by Jesse Stanley, ’02, ’03, ’04
My grandparents pose in a meadow of wildflowers with Mount Rainier rising in the background. In the photograph they’re young, standing next to a small reflecting pool that no longer exists. My grandfather, a maintenance man in Mount Rainier National Park, looks proud. My grandmother, daughter of the parks’ campground hosts, is smiling and holding a specially-exempted bouquet of wildflowers (picking flowers in the park was illegal even in those days.) It is their wedding day.
For my grandparents, Mount Rainier National Park wasn’t just a place you visited on the weekends; it was their home. Over the years, after they had moved away to raise their family, they’d traveled back many times. Even though my parents had headed East to raise my sister and me, we still visited the mountain a handful of times for family reunions and to camp and hike. Eventually, with a few stops along the way as an SCA intern and staff member, I found my own way to the Northwest and its iconic mountain.
I had just moved to Seattle when the rains came. Not the usual drizzle that drives the locals into their homes for the better part of the fall and winter, but a harsh, pounding rain that simply would not let up. Co-workers at my new job swore to me that it wasn't normal, that it wasn't usually like this. I think they were afraid I'd turn tail and move to a dryer climate.
Then came the news reports...a handful of deaths, entire towns without power, and massive flooding across the region. Seattle and her surrounding communities were hit hard, but someplace far more integral to my family and to the soul of the entire Puget Sound region had been devastated by the floods.
Starting on November 6, 2006, Mount Rainier National Park received a record-breaking 18 inches of rain in just two days. Trails and campgrounds were completely gone, the loose volcanic soil washed away in a torrent. Those sections of the famed Wonderland Trail that still existed were clogged with debris and logjams. Most of the roads into the park were impassable, their bridges destroyed.
When it was all over, one single unit in a nationally overburdened and under funded park system had suffered $32 million in damages. The national park that means so much to millions of Northwesterners was scarred and battered. The local news was awash with images of the destruction, and everyone was asking … “What now?”
I wasn’t terribly surprised to find that just after the flooding, with cleanup crews still trying to get the roads to the park open, SCA and Park management were already devising a plan to place SCA staff, members and volunteers in the park to lead the recovery effort. Out of that planning, The Mount Rainier Recovery Program was born.
Led by SCA, over 1,700 volunteers would eventually come together to work on the mountain. They gave 84,000 hours of their time to conservation service projects in the park. Seattle-based companies like Starbucks organized volunteer days for their employees. That summer it wasn’t uncommon for park visitors to see SCA crews and other volunteers hard at work across the mountain. Trails were repaired, campgrounds were rebuilt and native plants reseeded.
In September, the first season of the Mount Rainier Recovery Program came to a close on National Public Lands Day. Over one hundred volunteers showed up for one last project before the ice and snow reclaimed Mount Rainer for another Northwest winter. They were celebrating an amazing season of work that was listed in Outside magazine’s The Outside 100, as one of the best and most important events of 2007.
Not only has the program brought in volunteers from all over the Northwest but it has also been a shining example of how non-profits and the Federal Government can work together towards a common goal. In recognition of this, SCA and the Northwest Storm Recovery Coalition will receive the U.S. Department of the Interior Cooperative Conservation Award on April 21, 2008.
Even though Mount Rainier is often shrouded in clouds and invisible from Seattle, her presence always beckons. The mountain is an icon, an ever-present part of the regions’ identity. You can measure the impact of the mountain on our daily lives by the sheer number of people that made the hour and a half journey to the park to volunteer. Park and SCA staff are preparing for the second wave of volunteers who are already signing up for the coming summer of conservation and restoration work.
My grandparents are gone now; all that remains of them for me are memories and photographs. They would have wanted to be there to help with the recovery of a place that meant so much to them. Amazing progress has been made, but there’s still much to do before Mount Rainier National Park can be fully healed. This summer I intend to volunteer and do my part for the mountain that has looked down on four generations of my family. I’ll take the memories of my grandparents with me.
Photos, from top: Mount Rainier, credit - GoSeattleCard.com; Author Jesse Stanley's great uncle Floyd Schmo, first naturalist for the park, at the Paradise Ranger Station, credit - NPS photo; Volunteers at work on the trails, credit - DJ Bradley Photography; A group of volunteers gather before heading to work, credit - Jill Baum; Heading up the trail, boards on their backs, credit - DJ Bradley Photography