Editor’s note: Public Lands Steward, Kari Nielsen, comments on the idea of trails in wilderness areas. Read on to see what her season as a wilderness ranger on the Okanogan Wenatchee National Forest has led her to believe about their place in wilderness:
Tucked amidst the calendars and layered notes-to-self, a square comic is pinned to a carpeted divider in the Cle Elum Ranger Station. The image depicts a ranger carrying a pack overloaded with bundles of gear that must have been purchased at an army surplus store in the 1950s. Teetering under the weight, the ranger is sucking for air when he comes to a sign that reads “Hard Part — 3 miles ahead.” Two day hikers are smiling at the ranger. “Wow, you have the best job!” they say in the caption.
Similar conversations often take place when I am wearing a Forest Service uniform and carrying a long handled spade shovel on my pack. But the observation that I have a neat job is often coupled with the question, “So, what do you do?”
I silently wonder why someone would say I have a great job while simultaneously not knowing what I do for “work” besides hike, but I roll with it and have a well-rehearsed response: “Oh, I talk to people about the area, remove illegal fire rings, sometimes dig toilets, clean up trash, log out small trees.” Then, yes, add, “Yeah, it’s a great job.”
Though I don’t pack the army surplus store weight that the suffering comic strip ranger carries, I share his sentiment that sometimes people have a skewed idea of what rangers actually “do.” Besides the fun things, like throwing rocks from illegal fire rings into lakes, I also bury irresponsible people’s poop and pack out toilet paper flowers that are draped over moss. Which is not so fun. But even encountering an illegal fire ring, which can be fun to dismantle, is met with a moment of frustration. This because I have to unclip the shovel from my pack and ask a variation of, “Seriously?” to myself, which can also be vocalized as, “Really?” or, “Come on.”
The same can be said of excessive cairns. I understand that it can be cool to see how high you can balance a stack of rocks before they fall. I also understand that cairns have a function. On the slabs of granite bedrock leading up to Robin Lake, for instance, they act as guideposts across rock that reminds me only of the Adirondacks and the Whites of the Northeast. But on the route leading from Tuck Lake to Robin Lake, hikers have built so many cairns that the route has become more like a paved road with too many streetlights overhead. Following cairns is meant to be a step up from following a trail. You reach a stack of rocks, then must stop and search for the next guidepost. Rather than turning your nose to the ground, as you might on a trail through dense woods, you must look up. When your eyes finally find rest on the next cairn, you feel excitement, then safety. Someone else has been this way before. It’s a subtle way for people to communicate in the wilderness. “You are on the right path,” say the cairns.
But not between Tuck and Robin Lakes. There, the cairns shout, “Hey! Over here! Over here! Keep coming, you’re almost there. Right on! Yeah, you’re on the right path!” You get the idea.
When I first followed this highway to Robin Lake, clouds were hanging low and shrouded the granite slabs in fog. At first, heading south from Tuck Lake, I had to decide which of the braided dirt paths to follow through the heather. Then I came to the cairns. At times, even in thick fog, I could see seven or eight tilted stacks of rocks at a time. I thought, “Really?” and, “Come on.”
Tuck and Robin Lakes are in a high-use area of Alpine Lakes Wilderness. Tuck is less than five miles from a popular trailhead, and it’s beautiful. Maps depict the route between the lakes as a dotted line. A route, not a trail. But what I saw in the cairns between the two lakes was a kind of handrail. This is a wilderness area, I said to myself. Which means that human presence is kept to a minimum, welcomed, yes, in the forms of occasional cairns, signs at junctions, some trails. But wilderness also affords opportunities for solitude. And, honestly, if you want solitude in Alpine Lakes, you have to leave the trail. This summer, I have received questions like, “Why isn’t there a trail from A to B?” I answer with a combination of “the Forest can only maintain so many miles of trail” and “because wilderness needs to allow for cross-country travel as well. If everything was marked out for you, it wouldn’t be much of a wilderness anymore.”
With cold and damp hands, I pushed on the supportive stones at the base of a cairn. The rocks above the base slipped down like a splayed stack of cards. The frustration at the public’s need to spoon-feed the route to fellow hikers turned to excitement as I sought out new victims. Maybe I was just carrying out some useless campaign that will only be reversed when people find all of those scattered stones and decide that it’s fun to balance them on top of each other again. Or maybe I was reading too much Ed Abbey. Nevertheless, I started kicking the tops of the cairns, so the rocks would scatter across the bedrock. For the next mile and a half, I took down dozens of cairns I had deemed “excessive.” Don’t worry, I left plenty standing so people could find their way across that granite and through the fog to Robin Lake (the map, after all, does depict that dotted line). But they’d have to look up if they wanted to get there.