My Season as a Forest Guard

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BY STEPHEN MATULA
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.

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.)

And my backwoods diet was more varied (and tasty)
than you might think! The ranger left me a large supply of
canned goods, and I supplemented the stock with my own tea,
rice, noodles, beans, cornmeal, whole wheat bread, and
sprouts. One of my favorite dishes was pinto beans and
rice, a recipe I picked up from an old-timer who’d spent a
good many years in the mountains. To make the simple meal,
I’d first soak one part beans in a quart of water all day
long … then — when I came in from work — I
would add three parts brown rice to the softened beans and
cook the stew for an hour or so, until the edibles were
tender. (For a tangier taste, I sometimes added a spoonful
or two of catsup and an equal measure of apple cider
vinegar… delicious!)

Fall in the Olympics is always a rainy season, so I was
able to harvest a bumper crop of mushrooms from the wet
forest that year. Since I’m not an expert on fungi, I
simply learned to recognize one edible variety that was
common in my area, and foraged only for that particular
spore producer. I usually prepared the tasty mushrooms by
slicing them and sautéing them in butter over low
heat until they were half their original size.

I also supplemented my diet with the occasional mountain
trout that I either panfried or — better yet —
broiled over hardwood embers. (To “open-fire” cook my
catch, I’d simply clean the fish, split it down the middle,
and spread the two halves on a grate over a small fire.
Once the flesh had turned white and crumbly, I’d heap it on
rice or noodles . . . and feast heartily!)

All the Comforts of Home

My other domestic chores included washing clothes …
which was always a big undertaking, even though my working
wardrobe consisted of nothing more than one pair of pants,
several shirts, underclothes, socks, and a few dish towels.
To begin the cleaning process, I’d fill a five-gallon
bucket about half full of warm water, then add a
sprinkling of detergent and my dirty garb. The agitator for
my do-it-yourself washer was a regular sink plunger …
operated by hand, of course. After about ten minutes of
energetic plunging (it’s good for whatever ails ya!), I’d
rinse each garment separately and hang everything on a rope
strung between my hut and the woodshed. (The moist
Washington weather, however, usually wouldn’t allow clothes
to dry completely, so I often had to drape the damp
items over an indoor clothesline .)

Showers were also rustic affairs at Elkhorn. Whenever I
decided that a cleansing was overdue, I’d put about 2 1/2
gallons of water to warm on the woodstove (the heat left
over from cooking breakfast or dinner was usually enough to
start it boiling). Meanwhile, I’d half-fill a
plastic-coated firefighting waterbag with cold water. When
the boiling liquid was added to the sack, the resulting
water temperature would be perfect. Then — with the
contraption hanging from a nail on one of the porch beams
— I would use the hose attached to the bottom of the
bag to enjoy a nice, warm shower.

Wood Chopping

Whenever I began to ache for a little fun, I simply climbed
the steep hill that rose behind my cabin to a small,
natural shelf where strong winds had knocked down several
trees. The ranger had already cut the large evergreens into
16″-thick rounds and laid them on their sides to prevent
water saturation and rot. My homespun entertainment
consisted of rolling a wooden cylinder to the edge of the
shelf, pushing it off, and leaning back to watch the show.
I found that — if I aimed carefully — I could
send the logs right up to the edge of the back porch . . .
and then the work began.

My method was to split each beast in half and then into
quarters … hoist a chunk to the top of the chopping block
(which was a whole cross section of a tree trunk)
. . . and whack off the inside point of the wooden wedge.
Each remaining bolt was then split into 2″ X 8″ pieces, and
finally chopped into stovewood.

This neatly cut timber didn’t go into my stove,
however, since I was still working my way through a store
of lumber cut by the previous year’s outpost
guard. In turn, I stacked my newly split pieces on the
porch to dry . . . and then stowed them in the shed before
I left, so that the volunteer who followed me at Elkhorn
would also have plenty of well-aged fuel.

After Nightfall

After each day’s chores were done, and the report was
entered in the cabin journal, I had a chance to rest and
enjoy the quiet evening. I usually just collapsed into a
big easy chair with my harmonica or a pile of magazines
(some of which were over 30-years old!) left behind by my
predecessors, campers, and visitors. On especially still
nights, I liked to wander out into the meadow and look back
at the little cabin tucked into the woods. It made a
peaceful scene … with a ribbon of smoke rising straight
up from the stovepipe in its roof, and the muted glow of my
gas lantern shining from the windows.

Once the damp night chill of the Olympic Mountains had
seeped through my clothes, however, I always retreated to
the warmth of the little wood stove and savored the
end of another day as a National Forest station guard. And,
although I do feel that my stay in the Olympics was all too
short, it was definitely a worthwhile experience. After
all, it showed me that I really can make it on my own in
the wilderness, and that I’ll be happy moving as
far back to the land as I can!