Rock On, Gerry!
Gerry Cook caps 44 years of service with the US National Park Service with a beautiful retirement party at Eagle Haven winery
Story by special guest Elisabeth Keating.
On a sparkling October evening at a winery in the foothills of the North Cascades, over 300 friends and family members gathered to celebrate Gerry Cook’s 44 years of service to North Cascades National Park and to wish him well in his future adventures. Gerry has served the park in many roles since 1967, working initially as a ranger and a fire lookout in 1970 at Desolation Peak, 1971 at Sourdough, and 1972 at Copper.
And as a designer, Gerry’s buildings and shelters grace many campgrounds and gathering places throughout the Park, including the viewing platform and Goat Shelter at the Visitor Center, shelters at the Environmental Learning Center trails, the Hozomeen Shelter at the north end of Ross Lake, and many accessible campsites. He’s currently designing and building the Park’s West Portal Entrance, a beautiful and unique sculpture that will be completed in the spring of 2012 and will evoke the mountains, rocks, water and glaciers that set the North Cascades apart from other wild regions of the country.
I recently asked Gerry which creation was his favorite. “Of all my design projects, I enjoy the Rock Shelter at the North Cascades Visitor Center in Newhalem the most as it feels the most creative. The “West Entrance Portal” has been fun and different.” The Rock Shelter is also where Gerry and his wife Hannah were married.
Climate Challenge students explore Native American history at Gerry’s Rock Shelter. Photo by Elisabeth Keating.
Gerry’s most beloved role was as Captain of the Ross Lake Mule. Since the Mule’s arrival in the Park in 1976, sent from Katmai National Park in Alaska, Gerry has lovingly guided the intrepid boat through many adventures: hauling tons of sand, gravel, cement, and materials of all kinds for years until it achieved what Gerry calls its “highest calling” as a floating outdoor classroom for students and adults. Clearly, Gerry and the Ross Lake Mule teamed well together, much as Cousteau and the Calypso!
Gerry connects with everyone he meets and, as his daughter put it, treats everyone like an equal and truly wants to know who they are. As a teacher he shared his love of nature and deep wisdom about the North Cascades with generations of high school, college and adult students.
Gerry inspires students with his passion for nature on the shore of Ross Lake in his and Bob Mierendorf’s class, “Ross Lake by Boat and Boot.” Photo by Elisabeth Keating.
As a storyteller, Gerry is unmatched, for years he’s spun enthralling true tales of his 44 years in the Park around campfires at Ross Lake recalling such iconic moments as these:
- Watching the first lights from cars coming over the newly built North Cascades Highway from his fire lookout post.
- Shepherding the first pilgrims up to Jack Kerouac’s fire lookout in 1967.
- Asking as a joke if he could get the newspaper and some ice cream sent up to his lookout on Sourdough: a plane appeared the next day that dropped so much ice cream in every possible flavor that he had to rush around packing it in the snow.
- Taking a fully armed SWAT team on the Mule to ambush a marijuana growing operation in the Park.
- Being chased around the Mule by a bear he was trying to relocate.
- Hosting models at an REI photo shoot on the Mule.
- Taking Kerri to her favorite spot on Ross Lake to be married on the Mule, and the reception they received from fire boats making an arc of water over the Mule when they pulled back up at the Resort for the reception dinner.
Gerry and naturalist Libby Mills swap stories on the Mule after a day of exploring and learning. Photo by Elisabeth Keating.
I asked Gerry what he’d like his legacy to be:
I’ve spent my entire 44 years working for the rights of the worker. I have been tireless in standing up for seasonal and worker rights and thankfully the Park Service has responded. Second, I have designed and built many structures throughout the Park and have set a design standard for the Park. I am very proud of this and feel someone can follow and do just fine with the examples before them. And finally, in these last six years since I’ve teamed up with North Cascades Institute, I’ve gotten to work closely with young people from all over the world. On one day this last summer I had 13 languages spoken on the Ross Mule! To be able to positively affect the lives of these kids who are trying so hard to assimilate into a new culture is quite rewarding. Working with underserved youth has been quite an unexpected surprise as to how much it has affected me and has given me a glimmer of hope for the future. There are a lot of smart and decent youth out there that have had difficult life circumstances and yet they maintain such positive attitudes towards their future. Helping them gain insights about themselves and giving them tools to succeed has become my most meaningful work.
Last August, Gerry roused me and my fellow Desolation Peak pilgrims from our slumbers at Lightning Creek Campground with what may be my most memorable alarm clock ever, a rousing cry to adventure that echoed through the valley at 6 AM: “Wake up Dharma Bums! It’s time to find Nirvana!”
Later that day, I took this picture of Gerry at Jack Kerouac’s fire lookout on Desolation Peak.
Everyone who knows him can recount Gerry’s moments like that, and many such stories were told at the loving roast that celebrated his many achievements and legacy. There were probably a few stories left untold as well. For, as Bob Mierendorf, North Cascades National Park Archaeologist and close friend noted, “When I told Gerry I was going to roast him he said, ˜Just remember, whatever you say, you’re implicated!””
A few highlights from Gerry’s retirement party :
Gerry receives a miniature Ross Mule and certificate of ownership which states, “the Mule can fit four mice.”
Gerry’s lovely daughter Kerri was the M.C. for the evening. Here, she presents Gerry with a painting of Ross Lake.
A commemorative plaque was Gerry’s gift from the National Parks Service. Above 7 photo highlights courtesy Vida Morkunas.
Gerry noted recently, “Of course change is always happening in the Park, as it should. The quality of co-workers has not changed though. I work with an amazing group of people who are educated, proud, dedicated, and have strong ethics and values. This has been a constant and says a lot about the Park Service.”
Gerry’s speech touched on both serious and humorous subjects. He pointed out to rousing applause that higher education costs have escalated since he was able to put himself through college on the money he made as a fire lookout 44 years ago. “I grew up a poor person and I was able to pay for college on a job that paid 2-3 dollars an hour. And maybe we can get back to that day again. It’s a sad state of affairs that we have today, when poor people can’t pay for college.”
He closed the evening on an inspiring note, expressing his heartfelt belief that education is one thing that can save the world, and sharing the good news that even though he’s retired from the National Parks Service, he’ll be back next summer to continue working with students from North Cascades Institute programs (like NC Wild and Cascades Climate Challenge) on Ross Lake.
Gerry’s North Cascades story isn’t over, he’s simply turning the page and opening a new chapter. Congratulations, and see you next year Gerry!
Leading photo of Ross Lake courtesy Vida Morkunas.