Rangering the World, Part 2

Duchesne Ranger Station, Ashley National Forest, UT.
Duchesne Ranger Station, Ashley National Forest, UT.

Rangering: How We Became Park Rangers in Utah

By Charlie Winchester

After finishing our placement with the National Park Service in Hawaii, we took a short break to visit family in Los Angeles and conduct a whistle-stop tour of some of the many national parks in California. Rested and fresh, we were on our way to begin the next phase of our journey: as Wilderness Rangers in Utah and Alaska.

The Uinta Mountains in the Ashley National Forest, Utah

The Uinta Mountains, located in northeastern Utah, might not be well known (we certainly had never heard of them before our placement), but we knew this phase of our trip would be challenging. Eight thousand feet at their lowest, the Uintas soar to over 13,500 feet. They are covered by a network of steep, rocky, and largely unmaintained trails within the 456,705 acres of the High Uintas Wilderness.

Entering the High Uintas Wilderness Area, UT, on the Lake Fork Trail.
Entering the High Uintas Wilderness Area, UT, on the Lake Fork Trail.

Wilderness Ranger Training

We were met in Salt Lake City by a fellow Wilderness Ranger, Russell, and Trail Crew colleague, Gabriel. Two hours outside the city, we arrived at our new home for the next few months, a less-than-glamorous trailer in the small town of Duchesne, UT.

Crossing a creek newly re-routed due to the effects of the East Fork Fire & unusually high snow melt, High Uintas Wilderness, UT.
Crossing a creek newly re-routed due to the effects of the East Fork Fire & unusually high snow melt, High Uintas Wilderness, UT.

The following weeks were filled with intensive wilderness ranger training with lessons in the basics of backcountry camping, wilderness first aid, and an introduction to using pack mules in the mountains.

We also learned Trail Maintenance and Repair 101 and received official Forest Service crosscut sawyer certification (no chainsaws or power tools are allowed in the wilderness!). Finally, we took a crash course on the history of the Forest Service and an in-depth look into the intricacies of wilderness preservation and the laws governing its use.

A brown bear fishing for pink salmon at Anan Wildlife Observatory, Tongas National Forest, AK.
A brown bear fishing for pink salmon at Anan Wildlife Observatory, Tongas National Forest, AK.

Our First Hitch

With our training completed and the deep winter snow finally receding, we were ready to venture out on our first wilderness hitch. Our goal was to assess the general condition of the area.

We would also take the opportunity to make as many trails as we could passable for hikers and pack animal strings. We knew, however, that we would have our work cut out for us due to recent forest fires and a particularly stormy winter.

Carrying a two man crosscut saw along the Lake Fork Trail, High Uintas Wilderness, UT.
Carrying a two man crosscut saw along the Lake Fork Trail, High Uintas Wilderness, UT.

Sure enough, our first hitch was challenging work! The high elevation and steep, heavily eroded trails took some acclimatizing. Hiking while carrying over 50 pounds of gear and tools like shovels, pulaskis, and crosscut saws did as well.

Working alongside the trail crew as part of a larger team, we witnessed first-hand the amount of damage caused by the winter storms. Trees fell, and watercourses were rerouted due to the spring snowmelt. There was going to be a lot of work ahead!

Getting Used to the Terrain

Cutting & dragging a log out of the road on Zarembo Island, Tongass National Forest, AK.
Cutting & dragging a log out of the road on Zarembo Island, Tongass National Forest, AK.

We endured a steep learning curve on our first hitch, but our skills were honed by our second, third, and fourth. We more than halved the size of our packs and became acclimatized to working at high elevations.

We covered more ground and traveled further into the 89,000-acre burn area from the 2020 East Fork Fire, venturing into the treeless alpine basins high above the Uinta Canyon.

Working as a pair on one particularly long day, Kate and I cleared over thirty-five trees from a trail with only a two-person crosscut and an axe. Days like these were tough, but the sense of achievement and the camaraderie we shared with our Wilderness Ranger Crew made it more than worthwhile.

We will never forget the work we accomplished and the people we met in the High Uintas Wilderness Area.

Wrangell Ranger District, Tongass National Forest in Alaska

Having finished our season in Utah, we were on our way to our final stop on the US leg of our journey, the Tongass National Forest in Alaska.

At nearly 17 million acres (half the size of England and Wales combined), this is America’s most prominent National Forest.

A Long Travel Day

Lush lichen growth on a tree in the Tongass National Forest, AK.
Lush lichen growth on a tree in the Tongass National Forest, AK.

During our time at Tongass, our base was in Wrangell, a small town on a little island in southeast Alaska. After an uncomfortable night sleeping in Seattle’s Tacoma International Airport, we took a series of three flights wending our way over an endless expanse of mountains and forest.

Arriving in Wrangell for our final three months in the United States, we found a small town with a unique history.

The Russian Empire and Britain’s Hudson Bay Company have occupied Wrangell in the past, though the American flag now flies over the town.

The island is home to the Wrangell Ranger District Office, where we would spend our time working with the Forest Service on a combination of recreation, trails, wildlife, archaeology, and timber.

A Magical Place

Our experience in this corner of Alaska was truly magical from the very beginning.

A brown bear fishing for pink salmon in Anan Creek, Tongas National Forest, AK.
A brown bear fishing for pink salmon in Anan Creek, Tongas National Forest, AK.

Traveling by boat between the many islands that make up this part of the State, we were treated each day to the most spectacular views of snow and ice-capped peaks, densely forested mountains, and salmon-filled rivers.

A particular highlight during our time in this special place was working at the Anan Wildlife Observatory.

Anan is one of the few places worldwide where you can view black and brown bears feeding alongside one another. We were also fortunate to help maintain some of the more remote cabins in the district.

These required either a lengthy jet boat ride up the mighty Stikine River or a short hop in a Beaver float plane to reach, depending on if they were located on a landlocked lake or near the river.

It certainly took a while for us to get used to how boats and float planes replaced cars in traversing this vast and largely uninhabited place.

At the mouth of the LeConte glacier where it meets the sea. This spectacular glacier is North America's southern-most tidewater glacier and is part of a massive glacial system that stretches 120 miles between the Stikine and Whiting rivers.
At the mouth of the LeConte glacier where it meets the sea. This spectacular glacier is North America’s southern-most tidewater glacier and is part of a massive glacial system that stretches 120 miles between the Stikine and Whiting rivers.

Glacier Watching

Perhaps the most outstanding memory of our time in Alaska was a wilderness monitoring trip to the LeConte Glacier. LeConte is North America’s most southerly tidewater glacier, and our location allowed us to see some truly enormous icebergs calving from its towering face into the ocean.

We found ourselves surrounded by seals perched on the hundreds of icebergs floating past, and on the return boat journey we were fortunate to witness a pod of Orcas surface nearby. This, along with the black and brown bears plucking pink salmon out of the river as they migrated upstream and humpback whales bubble-net feeding in the waters of the Inside Passage, certainly makes Alaska hard to beat in terms of its wildlife.

At the mouth of the LeConte glacier where it meets the sea. This spectacular glacier is North America's southern-most tidewater glacier and is part of a massive glacial system that stretches 120 miles between the Stikine and Whiting rivers.
At the mouth of the LeConte glacier where it meets the sea. This spectacular glacier is North America’s southern-most tidewater glacier and is part of a massive glacial system that stretches 120 miles between the Stikine and Whiting rivers.

We should also mention, however, some of the less glamorous aspects of our work. Disposing human waste from campsite outhouses by burning it and bushwhacking up steep slopes through endless wet and unimaginably thick “dog-hair” (second-growth) forests were jobs that no one would wish on their worst enemy.

Surveying fish populations using traps on a creek in the Tongass National Forest, AK.
Surveying fish populations using traps on a creek in the Tongass National Forest, AK.

Even so, the toughest work usually had an interesting purpose. We mapped previously undocumented creeks and surveyed plants to help calibrate a satellite-derived model of the forest’s vegetation cover. Fortunately, due to the time of year, we always had access to copious amounts of highbush blueberries and red huckleberries to keep our spirits and energy up as we walked (or more often, stumbled) through the dense temperate rainforest of the Tongass National Forest.

Headed Home

Even good things must come to an end, however. Having avoided needing to use our bear spray in anger during our time on the Tongass, we reluctantly left our favorite stop in the US and all of the amazing friends and colleagues we had been lucky to work with. Excited to briefly return to the UK to see family after over a year away, our planning now turns to the next leg of our global ranger journey, Europe and the Middle East.

Keep following our adventure

In the next part of our journey, we head to Malta to help rangers tackle illegal bird trapping and climb amongst the alpine peaks of Switzerland. We also help release wild sheep into a nature reserve in Israel and travel to the stunning National Parks of Montenegro — volunteering to help rangers as we go.

Read Charlie’s First GoNOMAD story about Rangering Around the World When they first came to the U.S.

charlie winchesterFollow these rangers on Instagram.

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