Ranger Diary: Hither and Yon

DAY ONE: July 19, 2013
Topic of the Day: Catching Up

Office day. Email, paperwork, phone calls. And most importantly, toilets. The third element of Leave No Trace outdoor ethics is “Dispose of Waste Properly”. In heavily-used backcountry camping areas, we provide pit toilets to concentrate human waste in discreet areas. In the Alpine Lakes, Wallowa style toilets (see link) are favored, and we can make these ourselves out of cedar lumber. They are packed in and then maintained. When the pits fill up, they have to be moved. A nasty job, but consider the alternative: I’d rather move a toilet than bury hundreds of piles of poop & TP left on the ground. Fortunately, I have help this summer from an Earthcorps (part of Americorps) crew. This group of six young people is spending a week at Pete and Spectacle Lakes to rehab campsites, move and repair toilets, and give a little TLC to these well-loved areas. To prepare for their work, I’ve finished constructing a whole new toilet to go to Spectacle Lake (6 miles from Pete, these folks are heroes) fabricated wooden parts to fix the Pete toilets, gathered tools and hardware. I want them to have a good experience so I stay an hour late to get everything lined up.

DAY TWO: July 20, 2013
Topic of the Day: Pacific Silver Fir

Pam and I backpack to Hyas Lake after making the very tedious hour and a half drive up the Fish Lake road. This ride is the most glaring local example of crumbling infrastructure in the National Forest. Unmaintained for years, the potholes are numerous and deep enough to swallow small cars. Still, there are 22 vehicles parked at the Deception Pass trailhead, and more arriving.

We’ve carried in tools to clear logs from the trail. The first log is a doozy, right next to camp. A Pacific Silver Fir (Abies amabilis) has tipped over, with a big rootwad looming near the trail. Hikers have pounded in a path going up and around, since it is too big to climb over with a full backpack. We clear the area where we will cut the log, and chop away some of the bark. Then it’s time to saw.


Pam’s on one side of the log and I’m on the other. She extends the handle of Polallie, a five foot Atkins falling saw that we use for bucking. It’s one of our favorites. The handle fits my gloved hand, and we pull gently back and forth until the teeth have established a groove. We’re making a compound cut, and angle, so that the chunk will roll out easily. Back and forth–I’ve missed crosscut sawing. Sawdust dribbles out of the kerf, and we notice that the cut is opening. As we release tension, the log is moving upward with loud cracks. This is good. It means that gravity is working for us and the saw will just keep going down. We won’t have to underbuck, which is a the more difficult technique of cutting upward from the bottom.

It’s really hot. Sweat rolls into the creases of my eyes. We take frequent breaks to stand in the shade and sip water.

Silver fir dominates the middle elevations of the forested Cascade slopes on both sides of the mountains. It belongs to the family of balsam firs, the true firs (as opposed to Douglas-fir, which is not an Abies). Silver fir is a Northwest specialist, occurring as far north as southern British Columbia and extending as far south as Crater Lake in Oregon. It extends down the spine of the Cascades like the stripe on a skunk’s back. Rarely found above 5000 feet in elevation, it doesn’t seem to be as frost-tolerant as mountain hemlock. Like all firs, silver fir is tall and graceful with a pleasing symmetry to the crown. The branches extend horizontally in regular whorls. The glossy green needles are flattish with blunt ends evenly spaced on both sides of the twig. A staggered row of needles lies on top of this, covering the top of the twig. The needles are silvery underneath. The bark of young trees is smooth and whitish, but the older trees develop gray scaly bark. Our big log is old and scaly.

As a sawyer, what I notice most about silver fir (and all true firs) is the pitch. Pitch is not the same thing as tree sap. Sap is in phloem, the layer of living tissue under the bark that transports the sugars created by photosynthesis. Pitch, or resin, is a substance made by trees and stored in cells under the bark. If the tree is injured, it exudes pitch to scab over the wound. Pitch is sticky. Silver fir pitch is the stickiest. It collects on my gloves, the saw handle, my uniform shirt.

Our first cut finishes with a drop to the ground. Hikers come along and see what we are doing, remark that we have our work cut out for us (if I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard this, I could retire). We try not to roll our eyes. The second cut goes much the same as the first, without so much cracking. After two hours, we have used pry poles to move the chunk out of the trail.


Examinining the end of the cut log, I observe the regular growth rings, the knots where branches grew, the cracks where the log broke inside as we cut it. It smells good.

DAY THREE: July 21, 2013
Topic of the Day: Seek Shade

We have heard stories of aggressive mountain goats at Tuck Lake. I want to go see for myself. We continue up the Deception Pass Trail with the saw, hoping that there will be time to hike into Tuck after we finish the logout. It’s a spectacular subalpine lake basin of rock and water. I’m thinking that it’s not so much of a goat problem as it is a people problem. After all, the goats live there and people just visit. Goats are curious, and very interested in salty human urine. Not surprisingly, there are encounters and occasional conflicts.

But there are more silver firs. We spend a long time bucking from the top, chopping, and underbucking. Again, we are in the hot sun. There are flies and mosquitoes. Our water bottles are stashed in a tiny patch of melting snow, and we refill them from a nearby trickle. The weather forecast calls for 96 degrees in the valleys, 90 degrees in the mountains, and low relative humidities. We are right on the Cascade crest. I can believe that it’s 90 degrees. The direct sunlight feels very bright.

We meet hikers in shorts and tank tops. One man asks how we can stand to work in long pants and long sleeves. He starts jumping around when the bugs bite his legs, and I wonder how folks can stand to hike in shorts.

We cut four logs before topping out at Deception Pass and the Pacific Crest Trail. It’s two o’clock and we won’t have time to go to Tuck Lake. It will have to be another day. We hike back to the trailhead with our full packs and tools. I feel wilted and parched, wanting to hide in the shade of the deep forest.


I want to squinch my eyes almost shut and run through the sunny patches. The valley is filled with the sound of waterfalls as snow melts in the heat.

When I get home, I scrub the silver fir pitch out of my shirt using Citrasolv and Fels-Naptha soap. The wet fabric dries almost instantly.

DAY FOUR: July 22, 2013
Topic of the Day: Dust

We meet the Earthcorps crew and hike to Pete Lake. Wind whips the water and stirs the silt off the bottom of the lake. The Chimney Glacier has been melting and Lemah Creek deposits the finely-ground rock in Pete Lake. The water level seems low, and it will keep dropping. The crew admires the view of Lemah Peaks, still holding onto some snow. The leaders and I scout the work while the crew sets up their camp.

I’m feeling the effects of the heat and am ready to go. The trail is beaten into dust by horse hooves and many many boots. This transformation always startles me. It wasn’t too long ago that the trail was mucky.

Pam and I talk about food on the way out. She’s got leftovers at home for supper, and I’m craving Thai peanut sauce. Just picked the first garden zucchini…


The Fish Lake Trip

This is the year of the log piles on trails. Nobody can remember a previous year like this. The worst blowdown is in the upper Cle Elum River drainage. It’s as if a whirling skirling winter wind screamed down through the valley and up the slopes like a knife edge. Narrow swathes of trees are uprooted and tipped in more or less the same direction. Some are big, some are small. Some shattered on the ground, some stacked up in twisted knots. Intrepid hikers have been clambering over and around. Everyone seems to understand that the government isn’t fielding large trail crews this season and is patient with the amount of time it takes to get the work done.

Katie is taking the packstring to Deep Lake in early September to supply a volunteer work party on the Pacific Crest Trail. Eight tough miles in, and the way needs to be clear before the horses can go. The trail crew spent this past week camped at Fish Lake to start cutting logs on the Cathedral Pass trail. We had a rough idea what was there since Jared brought us a list of diameters and locations noted on his wilderness ranger trip.

Jon and I spent hours at a log pile less than a mile in. We have noticed (and complained about) the strange binds on all the logs this year. Nothing cuts easy. I’m coming to the idea that the violence with which these trees were knocked over is still in the wood. The fibers are stressed and twisted, catching our saws, and making the logs behave in ways we don’t have experience with. We can cut a log all the way through, and instead of dropping to the ground, the chunk stays compressed between the cut ends. We have tried compound cuts, counteracting the bind with blocks, prying with poles. When these don’t succeed, we get out the ax and swear words. Nothing for it but to chop.

Much of what we have to cut is Pacific silver fir, which is a soft resinous wood. The green trees are springy, and usually a joy to chop. In the photo above, Jon is using a pruning saw to cut big limbs off the top of a western hemlock that fell across the trail. It was a huge tree, at least 45 inches in diameter at the base. We felt lucky to only be dealing with the top which was 18 inches in diameter. Still, Jon eyed it with a bleak expression while we worked on the silver firs. “That’s a gnarly old thing,” he said, and started calling it The Ogre.

As the day went on, it became The F***ing Ogre. I crawled over it and heard the ripping sound as a knot caught the seat of my pants. I crawled under it, and there was more ripping as a knee went out. There was pitch on my pants and soon on my skin. We ended up single bucking The Ogre, since there was no place for a second sawyer to stand at one end and we were having trouble with the crosscut binding. Single bucking, I watched rotten fibers puke out of the saw kerf, and felt gratitude that fungus had gotten to the center of the tree. Rot makes for easy cutting. Hemlock may be the hardest wood known to trail crews in the Northwest. We call it “hemrock”, and sometimes it seems that steel is no match for it.

This is when trail work becomes mental. It’s true that the job is physically demanding, and being young and athletic helps a lot. But there are times when solving the problems can be tough. There are times when you just have to make yourself keep going. Stubbornness is an advantage. You can see the sun heading for the west, you are tired and almost out of water and camp is a long walk away. Bugs have been flying up your nose for hours and biting through your work clothes. You are sawing on an awkward piece of hemrock. It won’t fall, and you have to chop it. You can spit some invective at it, and start laughing. Maybe you get the heavy bugger on the ground, then it still has to be moved off the trail. Maybe you feel like you got your butt kicked that day. It happens.

We got The Ogre on the ground, then came back the next day with the whole crew. It took pry poles, rollers, more invective and some brute strength to get the two chunks of it off the trail. Then we went on.

The Ogre wasn’t even the worst of it. The next time someone complains about useless government workers in my hearing, I want to tell them about the three crew members who hiked eight miles over Cathedral Pass to cut six logs by Deep Lake, then eight miles back to camp. A 14 hour day for them, and filled with ravenous mosquitoes. They did it willingly, cheerfully, and for extremely modest pay. Nearly everyone we meet on the trail is appreciative of our work, and I have to say it feels good to be thanked. We didn’t get it all done. We’ll have to go back.

When I close my eyes at night, I see logs across the trail. When I crawl out of the tent in the morning, my fingers are swollen into sausages from gripping the saw and the ax. I ask myself how much longer I’m going to do this work…Look up at the early light, see the waving meadow grasses, take a deep breath. I know the answer: as long as I can, or until something just as good comes along. In the meantime, I nurse my hands, scratch bug bites, and look for some new work pants. And hold summer days in the mountains close to my heart and memory.