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Ramblings of a Ranger- saving snakes, daring damselflies and other ranger adventures
Life in a National Park
From the Summit Lake Ranger Station log book, Lassen Volcanic National Park: July 16 (of a certain year). My Gosh! I'm here and I AM HERE! Still snow, oh yes, there is- in the trees the ground is 50% snow covered... and everywhere the rushing, crashing, sparkling water sings a cheerful song- songs, you want songs? The frogs are really going at it tonight- it's that everything that isn't snow covered has only recently emerged into sunlight... July 22: Up here at Summit Lake it's another milestone- Maintenance-water man Mike (bless you!) got water flowing to the ranger station! Snow almost gone- what's left crouches along the roadside or lies in the shadows of the trees... this morning, Derick and I climbed up from the Devastated Area part way up the (Lassen) peak, practicing with ice axes and crimpons, only to glissade down, sliding until our butts were frozen!
"Study nature, love nature, stay close to nature. It will never fail you," said Frank Lloyd Wright. Thank goodness for the 'Frank Lloyd Wrights', the 'Rachel Carsons', the 'John Muirs', and the 'Thoreaus' of the world, and countless others who see and feel the joy of the natural world, and then fight to protect it; and for every child wading in a creek or loving to see a butterfly flit amid the wildflowers. 'For in wildness is the preservation of the world' said one Henry David Thoreau (and the preservation of our own selves... plus, it's so darn wonderful! We need these guiding lights to remind us of so much that has been lost (from oil spills to superstorms to species clinging on the edge), and of all that is still beautiful and intact and worthy of protecting, or conserving, and using wisely.
Saved a snake one day, right near the Cottonwood Post Office. I've always felt that it is such a moral victory to save a critter, and I'm not advocating risking a human life to save a beetle, but, hey, there is this snake in the roadway, traffic is light, why kill anything that doesn't need to be killed. Plus, I have a strong connection to the 'underdogs' of the animal world. To that animal I am like a king, a god, with the power to save or slay... and I see three choices: run the damn thing over; there are certainly lots of folks who would do just that. The sad and thoughtless way out! (Do you suppose some twisted souls actually get a thrill?) Or, drive around it, let it take its chances: the next driver will probably "off it". Or, do the thing that takes the most effort: stop my car in the traffic lane SAFELY, turn the emergency flashers on, step out and approach a fine and large specimen of a western garter snake. He is way in 'over his head', out of his element, on that warm blacktop,and certainly distrustful of me... good! He'd be much happier and able to exercise his slithery nature if he was in the tall grass, near a pond, and I guide him that way, off the road and towards safety. His sleek black and yellow stripes are strikingly beautiful, his black and red tongue flowing and darting out liquid-like. I use my foot and block, push, force him back to the wild side and away he goes... to live and breathe another day. I look to see that he is not dead and squished flat along that highway stretch the next day, when I drive by, and he is not! A small victory against animal cruelty, human insensitivity, and prejudice.
It reminds me of my ultimate snake save ( I have rescued dozens of road-bound critters in my life) on old Route 66, near Peach Springs, Arizona, on a dark night in late summer. Great thunderstorms flash frequent lightning in the distance, it's pitch black, and not a soul or vehicle's headlights to be seen. I am heading in a westerly direction, and there, across the lanes, in my headlamps, lies a large western diamondback rattlesnake, maybe 6 feet long, with a body as thick as my leg. Get out a long pole (a snake stick), and poke and prod him off the road, him angry and striking at me, but eventually fleeing my assault... what a rush of adrenalin! It takes a long time for a snake to reach that size, and though I wouldn't recommend anyone doing that, it is a fine memory of a fellow organism saved... and that memory, in turn, reminds me of the purpose of being a ranger...
Over hill (volcanic) and over dale (cinder cone), I must hit the dusty trail... well, now, I'm off to the back country of Lassen Volcanic National Park, on a mission into the wilderness for a couple of nights and days. I fill my big old backpack to the top with every possible need: food and drink and water filter and first aid stuff (for others more than for me, a ranger should ALWAYS be prepared) and extra clothes and charged radio batteries and... there is some hard hiking and hard work ahead, but to escape into that gentle wilderness feels more like R & R. Heave on that towering pack, seeming now like the gravity of Jupiter sucking me down, each lift of a leg feels like I am fighting gravity, and I trudge, physically weighted down but spiritually light as a feather, through the woods and through North Summit Lake Campground, one last foot patrol in the 'front country'. Can't see any obvious evildoers. I'm on my way to the trailhead and my own personal Nirvana. Stop and chat with my campground hosts, tell them I'll be away for a bit and who else to radio to if they have the need. Stroll across to the wooden boardwalk that skirts a marshy spot along the lake shore, water oozing up through the wooden boards with each step, and prepare to head east.
Near the board walk, in the shallow, reedy water, where brilliant blue damselflies (small relatives of the dragonfly) are busily hatching out, and drying their wings before taking flight, several small children are hunting and scooping up fat, black tadpoles, under a parent's watchful eye. I can't resist dropping my pack off in the treeline, shedding my boots and socks, and wading in with them. Gives me a chance to connect with park visitors, make sure that the tadpoles will be set free soon, and what fun to see kids in a national park, under a bright blue summer sky, loving and playing with nature. And I love this image: wearing the grey and green park service uniform (proudly!), duty belt crammed with all sorts of gear and my service weapon, yet stopping to connect with these children and their parents.What a great country! What a great place to be! What mystery, what surprise, what wonder is waiting around the next bend in the trail?
My back country mission(s) on this few-day outing: to patrol the main corridor where people are wilderness camping, tear out illegal and unwanted fire rings, clean up trash, do some trail maintenance, contact as many visitors as possible (the education thing), and meet up with ranger extraordinaire Rob 'Skin-n-Bones' Skinner. He will hike in from his duty station out at Butte Lake and we will meet near the west shore of Snag Lake to locate, attack, and destroy... illegal aliens. Plants, that is. Bull thistle and mullein, two exotic aliens that have become widely established on disturbed lands, that is, land where the topsoil has been disturbed. Places where wild fire has burned can harbor aggressive invasive plants, as well as forest service and private land where logging has occurred, or is occurring.
Brought over from Asia or Europe or wherever... everyone must know this, yes? Must know that thousands of invading plants and animals have been brought to this hemisphere, accidentally or on purpose, and wreck havoc and cost billions to control. Think Burmese pythons in the everglades, zebra mussels in the waterways, and star thistle and gypsy moths and kudzu vines and on and on... And there is plenty of disturbed topsoil around; it surrounds Lassen Volcanic, and that is the way of humans, no getting 'around it'.
So, back to my little ranger patrol. Over the years, the thistle and mullein have spread into and threaten to take over, sensitive areas that native species need. On the west shore of Snag Lake, in 1987, a large set of lightning caused wild land fries burned, allowing these invasive plants to spread in, already established on logged land around the park's perimeter. On a typical day or two, we may dig up several thousand plants, each. But, it's a big problem, and I have stood inside a national park or two, after helping to eradicate thousands of alien plants, by hand, and stopped to rest, felt the cool breeze blowing by and watched, floating along, thistle down, feathery and beautiful, each seed just waiting to alight, sprout, and erupt into more thousands of plants... a veritable cancer riding on a gentle current of air. It's an ongoing problem and much of it has to be done by hand... come on, for the most part, we can't use no stinking poisons in the wilderness areas of national parks.
Anyway, those are the plans and I climb the steep ridge line away from Summit Lake, heading east to Echo Lake and away from the relatively packed and busy summertime campground, park road, visitor-tourist-crowd. About a mile out, up and up, near the top of an old volcanic ridge, the view west always catches my breath, as I stop for a gulp of water. Lassen Peak dominates the skyline, snow streaked and with shades of brown and red and grey rock of this massive plug dome volcano... it's right there! As with a giant sequoia or the Grand Canyon or any wild and rugged coastline, this great thing commands my full attention. Ever have one of those moments of such beauty, such humbling feelings for what is nature, that you just exult in life, in the world away from mankind? This is just such a moment... there are many of these moments when one works and lives in a 'crown jewel' of the national park system.
I measure my plodding progress as I pass lake by clear mountain lake: lovely Echo Lake, in a small bowl ringed by cliffs... the echoes of my calls show that the name is aptly given; then past a large, unnamed pond or two (Dave's pond and Dave's pond, part two, I tell myself), then down a steep set of switchbacks to Upper Twin. There, I contact a few backpacking campers... good to show a presence and tell them that other rangers may stop by... ha! we are few and far between. People often want to camp right on the water's edge, bright red or blue or otherworldly-green colored tents easily visible against the natural tones of tree and rock and sedge. The rule is to be 100 feet back... to allow wildlife access, to try to keep campers somewhat hidden and give others hiking by, their own wilderness experience, and, no matter what, humans are messy, so a little buffer from possibly affecting the water's clarity seems appropriate. Mostly these little mountain lakes in Lassen Volcanic are filled each spring by the melting of copious amounts of snow; but there is no year round water source, no rushing full-time creek, to keep adding clean water. The little lakes only get a once-a-year inflow of new water... so they are fragile and very sensitive to human impact. And I think that that is what humans do best: impact!
I reach Lower Twin Lake: a real gem of intense beauty, and so clear... the water beckons, cold and clean, but that swim will have to wait until later, I have to meet Ranger Rob at Snag Lake. Just to the northwest of Lower Twin there is a little one room log cabin ranger station, a back country station, empty most of the time ,and packed with supplies and equipment. Located just off the main trail, it is barely visible and many people walk right by without even spying it. I stop by there to unlock and air it out, grab a good shovel, and take stock of the inside, cool and shady. I'll be back to spend the next night, but tonight I'll camp with Rob at Snag. I am way out in the wilds of Lassen, now, and the farther away I get from the 'trappings' of civilization,the more my heart soars. It even eases the ache of the pack on my back, as I walk past Reflection Lake and climb up the tall ridge that separates Reflection from Snag Lake. This place feels to be one of the 'power' centers of the park, its wild beauty and deep spirit are almost beyond words.
I meet Rob down at the west shore of Snag...there is a shimmering pale green grove of white-barked aspen, and a small island just offshore, with a large dead pine snag standing: it is a favorite hang out for cormorants, and I have seen as many as fifteen of these sleek, black, long-necked birds at one time in this tree. Throw down our packs, greet each other as fine friends and comrades, get a good drink of water, pick up gloves and a shovel, and prepare to do battle with the enemy.
Bull thistle is especially tough, a mean and spiky plant... thick gloves help a little. Mullein, easier to pull, is everywhere, tall yellow flower stalks, small sprouts, last year's dead standing skeletal remains,all around us. We work near several small springs and I fill my water bottles... people warn of the risk of giardia, a water born microorganism, which can cause severe diarrhea, but I figure that this water is flowing out from many feet of good, filtering volcanic rock and soil and should be well screened. No giardia for me! Work and chat and share and dig, the dead bodies of mullein and thistle in piles. Early evening comes and we call it a day. We'll be back in the morning for a couple more hours, then Rob will head south around the lake, up the east side trail and around back to his station at Butte Lake. I will meander west, back to Lower Twin for one night at the little cabin, then back to Summit Lake Ranger Station by nightfall.
We enjoy a good skinny dip, as the entire lake shore looks deserted, get dried and dressed and sip a little wine and watch the evening steal over us, camping under the whispering aspens and wide open sky and then the first stars twinkle into view. I sleep well, tired and refreshed from the lake water and wine, relaxing into gentle slumber. I wake often in the night, see the brilliant Milky Way, find a few constellations... yup, they are still there, watch a meteor splash across the silent sky, and slide easily back into sleep.
Up early, we eat, clean up and pack up, walk back to the alien plant site and work until mid morning, then say our "see ya laters". It's only 9.5 miles by trail from my ranger station to Rob's... though 58 miles by vehicle... I'll jog out there soon on a day off, spend the night and get a ride back around to Manzanita Lake and then to Summit. Now, I trudge over the ridge and back down to the Twin Lakes area. There are several fire rings to remove and the shore areas to check for any resource damage. That little old ranger station at Lower Twin is such a connection to another time. One room, high beamed roof, carpenter ant -eaten and mouse infested, but all of the good stuff and equipment one needs are packed into mouse-proof units... on the rare times I spend a night there, I take a tarp and a couple of mattresses off the bunk beds, and sleep out under the wide and wild skies.
I remember waking at about 2:00 a.m., on one of those back country nights, with a near-full moon shining up the place, the ghostly play of shadow and cold blue light strikingly beautiful. I walk the quarter mile to Lower Twin Lake, stand on the near shore and look southeast across the lake. The high moon shining a powerful silence: it is achingly, absolutely still. To be at an elevation of 6,000 feet, in a high mountain bowl, not a breath of wind stirring the water, not a sigh of air moves a branch. It's the most powerfully loud silence I have ever experienced... if that makes sense... the moon itself is so bright with reflected light. I remember some fact, that the light I see left the sun something like six minutes before, bouncing off the moon's face and in a few more seconds, hits my eyes... but gently! That silvery sound-erasing moon light leaves me feeling alone but not lonely, and so connected to the ALL that is, around me!
"Outdoors is where the great mystery lies, so going into nature should be a searching and humbling experience, like going to church," said Skip Whitcomb, artist and printmaker. For most of human history, nature had to be reckoned with, battled to a draw, or subdued, for our very survival. We really have learned to conquer and control and direct. But things still go wrong in our conquests, as the Gulf Coast oil spill points out. For those who have a myopic world view of how we treat nature, who see our dominance as ordained and just, who would scoff at the idea of saving silly little species, or whole biomes, if it comes at the expense of human comfort and 'advancement', I would offer up John Muir's words: Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to pray in and play in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul.
National Parks and wilderness areas are arguably the best things this great nation has ever created. To see what our common heritage is, to just BE in places that are less trammeled and less impacted by human development, to be able to walk away from the techno-jangle of overloaded human existence is a wonderful gift, even if one can only stay for a little while. For the benefit of your own soul, your own peace of mind, get back to nature, climb those mountains, and, as that grizzled old John Muir would say, ..."your cares will drop off like autumn leaves."