Above: From 1983 to 1988, this was my patrol area in the San Juan Mountains of southwestern
Colorado. This 100-square mile area is one of the most beautiful places in America.
On Top of the World
I spent 10 days in Lake City revisiting my old haunts and reminiscing about the years I had worked here as a ranger for the Bureau of Land Management. So how (and why) did I become a BLM ranger? Here's the story:
Every summer when I was a kid, my dad loaded our whole family – my mom, three brothers, my sister and me –
into our red Dodge station wagon and for the next two months, we traveled around the west while camping in national parks and cooking over a two-burner Coleman gas stove. We had a great time and
I loved everything about it: the traveling, the national parks, and, especially, the camping. From those early trips, I decided that I wanted to be a ranger someday. I finally got my
chance when I was a college student in 1983 and landed a summer ranger job with the Bureau
of Land Management (BLM) in southwestern Colorado.
Here's John Denver singing
Rocky Mountain High.
I had tried applying for a job as a National Park Service ranger the year before but without any
luck, so the next year I applied with the Student Conservation Association
(S.C.A.), a non-profit outfit that matches up volunteers with land agencies like the National Park Service that need
rangers. That May, just before my spring semester ended at the University of Wisconsin, 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.
Above: The logo on my BLM truck (1984).
I figured that I'd work there for one season and then go on to
something else. After spending a summer working 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 landed. That second summer was also a blast; 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? Because it's the most
beautiful place in America with lots of snow-capped 14,000-foot peaks and
rolling meadows of grassy tundra. There are also scads 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 a special place. 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.
Above: The always friendly and helpful "Ranger Del" patrolling the mountains above Lake City in 1984.
No, being BLM land the area isn't as "glamorous" as a national park, but
in many ways it was far better. The San Juan Mountains are just as
spectacular as the more famous Rocky Mountain National Park, near
Denver, but because this area isn't a national park, it draws a fraction
of the number of visitors. Interestingly, 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. It had been too "impacted," according to the NPS. Frankly though, I thought the mines were interesting to
poke around in, so considering all the freedom I had, I was glad the area had never been transferred to the Park Service.
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 I moved west to Oregon in search of a "real" job. I spent six months working in Eugene as a peon planner, then landed my current position as a mapping specialist with Parsons Brinckerhoff in Portland.
It paid a lot
more than my ranger job but there were many times when, working in my office in Portland and dressed in my 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.
Above: Carrying a 103-pound pack for five miles through the Rockies. This was back in the days when I had muscles.
Many 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 area of southwestern Colorado, though, is probably the most beautiful 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. I've always considered myself 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.
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 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 most enjoyable job I ever had.
My Life as a Ranger (1983 - 1988)
Above left: The BLM's 1983 trail crew in Gunnison (L to R: Ted, Julie, myself). I don't know whatever happened to Ted Koch, 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."
Above left: Lower Powderhorn Lake, at an elevation of over 10,000 feet, was our home for the summer.
Above center: Julie, our trail boss on our last day of the season.
Above right: The following summer, in 1984, I was stationed in the town of Silverton, Colorado. At an
elevation of 9,300', Silverton is one of the highest cities in America. I put up lots of signs that summer. Lots.
Above left: Old mining gear, including this boiler from the 1870s, is scattered everywhere. I was the first BLM ranger to ever be stationed in Silverton, so I
did a lot of exploring that summer.
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.
Above left: Friendly border collies, used by sheepherders, are an occupational hazard of this job. This 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.
For the exciting (?) conclusion of this photo essay and to find out if I survived the Broncos and friendly border collies (hint: I did), see my next page at: July 4, 2002:
Ranger Del, Part 2