by Laura Bogar, Mount Rainier Ambassador, Conservation Leadership Corps member
When I picked up the paper on the morning of November 5th, 2006, I almost forgot to breathe. My mountain ““ the mountain ““ Western Washington’s Mount Rainier had been hit, hard, by the record-setting rain of the day before. The details were unclear, but the damage was great. Roads were out. An entire campground had been washed away. And, naturally, my staircase, the staircase built of little more than sweat, blood, tears, and several 200-pound boulders, was in an unknown condition, likely swept down a hillside in the deluge.
I was disturbed, of course, at the sudden disruption to park access. I believe firmly in the transformative power of public lands, and to have a park so brutally rendered unusable was difficult to take, even in the off-season. No more snowshoeing at Paradise. No more winter camping in the lowlands. It would all remain impassible at least until the spring thaw allowed repairs to begin.
Even more difficult, though, was coming to terms with the possible loss of my staircase. A crew of five other kids and I and our leader had built that staircase through sheer force of will on a 15-day trip the summer after my freshman year of high school. I felt that I had left a significant chunk of my soul in the beds of those rocks. Though the structure was not particularly large, nor absolutely needed, nor a lovely piece of masonry by any means, building that staircase was a pivotal and transformative experience for me. Much of my personality ““ persistence, confidence, perfectionism ““ was shaped by the pounding mallets and levering rock bars of that summer.
I learned that I could carry a lot more gravel than seemed possible a few weeks before the trip. With a fellow crew-member there to help me lift a full bag to my back ““ the trick is getting it past your hips ““ I could stagger down the trail with upwards of a hundred pounds of stair materials. On my own, I couldn’t lift half that much.
Ultimately, building that staircase became not so much a lesson in weight-lifting as a lesson in community. I gained five best friends during those two weeks, though we had widely variable interests. I found myself surrounded by a Frisbee player (I have since learned that there’s one on every crew), a theater kid, a multi-sport jock, a serious volunteer, an artist ““ but we were united by those massive rocks. The common mission bonded us like nothing else could have.
That trail crew was one of the most positive experiences of my life. Reading about the damage on the mountain was painful, but a glimmer of hope has come out of the storm: Damage means recovery. And recovery means opportunity. Opportunity for other people ““ kids, adults, anyone living in Rainier’s shadow ““ to experience the euphoric transformation that I did building that staircase. If one person comes out of the recovery effort with a profound respect for the mountain, her rivers, streams, towering cedars, delicate mosses, and the many hundreds of creatures which bring her slopes to life, the storm will have created something better than any of the roads it destroyed. And the friendships still waiting to be built on the sides of her many trails outshine even the mountain with their glorious potential.
The storm was terrible. But its aftermath could hold more beauty than devastation. This is an opportunity for every citizen of the mountain, anyone who sees it on a daily commute, anyone who has admired it from afar or up close, to experience the profoundly rewarding act of “giving back” to the land. Get your hands dirty. Dig a little deeper than is comfortable: Widen a ditch and your horizons at the same time. And appreciate a sense of ownership each time you see the mountain ““ our mountain ““ for decades to come.
(ed. note: Laura is spending part of her summer vacation working on a Mount Rainier Recovery crew.)