Friends of the Inyo’s 2020 Backcountry Ranger Intern for the US Forest Service
Each year Friends of the Inyo funds an intern for the Sierra National Forest with a generous donation from Rick Kattelmann and Sally Gaines. We are proud of the work and perspectives gained by David Carpenter in 2020 through his participation in the program. Read more about David and his experience with the Sierra National Forest below:
Reflections on 2 Months in the High Sierra
I always was a man of the wilderness. I was born in Denver, Colorado, and grew up not far away in Golden, a small town nestled in between the front range of the rockies to the west, and the vast suburban sprawl of Denver to the east. I was perfectly situated to become a man of the outdoors, and a true advocate for the wilderness. My parents had me hiking and camping from before the days I could even walk on my own. Our summer camping trips brought us to Arizona, Utah, The mountains of Colorado, and far beyond. When I was 11 years old I was lucky enough to camp in Alaska with my grandparents, traveling as far north as the arctic ocean, and being able to see Denali, Anchorage, and several other amazing places deep in the far north. My main sport through these years, however, was river-running. My mother had me and my twin brother paddling our canoe down various rivers in Colorado with her from as soon as we could hold the paddles. By the time I was 12, I had my first whitewater rafting trip, and assisted in my first swift-water rescue, helping pull my own mother out of the rapids of West Water Canyon, Utah just above Skull, a gnarly class IV rapid with a reputation for flipping even the largest rafts like pancakes. By the time I was 14, I was capable of navigating class IV whitewater in a raft, and class III with a kayak or canoe.
My high school had a program for seniors called Senior Seminar, in which seniors spend their last year of school not in the classroom, but outdoors. With Senior Seminar (SEM for short), I did 6 different trips around the country. We built and camped in snow caves, cross country skied through the Rocky Mountains, mountain biked from Moab, Utah, to Fruita, Colorado, road tripped through the American southwest all the way to San Diego (this was my first time in California), spent time on the Southern Ute and Navajo Indian Reservations, and even spent a week in Washington, D.C., staying in the countries largest homeless shelter. These great adventures led me to a better understanding of this country’s wilderness, and of this country’s vast Cultural heritage. It also led me to better understand myself, my strengths and weaknesses, and my place in this world and it’s history.
Following my adventures with Senior Seminar, I embarked on a service year with AmeriCorps NCCC, a team-based service program for college-aged Americans. Across 10 months I did 6 different service projects in 5 different states. I renovated summer camps in Michigan and Minnesota, did environmental restoration projects in Illinois and Kentucky, built trails with the Detroit Parks and Recreation department, and even acted as a camp counselor for adults with disabilities in Iowa. It was even more meaningful than Senior Seminar, led me to even greater introspection, and a further greater understanding of this country and my place within. Most importantly, it led me to a love of not just outdoor recreation, but outdoor stewardship. In Jo Davies county, Illinois, my team worked with a local nonprofit restoring oak savannah habitat, working with chainsaws on the side of a steep hill to remove invasive trees like European Buckthorn, Japanese Honeysuckle, as well as native trees like Red Cedar that had vastly overgrown their normal numbers due to lack of natural fire. In Kentucky, I worked with another small nonprofit to restore an 1890s house to become a stewardship shop for local rivers, to be used by future teams and future volunteers. In Detroit, my team helped build trails through the long neglected Detroit Park system in order to increase access to outdoor spaces for all people.
All along the way, I carried with me a civic pride that comes from protecting America’s lands and landscapes. This love of environmental stewardship, and outdoor recreation, is what led me to my internship with the forest service in the Sierra National Forest, California. With the forest Service, I was able to spend about 2 months working as a wilderness ranger. I spent 8 days a time on the trail, completely unsupported, just me and 2 other rangers. We had no pack animal support, no resupply days, all of our gear, food, tools, etcetera on our own backs. Our packs weighed close to 40 pounds at the beginning of each tour, once fully loaded with food and water, and we would hike as much 15 miles in a day in some of the roughest terrain in the lower 48 states. Among the normal backpacking gear, we also carried various additional tools and safety equipment, including 7-foot crosscut saws, a smaller 2-foot pruning saw, a full-sized ax, a shovel, hard hats, radios, first aid kits, among others equipment no backpacker in their right mind would want to carry. Our days were spent protecting the trail, and the resources more generally. We cut trees that fall across trail, some as large as 4’ in diameter, all with nothing but hand tools and muscle. We cleared rocks off trail, rehabilitated overused and illegal campsites, collected data for the forest service, and acted as ambassadors of sorts not only of the USFS, but of the mountains themselves. We made visitor contacts, checked peoples permits, helped remind trail users of the rules and best practices of the wilderness.
As rangers, our mission, from its beginning to its end, was to protect the wilderness, and its’ users. We were true protectors of these wild spaces, true stewards of this land, true advocates, ambassadors, representatives, rangers, whatever word you want to use. The work we did, that I did, was meaningful to protect America’s greatest resource, her wild spirit, for future generations to come. I am tremendously proud of the work I did and the legacy, the heritage, the tradition and the history that I helped uphold. The work I did is worth being proud of, it is worth boasting about, it is an endless mission for an endless resource, a virtuous plight for something too precious for our country to forget, a true labor of love, and a true act of service.
None of this is to say that it was easy. Along the way, I faced challenges from several directions. Disagreements and clashing with and amongst my coworkers, the rigors of the field, the homesickness and the loneliness that comes with being so far from one’s family and home. I faced down high-altitude storms, difficult, steep, loose terrain, rough trails and tricky water crossings, twisted ankles and torn clothes, cold hail and the beating sun. Along the way, I learned more than I ever had before, just like I had in my past with Senior Seminar and AmeriCorps NCCC, about this world, and my place within it. Such learning is impossible to truly express through the medium of writing, or speaking, or any other means of expression. Such learning is deep, it is devotional, it is a fleeting emotion and an ineffable understanding. It concerns topics too intangible and lofty for any classroom. It’s not an understanding one can gain from a book, a lecture, or a documentary film. It is a lesson for the soul, of the soul, by the soul. I am but a small piece of this world. I am younger than these trails, but these trails are younger than the trees, some of which are relatively quite ancient, being hundreds or even thousands of years olds. That however, is still small, as the trees are younger than the soil from which they sprouted hundreds of years ago, and that soil is still older than the rocks which surround them, those imposing and powerful solid cliffs and soaring towers of granite. These mountains, though, are still younger than the tectonic plates from which they were born, which are still younger than the magma that upholds them. In the landscape of time, I am just but a grain of sand on an endless beach, a tiny pebble at the bottom of a mighty river. I of course, am not just small in this landscape of time, but of space as well. One could spend a lifetime in the Sierras and still not cross every stream, climb every peak, sit against every rock, look upon every tree, or wonder at every star in the sky. This landscape is timeless, vast, and ancient in a way difficult for any human to ever imagine. This is the backdrop of the work I did, this is the setting for my story, and my story is just one of many, many stories to exist in this place. This just scratches the surface of the understanding one gets from working in the high Sierra mountains, and this is the legacy which I worked to protect.
Some of my learning was far more practical, tactile, and tangible than such lofty contemplations. Despite my youth in the Rocky Mountains, hiking, rafting, and exploring, I had never really been a backpacker. Most of my hiking were day-hikes, and most of my multi-day wilderness adventures took place on rivers, where one is almost unlimited in the amount of gear you can carry in your boat. Within the course of 2 months, I went from the avid-day hiker who’s main experience of true wilderness was rather luxurious, to a serious backpacker capable of spending 8 days unsupported in wilderness. I learned how to pack light, I learned how to live on less and make more of what I have. I also improved my skills with the cross-cut saw, with an ax, with other tools I had. I learned that I could climb much higher and farther than I thought I could before, and that I could do this with heavy packs of gear and tools on my back. I also improved my human skills. I got better at interacting with strangers as I made more and more visitor contacts, and came to better understand the human community of outdoorsmen and outdoorswomen.
Now, as I finish my summer in the high Sierra Nevada mountains, I face a decision I’ve faced several times before. My time with AmeriCorps NCCC was meant to be a gap year before college, but now it has been 2 full years since I have graduated. My brother is halfway done with his degree, and students who were high school freshmen when I graduated are going off to college soon. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, I won’t be going to college quite yet, but have decided to do another year of AmeriCorps NCCC, this time based out of Sacramento and working in AmeriCorps’ Pacific Region, which includes the west coast and as far east as Utah. Perhaps I will have a project in the Sierra Nevada mountains in my time there. After that, I intend to thru-hike the Continental Divide Trail, and put my new backpacking skills to serious use. Sooner or later, however, I will have to get around to figuring out my real life. I’ll have to go to college, get a degree, and start a career. I’ve now spent combined 12 months workin environmental stewardship between the forest service and AmeriCorps NCCC, and after this following 10 month term of service, that number will be closer to 20 months. I’ve never really known what I want to study for sure, but this internship has helped me realize that this passion for environmental stewardship was not limited to my AmeriCorps service. I’m seriously considering making a career out of this work, this virtuous plight, this endless mission for an endless resource. A degree as a zoologist, a forester, evolutionary biology, something of the sort, may well be in my future. I am still young, and may well change my mind, but no matter where I go, I will always bring with me the legacy of the Sierra Nevada, and the spirit of the wilderness itself. It will always be with me, and will always shape who I am as a person, a man, an American, and, hopefully someday, as a father, where I’ll be able to pass this understanding on to just one more generation.
In past years the ranger interns capped their experience by leading a week long volunteer work trip. In past years the intern lead and assisted our group of volunteers in completing stewardship projects deep in the Sierra Nevada wilderness. If you are interested in volunteering to joining our wilderness work week for 2021 please contact firstname.lastname@example.org