A summer in Lassen Park

I was busy unpacking my belongings, moving into my new home, just a little bit breathless, when the minivan with two kayaks on top came bouncing up in a cloud of dust to shatter the quiet, balmy, blue-sky day.

The driver was in something of a hurry. “Are there any fish in Summit Lake?” he asked eagerly. The five pre-teen boys in the van with him were looking on just as intently.

I’d been on the job all of 30 minutes, and I really didn’t know. I was, however, wearing my official-looking National Park Service uniform, so I felt obliged to be helpful. “I’ll check,” I said, reaching for my two-way radio.

“Oh, don’t bother,” he said. “These boys are ready to fish, and I’m sure we’ll catch something.”

With that he jerked the van into gear and sped away in another cloud of dust, obviously eager to have a good time.

“That was easy,” I thought to myself, thus beginning my summer at Lassen Volcanic National Park as a volunteer campground host.

The lesson I learned from that first encounter stood me in good stead all summer: The visitors are there to have a good time, and they go to great lengths to make it happen – and make the job easy.

The happy campers outnumbered the sourpusses probably 10,000 to one, although my second visitor, that same first day, did barge into my kitchen as I was cooking supper to complain that a park deer had rammed into his Mercedes. And on my last day on the job a German shepherd ventilated the back of my blue jeans (and the underlying flesh) just as I was preparing to head home.

In between, it was something of an idyll, hiking every day, enjoying the scenery, sometimes riding my bike along the 30-mile road that bisects the park, connecting the north and south entrances.

My home was the Summit Lake Ranger Station, a log cabin built in 1927 and slowly being carried away by carpenter ants. It is off the grid – way off the grid – with no electricity, no phone, no cable, no Internet, and so far away in the mountains that there is no radio or television reception.

The deal was that I would look after half of the 100 or so campsites around Summit Lake in the middle of the park. And I would back up the hosts who looked after the other half of the sites. We had to make sure everyone paid, answer guests’ questions, try to solve their problems, make suggestions on hikes and sightseeing destinations – sometimes even resolve disputes, although that was the job of the park’s rangers.

For that, I got to stay in the cabin and hike or goof off every day after doing my chores. The park provided firewood for the fireplace and propane for hot water, cooking, lights and a refrigerator. All in all, it was a most cozy proposition.

When I took the job, I thought I’d been around, seen it all. I’d certainly been around Northern California and was no stranger to Lassen Volcanic National Park. But here I was, moving into a log cabin, 6,995 feet above sea level in the shadow of Lassen Peak beside one of the most beautiful meadows in the world.

Most mornings, the sun would start its appearance by sending up rosy fingers of cloud, the soft light filtering through the trees to reveal a herd of fat deer in the meadow that surrounds the cabin on three sides.

The birds would start in at the same time. All night long, the soundtrack of existence was the burble and splash of Hat Creek outside my window, but come dawn the birds took over.

Lassen Park was created in 1916, one of the first national parks. At the time, Lassen Peak was actively erupting, and there are still plenty of boiling mud pots, evil-smelling steam vents and fumaroles and poison lakes today. It is 106,000 acres of dramatic, mountainous terrain, a dizzying mosaic of peaks, mountains, crags, buttes, cones and ridges – one mountain after another with very little flat space. It is one of the few places on the planet where all four types of volcano can be found in one place: plug dome, shield, cinder cone and strato.

According to official park figures, there are 150 miles of trails, 495 campsites in eight campgrounds, 150 or so permanent and seasonal employees, and a host of volunteers including us campground hosts in each of the campgrounds. It gets about 350,000 visitors each year, mostly between July 4 and Labor Day.

The park service provided me with a name tag, khaki-colored shirt with a volunteer patch and ball caps with a patch declaring that I was a volunteer. The outfit looks nothing like the rangers’ spiffy uniform that includes a Smokey Bear hat. Nonetheless, wear that outfit among the campers, and you will be “the ranger,” a font of wisdom and knowledge – and, sometimes, authority.

There was very little trouble of any kind. Most of the real trouble was something to do with dogs.

Park rules prohibit dogs on trails or off leash anywhere, and require that they never be left unattended. So imagine the noise if someone leaves four dogs tied to trees in the campsite to go off on a hike, or leaves one dog in a motor home and another tied up outside. The possibilities are endless.

On my last day on the job, I was making rounds. I walked into a campsite only to have a loud German shepherd jump up and bite me on the butt, tearing my jeans. I didn’t think I’d been injured, and when the dog’s owner gave me two $20 bills to pay for the jeans, I figured that was the end of it.

But when I later realized there was a bloody bruise where the dog had got me, I panicked. I didn’t want to have to worry about rabies, so I notified the rangers on the two-way radio.

Lassen is a close-knit community. All the workers have their radios and pay attention. When the rangers found that the dog owners had packed up and left despite having paid for three nights’ camping, the word got around fast. The California Highway Patrol pulled them over in Greenville, 50 miles away, and held them there for the rangers.

I spent the rest of the day filling out forms and hanging out in the clinic in Shingletown, 30 miles away, instead of packing up to leave.

The wound turned out to be superficial, and the owners did produce a rabies vaccination certificate for the beast. I was surprised to learn its name is Winkie and not Hitler or Stalin or maybe Bin Ladin.

Oh well, I’d do the summer gig all over again anyway.


•  At 6,995 above sea level, water boils at 204 degrees Fahrenheit, according to my trusty thermometer. (At sea level the boiling temperature is 212.) Pancakes don’t cook right unless you make them thinner or cut back on the heat and give them more time.

•  Dryer sheets, those things you put in a dryer to make towels fluffier, seem to repel mice. Over the course of the summer my mouse traps caught only one mouse despite evidence of heavy mouse populations in the past. Park personnel had scattered dryer sheets over, under and around every part of the cabin before I moved in, and I was careful to leave them in place.

•  Carpenter ants, big and black, don’t eat wood. They seem to tunnel into it, looking for a home, but they like to eat other stuff. One night I watched a pair of them drag away a still-fluttering moth. And one evening as I was watching the sunset from my porch, enjoying a drink and some cheese and crackers, I watched a little parade of the creatures carrying away BB-size chunks of Roquefort off my plate.

•  Trees have personalities, I came to believe from my time at Lassen. Mountain hemlocks are wise. Jeffrey pines and red firs are majestic. Lodgepole pines are good blue-collar citizens. White firs are beauty queens.

•  As for birds, there’s nothing more beautiful than a western tanager. Nothing will make your hair stand up like a golden eagle swooping in over your shoulder to nail a little furry creature in the grass. Steller’s jays and dark-eyed juncos rule the park. Seeing grouse or a white-headed woodpecker can make your day.

— Walt Wiley