Summer's light fades in valley Chalet: A ranger's life slows to the pace of a hike in this rain-forest park on Washington's Olympic Peninsula, far from paved roads and civilization.

Sun Journal

September 16, 1996|By Tina Kelley | Tina Kelley,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

OLYMPIC NATIONAL PARK, Wash. -- This is a wistful month for the rangers stationed at what they call the Chalet, in Washington's Enchanted Valley. The rains have begun, so it's time for the last long hike: 13.5 miles to the nearest road, on the Olympic Peninsula, the northwestern corner of the United States.

Time for ranger Hannah Merrill to mouse-proof the food, shutter the windows, scour and oil the wood stove, write the final entry in the logbook and hike out. The shape of the days has changed since the June night when she wrote in the log: "Got into the station around 10 p.m. Last light. Man, do I love summer light."

Darkness now comes before 8 p.m. With the rains picking up, the waterfalls are growing and running faster. As if to compensate, the number of visitors has dwindled to a trickle. The season is over. It is time to return to what everyone calls civilization.

Once or twice in the course of a visit to the park, one might see a ranger such as Merrill -- the woman who stopped at a campfire to remind the hikers there to hang their food out of reach of bears; the ranger campers pitied as she scrubbed out the privy. The rangers were there from the end of May to early fall -- when the sun was shining, when it was raining, at midnight, at dawn.

They record something about each day in their logbooks. A look through 30 years of the government-issue journals, the diary of the Chalet, shows the rhythm of the rangers' lives.

They have had 10 days on, then four days off. They maintain the Chalet -- 65 years old, gracious, creaky, a log cabin built on an enormous scale as a would-be hotel. They keep the trail from being overwhelmed by weeds and fallen trees.

'Rain is not an emergency'

The rangers contend with up to 3 inches of rain a day. Rain has brought 17 pairs of hiking socks to the clothesline by the rangers' fire. The sign at the emergency shelter offers no comfort: "Rain is not an emergency. You are in a rain forest."

The logbooks share that crusty, stoic tone. The rangers must live with cravings, especially for ice cream and music. They contend with hikers who leave blooms of toilet paper, who hike bare-breasted and who ask such questions as where the soda fountain is, where's the store and can you give our Boy Scout troop a 5: 30 a.m. wake-up call? There are campers who arrive without a tent. There are people who become injured; there are people who die.

In the Quinault rain forest, one is lulled by the white noise of waterfalls between cliffs often hidden by fog. The air is cool, like a lotion on your skin. At night, when the stars are bright between the mountains topped with glaciers, the valley is like a ruined cathedral. The gist of the journals is praise, not complaint.

A ranger named Steve Lofgren gave this weather report in 1990: "A lovely, misty [morning] with increasing periods of wonder."

That same year Shannon Speier wrote: "Thank you for dry wood, a clean chalet, and caring people who've left it that way. A cozy fire and pans of rainwater provided a luxurious warm shower, poured cup by cup, standing by the porch, in driving wind and rain. What exhilaration! A natural wonder!"

Vern Bessey described his last day in the park, in August 1981: "Spent the afternoon entertaining some drowned rat hikers with hot coffee and later settled down to reading a novel on the front porch. Enjoying rain-show from a dry perch. Still low fog; heavy drizzle this evening. A cozy, peaceful, contented, dreamy evening."

One doesn't learn much about the rangers' civilian lives from the logbooks -- maybe the name of a home state, sometimes a vocation. Some rangers verge on the poetic in their prose; others have invented new lexicons through misspellings, like ranger Roy in 1992: "Maby tomarrow he'll be halling the saugh down the trail and fixing the spicket."

The rangers have developed their own culture and traditions, as recorded in the mouse-eaten logbooks.

At the annual Food Fest, they drink Enchanted Jacks -- whiskey with Tang plus snow from Mount Anderson. They read the essays of the late Edward Abbey. They eat a salad of avalanche lily with oranges and lemon juice. One ranger finds a particular maple to sit under for thinking deep thoughts. Another finds a bathing place under a waterfall and stays there for hours. Another conducts "personal guided nature walks" and writes of the summer's SYT -- Sweet Young Thing.

The rangers wonder about the sources of happiness back in civilization. A short line at a store's checkout counter. Efficiency at City Hall. Making it through a traffic signal's yellow light.

And they begin to dread going home. "This room and this valley have been the closest thing to a real home that I've had in a long time," Jim Horton writes in his end-of-season entry, Sept. 16, 1981. "It's been a home filled with aromas of hot meals on the stove, clothes on the line, a smoking but welcome wood stove, soft candlelight, laughter and the kindling of friendships, some of which I never plan to end."

Beware of the bears

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