in my sleeping bag trying to stay warm.

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After breakfast I work up the courage to get out of my sleeping bag, put my cold Carhart pants on, find the cleanest pair of socks I can and emerge from my tent. At 8 am the whole crew begins to hike the few miles to our work site with our tools, day pack and enough filtered water to last us the work day. Not a whole lot of talking is happening. We are all trying to wake up and being super perky and talkative in the morning is not encouraged.

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Once our crew finds the first dead tree across the trail we break up into two groups. With a cross-cut saw we clear the log off the trails.

Each log has its own special quirks. It could be a pile of 6 trees on top of each other. Or a 300-foot tree, 30 inches in diameter suspended over a trail. A log can take anywhere from 20 minutes to clear or an agonizing 5 hours. With the group we discuss how we will make our cuts, analyzing the situation to make sure no one gets hurt. Once the log is cleared from the trail it’s instant gratification, feeling accomplished. Then your group picks up the tools and on to the next fallen tree. The work day always seems to fly by. When we accomplished our 8 hours we hike back to camp.

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The first thing I do is throw off my boots, put on sandals and stretch out any kinks from the work day. Usually on the 4th of July people tend to grill out with friends and family eating hot dogs, hamburgers, snacks and adult beverages. This year, it’s a little different. Tonight I will be eating veggie slop (the crew has made up the name). I have an assortment of dehydrated food. Whatever I feel like mixing in one pot with boiling water is what’s for dinner. Tonight is lentils, veggie soup mix, black beans, quinoa and instant pesto sauce for flavor! YUM! I like it, but the crew usually just looks at my dinner and shakes their head.

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There are no fireworks tonight so instead to entertain ourselves we play hacky sack. You can hear the same oohing and ahhing one might hear at a firework show. Our crew has many skills, but playing hacky sack is not one of them. We attempt to get “A Hack” where everyone hits the ball at least once without dropping it. This can take at least an hour. So it’s guaranteed lots of laughter and screaming.

At around 8 pm I crawl into my tent, read for a little bit and pass out from a fulfilling day of work. I think I could get used to this new Fourth of July tradition.

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