Monday, April 25, 2011

A Flood of Inspiration

This past week has been National Park Week, which meant  that entrance fees were waived at all national parks. This year this same week also happened to be spring break for much of Northern Virginia, which meant that very large numbers of people came to visit Shenandoah. That in turn meant that it was a rather busy week for me!

Last Saturday the park (and much of the surrounding area) was hard hit by the same storm that caused so many tornadoes in the Midwest (and Virginia for that matter!). It rained hard all day which meant that there was a whole lot of water in the park. The following day (a week ago) the park was filled with visitors seeking to take advantage of the opportunity to view so much water flowing through the park. I had similar thoughts myself, so as soon as I got off work I headed north to White Oak Canyon, a particularly beautiful and water fall-filled area of the park, and set off on a strenuous 8.2 mile circuit hike at 5:30. I knew there was no way I could get back before dark, but I had my headlamp and knew there would be a full moon that night, so as long as I could get out of the main canyon and above the waterfalls (which is the much more treacherous section) before dark then I would be okay.

I made it, but only just. The light was fading as I came to the final waterfall after an inspiring journey through a spectacular water fairyland. The experience deserves its own dedicated treatment which I will try and write and send out in the near future. Until then I can only say that it was an absolutely incredible hike in which I saw both the glory and the power of God clearly made manifest all around me. Water was flowing and cascading everywhere. Whole sections of the trail had themselves become waterfalls and I cross stream after stream that would normally not even exist.

That loop normally includes four significant stream crossings, but convenient stones in the water provide for ample support to cross without getting one’s feet wet. Not so that day. All four came over the top of my boots, and two of them came up to my waist. There was a LOT of water cascading down those streams!

On Monday I took the Rose River Loop Trail, which I now affectionately refer to as the “proposal” trail following Alison’s acceptance of my offer of marriage nine weeks ago. It too was filled with water and absolutely beautiful. It was also filled with visitors so I rarely made it more than a sixth of a mile without being stopped for a while. One such stop was particularly exciting, when two visitors pointed out what they thought was a black bear across the canyon. They were quite correct and I had the pleasure of not only observing the bear myself, but helping about 24 other people find him up in a tree where he posed for us for a while before going back into his den.

In addition to it being National Park Week and Easter weekend, yesterday was also  Junior Ranger Day, and we found ourselves inundated with young and aspiring junior rangers throughout the day. Despite the chaos that characterized much of the day, I still shared some significant moments with a few of these kids.

The first was with a family who walked into the VC at 10:10 and inquired about the junior ranger programs. When I informed them that they had just missed the start of the bird program (10:00) they were very disappointed, but renewed their spirits when I informed them that if they hurried over to the amphitheater they could still get there in time to see the birds. This family returned to the desk later in the day and I learned that they had made it in time to see the birds even though they were traveling by bike. I also learned that the two young children were named “Theo” (in honor of Theodore Roosevelt, with whom he shares a birthday), and “Meadow” (named after our very own Big Meadows). They were a family who had definitely been impacted by the parks in general and this area of Shenandoah in particular.

Shortly after opening yesterday I spoke to another family. They had camped in Big Meadows last night and come to the visitor center to find out about hiking in the area. As they came in the door they saw the schedule for junior ranger day so they approached the desk to ask about it. At first it seemed that though the parents were interested, their two girls were not, but that attitude quickly changed as the day wore on. These two girls embraced the idea of being junior rangers in such a way that in my mind, it embodies the very reasons why the program exists.

By chance I was the one who spoke to this family each time they came to the desk throughout the course of the day, a total of five times. I got to know them pretty well, especially the two girls who turned out to be 9 year old twins Rachel and Samantha Plumley. They tried on the uniforms, spent a good while at the touch table and then hurried off to see the birds. They returned in great excitement to tell me about the birds and to find out what else they could do. I got them set up with junior ranger books and explained what they would need to do to achieve each of the different levels and sent them off to meet a law enforcement ranger and learn about emergency work in the park.

After attending several other programs they embarked upon a nearby trail that includes a scavenger hunt for a variety of different things. Returning about two hours later they proudly came to the desk once again to present their completed  scavenger hike books with a perfect score, victoriously claiming to have found everything along the trail (a claim enthusiastically supported by Mom).
They then proceeded to present their completed junior ranger books, proudly declaring that they ought to have their picture placed on the wall since they had completed everything to be a junior ranger that they possibly could that day. I checked their books and got out their patches, which I presented to them after they pledged in perfect unison to continue to learn, explore, and protect not only Shenandoah, but all national parks and areas of natural wonder and beauty that they might encounter.

Now officially junior rangers in every respect they proceeded to tell me about all the other parks they want to visit, of their plans to come back to Shenandoah, and most enthusiastically, about how they want to help to create their own national park, where they can assist in naming the waterfalls and trails so that everyone can come and enjoy it.

In a single day these girls had gone from knowing nothing about being junior rangers to creating their own national park and all but pledging their lives to the mission of the Park Service. I for one, was deeply touched.

Not a bad lead in to the celebration of Easter.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Countdown to shutdown.... ?

So Friday made for an interesting day in my world. Nearly every conversation I had with both the visitors coming into the park and the many people who called on the phone was centered upon whether the park would be open the next day. And all I could tell them was that we didn't know, that it was entirely dependent on what congress did. As you might imagine, that got a bit frustrating as the day wore on!

I didn't know when I went to bed Friday night if I would be coming in to work the next day for a normal day or to spend a few hours in the morning helping to shut down the park. I certainly maintain hope that congress will do what they said and actually write and sign the appropriate legislation in the next few days or we will be right back in the same place once again. Not a very fun place to be in!

That being said, I was rather disappointed that they passed another CR at the last minute. I think it would have been better for things to actually shut down so that they would have to deal with that reality as a result of the actions they have taken. But I am certainly very glad to still be getting a paycheck!

I happened to be at the desk on Friday when a news crew arrived to film for a story they were running that evening about the impact of the impending shutdown. Attached is a video clip from NBC 29, the local affiliate of NBC which was the lead in to that story which was aired Friday evening. The story was largely centered upon the impact on Shenandoah and I had about 15 seconds of airtime in footage showing me interacting with visitors. This clip only contains a brief image, but you do still see me as the face of the services that would not be available if the government was to shut down. 

I raised the flag in front of the Visitor Center Saturday morning, the officially recognized symbol that we were open and available for service. Yesterday afternoon/evening I hiked ten miles through the mist and fog, roving the trails and enjoying the beauty and wonder of the park for myself. It seems appropriate that while the park was shrouded in fog both Friday and Saturday, today the sun dawned bright and clear, a new day filled with hope and life.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

There is Just Something About the National Parks...

I think it would be fair to say that I possess an affinity for National Parks.This has long been true but has perhaps never been more evident than it is now.

I first visited Shenandoah National Park in May of last year in late spring. I hiked several trails within the park including one that took me alongside the beautiful cascading water of the Rose River. As I hiked along that trail I found myself thinking that if there were ever a perfect spot to propose, I was in it. It was with that thought in mind that I brought Alison to that same trail in August, and though there was certainly no proposing that took place, that hike did mark the moment of our first kiss and the beginning of our romance. We returned to the park again in October to enjoy the colors of fall, thus completing for me a record of visitation in three of the fours seasons.

When I found myself a few months later thinking about how I would want to propose to Alison there really wasn't much of a question. And thus I found myself hiking the same trail with a ring in my pocket seven weeks ago in the final remaining season. Little did I know when I devised that plan that only a few days after the proposal I would be offered an eight month position working as a Park Ranger in the very same park. So now, seven weeks later I find myself engaged to be married while living and working in Shenandoah. This place will ever hold a very special place in my heart. :)

I am officially in uniform as an NPS ranger once again, this time aiding visitors in understanding and experiencing the wonders of the Blue Ridge Mountains. It is different in almost every way to what I was doing on the Mall! I have certainly enjoyed these first two weeks and am rapidly learning and applying that newfound knowledge in my interactions with visitors. My first significant moment of interpretation and guidance while working as a ranger at Shenandoah had nothing to do with that park, however. My very first day on the desk I found myself talking to a couple about the cherry blossoms in Washington, DC, thus interpreting the very same thing I would have done had I been on the Mall in that moment.

I was blessed with the opportunity to enjoy the beauty of the blossoms myself last week, despite no longer living in the immediate area. The single biggest challenge in me taking this job in Shenandoah is being away from Alison as she continues to live in DC. Thankfully I have been able to come and spend each of my days off so far with her, including last Tuesday when we occupied ourselves by playing model for a fledgling professional photographer as he took a series of fun pictures of us with the blossoms around the Tidal Basin including several featuring my NPS flat hat. We had a lot of fun enjoying the blossoms and will hopefully get some fun engagement pictures out of it as well!

The weather in Shenandoah has been anything but spring like for most of my time there thus far. I awaken each morning to temperatures below freezing and last week twice awoke to more than 2 inches of fresh snow on the ground. The second storm was this past Friday and after work I went and hiked up to the highest point in the park and enjoyed some spectacular scenery covered with a blanket of snow as the sun was setting.

My affinity for National Parks is not limited to working, living, and proposing in one. It is looking increasingly likely that I will also be getting married in one. It is a distinct possibility that Alison and I will be married at the Yosemite Valley Chapel in Yosemite National Park ( on Saturday, January 14, 2012. This is not set in stone, nor something to count on at all at this point, but is certainly a rapidly emerging preference for both of us.

Life certainly continues to be an adventure!