Thursday, June 16, 2011

The Threads of Connection

Shortly before leaving the visitor center on Sunday I fell into a wonderful moment that I very easily could have missed. 

I was at the front desk when a young girl and her parents approached with Junior Ranger book in hand. As I was the only ranger up there at that particular moment it fell to me to check it with her. Since things were slow and other rangers were soon to return to the desk I was able to sit down with the young lady and really go through the book with her in detail. We spent about 20 minutes going through each page of her book and speaking in detail about her experience in the park. I grew more and more impressed as our conversation continued.

Eight year old Jenna had successfully completed every line of every page in the book. She didn't stop at the 12 activities required or do anything partway. She fully embraced the venture and completed the book in its entirety. Not only that, but everything in it was absolutely correct. There was not an error of any kind to be found.

That alone was enough to gain my admiration and respect, but when I turned to the final page to check on the programs she had attended I was quite surprised by what I found. The second program bore the signature of one of the other rangers, but the first program was a tour of Rapidan Camp given by Martha Bogle, who just so happens to be the superintendent of the park.   I was quite surprised and confused as to how that was possible, but the parents went on to explain that they had hiked down Mill Prong and happened to be in the camp when Martha brought a group down in conjunction with the 75th. When she saw them looking at the trees and working on the book Martha approached Jenna and talked to her about the book. She then took them into President Hoover's cabin and gave them a tour. They went on to tell me that they had not realized who they were talking to until they went on the website later that night and noticed Martha's picture and discovered what her position in the park truly was. Needless to say I informed Jenna that it was pretty special to have that signature in her book!

The significance of this family and the connections to the park did not end there, however.   When I went to sign her certificate I discovered that her full name was Jenna Mather. Since we have a life-size picture of Stephen Mather (the first director of the National Park Service and the man who pushed to have a national park in the east, which resulted in Shenandoah) right there on the wall of the Visitor Center I pointed to him and asked if she knew who he was. She did not, and neither did her parents. I went on to tell them about Mather and his importance for to the Park Service as a whole and to this park in particular. They promised they would go and do some work on the family tree to see if there was any connection!

Jenna maintained a high level of enthusiasm throughout our interaction, and was especially excited about the pledge at the end as well as her sightings of a black bear and newborn fawn. I was able to capitalize on that as I gave her both an explorer sticker (picturing a fawn) and a Jr Ranger Patch (picturing a bear). Her parents videoed much of our interaction and took pictures of me shaking her hand and presenting her with her patch, but allowed it to be her special moment.  

The whole interaction was inspiring. It wove together a geological hike, the interaction with the superintendent at Rapidan, their experience hiking in the park, stories of the sacrifice of the families who had to give up their land in order to make way for the park, Stephen Mather and the National Park Idea, the 75th anniversary, the excitement of seeing a bear and a fawn for the first time, and a general since of wonder and admiration for the park.

I was blessed indeed to be a part of it. 

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Responding to the Call

You may remember that a few weeks ago I went through Search and Rescue (SAR) training so that I could respond to incidents in the park. Last Sunday I had my first chance. I responded to a call with two other rangers but had only made it about 2/3 of a mile up the trail in question when the injured man (who had fallen 50 feet onto solid granite while rock climbing) was successfully airlifted off the mountain in a helicopter, thus rendering us unnecessary. It was well that he was for he was in critical condition and would have faced a six-eight hour carryout had we had to use that option.

Today, however, was a different matter. Shortly after 11:00 this morning a call came over the radio for a medical emergency at Old Rag Mountain, one of the toughest summit climbs not only in the park, but in the state of Virginia. Shortly thereafter the call went out for a litter team and the visitor center received a phone call requesting anyone that could respond to the incident. I was supposed to be going on lunch at 11:30 and then be on the desk for 6 hours this afternoon, but my coworkers said they could find a way to cover without me and I was able to respond.  I arrived at Old Rag with four others and headed up the mountain. We intercepted the litter about 1/4 mile from the summit and were quickly pulled into service as the only other people there were the old rag mountain stewards (volunteers who help take care of the mountain and its visitors on weekends) and two other park personnel.

I spent a substantial portion of the next 3.5 hours helping to carry and maneuver the litter down an incredibly steep and rocky trail. Old Rag is a very difficult trail in any circumstances, and when carrying a litter it is challenging indeed! We twice had to set up a belay line to help control and guide the litter down slick and steep sections.

The task was made more interesting when a thunderstorm hit us out of nowhere, quickly soaking everyone and making it that much more difficult to find good solid footing.

But in the end we got her down, and a woman that would otherwise still be lying in agony on the top of the mountain is currently safely in a hospital as a result of our labors. The experience was a model of teamwork, as we had to communicate to those behind us about what was coming up in the trail and frequently had to pass the litter from one person to the next as the trail was so narrow and steep that it was impossible to walk with it. Six people must always have hold of the litter in order to control it and carry it successfully. That is not easy to do in those circumstances.

With one person it would have been impossible. But with a team working together we got her off the mountain. It was a powerful picture of what a difference one person can make when a part of something bigger.  I am exhausted now, completely physically spent, but it was well worth it. It is highly likely that I will be on a carryout again before too long as it is not uncommon for someone to get hurt in this park, particularly on Old Rag.

So instead of working at the desk I spent most of the day carrying a litter. That marked the fourth day of consecutive work that I spent doing something unusual.

On Wednesday and Thursday I backpacked into the wilderness of the park on a Leave No Trace training course, spending the night sleeping under the stars and learning how to camp with as little impact as possible on the environment. I am now certified as a Leave No Trace trainer myself.
 Yesterday I spent the day in a training course on interpretation and how to develop interpretive programs. So in four days I found myself doing three very different sorts of things.  On the way back home last night I stopped and hiked down to White Oak Falls. On the way back I ran nearly smack into a bear on the trail. It is the closest I have come to a bear thus far and the first time we have been face to face. I also finally got at least some decent pictures, two of which you can find posted in a new album.

So one might say that this has been a rather interesting week!

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Life Gets Busy

Life gets busy. Even when one is living in a National Park, life still gets busy. Too many things to try and figure out and manage can quickly overwhelm even the stoutest individual and it is very easy to lose focus of what matters in life. This past week has served as a significant reminder for me of what some of those things can be.

I ended up driving down to DC last Sunday right after getting off here in Shenandoah to attend the Memorial Day concert in front of the capitol. Alison had gone down earlier and had a spot on the lawn and I showed up in uniform which allowed me to sneak through the security entrance (they assumed I was working the event, which I had last year, so I knew where to go!) resulting in me getting to the blanket where she waited at 7:54 for an 8:00 show. It was a splendid show, honoring the sacrifice of troops past and present, and focusing and the larger ideals that this country represents. I am really glad I got to go. It was a fitting way to begin my week and to honor the memory of those who paid the ultimate sacrifice for this nation. I am deeply proud to be an American, a part of the ongoing story of this country and what it is founded upon.

On Memorial Day itself I managed to escape from a busy visitor center (we logged 2444 people on Saturday and 2500 on Sunday just in the VC, maybe 5% of the people actually visiting the park) and get out on a trail for a couple of hours. It was a hot day, but I still wanted to hike! I hiked about 4 miles on the AT, stopping off to visit one of the shelters here in the park where I checked the logbook to see what the through hikers had to say. I also spoke to five different through hikers along the trail, all five passing through Shenandoah after having already hiked 910 miles, with another 1268 to go. What causes people to take on such an overwhelming journey? That very question is the subject of my terrace talk, which I gave for the first time last Thursday. It is my one chance at an interpretive program here in Shenandoah, and I figured the AT would make a pretty good story!

Today was National Trails day and there were two different special programs at the VC about the AT. I sadly did not get to attend either one because I was stuck at the desk, but I did get to talk to one of the presenters after he had finished. He has hiked the entire 2178.3 miles (give or take--it changes on a regular basis) 5 times. FIVE TIMES! I don't even know how to comprehend doing that! Thinking about such a journey helps to put my own life journey in the proper perspective!

I did have the pleasure of embarking upon my own trail journey yesterday. I actually got released from the desk for an entire day, the first time that has happened since I got here, and I decided to make the best of it! I did two hikes way down at the southern end of the park, which required 75 minutes of driving just to arrive at the trailheads! The first was a 3 miles circuit that included some lovely views and a stop off at another AT shelter where I again consulted the logbook for interesting entries (can you tell someone is looking for fodder for his program?). The second hike was a 10 mile loop which took me to a stunning vista from chimney rock, down to the riprap run to splendid swimming hole (I could unfortunately not partake in uniform!), and along nearly 4 miles of the AT. Now that is the way to spend a day working as a National Park Ranger!

During my travels yesterday I encountered a turkey with four little chicks waddling behind her, a doe and a newborn fawn (I saw another while out hiking Monday; that fawn walked up to me and curled up at my feet!), and a mama bear and three cubs. Methinks is it the time of year to see young animals!

And then there is the wedding. Alison and I have nearly decided on what we are doing for a save-the-date card and also done the initial work to design and set up a website. It is becoming significantly more exciting as the reality of the wedding continues to take shape!

Life continues to be an adventure, and amidst the adventure I continue to be reminded of why I am here at this time in this place and what it means to be a part of the larger story of creation that God continues to write with each passing moment.

Living always in dangerous wonder!