A Trip on the Mule with Ranger Gerry Cook
Story and photos by Zach Montes
It is July 26th and 55 degrees at the Ross Lake trailhead. The Cascade Climate Challenge participants, about to embark on a 12-day backcountry trip, will literally be challenging the climate. Fortunately, they look battle ready, wielding 3-foot loppers, and bow saws, their battered cooking pots strapped to bulging backpacks.
Under Gerry Cook’s lead, a group of park employees and learning center staff have volunteered to help these students reach their first camp site at Lightening Creek, more than 25 miles up Ross Lake. Together, we are in for a 3.5-hour boat ride with plenty of things to see and talk about along the way. At the Ross Lake trailhead, a handsome 8-point buck in full velvet saunters through the trees not 10 feet away. He grazes comfortably in the distance while the students make last minute pack adjustments.
We have just begun the mile-long trek from the parking lot to the Ross Lake landing when one of the students asks in full sincerity, “Are we hiking yet?” “Indeed you are,” answers CCC lead instructor Aneka Singlaub, who promptly reminds everyone to check for hotspots given the condition of some people’s boots. No complaints.
Within 30 minutes, we have left civilization and entered the true wilderness. Besides the reservoir on which we float, one would be hard pressed to find evidence of human activity. And yet, little do these students know, 100 meters below their feet lie the distinctive circular rings of 20,000 year old cooking hearths.
Cruising at a steady 6 miles per hour on the Mule, we are now in the capable hands of Captain Gerry Cook. As soon as we have left the outer log boom of Ross Resort, Gerry cuts back on the throttle, letting the roar of the nearby waterfall resound over the hypnotic rumble of the diesel engine. We all take turns introducing ourselves. The students are encouraged to share their names, the town they call home, and why they chose the Cascade Climate Challenge program. Since it is the beginning of the program and these students have just met each other, I expect a lot of “I dunnos,” and “because I didn’t have anything else to do.” I am wrong. This group is very well spoken. Some admit that they have never been backpacking; that they have dreamed about doing something like this all their lives; that the 100 percent subsidized CCC program made this a possibility. One student in particular makes my jaw drop after saying:
“I am very interested in climate change. I know it is a serious issue that faces our generation. By being out here in the wild, I want to learn how to work with nature instead of against it. I want to bring that knowledge home and share it with my friends and family.”
My heart is pounding. I couldn’t have said it better myself.
Gerry Cook saves his personal history for last. Not surprisingly, he is nothing short of a wizard, conjuring hope and inspiration with his sweeping hand gestures and eloquent words. He explains how he got a job with the park service, how over the course of his 30 plus years, he has carved a position that has just begun to suit his enormous personality. With each passing year, he devotes more of his time to the NC Wild and CCC youth programs. He admits, with real emotion in his voice, that he will be retiring this coming September, but that in all his years as a Park Ranger, his most rewarding experiences have been working with the students who accompany him on the Mule expeditions up Ross Lake. He finishes by explaining how proud he is that these students have devoted their summer to living and learning in the North Cascades.
In a genuine voice, he explains that the next 12 days in the backcountry will not be easy, the weather not always sunny, but that it will likely be one of the most important parts of these students lives; a beautiful and profound experience. Despite the cutting wind, the ominous clouds, and the looming topography characteristic of the North Cascades, Gerry has somehow made these students feel right at home. “We are here for you. You need anything, and we will be there in a hurry,” he says, “Because we care about you.”
When we finally arrive at the Lightening Creek Campground, some 25 miles later, the Mule’s creaky loading ramp drops, and we storm the beach. After refilling the fuel tanks, the students bid goodbye to Gerry by wrapping him in a cinnamon roll (a group hug in which everyone links hands and slowly spirals until the group has formed a tight “cinnamon roll” of giggling people). It is time for the students to pitch their first of many camps, and for the rest of us to make the 3.5-hour trip back to Ross Dam.
Somehow, by the end of this 7-hour journey, I have taken nearly 250 photos on my brand new DSLR. I return to the Learning Center with a full memory card, both physically, and metaphorically. My brain is whirring. This is what outdoor education is all about. This is why I love my job. I cannot wait to see the changes that have occurred in this group when they return to the learning center, stinky, exhausted, but inspired and empowered. Friends for life. As Gerry so eloquently put it:
“It’s one thing to be a rugged individual. That’s what everybody wants to be out here. But it’s entirely something else to be part of a team that works together. That’s what we need right now in this world.”