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Authors: Jordan Fisher Smith

Nature Noir

BOOK: Nature Noir
Nature Noir
A Park Ranger's Patrol in the Sierra
Jordan Fisher Smith


To Ray Strieker, Joe Burrascano, and Dan Abramson,
who rescued a rescuer

Copyright © 2005 by Jordan Fisher Smith

For information about permission to reproduce selections from
this book, write to Permissions, Houghton Mifflin Company,
215 Park Avenue South, New York, New York 10003.

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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Fisher Smith, Jordan.
Nature noir : a park ranger's patrol in the Sierra / Jordan Fisher Smith.
p. cm.
1. Fisher Smith, Jordan. 2. Park rangers—United States—Anecdotes.
3. United States. National Park Service—Officials and employees—
Anecdotes. 4. Natural history—Sierra Nevada (Calif. and Nev.)—
Anecdotes. I. Title.
3 2005 363.28 —dc22 2004059416

Printed in the United States of America

Book design by Robert Overholtzer

10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1

This is a work of nonfiction based on the experiences of the author. However, some names,
places, physical descriptions, and other particulars have been changed. For that reason, readers
are cautioned that some details in the text may not correspond to real people, places, or events.

Chapter 7 of
Nature Noir
was previously published in a different form in the Autumn 1997 issue
Orion: People and Nature,
and in the anthology
Shadow Cat: Encountering the American
Susan Ewing and Elizabeth Grossman, eds., Sasquatch Books, Seattle, 1999. A passage
from the Prologue was previously published in a different form in the April 1996 issue of the
Wild Duck Review.
Lyrics from "Don't Worry, Be Happy," written and performed by Bobby
McFerrin, © ProbNoblem Music, are used with the gracious permission of ProbNoblem Music.
Passages from
Lao Tzu: Tao Te Ching
by Ursula K. Le Guin, © 1997 reprinted by arrangement
with Shambhala Publications, Inc. Boston,


Prologue 1

1 A Day in the Park 7

2 It Never Rains in California 21

3 Career Development 43

4 Occurrence at Yankee Jims Bridge 62

5 Rocks and Bones 82

6 The Bridge over Purgatory 104

7 A Natural Death 120

8 Finch Finds His Roots 136

9 Crossing the Mekong 156

10 As Weak as Water 168

11 Eight Mile Curve 190

Epilogue 202



, I decided to become a park ranger. I pursued that life with a freshness and single-mindedness I can scarcely bring to anything now. At twenty-eight, I could move around the mountains in summer or winter through any kind of weather. I could climb rock and ice, pack loads around the back-country with mules, fix trails, build with logs, read maps and aerial photographs, and find my position in any kind of country. I was impervious to the sight of blood. I could splint broken bones and I could locate a large vein in an arm or leg by feel and get an intravenous needle into it to save a life. You could drop me into a small fire with another ranger and I could build line around it. You could drop me into a big fire with a crew and I could stay alive and sleep when the nights got long in the warm ashes in the heart of it. I could shoot a pistol and hit the target every time. I could go out on skis in the winter and live in snow caves. And I was, I thought, an accomplished lover of the land.

In my first summer with the Forest Service, I lived in an old fish hatchery near the southwest corner of Yellowstone National Park. From there I hiked up the Warm River in the orange light of evening through clouds of mosquitoes in the willow thickets around the beaver dams, startling sandhill cranes, which would burst from the brush with strange cries and circle over me in fear for their hidden nests. Later I lived in a tent in Granite Basin and then in Alaska Basin in the Grand Tetons, and I kept my pots and little stove in a hollow tree when I was away from camp. I lived at the end of the road in an alpine valley in Sequoia National Park, and in the autumn I returned to my cabin on horseback at night in the sleet with my feet so cold I couldn't feel them, to stand in front of the stone fireplace and drink hot tea. In the winters I would go back to a job on the coast of Northern California, where I went to sleep to the sound of the waves on the beach and the foghorns and bells on the buoys beyond the harbor. Still later I spent a summer living in a tiny cabin in western Alaska, a long airplane flight from the nearest road.

After all of that, I came to spend the greater part of my career watching over 48 miles of river and 42,000 acres of low-elevation California canyons that had suffered various forms of abuse for over a century and a half and had been condemned for a couple of decades to be inundated by a huge federal dam. And there probably wasn't a day when I didn't wonder how I came to choose this hopeless place on which to lavish my attention.

The path that led to the American River began like this: As a twenty-one-year-old student, I'd been spending every spare moment I could in the mountains and I'd resolved to find a way to make a living outdoors, as either a mountain guide or a ranger. As is often the case when you're young, in the end the choice between the two hinged upon happenstance. That September I sent out résumés for junior guide jobs—one I remember involved packing loads of supplies for the senior guides and their clients up the glaciers of Mount Rainier—but the season was over and no one was hiring, so late that month a friend and I decided to go climbing in Yosemite.

Leaving our car at Tioga Pass, we began hiking toward an ice climb in the cirque of Mount Dana, laden with rope, ice axes, and clanking equipment. As we made our way higher the forests grew sparse. Between patches of meadow and bare rock, the few remaining pines had been shaped by a hundred or two hard winters, the exposed grain of old lightning and avalanche wounds on their trunks weathered amber in the sun, their undulant canopies following the curves of the glacier-polished granite outcrops against which they'd huddled for protection from the wind. With a variety of tiny and efficient cook stoves available to backpackers and climbers, the Park Service prohibited campfires in these high forests so no one would use these works of art as fuel. But we came upon a campsite, and in it two men were chopping the heart out of one of these trees for an already overfed campfire. Greeting them with as much friendliness as we could, my friend and I tried to explain how long that tree had taken to grow. The two men sneered, told us to mind our own business, and went back to what they were doing. And as I watched them finish vandalizing that beautiful tree, I remember I wanted, more than anything, a ranger uniform and a citation book.

Less than three years later I had both, and I thought I knew what I was doing. I was a summer wilderness ranger for the Forest Service in what is now the Jedediah Smith Wilderness in Idaho and Wyoming. Unarmed and entirely untrained for police work, one day I happened to walk into a campsite full of people who didn't think much of my uniform or the government I represented. When the yelling and shoving were over I was physically intact, but the idea that people could always be dissuaded from breaking the law by a lecture or a small piece of pink paper with no immediate consequences was slowly dying in me. The following autumn, one of the rangers I worked with—a young woman who must have weighed all of 110 pounds—was threatened with an ax by drunken hunters in the Palisades Range. Still, I hadn't gotten into rangering to be a policeman, and it was another two and a half years before I summoned the gumption to enroll in my first law enforcement academy. When I got out, I took a job patrolling the high country of Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks. I felt strange and self-conscious at first wearing the gun and handcuffs, but I told myself they were mainly symbolic and I had no intention of using them on anyone.

One summer evening a couple of months later, an unarmed ranger on foot patrol in the mountains near where I was stationed found two men who had made an illegal campfire in the sparse whitebark pine forests at tree line, just as I had in Yosemite six years earlier. They'd been drinking, and when he confronted them one of them knocked him down, put both hands around his neck, and began to strangle him. Somehow the young ranger rolled out from under his assailant and called dispatch on his portable radio as he ran down a dark trail away from them. The dispatcher called me at my trailer in Silver City, and after talking with the ranger on the radio I sent someone to pick him up at the trailhead and telephoned one of my superiors at headquarters. I was the only law enforcement ranger in that part of the mountains that night, and when the district ranger heard what had happened, he arranged for a helicopter and another armed ranger to be sent up in the morning. The helicopter landed in the sagebrush on the floor of Mineral King Valley at first light, I boarded, and we flew east into the mountains. The rising sun was just gilding the highest peaks when we spotted the tent and the smoking remains of the campfire from the air. There was no sign of life; apparently our suspects were still sleeping. Our pilot set down on a patch of meadow several hundred yards downhill from the camp, and Ranger Roger Pattee and I crept up toward it through the rocks. When we got to the tent, we each chambered a round in our shotguns—which makes a loud, very serious-sounding metallic noise—and ordered the sleepy men out of the tent in their underwear. I was so green that once they were on the ground in front of us, I couldn't remember how to put on the handcuffs. But I managed. The victim subsequently identified his assailant, and within an hour and a half the two men were facing a federal magistrate, who was as unhappy about being dragged out of bed on a Sunday morning as they were.

In another three years I was working in the Guadalupe Dunes along the central coast of California, and by then I had arrested all kinds of people. I had learned a couple of things about human nature that wouldn't startle you much if you took a moment to think about them: When regular people leave the city limits, their behavior doesn't change much, and habitual criminals are seldom rehabilitated by pretty scenery. Still, I believed there was one big distinction between me and your run-of-the-mill cop. I wasn't just slowing the inevitable decline of western civilization by arresting the guilty and carting off the wounded. I had been given a sacred charge: America's crown jewels, those special places legislatures had agreed were too good to ruin.

Driving through the rain and salt spray on those beaches in the winter of 1985, I felt terribly homesick for the mountains. But by that time jobs in the mountains had become difficult to get. With a new administration in Washington, the early 1980s saw much budget-cutting in parks. Park agencies were under pressure to fill what few openings they had with ethnic minorities and women, to correct their previous and very unfair practice of hiring exclusively white male rangers. That adjustment was long overdue, but its effect on my career wasn't good. And so it was in this climate of diminished expectations that I looked favorably on a position offered that winter by the California Department of Parks and Recreation: a patrol ranger job on the American River.

I had heard something about a large dam that for some time had threatened the American, but I wasn't planning on staying there anyway. It would only be a way station for me; I planned to transfer again within a year. So I applied for the job, my transfer was granted, and I reported for duty.

That a delegation of armed rangers was sent in to protect a piece of ground that could not be protected from the very government that employed them was an accident of history I will explain later. What I hadn't expected was how beautiful those canyons were. Or how I would come to both love and despise them, even fear them. There I witnessed some of the strangest incidents I've ever been involved in. What I will now relate of these events is entirely true, and in most cases taken from rangers' actual reports. Only the names and personal details of some of the rangers and other characters have been changed. In the case of the rangers who appear in these stories—and there were others who came and went over the years and whose names and stories could not be accommodated in a book of this length—that is appropriate. In their own way each of them did a good job under the toughest conditions imaginable, yet they never wanted to be known as heroes, and now they deserve their peace and quiet.

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