Above: This was my patrol area in the San Juan Mountains of southwestern Colorado
from 1983 to 1988. This 100-square mile area is, without a doubt, one of the most beautiful places in America.
On Top of the World
I spent 10 days in Lake City revisiting my old stomping ground 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.
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. Sure, it was a lot of work with very long hours, but I couldn't believe they were paying me to do something that 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 truly 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.
Since this was BLM land, the area wasn't as "glamorous" as a National Park – but in some 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 relatively few visitors.
Interestingly, this area around Lake City and Silverton was almost made into a National Park back in the 1960s. But after
careful study, the National 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 working in the much less
restrictive and regulated Bureau of Land Management, compared to the highly-regimented and bureaucratic National Park Service, I was glad
the area had never been transferred to the Park Service. I never got to be a National Park Service ranger but, as things turned out,
I was much happier working as a ranger with the BLM. Despite having to deal with those throngs of Texans every summer, I really
loved my job. I even wrote my Master's thesis on this area when I was a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin.
Above: Carrying a 103-pound pack for five miles through the Rockies. This was back in the days when I had
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). Therefore, I moved to Oregon in search of a "real" job. I spent six months working in Eugene as a peon
transportation planner with an agency called the Lane Council of Governments, then I 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 spiffy 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 Chevy Luv pickup.
Many people don't realize that the Bureau of Land Management is actually the largest land agency in the U.S. It's hard
to imagine, but this little-known and poorly-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, however, is probably the most beautiful BLM land in the lower 48 states. In fact, it 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's
policies, I have nothing but good things to say about the BLMers I worked with in the Gunnison office.
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, let me show you what it's like to be a ranger in the Rocky
Mountains, the most enjoyable – and at times, most challenging – job I've ever had.
My Life as a Ranger (1983 - 1988)
Part 1 of 2
Left: The BLM's Gunnison, Colorado trail crew in
1983. Left to right: Ted, Julie, and myself.
I lost touch with Ted Koch after the summer but I'm still good friends with Julie
(see News: July 22, 2001).
Above left: Oooh, what rippling muscles! Here's Ranger Del battling 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."
Left: Lower Powderhorn Lake, at an elevation of over 10,000 feet, was our home
for the summer.
Above left: 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 be stationed in Silverton so I did a lot of exploring that summer.
Above right: Sunset over the peaceful Animas Valley at 12,000 feet.
Left: Lake Como and the beautiful Poughkeepsie Gulch.
Some days I couldn't believe that I got paid to work in the San Juans.
Above left: Dealing with friendly border collies, used by the sheepherders in this area, is an
occupational hazard of this job. This pesky fellow refused to get off my sign. He just wanted to be petted.
Above right: Another day, another Bronco: Here's Ranger Del pulling out yet another stuck vehicle.
Left: On patrol at 11,000 feet near 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