Most of my experience with park rangers is related to their extreme level of helpfulness. They’ve excitedly aided me and different groups of friends as we decided how to weave through the peaks and valleys of various national parks and forests, taken my calls from Travel Country for over-the-phone customer advice, and I’ve found them on the trail ready with smiles and tips about coming adventure.
That’s why I was particularly surprised when I called a North Cascades National Park ranger to have him help me plan a trip and he, sounding irritated, asked me to do more research and call him back. I was irritated and a little offended.
Had this been what National Park Service had come to?
I conducted some research and called back the next day, speaking another ranger. She gave me valuable perspective and informed me that I now had time to think about what to do, as I could book my site once I got to the ranger station.
Excited, I hopped in my car and headed from Seattle to the park, some 2 hours away.
When I got to the ranger station on park property, the first ranger I spoke with was a man by the same name as the one I spoke with on the phone. I figured there couldn’t be too many rangers with the same name at the station, so I—hopeful to walk straight toward the awkwardness of our un-symphonic conversation and apologize, for my part—asked him if he was the ranger who I spoke with on the phone two days prior.
He said he hadn’t worked that day, but I couldn’t help but notice a glimmer in his eye as he helped me pick a site, one of his particular “preference.”
I felt a narrative under the surface of our interactions and I was worried that it was the same guy, lying to me and planning to give me a bogus site and/or pranking me.
But there was nothing I could do to find that out and I was too stoked to head for the woods, so I left the station and set out.
After a two-hour hike, I approached the campground to learn that a fire further down the valley had shut down all campgrounds within 10 miles of me in that direction. I knew that bear, mountain lion, and moose are unlikely to attack unless provoked, but as I was alone, it took some time for me to lighten the burden I carried about an attack. And when it did, the eerie lonesomeness of my campsite filled that void with further worry about my new ranger buddy. Did his snarky attitude and wry smile hide the heart of a 20-something about to prank or harm me?
I hiked downward at a 45-degree angle over the crisp pine needles and hard-worn dirt trail, as explosions of ferns burst out of the earth everywhere and tall orange columns hid green tops far above, creating a canopy that filtered dappled white light with a green hue. As I went, the faint sound of rushing water became bold and unrelenting. I passed the dining area and a site, coming to the edge of a cliff overlooking an emerald blue river 20 feet below.
Tall pines shot out of the ground everywhere, my side of the river, the other, the islands splitting the river in the middle. And high above was the light blue shine of the sky and the white light that accompanied it.
The site was extraordinarily beautiful. And I had it all to myself.
As I got the lay of the land, I set up my hammock close to the river overlook. Though it was 25 feet away, I could feel the power from it.
The pristine evening, aided by only the sounds of nature, was a healing balm to my spirit. As the last light was pulled over the mountains, I snuck into my bug net, under my rain fly, into the coziness of my sleeping bag, hanging mid-air in my hammock. My worries about the ranger trying to trick me or mess with me had been proven unfounded; he’d set me up for a rich experience.
In peace, I fell asleep.
Then…in terror, I awoke.
The clear, crisp sound of a zipper, distinctly ripped me from my sleep. The bug net zipper was unzipping a mere 2 feet from my face. Everything but my hand was frozen as I reached down and put my hand on my headlamp. I waited in cement, listening for more noises before I turned it on. When I finally did, I moved only a finger and my eyes, which darted every which way when the light finally shone around my site. Nothing.
At that point, adrenaline woke me up completely and I quickly realized that my hand wasn’t on my headlamp at all...the lamp was still in my pocket. So I reached in, took it out and turned it on. The zipper on my bugnet, in fact, was still closed. Had I dreamt the sound?! The river of adrenaline still coursed through my veins as I looked up to realize that I could now see the sky, which wasn’t visible when I went to sleep. The stars shone brightly as my mind raced. Something had changed and I hadn’t changed it from my hammock.
I lay there, terrified for minutes as long as hours, and then—eventually—fell back asleep.
In the morning, I opened my eyes to the realization that something special had happened: I hadn’t been murdered by some rogue park ranger. I felt like I had sweet life anew. But it really got me thinking, as the absurdly gorgeous scene continued to soothingly dance around me.
Although I have spent countless hours in the outdoors and feel confident there, I’ve allowed fear to take over on numerous occasions. Why?
It’s likely a symptom of a greater insecurity in my heart, though I’ve yet to put my finger exactly on it. So make no mistake, I’m thankful for the situation, as it provides me the opportunity to consider truth in the midst of my perspective...and to grow. I guess, then, I’m indirectly grateful for that (potentially) dubious park ranger, who may or may not still be laughing about playing a trick on an unwitting park visitor that night.
If you’re reading this, you now know that you got me; congratulations.