Monday, July 10, 2017

Chasing Raoul

For several seasons at the end of the ‘70s, Kelly Tjaden and I worked as wilderness rangers -- dream jobs for a pair of mountain climbers and backcountry aficionados -- covering portions of two massive wilderness areas (by Lower 48 standards) in the North Cascades of Washington: Glacier Peak and Alpine Lakes.

But what might be a “dream” job for some would likely be a nightmare for others. Working as a “traildog” was certainly no glamour detail. Few understand the backbreaking nature of the work, learning how to clear downed logs using crosscut saws, moving boulders with peaveys, and building footbridges with hand tools.

Most assignments were fairly mundane: grading trails, digging out water bars, installing signage, locating backcountry toilets and the like. However, on many trips, we could be subject to unpleasantness: biting insects, summer storms, sore muscles and days (or even more than a week) without a shower. Did I mention the bugs?

The endurance, strength and confidence we experienced from long days of work outside would benefit us living in any wild place. Our culture is at once almost totally disconnected from the rhythms and limits of nature, yet is nonetheless obsessed with what is “natural.” But no one can live on the land without experiencing the land.

And truly experiencing the land requires very basic -- sometimes artistic, sometimes boring -- dirty work. Sure, we were economically motivated, with tuition and student loan commitments, but there was more. We learned a sense of purpose, along with a work ethic, and how to live within our means. We developed a responsibility for the necessities of life, existing within a set of natural limits.
Working on trail crew, or as a wilderness ranger, was more demanding, more rewarding  -- more real -- than we could ever have possibly imagined. We acquired new skills and lived in a way where our surroundings mattered. The bonus? Laboring in Valhalla. Climbing mountains. Discovering wildflowers. Backpacking through wilderness very few people will witness.
Most work was straightforward and rather humdrum. Occasionally, however, we’d receive the odd, and ultimately memorable, task to destroy a squatter’s cabin hidden in the wilderness. That was the USFS rule of the day: illicit cabins in the wild would be torched, a perfect assignment for former firefighters.

On one autumn day, our supervisor informed us that an aerial observer had spotted a squatter’s cabin about four miles up the Napeequa River, deep in the Glacier Peak Wilderness. Our mission would be to hike up the remote river drainage to locate and destroy the cabin, then pack out all the remaining garbage.

This gig would be no small feat. We would have to bushwhack through primitive forest -- old growth cedars eight feet in diameter, Devil’s club taller than a house and prolific vine maple that made walking difficult -- with no clear route. We half expected a pteranodon or pterodactyl to swoop by as we negotiated the thick brush.

Right out of the gate, Paul Sandford -- our fearless leader on this epic journey -- bolted ahead and vanished into the primeval forest. Paul was about 10 years older that the rest of us, likely in his late 30s, but we were strapping wilderness rangers and trail dogs in our mid-20s, fully capable of keeping up with our supervisor.

When we finally caught up, Kelly asked: “what’s the rush, Paul?” He replied that he had cut his toes off in a mowing accident as a kid and that he was unable to slow or stop without sitting down. We agreed to keep in touch with a verbal signal: “Raoul!” That way, we could track him as we battled through the vine maple thicket.

Arriving at the cabin, we discovered a rather elaborate marijuana growing operation with a mini-hydropower facility, complete with circuits providing electricity. After cleaning the abandoned site, we torched cabin and loaded the garbage in backpacks for the return trip. The escapade would become known as “Chasing Raoul.”

1 comment:

CamyG said...

The pictures you paint with your words are magical. My imagination was running loose trying to picture the journeys- and chasing Raoul! Thank you!!!!!