Saturday, September 22, 2012

BLOG 23.Backwoods Cops and Common Sense, by Cliff Jacobson

by Cliff Jacobson

It began at one of Rutabaga’s famed “Canoecopia” events.  I stopped to chat with Larry Laba, CEO of SOAR inflatables.  Larry had a bone to pick with my book, “Expedition Canoeing”, in which he said I had included every type of canoe, except his. 

I told Laba I didn’t think SOAR’s were “real” canoes.”  At this, Laba launched into a dissertation, politely suggesting that I was largely out-to-lunch.  I listened quietly and promised to eat crow and try a SOAR.  Someday.
SOAR (Somewhere on a River) boat

Someday came in 2003 when Laba received a hard-to-get permit to canoe the Gates-of-Ladore section on the Green River, which runs through Dinosaur National Monument.   Ten select paddlers, including Susie and I, were invited to go. We’d paddle SOAR boats, of course. 

Susie and I had never paddled a canyon river, or one with such large rapids.  We figured it would be quite a rush.  Larry warned us at the start that there were lots of regulations we would have to follow.  And, that the slightest violation would be prosecuted.
Campsite along the Green River

I vowed to keep an open mind and a willing smile.  I’d heard the Gates-of-Ladore was spectacular, and well worth the high (regulatory) price of admission.

Trouble surfaced immediately.  It was nearly noon on June 10 on the appointed
put-in day when part of the crew arrived with the unhappy news that Laba’s truck had broken down (with all the boats) near Salt Lake City.  It would be 5 PM, at the earliest before he and the rest of the crew would arrive. 
Campsite along the Green River

We shared our concern with a park ranger, who we’ll call Ranger #1 (keep track; there are four more).  Could we try plan B?  Say, leave around 7 PM that night and take a “closer” campsite than the one (16 miles downstream) for which we were scheduled?  Ranger #1 radioed for advice.  No luck; the closer site (six miles ahead) was taken.  Our choice was to wait  for Laba then plow on through that night, or start the next morning.

Five PM passed.  No Laba.  And now, there was a 30 mile per hour wind blowing upstream.  The run to our first scheduled campsite contained some tough rapids (Class III-IV).  We agreed it would be best to begin tomorrow and make up lost time.  Ranger #1 had gone for the day.  In his place was Ranger #2, a pleasant young woman with a willing smile.

“Would it be okay if we start tomorrow and make up lost time?
“Yes,” she said.  “But you will have to camp at your assigned site for June 11.”
That seemed fair enough to us.

Laba showed up the following morning, and by noon we had done the shuttle and were off.  We pulled into our scheduled campsite around six.  There was a ranger (#3) standing on the shore to greet us.  He asked to see our permit, then he fired off a barrage of questions:
Being questioned by a ranger!

“Do you have a groover?  A food-strainer? First-aid kit? Extra PFD?  Throwing rope? Fire-pan?  Everyone have helmets?  Admittedly, I’m used to the freedom of Canadian rivers—where I can camp when and where I please, and where safety and land ethics are an individual responsibility I take seriously--so I wasn’t quite prepared for this grilling.  Still, given the heavy use (sans abuse) of this river, I welcomed his questions and I appreciated his professional demeanor.  
Day three ended just like day two.  Ranger #4 stepped out of the bush just as our boats touched land. He told us he had radioed Ranger #3 about us, so he downplayed the questions about our preparedness and focused on other matters.
Now, I should make it perfectly clear that I understand—and value--the need for regulating high-density rivers like the Green—and for checking boaters who are sometimes irresponsible and unprepared.   Yes, serious rules are in order for heavily used rivers like the Green, and I am pleased to follow those rules and be quizzed about them. Still, we had encountered two rangers on two successive days-- and they were waiting at the campsites for us!  Was big brother watching, or what?
The next day’s “rapid experience” was wonderful—that is, until we arrived at the take-out, right on schedule.  A serious-looking, middle-aged ranger (#5) was there,  checking permits.  He had a gun!
Ranger #5 looked briefly at our permit then pulled out a pad and proceeded to write Laba a fine for 25 dollars.  For what?

“You started on June 11.  This permit is for June 10.”  
What the hey?

We pointed out our conversation with Rangers #1 and #2, who had advised us to leave on the 11th and make up lost time.  The gunman didn’t look up—just kept writing.

            I was ticked.  Real ticked!
             “So what are you trying to prove here, officer?” I asked, my face right in his.
            “Careful, Cliff, this guy’s got a gun,” whispered Laba.
“Yeah, yeah.  So tell me, officer, should we have left in total darkness on the 10th? Paddled those big rapids and drowned?   R..e..a..l..l..y, officer, what would you have us do? 
The gun-guy said he had checked with rangers #3 and #4 and he “knew all about us.”  Yeah, ten bank robbers in paddling duds, rushing down the river.  Hop your horse and bust ‘em at the take-out!  

The Ranger kept writing.  “Just doing my job, following the law.  My name is Ranger Dah dah; my supervisor’s name is Mr. Dah dah.  Tell it to the judge!”  Yeah!

I raved on that I had guided canoe trips in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area and northern Canada for more than three decades and had never seen such an abuse of power by a figure in authority.  Then, I turned about face and walked out of the picture, leaving my friends to smooth my ruffled path.
When Susie and I returned to the Gates-of-Ladore campsite to pick up our car we ran into the lady ranger (#2), who had been so helpful.  She was very sympathetic and questioned why we were ticketed when we had shared our options with her (and ranger #1) and had inconvenienced no one during our trip.  It was a bum wrap; she would tell her supervisor.

Bureaucracies fuel bureaucracies, so naturally, the fine remained.  As for me, there is a bitter knife that stabs deep into the core of my soul.  Yes,  we do need rules that protect the environment from us, and us from one another.  But we also need public servants who enforce those rules with compassion and rational thought.  Rangers #1 through #4 live their lessons; ranger #5 needs some common sense and a tome on tact.
What bothered me most about canoeing the Green was not the rules, which were justifiable.  It was the “in your face attitude” of the rangers and, in my view, an underlying assumption that we were out to do wrong.  By comparison, Minnesota’s Boundary Waters Canoe Area sees the paddles of a quarter million canoeists each year, thousands more than The Gates-of-Ladore.  Yes, there are rules—tough ones: “Camp only at existing sites; no bottles or cans allowed; maximum party size of nine; make fires (when permitted) in approved fire-grates; use established box latrines; don’t cut living trees, and clean up as to leave no trace of your presence. You are  given a “numbered” trash bag that you are expected to fill (with your trash and that of others) and to pack out.

By and large, the rules are willingly honored.  Pull into any one of the hundreds of BWCA campsites and you will find no evidence of passing paddlers—no trash, no garbage, nothing. The premise is that paddlers want to do right, and will do what’s right if they know what’s right!  Education (with a smile) is top priority.  Check into any Boundary Waters permit station and you’ll see a film and take a quiz on wilderness ethics and, you’ll be pleasantly lectured by a Forest Service ranger. 

Yes, there are tickets issued, but only for gross violations—unattended fires, axe-hacked trees, ditched tents, obnoxious noise, etc.  More often than not, ignorance is   rewarded with a friendly lecture or a lesson by example.  Beginners learn the ropes and develop a positive attitude.
Example: Many years ago I watched a man at a Boundary Waters campsite wash dishes in the lake. A small, but determined, raft of suds blew my way.  I was about to jump into my canoe, cuss words flying, when I remembered the old cliché that you can catch more bears with honey than guns.  So I forced a smile and pleasantly paddled his way.
When the man saw me, he waved and invited me in for coffee.  He was a really nice guy!  For an hour I shared his fire and hospitality.  I tactfully told him how organic wastes increase bacterial levels in water; how improperly disposed-of feces leach into lakes; how fires can creep underground and spring to life hundreds of yards away. 
We had quite a talk, he and I.
Afterwards, the man thanked me for the lecture.  He said he would never make the same mistakes again.  And, he would spread the word.  We parted friends, he and I.
Now, suppose I had been a Forest Service ranger and had simply given the man a big fat fine?  Attitude check for future trips?  Go figure.

I wish ranger #5 and I could have had a nice long talk, away from the crowd and the badge.  Perhaps then, he would have questioned his judgment and we too, could have parted friends.
On a more positive note: The river was beautiful; the rapids were great—and yes, Mr. Laba, your SOAR boats are indeed very real canoes—and the right medicine for big pushy rivers. Sorry I missed your boat in my book.

One of the guys in our crew was a lawyer who knew whom to call and what strings to pull.  So a month later the ticket was  pleaded down to "Cutting timber on government land" and the 50 dollar fine was dismissed.  It's interesting to note that here are no trees along the Green River, at least not ones that are big enough to cut.

Cliff Jacobson

1 comment:

SNH Tradecentre said...

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