Monday, May 23, 2011

Trail Shaman

Spent a long weekend at Base Camp Juan from May 18-22; the focus of the trip was to help coordinate a "retirement party" for longtime friend and fellow wilderness stranger Chuck Ferguson, who was "packing" it in after 37 years as a seasonal U.S. Forest Service employee, mostly on trails in the wilderness of the North Cascades.

Chuck has acquired a number of nicknames over the years; some of them are even printable in a family newspaper. I've always known him as "Chuck," but he also responds to "Charlie," "Pappy," "Pa" and "Pappa Smurf." So in honor of Charles Ferguson, my co-conspirators and I have come up with the "Top Ten Reasons Why Chuck Is Retiring From The U.S. Forest Service After 37 Years As A Seasonal Employee."

Reason #10 -- No more air tanker retardant showers (above, dropping its fire-stifling red chemical on a conflagration caused by a lightning bust up the Wenatchee River in Tumwater Canyon near Leavenworth).

As you might expect just because you work on trail crew doesn't mean you're going to escape the occasional forest fire detail. And you thought trail crew was hard, dirty -- indeed, miserable -- work.

Reason #9 -- He ran out of new ideas for middle names for Bob Cline, our trusty packer. (I lost count at 15 new middle names for our resident mule skinner at Lake Wenatchee Ranger Station.)

Because Bob Cline was the one who usually packed us in on some of more challenging backcountry work sessions, he'd get the rap for our misery. Every time we encountered adversity -- usually weather related or equipment malfunctions, we would come up with a new middle name for our esteemed packer: Bob "Clyde, Simon, Bartholomew, Beauregard, Leroy, Gus, Washington...." Cline!

Reason #8 -- He finally grew tired of refried bean burritos (above) on the last night out on a ten-day trip in the backcountry.

Oh, the dreaded last night out on an extended gypsy tour or bridge-building junket deep in the Glacier Peak Wilderness! That last night's meal as a "let's use up whatever we have left in the food box" burrito.

Reason #7 -- He'd better get out while the gettin' is good.

If the government shutdown wasn't enough reason to skeedaddle, Chuck now had two reasons to get out while the gettin' is good: he wanted to party before the purported rapture on May 21.

Reason #6 -- He heard this summer's trail crew would be a reunion tour featuring some of the original band members (above).

The only thing that scared Chuck more than a sasquatch, grizzly bear, cougar or any other wild beast in the wilderness were the wild and crazy beasts on his own crew.

Reason #5 -- He developed a successful new consulting business: donkey whisperer.

You can't work with horses, mules and burros deep in the backcountry unless you know how to speak their lingo, and Chuck is one of the best in the business.

Reason #4 -- He has a new position as Chief Shaman and Spiritual Healer for the Inter-Galactic Legion of Owls (above), a fraternal organization of wilderness strangers.

As many of his friends already know, Chuck is a very centered, spiritual guy. In fact, many in his odd assortment of kooky cohorts consider him to be their guru, a shaman of sorts.

Reason #3 -- He learned he'd have to rebuild the footbridges up the White River in the Glacier Peak Wilderness this summer.

The job assignment that would strike fear and loathing in any trail crew member: a month or two building footbridges up the White River, where the black flies are so thick that you can't help but swallow a few when you inhale.

Reason #2 -- Chuck wanted Roger Ross to have to choose between his retirement party and the Royal Wedding.

Turns out, Roger (left) was able to make an appearance at both the Royal Wedding and Chuck's retirement party.

Cute dress, Rog. We're absolutely sure that Queen Elizabeth was duly impressed. Will you be auctioning it off for charity like Princess Beatrice's wedding bonnet?

And now (drum roll, please), the number one reason why Chuck is finally retiring from the Forest Service after 37 years as a seasonal employee: no more district orientation meetings.

Are there other reasons? Could it be that he wants to spend more time sucking tall cool ones by the fire with Roger Wallace, engaging in esoteric banter with Doug (Dog) Baldwin, enjoying long hikes in the woods with Frank Czubiak, hanging out with his assortment of kooky friends, or perhaps just meditating on the wonders of nature?

In the final analysis, the correct answer is probably "all of the above."

Tip of the hat to Heather and Patrick Murphy for hosting Chuck's party. Everyone had a great time walking down memory lane with Chuck and Jackie, and the food was fantastic. His supervisors at the Wenatchee River Ranger District, Bob Stoehr and Rich Haydon, presented Chuck with a plaque signed by the Regional Forester based in Portland and a classic USFS blanket for his years of dedicated service. Happy trails, Chuck!

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