My Season as a Forest Guard

The author had been thinking about moving "back to the land," and working as a forest guard in Olympic National Park gave him a way to test the idea.

| November/December 1980

  • 066 Olympic National Park - Forest Guard
    Life as a forest guard can be solitary but does offer beautiful views, such as this one in Washington's Olympic Mountains. INSET: Seasonal national park employees usually live in simple but comfortable dwellings.

  • 066 Olympic National Park - Forest Guard

I've long dreamed of getting back to the land, but for many years I wasn't sure just how far "back" I wanted to go. So I searched for an in-between job that would allow me to test the workability of my goal before I actually committed myself to it. Eventually I heard about the National Park Service's volunteer program, which offers seasonal work in national parks all over the country. I looked through the job listings, applied for three that interested me, and — luck must have been with me — landed the post of a forest guard for the Olympic National Park in Washington state.

Home Sweet Home

On my first hike in to Elkhorn, the remote outpost where I was to live and work, I was accompanied by the local forest ranger and his wife. While helping me move in, the pair eased some of my jitters by filling me in on the details of the job and providing lots of time-saving hints for quickly accomplishing the in-cabin chores.

My duties were much like those of any park ranger: I collected trash left by campers, answered visitors' questions, did repair and drainage work on the mountain trails, and maintained the guard station. I was also responsible for other tasks, such as splitting cedar shakes for a roof and carrying emergency rations to posts that were miles from my own.

Elkhorn is a two-room log building with battleship gray paint on the floor, white split boards on the ceiling, beige panels in the living/sleeping room, and glossy white walls in the kitchen. (The single inner wall of the hut, which separates the two rooms, is a simple partition of vertical poles with thick cedar shakes nailed to them.)

The usual work schedule consisted of ten days on duty followed by four days off. Since the cabin is located 12 miles up a trail, I usually spent the first and last days of my work period hiking to and from the post. During the six-hour walk, I picked up litter and moved any trees that had fallen across the path. Upon reaching "home" following my days off, I always immediately fired up the small wood stove to take the chill off the place, put a pot of tea on to brew, and organized my gear to prepare for eight days of tough physical labor.

Back-Country Cuisine

Cooking soon became one of my favorite wilderness activities, since I found it remarkably easy to adapt to the quirks of my cabin's old woodburning cookstove. Before long I'd developed the habit of keeping a large pot of water simmering on the back of the stove. I also learned how to vary the positions of pots and pans in order to cook at different temperatures. (I usually started a three-course meal by setting every pot directly over the firebox ... then, by serving time, all the utensils would be clustered at the cool end of the stove top.)

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