Have you ever held a position, even if it was only for a short period of time even just for a few hours that caused you to say to yourself, "I can't believe I'm actually doing this?" I have. Couple of times in fact.
There was the time I received an hourly wage to drink beer and listen to war stories from a World War II Marine Corps vet. Or the time I tended bar, something I'd never done before, by myself, in a small village in Holland without knowing more than five words of Dutch. Another time I was thrown into covering a pro hockey team as a reporter, with no prior experience in the proper protocols, wandering the bowels of the arena with my magical all-access pass, eating from the press-pool buffet, and dutifully entering the awful-smelling locker room, tape recorder in hand, to get post-game comments.
But the one that still gives me the best vibe is not even gainful employment. It's a volunteer position. The official title is U.S. Forest Service Wilderness Volunteer. What happens is that each time I put on my green uniform, I can pretend for an instant that I have what I always considered one of the "dream" career jobs. I can imagine what it would be like to wear a Smokey the Bear big-brimmed hat working full-time as a Park Service Wilderness Ranger.
My volunteer gig is made possible through a program created by a partnership between the Indian Peaks Wilderness Alliance (IPWA), a Boulder-based nonprofit, and the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) Boulder Ranger District (BRD). Since 1984, the IPWA has recruited, trained and coordinated volunteers who go out on summer weekends in the heavily used Indian Peaks and James Peak wilderness areas near Boulder.
According to Glen Cook, recreation, wilderness and trails planner for the USFS-BRD, "Volunteers play an invaluable role in helping to preserve our wilderness areas by sharing information about 'Leave No Trace' principles and wilderness regulations designed to protect the area. They are also our eyes and ears in gathering information on visitor usage, trail conditions, safety concerns and other items needing attention."
Only a handful of paid summer seasonal rangers are typically available to cover the 250,000 acres and roughly 130 miles of trails within the BRD. In short, IPWA volunteers help fill the void created by tight USFS budgets. As Edward Abbey once said, "The idea of wilderness needs no defense only more defenders."
The biggest difference between what professional rangers do and us volunteers is law enforcement. As volunteers, we do not write tickets. We do education, not enforcement. But folks see us in our green government-issued attire, and until they are close enough to read or notice the word 'Volunteer' on our patches, or talk to us, they often can't tell the difference. We always get a kick when dog owners start scrambling to leash up their dogs when they spot us from a distance.
One thing that the pros and volunteers both do is filling out post-trip reports. But there is a difference. As would be expected, reports by USFS personnel are multi-faceted and prepared on standardized forms. Meanwhile, reports filed by volunteers are, according to USFS-BRD Recreation Staff Officer Ed Perault, "more colorful, more diverse and also very helpful to us."
It's the section of the IPWA online report form called 'Additional Comments' where volunteers get to have some fun, sharing tales from the trails, penning quirky anecdotes, and blowing off steam. Here are report excerpts from summer 2009:
Helped out a backpacker who got pulled into the water navigating a log crossing when his dog (on leash) jumped into the creek, pulling him in. Guy got beat up pretty good, but he manned up because his girlfriend was there.
While we were eating lunch, we watched a guy, about 50 feet from the main gathering point near the outlet of Blue Lake, drop his pants and take a dump. Fortunately, my eyes are not good enough to have observed any details. My hiking partner has better eyes and spent the next hour commenting.
I sorted out a traffic conflict on my way out and convinced two grown men to act at least half their age. It helps to have a uniform sometimes.
A young guy I passed didn't have his dog on leash, and I asked, "Are you aware there is a leash law here?" He was friendly and replied, "Yes, I know. It's just that my dog prefers to be unleashed."
Talked to one group of backpackers who had a fire going within 20 feet of the no fires sign.
I followed six horses from Camp Dick to Red Deer Lake. [What] an impact horses make on the trail and the environment. Seeing so much horse crap in the runoff streams reminded me to filter water! Leave No Trace seems a difficult goal for saddle stock. Pristine wilderness with crap all over it. Today I do not like horses.
Watched a large male moose walking around the lake. The special moment was short-lived, due to an unleashed dog which chased the moose down the drainage!
Both the Long Lake and Mitchell Lake trailhead parking lots had been full since before 8 a.m. Found people were arguing over spaces, trying to save spaces, screeching tires and ignoring arrows to try to beat someone to an imaginary opening.
Funny scene man with dog off-leash heard we were coming so he was carrying his 60-pound dog in his arms.
We found campfire rings in areas where camping is not allowed. One fire ring, three large glass beer bottles, and three 16-inch diameter aluminum pizza pie pans were removed from a site not more than five feet from Diamond Lake. By the way, the pizza pie pans came in handy later when we used them to disperse ashes from other fire rings we dismantled.
Gave lemon drops to some Midwesterners who had really slowed down on the last summit push.
Observed a car parked sideways in the lot taking up five or six spaces. We left a note on the windshield. The car was still there when we returned. Another hiker had left a "not-so-nice" note on the windshield, too.
Impressed with person who made it to Lake Dorothy in between chemo treatments, and still teaching as she goes. Also two guitarists who plan to give a concert at the lake this afternoon.
Saw group of four backpackers with one rifle camped at Diamond Lake. They were firing the rifle about 100 feet from other campers. A family of campers asked them to stop and they did but the family was very concerned about rules and regs when they ran into me. The last two seasons of volunteering I have never seen anyone with any type of weapon; this season I have seen two already.
I saw a Black Hawk helicopter fly over Arapahoe Pass, and another helicopter with its searchlights on flew over at night, unsure the reason.
At Arapahoe Pass some hikers caught up to us and asked if we had seen the man who collapsed near the trailhead. Later we learned he died. Many of the hikers we met throughout the day seemed to be mildly traumatized by seeing a dead man on the trail they couldn't stop talking about it.
And finally, this report, which no doubt brought great satisfaction to the volunteer who filed it and all who read it:
There was a woman at the trailhead that I had contacted a couple of weeks ago with a dog off leash. Today, as we arrived at the trailhead, she was starting up the trail with her dog on leash. Maybe our efforts are helping.
If you're interested in volunteering for summer 2010, start by visiting www.indianpeakswilderness.org.