Wilderness Rangers Have Work Cut Out For Them in Backcountry
Hiking the backcountry in a national forest you expect to find mosquitoes, spot wildlife, discover a cache of mushrooms and see fellow hikers. If you are lucky you will encounter a wilderness ranger.
The Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest wilderness rangers patrol and maintain trails, lakes, campsites and restore damaged areas, making sure hikers are safe. They report on trail conditions and fill out trip reports used by the district to notify forest visitors. Depending on the season, they work eight hour days, Thursday through Sunday. It is hard work, and they do it all for free: they are volunteers.
“People are very happy to see you out on the trail,” said Lori Houston-Gaidos, wilderness ranger on the Snoqualmie Ranger District. “You get a lot of questions, ‘how much further, where is the restroom, where should I hike next’ and many more,” she said. Volunteer rangers assist hikers and teach them about designated Wilderness and forest regulations.
Wilderness areas are managed for solitude and an untrammeled natural experience. “We want hikers to be able to walk into our wilderness as if they were the first visitors,” said Bill Sobieralski, district wilderness and trails specialist. Snoqualmie Ranger District encompasses almost 350,000 acres of land, including 110,000 acres within the Alpine Lakes, Norse Peak and Clearwater Wilderness areas.
About 50 people volunteer each year as rangers, going out on day hikes, others on extended backcountry overnight trips. Some know where they want to patrol and others are assigned. The district makes sure they have the supplies they need for their outings. Wilderness rangers carry radios, extra batteries, garbage bags, trail condition reports, pens, pencils, wilderness permits and Smokey Bear stickers for the kids. This is in addition to the 10-essentials, extra clothing, water and lunch they already come prepared with.
Houston-Gaidos also coordinates training and staffing the Granite Mountain Lookout, run entirely by volunteers. The trail to Granite Mountain Lookout, located just off Interstate 90, starts in the woods and climbs up steep rocks, across avalanche chutes and into open alpine meadows full of bear grass and mountain blueberries. Hikers can stop and rest when summiting the ridgeline where they can see views of the valley below and Mt. Rainer to the south. The trail slope changes quickly with a 4,000 foot elevation gain in four miles. Early in the season, the trail is usually snow covered and hikers often scramble along the ridge through boulder fields, up snow chutes and across crevasses. “I encounter hikers of all abilities climbing to the lookout. On difficult trails we get a lot of people unprepared for the conditions,” Houston-Gaidos said.
The Granite Mountain Lookout is an operational fire lookout and opens as soon as the snow permits. Volunteers become caretakers of the lookout. They must learn how to monitor radio communications, spot, locate and report fires. The lookout also serves as a mountaintop visitor center where hikers can get out of the elements and warm up. On an average day volunteers expect to greet 20 hikers and on the weekends that number can triple to 60.
The love of the outdoors drives many wilderness rangers to the job. Tom Nielson, one of Houston-Gaidos new volunteers, became interested in the program after meeting her at a fire lookout. “I was retiring soon and wanted to help out. So I signed up,” he said.
Nielsen has been hiking for 21 years and has climbed Mt. Rainer and Mt. Baker multiple times. “I have done just about every peak in Snoqualmie Ranger District a dozen times,” he said. Granite Mountain Lookout was Nielsen’s first hike. “I wanted to sign up to help out at the lookout before the season is over,” he said.
Houston-Gaidos grew up in Cle Elum, Wash., on the eastern slopes of the Cascade Mountains. “There is no other place I would rather be,” she said. Her passion for hiking started as a child at the age of four. “My dad was an avid outdoorsman who made us carry our own sleeping bags and packs. He made the biggest impression on me for protecting and respecting the forest,” she said. Her mom taught her about the birds, plants and animals that live in the forest.
When the weather changes the volunteers switch from hiking boots to snowshoes. In winter the volunteer wilderness program has about 20 people helping teach interpretive snowshoe walks about winter forest ecology. Winter volunteering requires more training and includes basic avalanche skills. “Most of our summer volunteers help out year round,” said Houston-Gaidos.
Hiking and Mother Nature give Houston-Gaidos piece and solitude. “To me our world is so fast paced and noisy. Hiking helps rejuvenates me. I love encouraging people to come out and find themselves,” she said.
Learn more about volunteer opportunities at www.fs.usda.gov/goto/mbs/volunteering. Contact Pat Ellis at 425-888-8773 or email at firstname.lastname@example.org to find out more about becoming a wilderness ranger.
Story and photos by Kelly Sprute