Inside the Park’s Guts

The milky, jade green water of the creek comes from glacial flour - the pulverized rock that is scraped off the mountainside as the glacier moves

Disclaimer: OK, so the photos in this post have little to do with its content, but what’s a good blog without pictures? They are pictures of the park that I’m writing about, so not totally irrelevant.

Usually when someone’s riding in a law enforcement vehicle, it’s the result of recent misbehavior. But in my case, sitting in the bow of a park service skiff plowing the waters of the Diablo Lake Gorge, I was merely getting a ride with a Law Enforcement officer because she was headed in the same direction I was. In North Cascades National Park, there’s a lot of ride-sharing. I’d like to think it’s because we’re a collaborative, generous folk, but a lot of it has to do with many of the park’s trailheads being almost exclusively water-accessible. Hence the need to connect with those people that are certified boat operators.

It was in about my second week zipping through these waters that I started to realize how fortunate I really was. The early morning air blew brisk. Car noises had yet to muffle down from the highway. Paddlers were yet to dot the waters. It was just me and the policewoman passing beneath the jagged canyon walls of a stream that runs milky jade due to its glacial provenance. This is my job? I smiled contentedly to myself.

As with aforementioned private chauffeuring, I’ve had the privilege of witnessing a National Park from the inside over these past two months. I’ve gotten to go behind the “staff only” doors and observe just how the park operates. Everything from the political machinations of upper level officials (I kid) to who removes sewage from lakeside toilets - I’ve satiated all kinds of curiosities.

For instance, I got to see how the park assesses fire threats firsthand. One morning, while going out with my boss to meet up with a youth crew on the lake, we gave two fire officials a lift on their way to a fire site. We took them to the base of a slope with a relatively small fire smoldering up near the top. They had already done a flyover of the fire to assess its size and character. From there, they decided that they would actually hike right up to it for closer inspection. We dropped them off on the banks of the lake in a tangle of cedar limbs. The grade around them was steep. No obvious approach emerged. So that’s really it? I thought to myself. They send top fire officials bushwacking several miles up a steep hill to determine whether a fire is worth fighting. (In the end, they decided that the fire was not a threat to visitors and to let it burn itself out.) I couldn’t believe it was as simple as that!

And there are other things. Like being privy to all the radio traffic that goes on within the park, everything from medical airlift dispatches to writing tickets for off-leash dogs in the campgrounds. Watching the Search and Rescue crew perform training drills with the septuagenarian helicopter pilot. Learning the whereabouts of secret backcountry campgrounds for staff (I’m not telling). Discussing science technicians’ field assistance for ongoing research projects– they’re literally counting butterflies, birds, and pikas to determine how climate change is affecting populations. And participating in brainstorming sessions on how to best engage the park’s partners in educational efforts.

Of course, there are plenty of mundane tasks that one could point to when discussing the park’s operations – toilet paper refreshment in campground bathrooms, data entry in administrative offices, cutting back brush on trails. Somehow though, when the Arrowhead is attached to it, the sense of mystique lingers. So, down the road, even if the only job I can get with the NPS is cleaning horse poop out of stalls, I’ll be able to look at my uniform and feel proud. Visitors don’t really know the difference between a ranger and maintenance man anyways. ;)