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July 4, 2002  (Lake City, Colorado) -- Life as a Ranger (Part 1)

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Above:  From 1983 to 1988, this was my patrol area in the San Juan Mountains of southwestern Colorado.  This 100-square mile area is, without a doubt, the prettiest place in the U.S.


On Top of the World

Every summer when I was a little kid, my Dad would load our whole family -- including my Mom, my three brothers and my sister -- into our red Dodge station wagon.  For the next month or two, our family would travel around the West camping in National Parks, cooking over a two-burner Coleman gas stove and having a great time.  I loved everything about it:  the traveling, the National Parks, and, especially, the camping.  From those early trips, I decided that someday I wanted to be a ranger.  I finally got my chance as a college student in 1983 when I landed a summer ranger job with the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) in southwestern Colorado.  


I had tried applying as a ranger in 1982 directly with the National Park Service but without any luck, so the next year I applied with the Student Conservation Association (S.C.A.), a really terrific non-profit outfit that matches up volunteers with land agencies like the National Park Service that need rangers.  That May, just before college ended, I got a call from a fellow named Jay Boren with the BLM in a place called Montrose, Colorado.  I'd never heard of Montrose, I didn't know much about the BLM, but Jay seemed like a pretty friendly "good ol' boy," so I signed onto a three-person trail crew for that summer as a volunteer.  


Once again, here's John Denver (hey, I like John Denver, o.k.?).  This is Rocky Mountain High, a song dear to my heart.

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I figured that I'd work there for maybe one season and then go on to something else.  After spending a summer in Colorado, though, I loved it so much that I applied for a paid ranger job for the next summer in nearby Silverton, which I got.  That second summer was also a blast -- and I couldn't believe they were paying me to do something I'd gladly do for free.  The year after that, I became the head BLM ranger in the San Juan Mountains, stationed in the cute little alpine town of Lake City, Colorado.  Altogether, I worked with the BLM for six summers, from 1983 through 1988, and during that time, I supervised several ranger crews and dealt with bears, mountain lions, feisty elk, and about a million Texans.


Why did I stay?  Only because it's probably the most beautiful place in the U.S., with lots of snow-capped 14,000-foot peaks and rolling meadows of grassy tundra.  There are also lots of old mines and rusting relics from the 1800s, making it a fascinating place to poke around, especially for a history buff like me.  To top it off, the little town of Lake City, where I was stationed for three summers, is one of the most special places I've ever seen.  I've had jobs that paid more or that were "more important" but none that were as fun or satisfying as being a ranger in the Colorado Rockies.


No, the area isn't as "glamorous" as a National Park, but in many ways, it was better.  The San Juan Mountains are just as spectacular as the more famous Rocky Mountain National Park, up near Denver, but because this area isn't a National Park, it draws only about one-twentieth the number of visitors.  This area was almost made into a National Park back in the 1960s, but the Park Service rejected it because of all the abandoned mining claims scattered throughout the mountains.  Frankly, though, I thought the mines were interesting to poke around in, and, considering the freedom I had, I was really glad that the area was never made into a National Park.


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Above:  The BLM logo on the side of my Dodge Ram.


After six seasons, though, I figured it was time to move on to a more stable position (and one that lasted longer than half a year), so after leaving Colorado, I moved west to Oregon in search of a "real" job.  After spending some time in Eugene as a peon planner, I landed my current position with Parsons Brinckerhoff in Portland.  Yeah, it paid a lot more than a ranger, but there were many times when, working in my office in Portland and dressed in my fancy slacks and nice tie, I looked out the window at the rainy streets below and wished I was back in Colorado again, building trails or patrolling the high country in my Dodge pickup.  As luck would have it, the year after I left Colorado, the BLM made the Head Ranger job in Lake City a permanent, full-time position (doh!).  Ah, well...


Most people don't realize it, but the Bureau of Land Management is the single largest land agency in the U.S.  It's hard to imagine, but this little-known and little-funded agency manages almost as much land as the better-known National Park Service and the U.S. Forest Service put together.  Most BLM lands aren't that scenic, though -- think Nevada or southern Idaho and you'll get the idea. 


This particular area of southwestern Colorado, though, is probably the most spectacular BLM land in the lower 48 states and contains the only 14,000-foot peaks under BLM administration outside of Alaska (lucky me).  The BLM is often maligned, especially by environmentalists... which is interesting, because I consider myself to be an environmentalist and, while I sometimes disagree with BLM policies, I have nothing but good things to say about the BLM folks that I worked with in the Gunnison office.  In fact, as a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin, I wrote my Master's thesis on the history of the BLM in Colorado.  


Anyway, the six years that I spent in the San Juan Mountains were a blast, and I go back to Colorado every so often to visit.  Whenever I drive into Lake City, I feel like I'm coming back home again.  On another page, I've posted pictures from my recent visit to Lake City, but before I get to that, I've posted some photos below to show you what it's like to be a ranger in the Rocky Mountains -- the best job I ever had.


My Life as a Ranger  (1983 - 1988)


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Above left:  The BLM's 1983 trail crew in Gunnison (L to R: Ted, Julie, myself).  I don't know whatever happened to Ted, but I'm still good friends with Julie (see News: July 22, 2001).

Above center:  Oooh, what rippling muscles!  Here's Ranger Del trying to smash a rock in the trail.  The rock won.

Above right:  Lunchtime in the Powderhorn Primitive Area (now known as the Powderhorn Wilderness Area).  That's the appropriately-named Cannibal Plateau in the distance where Alferd Packer had a "tasty meal" back in the 1870s.  Yes, he spelled his name "Alferd," not "Alfred."


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Above left:  This was one of my "smaller" backpacks :-).  Only 103 pounds.

Above center:  Lower Powderhorn Lake, our home for 3 months.

Above right:  Julie, our trail boss.


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Above left:  I was stationed in Silverton the next summer.  Old mining gear, including this boiler from the 1870s, is scattered everywhere.

Above center:  Sunset over the peaceful Animas Valley at 12,000 feet.

Above right:  Lake Como and the beautiful Poughkeepsie Gulch.  Yes, I actually got PAID to work here!


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Above left:  Border collies, used by sheepherders, are an occupational hazard for this job.  This friendly fellow refused to get off my sign -- he wanted to be petted.

Above center:  Another day, another Bronco:  Here's Ranger Del pulling out yet another stuck vehicle.

Above right:  On patrol above Silverton.


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Above left:  An old boiler from the 1880s in Mineral Point.  The miners piled rocks beside their boilers in case of an explosion.

Above center:  Obviously these roads were built for mules, not for BLM Rams.

Above right:  Part of "The Gang" in 1984:  L to R, me, Matt, Andy, and John.


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Above left:  My friend, Katy, huddled in my trailer in Silverton.

Above center:  The Silverton train before its daily trip down to Durango.  This train's been running between Silverton and Durango for over 100 years and was featured in the movie "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid."

Above right:  Putting up a sign in Poughkeepsie Gulch.


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Above left:  Old mining equipment in Maggie Gulch.

Above center:  In the winter when the snow is piled high, hungry marmots like to eat my signs.

Above right:  And in the summer, hungry bears looking for food like to squash my tent.  I sewed up my tent, but it still has odd-colored stains from the Kool-Aid powder that he scattered around... right before it rained!



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Above left:  A bulldozer owned by my nemesis, Gordon Smith.  Gordon liked to harass rangers and build roads illegally into wilderness areas.  Last I heard, he was serving time in a federal prison for assault (seriously).

Above center:  Gordon also liked to carve up our "Road Closed" signs.  Notice how he torched the word "OPEN" into this metal sign.

Above right:  But despite all the problems with marmots, bears, Kool-Aid, and Gordon Smith, Ranger Del keeps smiling.



For the exciting (?) conclusion of this photo essay, see July 4, 2002  (Life as a Ranger, Part 2)




Next News

July 4, 2002  (Life as a Ranger, Part 2)



Previous News

July 1, 2002  (Looking Glass Rock, Utah)

June 25, 2002  (Lassen Volcanic National Park, California)

June 18, 2002  -- Part 2  (Port Orford, Oregon)

June 18, 2002  -- Part 1  (Port Orford, Oregon)

May 22, 2002  (Bellingham, Washington)

April 7, 2002  (Sydney, Australia)

April 4, 2002  (Coffs Harbour, Australia)

April 1, 2002  (Hervey Bay, Australia)

March 28, 2002  (Airlie Beach, Australia)

March 25, 2002  (Port Douglas, Australia)

March 16, 2002  (Winton, Australia)

March 13, 2002  (Alice Springs, Australia)

March 11, 2002  (Ayers Rock, Australia)

March 8, 2002  (Coober Pedy, Australia)

March 5, 2002  (Port Augusta, Australia)

March 1, 2002 -- Part 2  (Robe, Australia)

March 1, 2002 -- Part 1  (Robe, Australia)

February 18, 2002  (Bega, Australia)

February 7, 2002  (Auckland, New Zealand)

February 2, 2002 -- Part 2  (Taupo, New Zealand)

February 2, 2002 -- Part 1  (Taupo, New Zealand)

January 25, 2002  (Hokitika, New Zealand)

January 20, 2002  (Geraldine, New Zealand)

January 16, 2002  (Te Anau, New Zealand)

January 12, 2002 -- Part 2  (Dunedin, New Zealand)

January 12, 2002 -- Part 1  (Dunedin, New Zealand)

January 1, 2002 -- Part 2  (Christchurch, New Zealand)

January 1, 2002 -- Part 1  (Christchurch, New Zealand)

December 24, 2001  (Wellington, New Zealand)

December 20, 2001  (Auckland, New Zealand)

December 16, 2001  (Auckland, New Zealand)  

December 14, 2001  (Aitutaki, Cook Islands)

December 10, 2001  (Rarotonga, Cook Islands)

December 3, 2001 -- Part 2  (Bellingham, Washington)

December 3, 2001 -- Part 1  (Bellingham, Washington)

October 18, 2001 -- Part 3  (Bismarck, North Dakota)

October 18, 2001 -- Part 2  (Bismarck, North Dakota)

October 18, 2001 -- Part 1  (Bismarck, North Dakota)

October 6, 2001  (Fort Lincoln State Park, North Dakota)

September 30, 2001 -- Part 2  (Bismarck, North Dakota)

September 30, 2001 -- Part 1  (Bismarck, North Dakota)

September 15, 2001  (Bismarck, North Dakota)

August 30, 2001  (Webster, South Dakota)

August 18, 2001  (Watertown South Dakota)

August 17, 2001  (Walnut Grove, Minnesota)

August 14, 2001  (Minneapolis, Minnesota)

August 10, 2001 (Battle Creek, Michigan)

August 8, 2001  (12 Days in Syracuse: Part 2)

August 8, 2001  (12 Days in Syracuse: Part 1)

August 6, 2001  (Manlius, New York)

July 23, 2001  (Middleton, Massachusetts)

July 22, 2001  (Boston, Massachusetts)

July 20, 2001  (Pomfret, Connecticut)

July 18, 2001  (Denton, Maryland)

July 16, 2001  (Cumberland, Virginia)

July 14, 2001  (Roanoke, Virginia)

July 9, 2001  (Sevierville, Tennessee)

July 8, 2001  (Fontana Lake, North Carolina)

July 5, 2001  (Manchester, Tennessee)

June 30, 2001  (Hohenwald, Tennessee)

June 29, 2001  (Corinth, Mississippi)

June 27, 2001  (Natchez, Mississippi)

June 24, 2001  (Austin, Texas)

June 20, 2001  (Canyon de Chelly, Arizona)

June 18, 2001  (Clay Canyon, Utah)

June 15, 2001 -- Part 2  (Zion Nat'l Park, Utah)

June 15, 2001 -- Part 1  (Zion Nat'l Park, Utah)

June 14, 2001  (San Diego, California)

June 11, 2001  (San Jose, California)

June 2, 2001  (Bellingham, Washington)

May 19, 2001  (Hillsboro, Oregon)

April 30, 2001  (Hillsboro, Oregon)

April 19, 2001  (Bellingham, Washington)

April 5, 2001  (Bellingham, Washington)